When I was in college, I accidentally fell into some money. I'm not kidding. A friend, as part of a project for his finance class, invested some of the money I had been saving for graduate school...and suddenly I had more than a comfortable nest egg. He continued to invest it for me and suddenly half my monthly income was the interest I was earning off the money he'd made for me. It wasn't enough money to retire or anything like that, but it was enough for me to choose a career I actually enjoyed, enough to take a few vacations (which I did), and enough for some other projects. My latest project? I take a few days off from my teaching job when there is a disaster in the U.S. and volunteer my services. I was proud to say I had been there to help with the nightmare of Hurricane Katrina. I know it seems kind of corny, but it was my way of giving back for all my luck.

This time? I was headed somewhere closer to home, Philadelphia. A low-income neighborhood had been devastated by a freak lightning storm. My particular concern was the elementary school that had been pretty much destroyed by fire. Rescue workers were still looking for survivors. Thankfully, only one child had been found seriously injured so far. But they needed trained volunteers to help with the search, so I was on my way there in my banged up 10-year-old Toyota.

The scene itself was a little more horrifying than I expected. The four-storied building looked as if only half of it had burned, the scorched brick reflected a bizarre pattern no man-made accelerant could have created. I showed the relevant personnel my credentials and then looked around for the volunteer coordinator. Many of the white boards, desks and chairs had simply melted and there was water everywhere from the burst pipes and fire hoses. Most of the wood had burned (you could still smell it). In fact, you could still feel the warmth of the fire although they had put it out hours earlier. I didn't even want to think about some child, trapped, under these conditions. That thought made me start looking even harder for the coordinator.


I turned my head to look at the idiot using my middle name as I handed my paperwork over to the solemn, very tall, dark-skinned man in charge of the volunteers. I should have known. Toni Johnson. She was also a do-gooder, but damn if she wasn't one of the most annoying human beings on the face of the planet. At one site she'd been the volunteer coordinator and found out my middle name was Bertha (don't laugh, I was named after my great-grandmother). I didn't use the name. In fact, I'd hated the name during my entire childhood. But instead of calling me Tess, like everyone else that knew me (my name was Teresa, but I preferred Tess), she insisted on annoying me.

"Hey Toni," I answered, not giving her the satisfaction.

She hurried over, "Hey Mike, I'll take her down."

He finished looking over my papers, signed me up, and then let me follow Toni down the corridor. They were searching in the basement where the gymnasium had been located. I walked past firefighters, police officers, volunteers with their search and rescue dogs, all helping with the search. The feel of the rescue workers was more morose than usual. Even Toni was sedate and that disturbed me. She was usually very talkative, annoyingly so, it was her way of dealing. Her silence made me nervous. I suddenly figured out why.

"Jesus, they found someone," I said softly.

Toni didn't turn around, just continued to lead the way. "About an hour ago. Little girl. We think she was one of the first graders."


She shook her head and suddenly I understood the mood of the workers. We (and I used the word loosely because I didn't really know most of the people here, but there was usually an automatic sense of "we" among rescue workers) could be a very verbose group when things were looking up. Lots of chatting and was a way of dealing with the possibility of horror. But when that possibility became a reality, the mood of the group always changed. And until we felt like we would probably not find another body, things would be pretty solemn.


I put in eight hours that day. It was a gruesome chore, sorting through rubble, scorched materials, possible toxic chemicals...thankfully no one else was found. Unfortunately, there were three students and a teacher still unaccounted for. It's not clear whether they were in the building at the time of the storm, but until it was clear they were not, we had to search for them. It always amazed me how casual people were about responding to phone calls of this nature. 'Hello, the school your child attends was horribly devastated by a freak storm and nearly burned to the ground. We've accounted for everyone else in the building except your son. Could you let us know if he attended school today?' Sure, that was the day to simply ignore your voicemail. I shook my head as I sat beside some of the other rescue workers and ate a sandwich donated by a local deli. It was a good sandwich and it went down well with an ice-cold bottle of water.

