The After Party
by AC Arthur
Part of the Stories that Stand Alone
Three women form an unbreakable bond in a sexy, suspenseful, and adventurous novel about empowerment and sisterhood through thick and thin.
Venus McGee, Draya Carter, and Jackie Benson are coworkers with a lot in common. They’re smart, independent, driven, and deserving of recognition—certainly more than they’ve been handed by a demoralizing boss. He’s the topic of conversation at their impromptu get-together after the company holiday party, where the threesome fantasizes about a life without him. There has to be an alternative to taking a deep breath and sucking it up. There is. It’s just not the one they expected.
When morning comes, Venus, Draya, and Jackie are blindsided by murder—a twist of fate that brings a startling new challenge to the table and forces them to navigate a hair-raising detour they never saw coming. For better and (unless they can help it) for worse, it’s going to turn their world upside down. What starts as a necessary bond of mutual trust soon morphs into an empowering and galvanizing friendship that Venus, Draya, and Jackie need now more than ever.
The After Party
Part of the Stories that Stand Alone
The After Party
“His ass can kick rocks or die. I’d prefer the latter.” Jackie tipped her head back and swallowed every drop of Henny from the glass.
Venus had just finished her drink and now rubbed her finger over the rim like she was contemplating pouring another shot. “I’d prefer he simply lose his job, but if that doesn’t happen in the next fifteen minutes, I’d be okay if he croaked.”
Draya shook her head. Shiny black curls bounced at her shoulders with the motion. “Death’s too good for that petty motherfucka. He needs to suffer, like something painful and prolonged so he gets time to stare at the one he wronged, knowing that they finally got even with him.”
Jackie glanced again at the prim and proper Venus McGee wearing a black velvet dress, Louboutin pumps, and a thick diamond tennis bracelet on her left wrist. In the four years she’d been at Billings Croft Construction, Jackie had never seen a hair out of place on Venus’s head. Tonight was no exception; Venus was a natural beauty with her micro-mini braids pulled neatly into a bun at the back of her neck. As for Draya . . . Jackie poured herself another shot before pushing the bottle across the table, stopping it in front of Venus. Draya Carter had a high-yellow complexion with a round, pretty face highlighted by the makeup she expertly applied on a daily basis. She wore only the best weaves and wigs her six-figure salary could afford. Tonight’s curly look was a win. And so were her ample breasts and juicy ass. But that’s where all the good stopped, because Draya’s tongue was as sharp as the tips of her manicured and designed nails. If she didn’t like something someone said or even how they looked at her, she would cuss them so bad and so fast, they’d wish they never crossed paths with her. Sassy and smart—that’s how Jackie classified her.
She was sitting at a table with these ladies again, similar to the way she sometimes did when they were in the lunchroom at work. Not that they were the types of acquaintances who agreed to meet up for lunch daily, because they weren’t. Or at least she’d never really thought of them that way. It just seemed to work out that on a good number of days in the past year when they were each feeling the stress of working at BCC, they sort of migrated toward the same table all the way in the back of the lunchroom. That’s where the commiserating about their homophobic and immature-ass boss had begun.
“Y’all don’t even understand what I’m tryin’ to tell you.” They didn’t, but Jackie was about to explain. Earlier today, she’d been pushed over the edge where Rufus, their petty and foul boss, was concerned.
“This man told Ellen to keep tabs on me,” she began and sat back in the chair without touching her newly poured shot. “So Ellen is all up in everything I do. Every invoice I approve, every email I send. She even came down to the office today to tell me my vacation time for the summer wasn’t being approved. Can you believe that shit? July is seven months away, but I can’t take a week off in that month because they’re projecting a busy summer. Bullshit! And she didn’t have to deliver the news face-to-face; our email was working just fine today.”
Dropping her hands into her lap, Jackie frowned down at her pants. While the memo had distinctly said “formal attire” for those attending the annual BCC holiday party, she’d opted for new black khakis with a black turtleneck and a cherry-red wool blazer. The gold watch on her right wrist gleamed.
“She doesn’t even like Rufus.” Draya slid the last olive off the cocktail pick in her drink and popped it into her mouth.
“But she does like to kiss ass,” Venus added. She finally took the bottle and poured into her glass for her second shot of the night. “Her father was one of the first investors when Ted Billings decided to start this company. Ellen’s been working here since she was thirty-one and her husband left her and their four kids for a nightclub singer.”
“And now it’s time for her wrinkled old ass to retire,” Jackie snapped. “She gets on my nerves day in and day out.”
“Have you ever thought of approaching Rufus about the situation?” Venus asked. “You know, to find out what his real problem with you is. Because she wouldn’t be riding you so hard if he didn’t approve it.”
