Hello! This Saturday, the third book in The Lost and Founds series, The Butterfly King, is published. I hope you enjoy this preview, the first half of Chapter 1.
Lying on the top bunk of this cell, facing the wall covered in years of angry scribbles, I hear them. When I lift my head, the cheap mattress crinkles. The white-painted wall feels greasy to my touch. Down the hallway I hear the metallic screech from a jail door opening and then, a few seconds later, slamming shut, a loud clanging chord, echoing finality and the irreversible truth that you are guilty. Why? Because you are here, the New York City Police Midtown North Holding Facility. You must be guilty.
Cliff’s footsteps clip along at a brisker pace than normal, but not anything close to hurrying. Clip-clack, clip-clack. Those are his black cop shoes. He’s just a regulation New York City police officer, doing his job—clip-clack, clip-clack—getting dangerous people off the street. I cannot hear the second set of footsteps, yet I know a man in handcuffs walks at Cliff’s side. And if there’s one thing I know about my new cellmate, the Butterfly King, he’s dangerous. Men of power always are, perhaps more dangerous for ignoring that power.
The shuffle from the Butterfly King’s shoes finally reaches my ears and the sound is both satisfying and unnerving. He is here. Terrance is here. His King Weekend begins now.
My heart pounds while I lie with my back to the cell door, listening to the twisting metal in the lock. The door rattles, then opens, the metal swinging quieter than the one down the hall. I oiled this one. My plans aren’t affected if the door creaks but the sound might spook Terrance during critical seconds where a single background noise might impact his decision.
I’m probably overthinking this.
This Midtown station is one of the few remaining precincts to still use actual metal keys, which is why it works for tonight’s purpose. I’ll never know how Cliff got the clearance to make this happen, this incredible ruse. This isn’t his precinct. He must have called in a serious favor or promised one, anything to get rid of his obligation to me.
“Get up.” Officer Cliff Showalter’s words are crisp, like the clip-clack of his regulation black shoes. Clip-clack. I hate that sound, the official sound of being locked up. Long nights listening for the clip-clack of adult shoes in a juvie hallway, timing my escapes. They could never hold me for long.
I can’t make this too easy. Must not appear too agreeable.
Without moving, I imagine Cliff’s tightly drawn face, narrow, suspicious eyes and the short military buzz cut he maintains. I can’t believe how much he’s aged since the last time I saw him. Of course, that was a few years ago in Chicago. In Chicago, I informed him he owed me a favor of serious magnitude. Magnitude. What a great word, heavy and solid, like a brick you could throw through a window. I think New York aged him. That or the magnitude of what happened in Chicago.
Cliff kicks the bed frame with the side of his foot. “I said get up. Get the fuck up and stand over there where I can see you. No funny shit, Ghost.”
Without a word I roll over. I stare at them both, beholding the furious mess who will become the Butterfly King. He affords me the same unrelenting stare I give him, unsettled new cellmates trying to impress each other. I find defiance in his chocolate eyes, the slightest menacing sneer, his game face, which does not fool me. He’s terrified. Behind his furrowed brow, I see a man defeated by circumstances, hard edges worn smooth by pointless resistance. Already I visualize my fingertips brushing the side of his skull, hair cut so close to the head it’s almost a skin cap. I want to touch his luscious skin, so beautifully dark.
Jesus, Vin, lust after him later. It will be hours before he lets you near.
Terrance’s nose is thick, a big fat nose in the middle of his thick face, and I like it, the satisfying strength of width. His lips are full, so beautiful that I find myself wanting to kiss him over and over, the delicate maroon-ish color inside his lips, the color of raspberry kisses.
He sees me studying him and shoots me a lockup glare suggesting, none of your damn business, a jail salutation which also doubles as the standard New Yorker greeting. Terrance doesn’t realize I know he supervises data entry employees in corporate America and has never been to jail. He has no idea what to do, how to act. He’s working with instinct, pretending to hate me to ensure I keep my distance.
I roll off the bed. “Why do I have to move? I didn’t do anything.”
“Stand there,” Cliff says and he walks Terrance to the opposite side of the cell.
While Cliff’s back is turned I move just out of his sight.
Cliff raises Terrance’s bunched arms. “I’m taking off the handcuffs.”
I fiddle with the door, waiting for Cliff to catch me and yell. We rehearsed this with strangers a few times yesterday, random perps, until Cliff nailed the timing. If this opening gambit doesn’t go perfectly, the entire weekend is lost.
Cliff glances over his shoulder. “Damn it, Ghost, get where I can see you.”
