KEITH THOMAS WALKER - THE MASTER OF ROMANTIC SUSPENSE AND URBAN FICTION


CHAPTER ONE
SPEED BUMP
 



          Dana Moore had not reached the halfway point of her shift at Jackson Memorial when she received the call every mother dreads.  Her son had been blowing up her cell for the past five minutes.  Tariq knew better than to call so many times over something frivolous, so she stepped out of the exam room and told another radiology tech, “I got a patient on their way down.  I’ll be back in a second.”
          Julie told her, “Okay,” without looking up from her magazine.
          In the hallway, Dana returned her son’s call.  He answered with a breathless, “Mama.”
          “What’s going on?” she asked him.  “This better be imp–”
          “Mama, I’m at the police station,” Tariq informed her.
          The fear and anxiety in his voice made Dana’s whole body grow numb.  She backed into the wall behind her and leaned on it for support.  A sudden chill made goose bumps sprout all over her body.  Her voice wavered when she responded.
          “Wha, what?”
          We had an accident,” Tariq cried.  “I hit somebody, Mama.  They said I killed him.  People was – they was shooting at us!  Brendon got shot.  He at the hospital.”
          Tariq was crying, near panic.  Dana’s eyes glossed over.  The hospital corridor began to tilt to and fro as her mind swam.  She felt like she was tumbling down a rabbit hole.  Everything her son told her made sense, but at the same time it didn’t – maybe for someone else’s child, but not Tariq.  He was–
          They said you don’t have to be here for them to talk to me,” he said, his breath coming in shudders.  “They said since I’m seventeen, I can talk to them without you here.  But, I’m scared, Mama.  I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know what to say.  You gotta come down here.  They said that man’s dead.”
          He sniffled.  Dana’s heart shattered in a million pieces as her muddled mind tried to comprehend everything he was telling her.  The word DEAD assailed her like a punch to the throat.  It was hard to take in another breath, hard to tell if her heart was still beating.  None of this was right for her baby.  Not Tariq.  Even though he was delivering the dreadful news firsthand, he had to be talking about someone else’s child!
          Baby, calm down,” she said, though she needed to take that advice herself.  Tears spilled from both of her eyes.  She squeezed them shut and saw her only child behind her closed lids.  Tariq only had one year left in high school.  He was gonna be somebody.  Realizing she was thinking of his future in the past tense broke her heart all over again.
          “Are you in jail?” she cried.
          “No, Mama.  I’m at the police station – on Lancaster.  They wanna question me.  Mama, I didn’t mean to hit nobody.  He ran out in the middle of the street.  You can ask anybody!”
          “Who was shooting?”
          “I don’t know.  The man, the guy I hit, his friends was.”
          “Are you okay?”
          “Yes.  Brendon got shot.”
          “What’s the address where you’re at?” Dana asked.  She rubbed the tears from her eyes and opened them.  Looking around, she realized she wasn’t the only person in the hallway.  A coworker from Ultrasound watched her with wide-eyed worry.
          “I – I don’t know,” Tariq said.  “Hold on, Mama.”
          Dana turned and reentered her department.  Julie looked up at her, and the magazine slipped from her hands.
          Oh my God, DanaWhat’s wrong?”
          Dana headed for her workstation without responding.  Her hand was shaking so badly, it would’ve been a miracle if she managed to write the address legibly.  Rather than her son, a woman’s voice came to the line.
          “Hi.  This is Officer Ruby Hutt.  Do you need the address to the station?”
          “Yes.  Please tell me what’s going on.  Is my son under arrest?”  Saying those words aloud made the contents of her stomach shift uncomfortably.  She reached for the wastebasket under her desk, thinking she might vomit.
          “No, ma’am.  He was involved in a fatality accident, and they would like to question him.  He’s being detained, but he’s not in handcuffs.”
          Some, somebody died?”  Dana didn’t think the world moved at all while she waited for the woman to respond.
          “Yes, ma’am.  I’m sorry.”
          A fresh trail of tears leaked from Dana’s eyes.  Her department never looked so dark and wretched.
          Tariq had really killed someone.