Venus was absolutely right. Even though Ellen was as old as the bricks that built this building, Rufus was the VP of operations, which meant that nothing happened in the Fells Point office that he didn’t know about.
“Oh, that’s obvious.” Draya reached for the bottle and poured the golden-brown liquid into her empty martini glass. “Rufus doesn’t like any woman who’s not checkin’ for him. Which you clearly are not.”
With a you-know-what-I’m-talkin’-’bout nod in Jackie’s direction, Draya returned the cap to the bottle of liquor and immediately lifted the glass to her lips.
“I don’t wear a note on my forehead” was Jackie’s reply. Because she didn’t. While she’d dropped any shame of being a gay Black woman a long time ago, she didn’t mess with anyone on the job on a personal basis. So to her way of thinking, that meant her sexual orientation wasn’t any business of anyone at BCC.
Draya shrugged. “Yeah, but you’ve got a vibe.”
Venus nodded. “She’s right. Everybody knows. But I didn’t think anybody cared.”
Yeah, right, that wasn’t how things worked. “Welcome to my world.” Jackie took another swallow and let the liquor slip slowly down her throat. An hour ago, she’d been ordering Cokes with a splash of Henny. Then Rufus had arrived, and she and Venus agreed they didn’t need a filter tonight. Draya had insisted on her pretty-girl drink until a few minutes ago.
“He approached me in the parking garage one night a couple months back. I was just getting into my car, about to close the door, when he came up on me. I told him I was off the clock, but he wasn’t tryin’ to hear that. This bastard leaned inside, put his hand between my legs, and asked point-blank if I’d ever tried dick, because if not, he’d be willing to give me a lesson.” Jackie cleared her throat and wondered for a few seconds if she should continue. Did she trust these two enough? Hell, it wasn’t like she had anyone else to share this type of shit with, so she might as well. “I grabbed my Glock outta the glove compartment and set it on my thigh, a few inches from where his hand was, and asked him if he’d ever tried hot lead up his ass. Those beady brown eyes of his bulged, and he jumped back like he’d been burned.”
Venus’s eyes went wide. “What? You pulled a gun on Rufus? He could’ve called the cops and told them you threatened him.”
“You could sue him for touching you inappropriately,” Draya said, totally ignoring Venus’s panic-laced comment. Draya had slowly lowered her glass to the table while Jackie talked and was now looking at her, one elegant brow lifted. “He’d be fired for sure, and you’d get a good chunk in a civil suit.”
“You a lawyer now?” Venus asked.
Draya rolled her eyes. “No, and neither are you. Just because your daddy used to be one doesn’t mean you carry his degree by default. But”—Draya put a lot of emphasis on that word—“I know a lawyer, and he knows how to win these types of cases.”
These two had known each other for a while, but judging by the low-key tension that always buzzed between them, Jackie wouldn’t exactly call them friends. In fact, she might’ve thought they were enemies if it weren’t for those impromptu meetups in the lunchroom. Almost like the three of them were drawn together for one reason or another. Truthfully, she figured the reason they continued to appear at that table on the same days was because the two of them were just like her—outsiders.
“Does your lawyer friend know how to get me another job as facilities manager, making what I make, in the city that I love? Because if not, I don’t want any parts of suing anybody. I’ve worked hard for my life here. The last thing I want is some high-profile lawsuit dragging me for filth, because you know they always go after the so-called victim instead of the bastard committing the offense.” Jackie sighed. “Plus, when I pulled out of the garage that night, I did think he was gonna send the cops to my house to arrest me. You know Rufus is a punk-ass. I was sure he would use my one slipup to have me fired and prosecuted, but he didn’t. I don’t know why; I just tried to act like it never happened, until Ellen started ridin’ my ass.”
“She’s right about the lawsuit,” Venus said. “And there’s no doubt Rufus would play dirty. He’d definitely get the police involved the moment he found out you’d contacted a lawyer.”
Jackie nodded. “Exactly, and I’m not tryin’ to go to jail for him or anybody else. But I did get a kick out of how scared and pathetic he looked in those moments after I threatened to shoot his ass.”
“Good!” Venus lifted her glass. “Let’s toast to scaring the shit out of Rufus and bringing him down a notch, even if in private.”
Draya rolled her eyes at Venus and then turned her attention back to Jackie. “He didn’t call the police because he didn’t want you to tell anybody that he hit on you and you turned his ass down. Rufus can’t stand rejection. But now he’s harassing you through human resources. That means they’re probably building a case against you. Preparing for when they finally fire you.”
“That’s precisely what they were doing.” Jackie had been thinking about that since the morning after she’d threatened Rufus, when Ellen appeared in her office. “She already got me with one complaint from Felix—you know, the maintenance guy that’s been here forever.”
