Deep in thought, Jamal stared at his Poker chips as he pondered his next move. Steiner watched with anticipation, completely disregarding the Texas Hold ’em game he was involved with across the room. The other players at that table nonchalantly glanced around the table, pondering who was going to be the chip leader after the showdown was won. Because Jamal seemed to be a newbie threat, most of them wanted him to lose.


“30 seconds left,” the dealer announced. Nearby tables paused and looked over to see what the big hush was about.


With seven seconds to destiny left on the clock, Jamal finally looked up then said, “I call,” as he revealed an Ace-high flush.


Everyone quickly looked at the other player as he exhaled with disgust and tossed his cards into the muck. Steiner was the only one that cheered as the other players watched in silence. It wasn’t until the dealer pushed $690 dollars in chips Jamal’s way that he realized he had won the hand. Jerry stopped the dealer and gave a nearby waitress a nod. “Okay gentlemen, I need to talk to this man. Please excuse us.”


Low disapproval circled the table until the waitress gave the remaining players comp slips for more chips per Jerry’s instructions as he and Jamal strolled away from the table. “Mr. Washington,” he finally said with a smile once he was sure they were out of earshot of anyone in particular. “Although you played a few hands poorly and got lucky, you did well. If you want the contract you’re hired.”


Relieved that he had made his three client minimum in time for the deadline, Jamal shook his hand and returned a confident grin. “I’m looking forward to working with you. Thank you.” He paused in thought then continued, “Mr. Ngyuen, I have to ask — how come there was no interview? And what was up with the Poker game?”


Jerry snipped the head off a Cohiba cigar then perched it between his fingers as he began to explain. The Poker game turned out to be a test to see how well Jamal adapted to fluid, hostile situations where strategy and sometimes dishonest tactics were involved and his entire budget was on the line. Jerry knew that sometimes Jamal would be playing the cards he was dealt, sometimes he had to play the other players — a perfect metaphor to growing a small business, especially when it came to finance. To Jerry, it showed what Jamal could do far better than any interview. The waitress from the table walked up and presented a rack of chips. Jerry gave a short nod, prompting her to hand them to Jamal. Surprised, he did a double-take. “What’s this for?”


“They’re yours,” he replied with open arms. “You won them. I added a signing bonus, too. Mr. Washington, welcome to Wildstar!”


At that moment his victory tasted much sweeter than it was while he was at the table. At a glance Jamal could tell he was holding at least $1700 dollars in chips — enough to take care of his bills for the month, put some in his savings account, give some to parents for rent, and still have extra spending money. On top of that, Jerry was the coolest Vietnamese man he’d ever met, far nicer than a few of the half-English speaking store owners in his neighborhood. The fact that it was a bootleg clothing store fronting for an illegal casino didn’t seem to matter as much. All he had to do was set them up nice and go on about his business.


Just then Steiner meandered up to a nearby counter to cash out his chips. He gave Jamal a “nicely done” nod. Suddenly Jamal couldn’t wait to cash out his chips and head back home to Queensbridge. Normally he wouldn’t have thought twice about putting most of the money into savings but that night was different. He knew exactly how he wanted to celebrate and had to hit a few stops to make along the way home.


Traffic was unusually thick for that time of evening in Manhattan as a gypsy cab slowly pulled into a parking lot, past packs of people in pairs as they all moved in the same direction toward a line being formed on a pier. The cab came to a halt.


Resting her head on Jamal’s shoulder, Leila giggled. “Are we there yet?” she asked for the umpteenth time, anxiously awaiting her chance to finally take off a blindfold placed over her eyes. The cabbie quietly smiled and glanced at them in the rear-view mirror.


“Almost,” Jamal chuckled as he climbed out then gingerly guided her outside, admiring her black cocktail dress as it hugged her curves just right. The cabbie, Paul, was happy to do the favor. He still owed Jamal’s late brother Justin a few solids from back in the day.


When Jamal removed Leila’s blindfold her mouth dropped in astonishment. There, standing on the dock, she found herself staring up at the Spirit of New York, a mini-cruise ship bigger than most millionaire yachts and much smaller than most major cruise liners, glowing with rail lights against the distant skylines. It was host to a black-tie fund-raiser being put on by the Alphas on campus. One of the senior Business majors had invited Jamal earlier that week. The frat’s boat parties were notorious for being great times, plush with great food and music as they cruised around for several hours on the Hudson river. She had known about the Spirit for as long as she could remember. For her, the cruise might as well have been to the Bahamas. All her years living there in the city she had always wanted to take the harbor cruise but never did, usually because she couldn’t afford it or needed the money for school. She grabbed Jamal with a long embrace and a kiss, sending happy shivers through his body as if it was their first kiss all over again. It was his first time on the Spirit, too, but more than that he truly felt relaxed after a few months of hectic stress. Any other time he would have attended a function like this for the business networking opportunities. That night was different — it belonged to Leila.