          She brought a fist to her mouth and squeezed her throat closed on a wail that tried to force itself up.  Her whole body trembled.
          “Ma’am, are you ready for the address?”
          Dana’s mouth fell open, but she couldn’t respond.  She turned and saw her coworker standing in the doorway.  Julie had no idea what was going on, but her eyes filled with tears as well.
          Dana held out her phone.  Julie stood frozen for a moment before she took it.  Dana tried to hand her a pen and notepad, but both items fell to the floor.  Julie quickly stooped to pick them up before she brought the phone to her ear.
          “Hello?”  After a pause, Julie said, “Um, okay.”  She approached Dana’s desk and used it to jot down the information she received from the officer.  When she disconnected, her heart kicked as she asked her friend, “What’s going on?  Does this have something to do with Tariq?”
          Dana nodded.  It was impossible to get her thoughts together.  “I gotta go,” she managed.  She lifted the notepad and took her phone from her friend.  “Where’s, do you know where Steve is?”
          Julie had never seen her friend so upset.  “He’s in a meeting,” she said.  “It’s okay.  Go.  I’ll let him know you had to leave.”
          Dana knew she should speak with her supervisor directly, but every second she waited left Tariq vulnerable to the criminal justice system.  Every black woman in America knows how quickly that scenario could go from bad to worse.
          “Okay,” she said.  “Thank you.”
          Her tears were still flowing like rain when she reached the parking garage. 

● ● ● ● ● ● 

          One hour earlier.
          Tariq looked over at his friend with a disappointed expression as he turned into the Stone Crest Apartment complex on the far east side of town.  His SUV was built for all terrains, but Tariq still took care to avoid a humongous pothole directly in their path.
          “Really, nigga?” he said to his friend Brendon, who sat grinning in the passenger seat.
          Brendon’s eyes were glued to his cellphone.  Nearly all of his teeth were showing.  “What?  What’s wrong?”
          Brendon had dark skin, whereas Tariq’s was fair.  Both teens kept their hair trimmed short, but Tariq frequented a barber more often than his classmate.  His crew cut was clean.  Brendon’s was borderline nappy.
          The boys were around the same height and build.  They both considered themselves the more handsome of the duo, but most girls gave the edge to Tariq.  Tariq was also smarter, when it came to books, and his family had a better financial standing.  His mother worked as a radiology tech at Jackson Memorial.  Brendon’s mom hadn’t held a steady job in over a decade.  He couldn’t even say for sure where she was at the moment.
          The summer temperature was stifling.  Thankfully the AC in Tariq’s 2005 Explorer worked well.  The afternoon outing was Brendon’s idea.  Two weeks into summer vacation, cruising the streets and pulling down (or lifting up) skirts was all the boys cared about.  Having a car at seventeen was a blessing few of their peers enjoyed.  Tariq’s license was considered provisional until his 18 birthday, but his mother trusted him enough to drive on the freeway and stay out past dark, as long as he made it home by midnight.
          From the looks of the Stone Crest Apartments, Tariq doubted if he’d be interested in the freaks Brendon was texting.  Even with a pocket full of condoms, the risk of contracting an STD were high.  He didn’t think it was possible for anyone who cared about their personal hygiene to live in a place so rundown.
          “Really nigga?” he said again as they neared the apartment’s leasing office.  Both of the largest windows were boarded up, but a big sign on the door proclaimed “Yes, We’re Open!”
          Brendon looked at the office and laughed.  “We in the hood now, boy.  Don’t start acting all scary when we get to they apartment.”
          “Man, I don’t even know if I wanna get out the car,” Tariq said honestly.  “Somebody might steal it while we’re gone.”
          “Yeah, right.  Don’t nobody want this piece of shit.”
          “It’s always a nigga with no car that got something to say about my car,” Tariq noticed.  “You know I ain’t worried about no hood.  I just went to another hood when I picked you up.”
          “This one’s worse,” Brendon said.
          He was right about that.  These apartments made his crappy neighborhood look upscale.
          “This the one I’m finna smash,” Brendon told him.