I'd been to Philadelphia a few times. I lived in New York, so it was only a two-hour drive. But I wasn't incredibly familiar with this area of North Philadelphia. I'd managed to find a hotel not too far away. Actually it was more of a motel, but a friend told me it was a pretty decent place and the couple that owned it was nice. My problem was finding my car. I'd had to park quite some distance away considering all the emergency vehicles in the area. I had jotted down the location, but in my hurry to get to the site, I hadn't really paid attention to where I was walking. Now, a few helpful people were trying to tell me the easiest, and safest, way to get to my parked vehicle. The sun had gone down and this area of North Philly was known for its rather aggressive homeless population. To be fair, a nearby state-funded psychiatric hospital had closed down a few years earlier. Seems some of the residents had not moved on, or had nowhere to move on to. Others in the area were addicted to various drugs and squatting in the many abandoned buildings. All of this meant that walking to my car late in the evening was going to be a bit of an adventure.

I had a few offers from some of the rescue workers to walk with me, but I declined. Most of the offers hailed from interested parties and I wasn't in the mood. I wasn't vain in any way, shape, or form, but I knew when a man was hitting on me. And plenty of them did. It could have been my creamy, butterscotch coloring, or my face which seemed to be arranged in a way that was appealing to most...okay, that wasn't very helpful to you. I'll describe what I see in the mirror in the morning and you can decide if you think it's attractive. My hair is thick and full. It's a dark brown that looks almost black. I've been wearing it shorter than usual, around shoulder length, and typically pulled back into a ponytail, like today. My face is rather round with full cheeks, a full, pouty mouth (my friends used to tease me, saying that I had a perfect dick sucking mouth...whatever that means), a normal, rather pudgy nose...and what most would consider my best feature, a pair of slightly slanted eyes, a rich, deep, dark brown that seemed almost black, surrounded by thick dark lashes and nicely arched eyebrows. People seemed to go gaga for the color of my eyes, I'm not sure why. To me, they just looked like eyes.

The rest of me was also rather appealing to the testosterone driven half of the population. Curves, curves and more curves. Definitely not modeling material considering the ample size of my bosom and backside, but black men didn't seem to care about the fact that I would not appear on the cover of Vogue. And to be honest, I didn't care either. I think black women were simply destined to be a bit chunkier than their white counterparts. At least, while in college, I hadn't had to worry about every bite of food I ate.

Unbelievably, it was Toni who wound up mapping out the fastest route to my parked car. She was from Philadelphia, so it stands to reason she would be more familiar with the area. I think I was more startled by how nice she was was creepy. But I decided it probably had more to do with the body found earlier than anything else. Bidding everyone farewell, I set off for my car, quickly realizing that Toni had probably screwed me with her 'fastest' route. I found myself walking down deserted streets, past abandoned buildings, some with men hanging out in front, gathered around old oil drums with fires burning in them. It wasn't that cold out yet, but it wasn't exactly warm either. I pulled my jacket around my body a little more tightly and picked up my pace. I was starting to panic just a little when I finally recognized the alley I'd walked through that morning. Well, I guess technically it was an alley, although it was pretty wide. Except now, even though it was wide, it was dark and sinister looking. But I knew my car was right on the other side of it. So I took a deep breath, deciding to ignore the chill running down my spine, and started through.

I was about halfway through when I really noticed the men loitering about. Older men, dressed in raggedy clothes, smelling grimy and uncared for. Homeless men. Most just glanced over and ignored me, for which I was grateful. Others took a much longer look...a much, much longer look. I was keeping my eye on one who seemed like he might approach me when I walked directly into someone. Considering the smell, I knew immediately it was one of them, although I chastised myself for the thought immediately.

"Oh, I'm really sorry," I sputtered, taking a step back with the intent of going around.

He grabbed my arm, "in a rush little lady?"

The smell. Alcohol. Urine. The unwashed. Whatever else that odor was. And he had my arm. Then, suddenly, there were more men around me. Different sizes, different shapes...different problems. They were reaching for me, touching me, grabbing at me. I could feel the panic swell within me and before I realized it I was screaming. Screaming at the top of my lungs. And then there was an awful pain at the back of my head and I felt myself falling before I passed out.