Draya and Venus nodded.
“Supposedly, he told Ellen I was asleep in my office. Ellen calls me to her office and threatens to write me up, but I was like, nah, get Felix up here and call Rufus in on the meeting too. I wanted Felix to look me in the eye and tell that lie, ’cause there’s no way I could sleep in that uncomfortable-ass chair in my office.”
“Did she set up a full meeting? Because you do have the right to face your accuser.” Venus frowned.
“Hell no. Two days later, Felix retired and moved to Florida to be with his daughter and grandchildren.” And that write-up had gone into Jackie’s personnel folder without her signature.
“Speak of the bitch,” Draya mumbled seconds later. Then she lifted her glass to take another slow sip.
“Good evening, girls. Isn’t this a fabulous party? Rufus really went all out this year. You three be sure to thank him for being so generous.” Ellen stepped closer to the table wearing a too-tight black sequined dress with a white jacket and a necklace made of small Christmas lights. The dress made her look like a glow eel, and her high-pitched, sugary-sweet voice grated on Jackie’s nerves the second she began to speak.
“The holiday party is a corporate function.” Venus was the only one to meet Ellen’s gaze.
Jackie gripped her glass and stared down into the liquid as if it were somehow going to save her from saying something she shouldn’t say to the woman who circulated her paycheck.
Venus continued. “And Rufus actually hates it. He told me so two years ago.”
Ellen didn’t like to be corrected or, in this case, rebuked. “Times and people change, Venus.”
Venus shrugged. “If you say so.”
There was a quick huff, and Jackie imagined Ellen’s cheeks turning bright red. Her cool gray eyes were probably narrowed by now, those spindly webs in the corners crinkling even more. Venus could get away with saying a little more to Ellen without repercussions because Venus’s father, Councilman Donald McGee, represented the district, and thirty-five years ago he’d been instrumental in getting Ted Billings his first city contract, which, in turn, started this company.
“At any rate, I’m sure that bottle wasn’t made available to you at the bar. And it’s in bad taste to have it sitting out in the open while you guzzle it down.” Ellen didn’t quit, which was just another thing to hate about the woman.
She was well beyond retirement age and yet she still showed up every morning with the sole intent of making as many employees of the company as miserable as she possibly could.
“Why don’t you have a drink with us, Ellen?” Draya asked.
Jackie wasn’t sure when Draya had taken such a big gulp of her drink, but there was barely any left as she offered the glass to Ellen.
“Disgraceful. You’re in a management position, Draya. You should be setting an example for the others,” Ellen snapped.
“Others” meaning Jackie, because even though she was a manager in duties, title, and pay, Ellen continued to treat her as if she were at the bottom of the barrel at BCC. Draya worked in finance, and Venus worked directly with Rufus as a senior project manager.
“I should be enjoying this party like every other grown person in this room is entitled to do. So why don’t you relax for a change and go on over to the bar to get yourself a drink.” Draya’s red-painted lips tilted at the corners as she continued to stare up at Ellen.
Jackie contemplated saying something or, at the very least, looking at the woman, but the Henny called to her, and she answered by tossing her head back and emptying her glass again.
“Merry Christmas!” Venus called after Ellen Scrooge when the woman had finally given up and walked away.
“I take it back,” Jackie said when they were once again alone. “I wouldn’t shoot him. I’d go for a more subtle takedown. Something he’d never see coming.”
“What?” Draya asked and immediately shook her head. “Oh . . . Rufus. Look, I’m tired of talking about that man. Let’s get over to the buffet before Taylor from the contracts department eats everything in sight.”
Venus turned around to look across the room to where the tables full of food had been set up, and Jackie followed her gaze. Taylor was on her third run at the buffet. Jackie had snagged this table in the far corner of the ballroom at the waterfront hotel immediately upon entering. Venus had joined her after she’d made her rounds speaking to other management peeps, and then Draya had followed.
“I’m not hungry,” Venus said. “And wasn’t Taylor just telling you in the lunchroom the other day about how wide your ass looked in your pencil skirt?”
Draya pursed her lips. “Hmph, and you heard me tell that heffa I don’t have any problems with my curves and don’t get any complaints on my big ass.”
“Maybe she’s a stress eater,” Jackie chimed in. “Working at BCC is stressful as hell.”
“You ain’t nevah lied about that,” Venus agreed, and poured herself another glass.
The Henny was getting low, and it was the only bottle Jackie had brought with her. The bar was top-shelf and free, so they could easily head over and get more drinks. But no doubt Ellen would be policing the bar like she was personally paying for each drop of liquor being poured.