          Tariq violated a cardinal sin by looking over at his friend’s electronic device while driving.  If his mother saw him do that, she’d take away his keys for at least a couple of days.  The girl in the picture Brendon showed him looked like a stripper in training.  Tariq frowned.
          “Man, how old is she?”
          “Sixteen.”
          “You can’t be with no sixteen-year-old no more,” Tariq advised him, not for the first time.
          “I just turned eighteen last month,” Brendon complained.
          “It don’t matter.  As far as the law is concerned, she a minor, and you’re an adult.”
          “You listen to everything yo mama tell you?”
          Tariq shook his head, rather than keep it real with him.  What was so bad about kids listening to their mother – especially when it came to something like avoiding jail?  Tariq had never been arrested, and he planned to keep it that way.
          They rounded a few more corners and spotted three girls standing outside of one of the buildings.  Before they were close enough to see their faces, Tariq told his friend, “Man, hell naw!  Them some little girls.”
          “They in high school,” Brendon assured him.  “They go to Western Hills.”
          “What, they freshmen?”
          “I don’t know.”
          Tariq smacked his lips.  “I can’t believe you got me out here for this mess…”
          “We can still smash, since we all in high school.”
          “Where the hell you get that from?”
          “Whatever,” Brendon said.  “I know I’m finna hit.  You wanna stay out here with the other two while I’m upstairs?”
          “No, I don’t,” Tariq said honestly.  “But if you want it that bad, I will.”
          “That’s what I’m talking about.  Bruh, you won’t believe some of the shit she said she’ll do to me.”  He scrolled through his text messages, getting more excited by the second.
          “Long as she do it in less than ten minutes, I don’t even care.”
          Ten?  Nigga, I’ll be back in five!”
          They both laughed.  Brendon was a nut job.  The boys had been best friends since middle school.  Tariq was used to his outlandish behavior.  Most of the time he found it amusing.
          The girls introduced themselves as Toneisha, Keisha and LaTisha.  Tariq didn’t have anything against girls whose names ended with “sha,” but three in a row.  Damn.  It didn’t take long to determine the girls’ level of sophistication was on par with their crummy apartments.  And one of them was still in middle school!
          The one Brendon tried to hook Tariq up with, Toneisha, was okay-looking.  But her tank top had spaghetti straps, and Tariq saw that her bra straps were dirty.  Nope.  Any girl who didn’t think it was important to wear clean underwear had to be harboring cooties.
          “You with them Bideker Boys?” LaTisha asked Brendon when he got out of the truck.
          Tariq sighed inwardly.  Brendon had been wearing a bead necklace for the past few weeks.  The beads were black and yellow.  In a normal world, there was nothing wrong with that.  But in the ghettos of Overbrook Meadows, black and yellow was the color of a street gang.  Brendon was not officially part of the gang, but he was working on it.  At the moment, he was more of a tagalong or wannabe.
          Tariq didn’t know if Brendon wasn’t ready to endure the beat-down required to become an official member of the set or if the gang had rejected him.  But he did know (and had told Brendon multiple times) that they couldn’t be friends anymore if he joined the Bideker Boys.  Tariq’s mother was from Chicago.  She’d seen a lot of bad things.  She’d do anything in her power to keep her son away from hoodlums.
          “What about it?” Brendon asked his new friend.  “You got a probably with Bideker niggas?”
          “No,” the girl said, grinning broadly.  “I was just asking.”  She continued to stare at his beads, much like a groupie would admire a rapper’s gold medallions.
          “So we going upstairs or what?” Brendon asked her.
          “Yeah,” she said.  “Come on.”  She turned, revealing a bubble butt even Tariq found enticing.  Brendon followed her like a dog in heat.
          LaTisha looked back and asked, “What about your friend?”
          “He ain’t trying to do nothing,” Brendon informed her.  “But your friends can hang out here and kick it with him.”
          The two rejected girls didn’t appear to like that idea, but Tariq was definitely uninterested.
          “Alright, we’ll be back,” LaTisha told her friends, and the matter was settled. 

