At 8:30 a.m., James rang the bell at Ayla's outer gate, and when no one answered he pushed the gate open and walked in.
In the driveway, a tall white guy was washing Ayla's car.
"Hey, man," James said.
James watched the dude slop a cloth around the rear passenger door. Then he looked up at rain clouds in the sky. "Is Ayla inside?"
The slave stared at him for a moment and then shrugged, the tiniest little dip of the shoulder and then lift. James watched him for a moment longer, registering a thick plastic-and-metal cuff around the man's ankle.
"James!" Ayla was dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, and her hair was pulled back tight and put up in a bun. She wore large pearl-stud earrings, like a department store lady. "I'm glad you could come today. We bought the property yesterday at auction, as I told you, and there is so much to do. I didn't know the sale would actually go our way."
"Is that one of those work-release debtors you have out front?"
Ayla's face froze. "You're quick, aren't you? Yes, that's exactly who he is. His name is Henrik."
"Sweet deal. Do you feed him?"
Ayla looked at the tattooed man in front of her steadily. She had a couple of tattooes--one on her ankle, another at the small of her back. They were insignificant, but she could feel the ink under her skin when she looked at James.
"It's a good situation for everyone. Does this place look nicer to you than prison, which is where he would be? It's a lot safer, and cleaner."
James shook his head. "Wow. I never met one of those--" He gestured toward the front door. "Legal ones, I mean. I knew some slave-keepers in at Temecula Correctional, when I was in."
"He owed $100,000. They put you in an Arizona honor rancho for that."
"Like I said, I was incarcerated at one time. The guards shot bean bags at my naked ass."
"Then you see the benefit to Henrik in this arrangement."
"I see the benefit."
The stood in silence. Now was the moment for Ayla to invite James in, but she hesitated.
"I called you to discuss a project. Not to be judged."
"Oh, now, whoa. I was just surprised, darlin'. I don't judge. You have your reasons."
"There's nothing wrong with questions. But I know the difference between a question that's a question--"
"--that's a statement. I have always said you are perfect in all ways except one--you take things personal."
"Correcting my grammar is definitely a statement."
"It is? What kind?" She took a step toward him, onto the slate apron in front of the house.
James, who considered himself a boxer when it came to words--he wasn't always eloquent, but he knew how to cut off the ring, how to make the other person dance backward--had been cornered.
"What kind of statement?" He sighed, at a loss. Then he saw his opening. "It's a statement that you can pin me in a corner any time you want. You have those skills. And that's why I love you." He was going to win this round after all! "Now, what did you invite me here to talk about?"
But she hadn't heard the bell. Not yet.
"Certainly, I didn't ask you here to talk about Henrik."
"Ayla, Ayla. You're too sensitive. If you're going to have a ... Henrik around here, you have to stand up to a question here and there. That's why you want someone like me around. I talk straight. Now tell me what you have on your mind. Come on, girl. I know you don't have all day. Give me the spiel."