The crime scene was the handiwork of hardened criminals. Shell casings covered the floor. Blood and bits of brain painted the wall. Three victims lay across a leather couch, bullet holes dotting their bodies. One of the victims lacked half of his head. The left side of his face looked like spaghetti sauce. His right eye socket smoked like over-microwaved meat.
Detective Warren Price cursed under his breath. And when a uniformed officer stepped to his side, he said, “This amount of carnage, and all I’m getting from the club crowd is ‘Man, I ain’t see nothin’!’”
“Nothing on the security cameras either.”
Price cursed again.
“The shooter must’ve come and gone out that back door from the VIP,” the officer said. “The bouncer in charge of that door, a big dude named Sampson, we can’t find him.”
Price lifted his brow. Tapped his chin a few times with his index finger as if giving that some thought. Then he said, “Judging from the splatter and the shell casings, they stood right along here. In a line. Like a firing squad.”
Price nodded. “Oh yeah! Shooters—plural. As quick as it went down, these many casings, had to be more than one shooter.” He looked around the floor. Against the wall and glass opposite the three dead guys. “Only thing I don’t get is where is their blood?”
“Yeah. ‘Cause Curly, Larry and Moe over there got off some shots. Emptied their clips.” He pointed to the casings off to the side of the couch as well the bullet holes and broken glass opposite them. “You think they dodged the bullets?”
The officer shrugged. “Either that or they were wearing body armor.”
Price scoffed. “A triple murder! A triple I’ll never solve because everyone I’ve talked to says—and I quote— “Man, I ain’t see nothin’!”
The officer laughed. “I did find a witness says she saw the whole thing go down.”
Price turned to him. Narrowed his eyes. “Well, why didn’t you say so. Lead with that next time.”
“I’ll take you to her.”
Detective Price followed the officer back through the club. Then outside to where a crowd was still watching the scene from behind the yellow police tape. Lights from the news crews brightening the dark scene at Club Pimpin,’ which was a strip joint located ten miles outside of the city. It hid at the edge of a frontage road, cloaked from the interstate by kudzu. No wonder a kill squad could make it in and out of here undetected, Price thought.
The witness waited beside a police cruiser. She wore a bright red brasserie, a black pair of lace boy shorts and nothing more. Price removed his sport coat and draped it over her shoulders.
“You dance here?” he asked her.
Her hands were shaking. Her eyes darting. Finally, she nodded and said, “I saw it happen.”
My lucky day, Price thought…or lucky night, rather. “Come with me,” he said.
He guided her to his Crown Vic and offered her a seat inside. The night air was thin and cool so she obliged, appreciating the heat that shot from the dash vents as soon as he cranked the engine.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Butterscotch.” She rolled her eyes, annoyed with herself. “Beverly. I mean Beverly.”
“Cigarette?” Price offered.
She nodded. Scissored the white stick between her quivering index and middle finger. Price had to steady her hand to light it.
He lit one for himself, placed his pack of smokes back in his cubby and asked, “So what did you see?” When she replied with a cautious glare, he added, “You have nothing to worry about, Beverly.”
“I’m not worried about anything.” Her hands trembled. “Guess I’m still a little…It went down right in front of my face.”
“Okay…okay. Just take a deep breath and walk me through what you saw.”
She took a long drag on the cigarette. Held her breath for a few seconds. Then she released a sky full of stratus clouds into the cab of the Crown Vic.
Finally, she said, “I was dancing for them. O-o-on the table. They were making it rain. Do you know what this means? Making it rain?”
“Yes. I know what it means.”
“Then these men showed up.”
Beverly’s bosom was rising and lowering at a faster and faster rate.
“How many men?”
“Four. Six…I don’t know. It happened so fast.”
“That’s okay. Did you get a good look at their faces?”
She shook her head. “They were all wearing masks.”
“Masks? Good.” It wasn’t good but Price smiled anyway. He wanted to keep Butterscotch talking. “So these men walked in and started shooting?”
“No.” Beverly looked out of the window for a few seconds. When she pulled on her cigarette and exhaled, the smoke curled back and engulfed her face. She didn’t attempt to wave it away. “The guys I was dancing for, they had guns. So they pulled them out, no questions. That’s when I ran behind the bar. If not, I’d be…you know.” She pointed toward the club. Toward three victims who would soon be leaving in black body bags.
“Okay then. What happened next?”
“Well…they started shooting at the masked men…but the bullets bounced right off of them.”
The early evening air cooled Oak’s skin and caused it to tighten. The sensation was odd, like someone pinching him but all over. Bringing his skin cells closer together? The thought was crazy and Oak traveled back to a biology class in which the teacher was showing a video on mitosis. Cells were dividing, giving rise to two daughter cells with the same number of chromosomes. There were different phases. One in particular where the chromatin seemed to span the two fused cellular bodies. So cool. That’s not what was happening with Oak’s skin. It was tightening…stiffening. And how would that look under a microscope?