● ● ● ● ● ●

          Seventeen minutes later Brendon and his friend emerged from the apartment.  Tariq was so grateful to see him, he closed his eyes and gave thanks to God.  The rejected girls had been waiting in his car, listening to the radio, and one of them had a serious case of B.O.  Tariq didn’t know if the odor came from her underarms or her panties, but even with all four windows down, his whole car smelled funky.  He couldn’t hide his excitement when Brendon bid his friend adieu, and the other girls hopped out of his ride.
          Brendon smiled brightly as they drove away.  “Say, man, you should’a came up there.  That ho a freak.”
          “Yeah, I could tell,” Tariq replied.
          “Naw, she a freak freak,” Brendon insisted.  “We wouldn’t have had to take turns.  You know what I’m saying?”
          “Yeah, I do.  So is she your woman now?” he joked.
          Hell naw!” Brendon said with a sneer.
          “You know she gon’ be blowing your phone up.”
          “Yeah, that’s a problem when you put it down like I do,” Brendon boasted.  “If she start getting on my nerves, she getting straight blocked.  Her cellphone don’t got no service anyway.  She be calling me on Facebook.”
          “I’m surprised she got WiFi.”
          “She don’t.  She logged into her neighbor’s router!”
          They both laughed.
          When they exited the apartments, Tariq made a right on Lancaster, headed west.  The three-lane thoroughfare was always busy, especially at that time of day; with commuters headed home from work.  The posted speed limit was 45 miles per hour.  Tariq was more comfortable with residential streets, but he didn’t have a problem catching up with the flow of traffic.
          He checked the speedometer and saw the needle on 44 mph when he passed through a green light at Oakland Blvd.  He didn’t know it at the time, but this information would be crucial.  He was still laughing with his friend six blocks down the road when he noticed a crowd hanging out in front of a Beefer’s restaurant.
          Brendon asked him, “Nigga, did you know they still got Beefer’s over here?”
          Tariq didn’t believe he took his eyes off the road, but he would later acknowledge that for a moment he did look up at the restaurant’s marquee, which advertised a triple-beef heart attack in a paper bag.
          Tariq told his friend, “Man, if you eat that, it’ll be your last burger.”
          Brendon shouted, “Say, look out!”
          And Tariq realized one of the men loitering outside of the restaurant had broken away from the group.  The man wore a white tee shirt with black pants.  He was moving quickly.  Tariq believed he was trying to cross the street, but that didn’t make sense.  They weren’t at a light, and he’d have to make it past three lanes of heavy traffic before he got to the median.
          More importantly, the man didn’t wait for a lull in traffic.  His chance of making it across safely was exactly zero percent, which would explain the shout Tariq heard from a member of his group.  He thought one of the men reached to stop the jaywalker.
          But it all happened so fast.  Tariq had less than a second to react.
          He saw the crowd.
          He saw the marquee with the triple beef burger.
          He heard Brendon shout.
          He saw a man break away from the group.
          His brain calculated all of this at the speed of light and immediately transmitted instructions to his right foot.
          BRAKE!  BRAKE NOW!
          Tariq’s foot was obedient to these instructions, but he couldn’t say for sure if he managed to stomp the brakes before the crazed man was directly in front of his bumper.  His eyes were wide, his heart a frozen knot in his chest.  He heard a loud BOOMP!, which was somehow more horrifying than then feel of his half-ton SUV impacting soft flesh and bones.
          And then the man was gone.
          Tariq prayed he’d imagined all of it, but half a second later there was a BOOMP-BOMP! as his rear wheels scaled a speed bump that shouldn’t have been in the middle of the road.
          Tariq’s truck finally came to a complete stop.  He looked over at Brendon, his wide eyes tinged with dread.  Brendon had the same look on his face.  Tariq checked the rearview mirror and saw that all of the traffic behind him had come to a screeching halt.
          Oh shit,” Tariq muttered as the acrid smell of brake pads and tire smoke filled his nostrils.  “Oh shit,” he moaned.  His horrified expression made him appear a few years younger than seventeen.  “Did I hit him?  Did I hit somebody?”
          “That nigga just ran in the middle of the street,” Brendon said.  He was freaked out too, but Tariq appreciated that he was already on the defensive.