The entertainment seamlessly went between a live band and a deejay, covering the spectrum of old school Acid-Jazz, R&B, Soul, House and Hip Hop favorites. After dinner Jamal and Leila danced to a mix of everything until they worked up a sweat and decided to go sit out on the deck. There, next to the railing, they sat beneath a clear moonlit sky talking as scenery passed off in the distance: The Brooklyn Bridge. Governor’s Island. Ellis Island. Anonymous city lights reflecting off the water. On occasion a few juniors and seniors from campus approached their table, wishing Jamal well on his business venture. He couldn’t help but enjoy the attention, maintaining a humble attitude in the face of their accolades. Leila smiled with pride, happy that he was beginning to get recognized for his hard work. For such a young couple, that night they had the poise and grace of Jackie and JFK — and they were naturals at it.


As the boat approached the Statue of Liberty, Leila caught a chill from the night air; Jamal gently draped his blazer over her shoulders and held her close. He had heard cliches about the American Dream since grade school, but between his father and grandfather’s examples, it was the first time he began to appreciate what it truly meant. “You’ve been the greatest blessing in my life,” he said as if he was thinking out loud. “This is just the beginning of alotta things to happen for us.”


Leila’s thoughts went into overdrive. The beginning of what? Business? Life together? Was he about to propose, she wondered as her body began to quiver with anticipation. Maybe he was. She silently waited for him to finish his thoughts when he whispered “I need to excuse myself for a minute, darling — nature calls.”


Thrown off by his request, she nodded, hoping he wasn’t about to go chase down some potential client.


Jamal casually strolled away then once he was out of her sight he scurried down the steps. He had already arranged with the party organizer to have the deejay play Stevie Wonder’s song “As” over the loudspeakers a few minutes after he made the request so he could be back on deck in time to be with Leila for his big surprise.


At the bottom of the steps Jamal scanned the scene. The dance floor was packed with tuxedos and evening gowns grooving in full swing, old school style; fellas were waving their arms in the air as the ladies screamed to Naughty by Nature’s “Uptown Anthem”. The only thing he didn’t anticipate was being so nervous he ducked into the Men’s room to get himself together.


After washing his hands and face, Jamal paused to wait for two guys to finish their business in the stalls then leave. He took a long look at himself in the mirror as he wondered what it was like when his father proposed to his mom. Slowly he pulled a small, black velvet cube out of his pocket as he began to second guess his decision to make this move before consulting his parents. He knew he wanted to propose to Leila — but by the way his hands were shaking, he wasn’t sure if this was the right time. Deep in thought about his big move, he didn’t notice as someone walked into the bathroom.


“Mr. Washington, fancy meeting you here.”


Jamal quickly concealed the black box then turned around. His throat choked for an instant — standing there in a crisp tuxedo was Detective Rourke. “Hello again, my good man. We need to talk.”


“No disrespect, but you really picked a bad time to want to talk. Can we discuss this on Monday?”


“Nah, I think my timing is perfect. Earlier you left the crib, jumped off the train in the Bronx, gave me the slip, and popped back up at a jewelry store on your block. For an unemployed kid trying to get a business off the ground, things must be going gangbusters for you to afford that ring you just shoved into your pocket. I know it cost a grip homey.”


A flood of questions hit Jamal at once: Gave him the slip? How long have they been following me? Was his phone tapped? Was Rourke bluffing about losing him in the Bronx?


He kept a straight face. “My accounting business is taking off,” he said with a Poker-fake steely cool. “If you need some help balancing your checkbook gimme a call. First consultation is free.”


As Jamal started toward the bathroom door, Detective Rourke put a hand in his chest and stopped him. “I don’t think you understand, kid. I think you know who had that Alonzo kid killed. My case is about to go south and if I find out you withheld information, Aye Dios Mio Pai I’m gonna do my best to make sure your sweet girlfriend has to wait for your parole before a preacher ever says you two are man and wife. So you tell me — what’s it gonna be, son?”