He shook those thoughts, jogged up to the duplex and slapped the knocker three times. The door opened and he saw Moody Norco. The man who hated his guts.
“Come on in,” Moody said. “You want something to drink?”
“Nah, I’m working. What’s up?”
“Nothing much. Getting over a cold.”
“No. I mean what’s up?”
“You mean the money?”
“I always mean the money when I ask that question.”
Moody was devious and dangerous. Instead of repelling Oak, this fact attracted him. Pulled him to the man like gravity. An invisible yet powerful force that he couldn’t escape.
He carried the weight of the world into Moody’s apartment that evening. His uncle had kicked him out the house. He had lost the women he loved. And then there was that nagging guilt, the thought that God would never forgive him for what he had done eight years before. Life had burdened him. Perhaps this devious dude was just dangerous enough to remove that burden.
Oak snapped his fingers in Moody’s face. “Come on, man, I don’t have all day.”
“I’m going to warn you right now,” Moody said, “it’s been slow.” He motioned to a half-naked woman who scampered into the back room.
“I don’t care how slow it’s been. You’re delinquent yet again. Frankly, I’m fed up with it.”
Moody’s eyes narrowed. He tightened his fist but nothing more.
“Tell your girl to hurry up with the money,” Oak said.
“C’mon. Let me fix you some Cognac. I know you like that Yack! With Coke, right?”
“Man, you’re trying my patience!” Oak pushed Moody out of the way and stomped into the bedroom, where he figured the woman was counting the money. But there was no woman. Instead, there was an open window, curtains dancing in the breeze and two guys holding sawed off shot guns that were aimed at Oak’s chest.
“You sure you don’t want something to drink?” Moody asked again with a smile as he brandished a silver Saturday Night Special.
“Truth be told,” he said, his pistol pointed at Oak, “I hate you! Why did you all of a sudden get to be boss of the streets? You haven’t put in work. You haven’t done dirt. And what’s worse, if war comes, you’d never be man enough to squeeze a trigger. You’re not a boss!” Moody and his two gunmen backed Oak into the living room. He asked, “You’re not gonna beg for your life?”
“Not at all,” Oak replied.
“Well, I gotta say I’m disappointed.”
Oak shrugged. Sighed. “Well I’ve seen too much evil. Been the cause of too much pain. Being murdered like this is a fitting end.”
“You’re not gonna cry or try to make a deal?”
“Nah. If you’re gonna shoot me, get it over with already.”
Moody chuckled. Smiled. Then his lips straitened. “This wasn’t what I imagined would happen. In my mind, I saw you sniveling, snot dripping over your lips as you begged for your life. Forget about the money. Just don’t kill me, Moody! I would demand that you call me the king. You are the king! Then, I’d make you get down on your knees, your hands folded in prayer and praise. But…”
Oak jumped at Moody like he was going to throw a punch. Moody flinched. His boys flinched too.
“Unbelievable,” Oak laughed. Then he screamed, “Do it!”
Shot guns lifted. Forestocks pumped. Snub nose hammer pulled back. An engine roared and the hood of a SUV came crashing through sheetrock and plaster. It was Sampson, Oak’s bodyguard. Crashing through the wall. Shooting through the windshield.
Shots blazed from every direction. Glass shattered. Sampson took one in his shoulder but served several to Moody and his boys. As they hit the floor, Sampson yelled, “Lay down and stay down!”
“O!” he screamed as he grunted his way towards him. “O.E.!”
“Are you wearing a vest?”
He patted Oak’s chest and back. “Oh my goodness!” he said. “You’re not wearing a vest!”
Oak looked at Sampson and saw that he was bleeding heavily. He took off his shirt and pressed it against his wounded shoulder. He said, “We gotta get you outta here.” Then he helped Sampson to the passenger side of the SUV, got in the driver’s seat, and slowly backed the out of the rubble.
As he drove to Shalom Memorial Hospital, images of the shootout replayed in his head. The ear splitting pops and mind numbing explosions. He racked his brain for a reason why he was still breathing.
He said, “I’m sorry, Sampson. I should have been the one to get shot back there.”
“You did get shot.”
His bodyguard took a deep breath. Winced in pain. “They lit you up, man. You were getting popped left and right.”
“Sampson,” Oak smiled warily, “were you smoking dope while I was in the apartment?”
“I’m serious!” Sampson screamed. “Bullets just bounced off of you. At first I thought it was the adrenaline playing tricks on my mind. But nah. You were just walking through those bullets. I know what I saw.”