          No, man.  Shit.  No…”  Tariq brought a hand to his mouth.  He shook his head as he checked the rear view mirror again.  His eyes glossed over when he saw that the speed bump wasn’t a speed bump.  It was exactly what he thought it was.  One of the drivers behind them exited his vehicle and cautiously approached the body.  The crowd from Beefer’s began to spill into the street.
          Damn, what do I do?”  Tariq’s voice quavered.  He felt like his heart was trying to jump up his throat.  He felt sick all over.  His intestines looped and tied themselves in knots when he looked over at his friend.  “Shit, man.  What do I do?”
          Run,” Brendon breathed.
          But even in the midst of the most frightening encounter he’d ever experienced, Tariq knew he couldn’t do that.  He didn’t think he could step out of the car and face what he’d done either, but his hand moved to the door handle, and he pushed it open..
          He looked through the opening before stepping out into the bright sunlight.  The body behind him was twisted and crumpled, his arms bent at unnatural angles.  Tariq didn’t see any blood, but the man’s tee shirt was now soiled with bold, dark blotches.  Tariq knew those were tire marks.  His tire marks.  His legs felt like rubber bands, but somehow they supported him.
          People were yelling.  Horns blaring.  Lost in a whirlwind of emotions, Tariq half-believed this was only a dream.  His eyes were glued to the body in the street.  Skid marks from his tires led directly to it.  As he drew nearer, Tariq saw that there was blood.  There was plenty of it.
          He inched closer, trying to get a look at the man’s face.  He wasn’t sure why that was important.  The victim’s bloody visage would surely mar his dreams for decades if he laid eyes on it, but he had to see.  Was the man conscious?  Bleeding from the mouth or nose?  Gasping for air like a fish out of water?
          Or were his eyes already wide and transfixed; staring past the world of the living?
          Was he dead?
          Jesus, that would be – no.  There was no way he actually killed a man.  But he was going so fast.  And the body was twisted so badly.  Despite the extreme gravity of the situation, Tariq couldn’t help but consider his mother’s reaction to this.  She would take his keys for sure.  He’d be grounded for months, maybe for the rest of his life.
          He never saw the victim’s face, because the crowd had grown dense in a matter of seconds.  All of the men from Beefer’s converged on the scene.  Some tried to help the injured man up.  Tariq wanted to tell them that was the absolute last thing they should do to an accident victim, but by then he noticed the man’s friends were what his mother would call undesirables.  They were loud and rowdy, yelling and pleading.  A few turned and fixed angry eyes on the only person they could lay blame on.  Tariq stopped in his tracks when they began to advance on him.
          Man, what the fuck you do?!”
          You saw that nigga!”
          I di – I didn’t, wha, I did–”  Tariq wanted to tell them he didn’t do anything wrong, and any attempt to blame him for the accident reeked of immature-quick-to-judge ignorance.  But his fight or flight instincts had his heart revving.  He couldn’t get his tongue to articulate a proper defense.
          He backpedaled as they marched forward.  Visions of Reginald Denny filled his mind.  Was this for real?  Could people really be this outrageous?  Tariq had experienced countless Nigga Moments during his short time on earth, but never had he seen such dark, angry eyes fixed solely on him.  The body lying on the pavement became an afterthought as self-preservation became his primary concern.
          Tariq was completely dumbfounded when he heard someone shout, “Hey, them niggas from Bideker!”
            Bideker?  What the hell?
          That comment made no sense at all.  Tariq had forgotten about their marginal connection to the south side gang until he followed the voice and saw that one of the aggressors had approached the passenger side of his truck.  This one was a teen, around the same age as Tariq.  As he watched, the boy reached through the open window and began to struggle with Brendon.  Tariq’s eyes widened when the tussling progressed to punching.
          From his vantage point, Tariq couldn’t see Brendon’s reaction, but the boy on the outside of the truck was animated.  He tried to jerk the passenger door open and then kicked it when it wouldn’t come free.  The whole time he struggled with Brendon, he continued to rally the troops.
          These Bideker niggas!  They killed Shank!”