“Know what else I’m not lying about?” Jackie couldn’t help the thoughts swirling through her mind, and since for some reason she felt extremely talkative tonight, she continued even when neither Draya nor Venus had asked her to. “How I’d kill Rufus.”
Draya shook her head and used a napkin to dab at her lips. “You’re drunk,” she snapped.
“Nope,” Jackie said and waved a hand in front of her face. “My mind’s clear as a summer’s day. I wouldn’t waste a bullet on his trifling ass. Instead, I’d have one of my homies from the gym drive me out to that big ole house Rufus and his wife share in Columbia. It’d be one of those nights where they have to attend some fancy function. You know that’s the only time he goes anywhere in public with fine-ass Pam.”
“She’s got a point there,” Venus said. “Rufus isn’t known for being seen with his wife on a regular. He’s much too busy with . . . other . . . things.” Venus’s gaze went immediately to Draya, who only squared her shoulders and stared right back at Venus.
“He’s the married one, not me,” Draya quipped.
These two took jabs at each other all the time. They’d met in college, but it was obvious they hadn’t been BFFs.
“Yeah, whatever, he’s a pig; we all know that. So listen, once I get into his house, I’d head straight to the bathroom,” Jackie continued.
“To piss out all the Henny you consumed while going on this chaotic joyride, no doubt,” Venus added with a roll of her eyes.
“Shhhhhhhhh.” Jackie tapped her finger to her lips. “When I get to his bathroom, I go straight for the toothpaste, and I snap that top off. But I hold on to it tight so it won’t fall down the drain in the sink. Don’t you hate when that shit happens?”
Draya and Venus glanced at each other and then back to her, but Jackie didn’t stop.
“Then I pull out this little packet. It looks like it could be coke, but it’s not. I don’t want this bastard to get high. I want him dead as dirt.” She leaned closer to the table, propping her elbows onto the glossy brown surface. “All I need is a little bit, so I take my time pouring it down into the tube of toothpaste. I got gloves on, so when it kind of piles up at the top, I use my finger to push it down. Then I put the cap back on and place the tube where I found it. Then I take a piss, ’cause you right, I had to go.”
Draya shook her head again. “You’re a goofball.”
“No, listen. The next morning when Rufus gets up and goes into the bathroom to start the ritual that creates the monster that rolls up into the office every morning, he pulls out his toothbrush and opens that tube of toothpaste. He squeezes some onto his brush, then scrubs his pearly whites until his gums bleed. Spits, rinses, realizes something doesn’t taste right, and then looks into the mirror the exact moment that poison slips into his system. Then bam! He collapses on the floor.”
Jackie extended her arms and fell back in her chair, letting her head loll to the side.
“And that’s how the paramedics find him—naked as a jaybird with his teeny-tiny dick exposed and his insides boiling from the anthrax.”
Now Draya frowned. “That’s sick!”
“But a little funny,” Venus said with a chuckle. “Especially the teeny-tiny-dick part.”
“I know, right?” Jackie laughed along with Venus until eventually Draya couldn’t keep scowling at them and she started to chuckle too.
A few seconds later, Venus abruptly stopped laughing, and Jackie followed her gaze across the other side of the room. Rufus was standing with a few other tuxedo-wearing assholes.
“Hey, why don’t we take this party up a notch?” she asked, reaching into her jacket pocket to pull out the blunt she’d rolled before climbing into her car and driving to this weak-ass holiday gig.
Draya folded her arms across her chest, an act that pushed the ample cleavage already on display to the point of possibly spilling over the top of the fitted green dress she wore. “Now, that’s just classless. How do you come to an office function with weed in your pocket?”
Jackie shrugged. “Easy. Roll it and put it in your pocket, because like I said, working at BCC is stressful as hell. Look, we not gonna smoke it in here. We’ll just go up a floor into one of those bathrooms and light up. Nobody from BCC will even miss us.”
“Shit! He’s motioning for me to come over there,” Venus whispered.
Jackie and Draya forgot their conversation for a moment.
“Don’t go,” Jackie said.
“Go,” Draya countered. “If you don’t, he’s just gonna come over here and make you feel small for not doing his bidding. And he’s with Crenshaw, Mr. Billings’s right-hand flunky. If you ever want to take Rufus’s position, you have to chum it up with Crenshaw.”
Draya was right. All executive positions were assigned by Mr. Billings, and Louis Crenshaw was in Billings’s ear on a regular basis.
Venus huffed and stood slowly from her seat. “Lord, hold my tongue and give me strength.”
“I’d give you my gun, but it’s in the car,” Jackie told her.
Venus rolled her eyes and walked away. When Jackie looked at Draya, it was to see her once again shaking her head before saying, “You’re a hot mess.”