I woke up in a hospital's ER with a wicked headache. One pounding so loudly in my ears I could barely hear anything else. As I lay in one of the hospital beds, I tried to recall what'd happened. I vaguely remembered an ambulance. I'm not at all sure how it found me. I recall a police officer asking me a bunch of questions and informing me that had I had not screamed, I would not have been harmed. I'd startled them and that's why they hit me. I think I told him, quite sarcastically, that they should write that in the pamphlet for tourists before I passed out again.

I was told by the doctor that I had not been sexually assaulted and I didn't have a concussion. That was a relief. I had been mugged or robbed or whatever the proper term was. My bag, my cash, my cell...all gone. I was also told I could not leave until I spoke with the hospital's social worker and the police. I sighed. There was a phone in my little ER cubicle and I was told I could make calls on it. But I didn't really have anyone to call. I wasn't close to my mother, my father had died years earlier, and I wasn't that close to my siblings. I had a few good friends, but I could tell them about this adventure when I returned to New York. I hadn't dated anyone in over two, again, there was no one to call. The thought was a little depressing.

The police arrived first and after assessing that I was "okay" told me, again, that I should not have been in the area alone and that I should not have startled the homeless population there. As if I could or should have known that. They had recovered my cell, purse and wallet, sans the cash of course, and my keys. I was quite relieved about that. My rescue volunteer credentials were in the mini-backpack, so I really appreciated them returning it. It would have been a real headache to replace them.

I was asked if I wanted to press charges against the man who had assaulted me, but the disposition of the officers suggested it would be a waste of time, so I refused. I was relieved when they left. I don't think I'd ever felt so guilty about being attacked in my life. Not that I made a habit of being attacked, was the oddest feeling. They really seemed to be suggesting that it was my fault, asking over and over again what I had been doing in that area. When I explained that a 'friend' had suggested it was the fastest way to my car, I was informed that she wasn't really much of a friend. It might have been a faster way to my car, but there was a well-lit, rather well populated route that would have been 10 times safer. I made a mental note to punch Toni in the face the next time I saw her.

I had to wait another hour before the hospital's social worker made her way to my area of the ER. I was really anxious to leave by then. My head was still hurting, but the meds they'd given me had dulled the pain a bit. I wasn't looking forward to the trek to the motel, and I still hadn't made it to my car, but I didn't want to be in the hospital anymore. I was lying back, watching the tiny television the hospital had been kind enough to provide, when someone cleared their throat and asked if she could enter. The voice was deep, husky, not overtly feminine, but female nonetheless. I assured her I was dressed and she could step past the curtain.

First impression? Tall. And bald...with a perfectly shaped scalp. And very, very, very dark skinned. The color of a rich, mahogany colored velvet. And she was big, but not scarily so. When she looked down at me, I quickly took a mental picture of her face. It was...amazingly attractive. She looked like that African model...her name escaped me, but she was quite stunning. Her face was long and oval, the features almost perfect, and yet nothing else about her was "model like." She was slightly rounded in the shoulders, nice, broad shoulders, but rather square everywhere else. It could've been that the short sleeved scrub top and jeans were just baggy enough to suggest she was square, but she gave off the distinct impression of being bulky and androgynous, despite her lovely face.

When I was finished ogling, I looked up at her face, noticing the smirk, and for the first time taking in the color her eyes...amazing...they were brown, but it was so light it was like a tiger's eyes. The contrast, between those golden colored eyes and her creamy, dark brown skin was...I was a little mesmerized...I...uh...Kaone Kario, that was the model's name! Only a little darker, taller and much, much thicker...I tried to focus, shaking my head to clear it so I could respond to the question she'd asked me twice already.

"Ma'am, are you okay?"

Her voice was deep and rich like warm honey. I smiled, "do I look old enough to be a ma'am?" I asked, pretending to be wounded. I was flirting. I almost couldn't help myself.

She smirked again, "no, but that bump on your head might have knocked a few screws loose."

I laughed, then winced slightly at the pain in my head.

"No, I'm okay. Teresa Bertha Martin, 12/26/79."

I was hoping she'd only asked for my name and birthday.