          Tariq didn’t bother trying to explain that he and his friend were not in a gang, and they didn’t kill anyone.  The victim just needed to wait on an ambulance, and everything would be alright.
          Instead he backed quickly towards his SUV, which was the only clear route to safety.  If the mob caught him out in the open, he was finished.  They wouldn’t stop dragging him through the streets until the police arrived.
          Tariq’s only saving grace was most of the men converged on the passenger side of his truck, hoping to snatch Brendon from the vehicle.  Tariq hopped in on the driver’s side before they realized he was attempting to escape.
          Get ‘em!”
          Get them niggas!  They trying to take off!”
          Beyond the screams of the angry crowd, Tariq heard his friend now.  Brendon was pleading, begging them to, “Get off me!  I didn’t do nothing!”
          His words didn’t stop a barrage of arms and fists raining through the open window.  Tariq was so shocked, he wasted several precious seconds, staring in awe, until he felt a hand on his throat.
          Aagh!”
          He pushed it away, and the dark hand gripped his shirt instead.  Tariq turned and locked eyes with Satan himself.  The man was twice his age and size.  His fair skin revealed bold tattoos on his neck and even a few on his face.  His forearm was the size of Tariq’s thigh, his fist the size of a football.
          Get out the car, nigga!”
          The man’s eyebrows bunched together when Tariq screamed again and reached for the steering wheel with one hand and the gear shift with the other.
          Get out the car!”
          Gooo!” Brendon shouted.  “Goooo!”
          A glimpse to the right revealed nothing but black faces and black arms.  Some reached for the inner door handle.  Some held Brendon in a death grip.  Others continued striking.  Brendon pulled away from them, catching most of the blows in the back of the neck and head.  Tears streamed down his face and mixed with the blood leaking from his mouth and nose.
          Man, goooo!” he yelled.  He met Tariq’s eyes and begged for his life.  “Drive off, man!  Goooo!”
          Tariq threw his car in DRIVE and stomped the gas pedal.  The engine screamed as the truck lurched forward.  For a moment, it didn’t seem like they were moving.  The mob had them almost completely surrounded.  The arms poking through the windows didn’t go away, and neither did the devilish mug on the driver’s side.  Tariq couldn’t tell if the man was running alongside the truck or somehow flying.
          Gradually, as he increased speed, the faces on Brendon’s side of the vehicle fell away one by one.  But Tariq’s demon held on.  When his speedometer inched past fifteen miles per hour, Tariq’s whole body jerked off the seat.  His attacker had stopped running, but he refused to let go.  Tariq’s screams stopped abruptly when his tee shirt cut off his air supply and began to strangle him.  He pressed the gas pedal harder, thinking there was no way –
          POP!
          POP!
          POP!POP!POP!
          Despite everything that had transpired in the past thirty seconds, the sound of gunfire was surreal.  Tariq was an A/B student, for Christ’s sake!  A good boy, by any one’s account.  His pastimes included video games, comic books, and helping his mother with her garden.  This type of stuff wasn’t supposed to happen to him!
          Yet there he was; caught up in the ultimate Nigga Moment; a life or death struggle in a bad neighborhood he never should’ve visited.
          He didn’t notice that the hand gripping his shirt had disappeared, but Tariq did see the bright, red lights ahead.  He didn’t slow or even consider stopping.  More horns blared as he roared through the intersection, but no one hit them, so it didn’t matter.  The more distance he put between himself and the body in the road, the safer he felt.
          A minute down the road, Tariq was ready to proclaim his getaway a success when his friend delivered grim news.
          Say, I’m hit, man.”  Brendon’s voice was low and raspy.
          Tariq didn’t take his eyes off the road – dared not.  But his face registered confusion.  Of course Brendon was hit.  He saw him get punched multiple times.  Why would his friend feel the need to make a formal announcement?
          “I’m shot,” Brendon clarified.  He lifted his sleeve to reveal blood seeping from his shoulder.  “You gotta take me to the hospital.”
          Tariq looked to the right – just for a second – to assess his injuries.  When his eyes returned to the road, they were once again filled with horror.


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