I comply and slouch along the bars until I’m squarely within his line of vision again. Terrance angles his body enough to catch what’s happening. If his new cellie is going to try something stupid, Terrance wants to be ready. I cannot see the front of him, but I can tell he’s rubbing his wrists where the metal cuffs shackled him because I see his thick arms moving rhythmically, the lime green dress shirt ill-concealing his massive biceps. I’m going to suck on that beautiful muscle.
Terrance says, “My phone call?”
“You’ll get it.” Cliff backs up. He jerks our cell door closed, creating the strong but dull sound of metal striking metal. An involuntary panic races through me. I remind myself I am not truly arrested, that this is part of the show. But I’m locked in a cage right now, and rats hate cages.
“My brother’s a lawyer.” Terrance rubs his wrists absently. “So you’re going to tread carefully with my civil rights. I have no complaints about my treatment, officer, no problems. Just show me proper respect.”
That’s a lie. His older brother died two years ago. Interesting he would choose brother instead of father, mother, uncle, or even lover. He chose his brother.
“You’ll get your call,” Cliff says without expression. “Once you’re processed. We’re backed up right now, so cool your jets. I’ll come back for your information and statement when we get caught up.”
“How long will this take?” Terrance asks with an impatient edge. “I have plans.”
Officer Cliff retreats down the corridor that led him here. Over his shoulder, he says, “I’d cancel your plans if I were you.”
Clip-clack, clip-clack, his sharp black shoes tackle the cement. I hate that sound.
“Hey, cop, I want a phone call, too.”
Without turning he says, “Shut up, Ghost. Nobody wants to hear from you.”
I told him to say something like that, something telling me to fuck off, but wow, those words hurt, a truth like a bee sting. He’s right, nobody wants a call from me. Nobody. No foster family, no real family, no nobody. Cliff was not pleased when I appeared on his front stoop four weeks ago, explaining it was time to settle his debt.
A metal door clangs open. The same metal door clangs shut. He’s gone.
A feeling rushes through me, delight but gushing faster, more like thrilled. Malcolm would welcome a call from me. Unlike Terrance, I still have a big brother. I have to keep remembering that, reminding myself. I’m twenty-six which means we’ve been brothers for five years. I guess it’s hard to—
Jesus, focus up! Talk for god’s sakes.
“Hey,” I say. “Got any smokes?”
“You’re kidding me.” Terrance turns to face me, and his sharp, beautiful eyes reveal disdain. “Are you fucking with me?”
“What? No. I mean, yes, I was fucking with you. I don’t smoke. But it’s a nice way to say hello when you’re in prison.”
“Holding facility,” he says, appraising me. “This is not prison.”
“Holding facility,” I say. “You’re right. I’ve been here before. These eight cells are in an old branch on the first floor. The modern cells are on the second and third floors. They mostly use this for night court overflow. They haven’t updated this floor with electronic doors or fancy technology. There’s not even video. Nobody cares if you’re in here.”
He says nothing. He looks down the corridor recently vacated by Officer Showalter.
I say, “I was going for funny, asking you for smokes. I guess you didn’t think so.”
“No,” he says with clarity in his tone. That single world is an invitation for my silence.
I say, “I’m Ghost. Well, that’s the name I use. My real name is boring and this is more fun, like a fun nickname. I gave it to me myself. What’s your name? Ghost is bad-ass for a nickname, isn’t it? Kinda gangster, right?”
He turns and stares at me. I stand with my arms behind me, yanking on the jail bars. I hope I convey how bored I am. I can’t be sure how I come across. I know I look younger than I am. Standing here in my faded, red T-shirt and jeans, I bet I look like I’m twenty-one or twenty-two.
“I’m busy,” he says. “Don’t talk to me.”
“Oh yeah, okay. You’re busy. Sure, I get it. You have somewhere important to be.”
He tilts his head as if studying me, but then closes his eyes, showing me he’s so unconcerned by my presence he feels safe. He puts on a good show for a man who has never been in jail his whole life, not even once. You don’t fool me, Terrance Altham.
“Was it a date? Are you late for a sexy date?”
He says, “Be quiet.”
Already, his voice commands in a kingly way. The power in him, it’s swirling and jagged. Unfocused. But wow, up close, it’s already there and so strong.
“I’ll be quiet,” I say. “That’s not hard. Not for me.”
He turns from me and holds his own counsel.
“I can be quiet,” I announce to no one in particular. “But it’s so boring. You know? So boring to be quiet. What are you in for, running drugs?”