"A Christmas baby."

I scoffed, "my mother wasn't so happy about being trapped in the hospital for the holidays. At least that's what she said."

She didn't respond, glancing down at the chart.

"Says you were assaulted by a group of homeless men?"

I nodded and regretted it immediately. She noticed as I winced again.

"Did they give you something for the headache? You're going to have it for a few days."


She frowned and jotted something down in her chart, "we can do better than that. I'll let them know to give you a 'script for something stronger before you leave."

I didn't respond since nodding was a bad idea.

"Are you going to press charges against the assailants?" She asked next. "If so, I can put you in touch with—"

"Actually, no."

She paused for a second, waiting. I figured out, when she didn't say anything for a few moments, she must have been waiting for me to continue.

"The officers said I should not have been in the area and that I was pretty much disturbing those men, so I decided not to press any charges. I guess it was my fault."

She lowered the chart she'd been referring to and just stood there for a moment. She flexed, and un-flexed, the fingers holding a pen and it took her a few seconds before I heard her take a deep breath. Then she finally consulted my chart again.

"Officer Cleveland spoke to you, right? Yea, I know him. He's a real asshole. Uh, look, it's up to you, but if no one reports those men, and this is not the first time they've assaulted someone, no one will do anything about them."

I nodded, winced, regretting it again, and then looked up into those mind-boggling golden-colored eyes.

"Are those contacts?"

It wasn't the question I was planning to ask. It just sorta slipped out. She raised a brow, smirked once again, but ignored the question.

"A nurse will bring in your discharge papers and the prescription. If you change your mind about filing a report," she handed me her card.

Frances Young. Clinical Social Worker.

"Thanks," I said meekly, feeling particularly idiotic for asking such a stupid question. I watched as she turned to leave, but then it suddenly dawned on me.

"Frances Young. That's the name of one of the missing kids," I blurted.

It took a moment before she turned around to face me again.


"One of the kids, from the elementary school where I'm volunteering."

She looked completely confused and I realized she had no idea what I was talking about. I quickly filled her in about my visit to the city and what I had been doing all day. As I spoke, her face grew more and more expressionless. She was forcing herself to remain calm. It was quite amazing to watch. Almost as amazing as the moment it took for her to breathe normally after hearing what the police officer had said to me.

"That's my niece's name. She's a student at that school. You're sure her name was on the list?" She asked rather calmly.

I nodded without thinking, but ignored the pain this time. If her niece was indeed one of the missing, that was much more important than a bump on my head. I watched as she removed her cell phone and quickly dialed a number. Evidently no one answered because she was leaving a message seconds later.

"Bree, call me immediately, okay? It's important."

Bree? Short for Briana? Because that was the first name of the teacher who was still missing. It would certainly explain why we hadn't reached anyone on their behalf.

I cleared my throat softly and she looked over at me again.

"Is your sister's name Briana McMillan?" I asked carefully.

She raised a brow, a little surprised.

"Uh," I hesitated.

"What?" She bit out, startling me a bit.

"I think you'd better come with me. They'll be working all night, we can go back and let them know—"

"What? Let them know what?" She snapped.

She seemed so angry suddenly. Whatever tricks she'd been using to keep a lid on her temper earlier were no longer evident.

"I'm sorry, but they're both on the missing list. Is your sister a teacher there? Her name is on our list. I've been calling out their names all day, we were looking for them..."

I trailed off as she just stared at me, still no emotion displayed on that beautiful, dark-skinned face. Then she turned and was gone.

She moved so quickly I was shocked to realize I was alone again. I found my cell phone and called Mike, wondering if he was still there. He was, but didn't have any news for me about finding the remaining missing persons. I filled him in, explaining why I was in the hospital (he promised to punch Toni for me if he saw her first) and then letting him know that two of the people on the list were evidently related to a social worker at the hospital. He made a note of her name and phone number and then had to get back to work. A few minutes later, one of the nurses came in with my discharge instructions, a prescription, and a dosage of the pills for me to take now to take the edge off my headache. I silently thanked Frances Young as I swallowed the pills. I was gathering my things before I thought to ask.

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