He flinches and his skull tightens at the neck. The thick roll at the base of his skull is his tell. That’s going to be helpful all weekend. Read the muscles on his head.
I say, “I bet you’re in here for drugs.”
He turns to face me. “Don’t talk.”
“No, okay,” I say. “I will. I mean, I won’t. Talk. I just wanted to know. Drugs?”
“Not drugs. Now shut up.”
“Because you look like a drug guy.”
“Officer,” he cries out. “Officer, I must request you process me now.”
His voice rings down the corridor. Strong, like a metal bar. His voice, wow, so solid and clean, rich baritone and with such a polish. He’s practiced, like a theater major, careful enunciation when communicating all the meanings of an intended phrase. His calling for the guard is as much of a warning to me as it reflects his great desire for his own freedom.
“Boy, you must be in a hurry.” I walk to stand next to him.
He steps back.
I must disarm him with the unending flood of my idiocy. “I’m not in a hurry. I don’t care. Which is good, because I’ve been here for three and a half hours.”
He forgets to be irritated with me. “Three hours?”
“And a half.” I walk away, back to the bottom bunk and sit on it. “Three and a half. This is your bunk. The bottom one.”
His face displays no reaction as he watches me. “You’ve been here for three and a half hours? They haven’t processed you?”
“Yeah.” I lean back and lay my head on my hands as I contemplate the springs above me. “I like the top bunk. Not only for sleeping. I like to be the top. Do you like to get fucked?”
“What?” he asks.
“I like to fuck,” I say, shrugging. “You’d have to be into it, too. I would never push myself on someone who didn’t want me, but I do like to fuck black guys. I love the beautiful color of a black man’s skin. I could go on and on about all the beautiful shades of brown. Just saying, so, you know.”
“Don’t talk to me,” Terrance says, his face tensing. “I don’t want you to talk to me. Or out loud.”
“Okay, that’s not a problem. I like quiet but you never answered my question if you’re busted for being a drug lord.”
“Yes,” he says. “I answered. Quit asking me.”
“Oh, sorry. I thought maybe you were because you give the appearance of one.”
He raises himself to full height, six foot two. Or maybe three.
With each consonant prickly, he asks, “Did you just say I looked like a drug lord?”
“Well, not your face. Your face is really handsome. I like your big, thick nose.”
He takes a breath and turns away.
“Your wallet. You still have your wallet. You’re wearing a watch. That’s what I mean. If cops think you’re a drug guy, possibly of some importance, they won’t process you until they’re absolutely sure of the charge and that they can make it stick. Every cop knows you don’t make slip-ups with a New York drug lord. Every t is dotted, every i is crossed.”
He does not speak for a moment. Finally he speaks. “T’s are crossed, i’s are dotted.”
“No, t’s are dotted. It’s a line from a television show I watch a lot. I watch British TV from the BBC. That’s the British Broadcasting Company. I said that because not everybody watches British television. Not that I assumed you’re not classy enough to watch British TV. I’m sure you are. Even drug lords like British shows. You know what they call British sitcoms? Britcoms. Cute, right?”
Studying the back of his neck, I see the subtle shift of tension. I’m pretty far under his skin already, and I’m the least of his worries.
He asks, “What are you in for?”
“Wow, now who sounds like a prison cliché?” I turn to face the wall. “You have a lot of nerve criticizing my ‘got any smokes’ joke.”
He says nothing in response, perhaps bored of conversation already.
“Nothing,” I say, turning to face him. “I didn’t even do anything. The cops are jagweeds. What did you do?”
He does not face me, but walks to the front of the cell. “Nothing. The cops are jagweeds.”
He sounds tired.
I watch him take a deep breath, raising his arms on the inhale and bringing his fingertips together on the exhale right before his chest. Some form of meditation, I’m guessing. Well, I can’t let that continue. I need him on edge.
“What time is your thing? The one you’re worried you’re late for? You’re wearing a nice dress shirt but faded jeans so it can’t be that fancy. Maybe they won’t care if you’re late.”
He does not turn or respond in any way. He repeats the breath thing and brings his fingers together again.
Damn. He’s gonna be a tough nut to crack. Men like Terrance who stand so close to their kingship represent a particular challenge. They live life within close proximity to the finish line and often feel no need to cross over. They’re happy where they are. Well, if not happy exactly, they have accustomed themselves to living as Lost Kings and see no reason to expect better. What have I gotten myself into? How do I move this mountain ten feet? This time, I guess the mountain really must come to Mohammad.
“Let’s start off better.” I leap from the bunk and cross to stand in front of him, preventing his meditation exercise with his arms. “I’m Ghost.”
He bristles and steps away. He eyes me warily. “We’re not exchanging names. I won’t be here long.”
“Okay. I don’t mind. I don’t get my feelings hurt, because, you know, that’s life in the big city. People are protective, right? Gotta be. I am. I’m real careful about who I talk to. I won’t talk to just anybody.”
The neck roll tenses up again.
I study his frame. He’s a thick man, stocky, sturdy legs like tree trunks, and a chest that is naturally robust. I don’t think he lifts weights to expand his pecs, at least not the way he works those arms. Although hidden tonight, I’ve seen his biceps and triceps—beautiful, fat muscle. Still, he’s not that chunky. He’ll fit through the sewer grate easily.
He resumes staring down the hallway. Can’t blame him. There’s nothing else to do. He takes another deep breath.
Uh oh. I don’t want him calm. I need him agitated. I need this mountain to collapse under an avalanche of bad decisions.
I better get started. I begin by whistling, a combination of a folk song and a 1970s pop hit, something I reworked so the lyrics fit. I wanted it to sound vaguely familiar to him. I memorized three stanzas, which should be more than enough. I switch to humming and then singing under my breath, words still impossible to hear.
“If we’re not going to talk, that’s fine,” I say and hesitate. “But there’s a few things you should know about me. First, I honestly didn’t do anything. Second, they haven’t processed me because they don’t know my real name. I never tell police my real name. Which means whichever cop processes me gets extra paperwork, so they sometimes keep me locked up until a new guy’s shift starts and that person has to process me. They save me for the rookie cops. But if I committed a real crime, they’d process me. I didn’t do anything.”
He says nothing, just does his meditation thing, facing away from me.
“Sometimes, it’s not a guy who’s the new guy. Sometimes it’s a woman.”
He ignores me.
“I’m not sexist, that’s what they call it. The new guy. I think that it’s a—”
He says, “Stop talking. I have to center myself. Create harmony.”
“Okay, I’ll stop talking. I’ll be like a ghost. Silent like a ghost. Which is my nickname. Although, traditionally, ghosts moan and rattle chains.”
I start humming the song again and glance up and down the hallway, more for assurance that everything is as it should be. Empty cells. No video cameras. Yup. We’re golden. I guess you’d call the walls ‘white,’ though that color seems like a distant memory, layer after layer of sweat, grease, blood and anything that can get smeared. The walls are green from the waist down, a tired, used-up green. Dozens of jagged shoe marks scuff the walls, suggesting spontaneous violence. These marks visually remind me one of the best—and worst—things about New York City is anything can happen. Anything.
I stand next to him, once again invading his personal space. “Hey. Wanna get out of here?”
He ignores me.
“I’ll let you in on a secret, which is I’m getting out of here. I’m tired of waiting to be processed. I’m going to escape.”
He steps away, moves the farthest he can, which is not far.
“I’m not kidding. I have a plan.”
Nothing. Not a single reaction. Huh.
“Where is your big party?” I ask in a casual, bored tone. “Were you going to a fancy drug lord party?”
He spins toward me, face wrinkled and snarling. “You racist piece of garbage.”
I’m surprised and I’m sure he sees it on my face. Wow, that was sudden and intense.
I say, “I was kidding. Boy, Mister Sensitive.”
His mouth snaps shut. He stands up tall to his full height. “I apologize. I apologize.”
He turns away.
Dammit, cover the moment. Don’t let him get into shame. “I don’t mind. I understand why you’d say that. A lot of people think I’m garbage.”
“I lost control,” he says, and his voice is softer. He keeps his back to me. “I am under…undue stress. This is not the way of the flexible water and I apologize.”
“Apology accepted.” I make my voice lighthearted. “No problem. What kind of water? Is that your sign? Are you an Aquarius?”
He puts his hands to his face.
I know he’s under a great deal of stress. I put him there.
After several months of correspondence through the mail with an enigmatic millionaire known as Vin Vanbly, Terrance Altham grew intrigued enough to commit to a King Weekend. He agreed to submit for one full weekend, and in return, Mr. Vanbly would restore his kingship, help Terrance remember who he was always meant to be. Mr. Vanbly instructed him to show up at the Waldorf Astoria hotel and provided a black stretch limo.
But as the limo approached its destination, the driver pulled over, gave Terrance a vague warning and drove off. Less than two minutes later, Terrance found himself arrested for reasons as yet unexplained. He hasn’t been granted his one phone call. In another two minutes, he’ll miss his Friday night, 6:00 p.m. rendezvous. The unimaginable wealth available to those who successfully complete a King Weekend will no longer be an option. If there’s one thing that’s important to Terrance Altham of Harlem, New York, it’s money.
Well, that’s not exactly true. But he thinks money is power, and in New York, well, yeah, it kinda is. But money is not his true destination. Nor is power. When I read his published article in the Atlantic Monthly last year, I saw a man in search of his kingship. A king in search of his crown, his kingdom. Through the article, his strong voice rang out, where are my people? Your loyal subjects are all around you, King Terrance. Look around.
I say, “If you want to get out of here, I could take you with me.”
He refuses the bait.
I return to the bottom bunk and lie on the crinkly mattress. I start singing again, a tad louder, loud enough for a word or two to become heard. Same song as before. After a line half-hummed, half-sung, I see his head raise straight up and he slowly turns. Wow, he is graceful. Graceful in all his movements.
“What did you say?”
“Me? Nothing. I didn’t say anything. I was singing.”
He studies me, narrowing his eyes, focusing them. He says nothing, and I swear I see the cogs in his oversized brain debating how far to push this with me.
“I was singing. It’s from a television show.”
He debates this and cautiously asks, “What show?”
“The Lost and Founds. It’s my favorite show. It’s on the BBC.”
“The Lost and Founds.” He repeats my words slowly. “Is that what you said?”
“Yeah. It’s a popular show. Probably because it’s British. Have you seen it? They broadcasted four seasons now. British television seasons are shorter, so that’s only, what, twenty-four episodes. Twenty-five. They did a Christmas episode during the third season. It was cheesy.”
I see a tremor near his temple, his jaw flexing. Every one of his gestures communicates strength whether he intends to or not. He turns from me, wrapping both of his meaty paws around the bars. His nightmare is becoming worse.
I ask, “Have you seen it? It’s my favorite show.”
He does not reply.
“I was humming the theme song. Wanna hear?”
I do not wait for a reply before singing my invented lyrics.
“When naught works out and you’re losing ground,
Who finds a man who is lost not found?
When life isn’t right and won’t turn around,
Maybe it’s time for the Lost and Founds.”
He turns back to me, and I see wariness in his eyes and behind that, fear. He’s so tired of being disappointed by life, the unfair tricks and sharp, unexpected turns. He already senses another something bad coming. And he’s right.
Slowly, he says, “Keep going.”
“Vin is the one who can find the lost,
Once you agree to make him the boss.
Secrets revealed when you’re getting tossed.
Through the Eastern Gates, despite the cost.”
Before he can comment, I add, “You have to sing ‘through the Eastern Gates’ a little faster or else the cadence is off.”
He says, “Enough. Do not sing anymore.”
“There’s a third verse.”
“No.” His voice is quiet. “No more. This is television?”
“Yeah. Vin Vanbly is the hero and he goes out and finds these guys and says, ‘Spend one weekend with me and I will help you remember your kingship. I will help you remember who you were always meant to be.’ Over an episode or two they go have adventures in London. Sometimes the country. They went to Wales, once. He also kinged a Scottish guy. That was a good episode.”
“No,” Terrance says. “No. That can’t be right.”
He puts his hands on top of his head, the most expressive expression I believe I’ve seen from him today. He stares into the dingy hallway, the empty cell across from us. I’m guessing worlds crumble inside him, plans, possibilities, dreams. He found himself cuffed and in the back of a police car while on his way to his King Weekend, which turns out is a hoax based on a British television show. This pressure cooker—the arrest, the misleading correspondence, the non-stop chattering of his own personal Ghost—it’s creating unbearable conditions in him, dragging the fear out of its shadowy corners. I hope.
Fear can blast adrenaline, pumping anyone into a state of chaotic frenzy but usually only for a few moments at a time. Fear can paralyze too, but again, it’s a moment to moment thing. But if a man spends his life fighting fear, keeping it at bay with logic and rationalizations, he doesn’t notice fear exacting its toll, draining him, preventing his ability to access true power. That’s the dark wizard’s greatest curse, not draining you enough to notice and fight back, but embedding fear so deeply, you forget to consider achieving your greatness. Tonight, we examine that fear under harsh light.
“That can’t be right,” Terrance says, and I don’t think he’s talking to me. “I never…I never heard of this television show.”
“Do you watch the BBC?”
He says, “I don’t own a television.”
I knew that. I knew inventing a fake television show would work with him. I planned on his subconscious pride in his inability to be fooled, for anyone to fuck with him, a hardened New Yorker. My deception should chisel open that hard shell, expose his vulnerability.
I think. I hope.