St. Mary’s County, Maryland
Wednesday, 1:14 am
The road appeared just like any other country road; one lane in each direction, faded striping, lined with lanky loblolly pines on both sides, and illuminated only by the moonlight, when and if the moon bothered to show up. It was miles removed from any major highway, and the only sound was the swish-swish of a 13-point buck moving majestically through the woods. As the brown-coated animal approached the road, the faint drone of an automobile could be heard in the distance. Hearing no other sound, the buck quickly crossed the road before the automobile’s headlights came into view.
The car’s engine slowed, and the car, with Maryland tags, came to a stop on the side of the road near an opening in the trees. Three other sets of headlights were visible farther down the road and were slowly approaching.
With the car’s engine still running, a man climbed out of the driver’s seat and pushed open a wrought-iron gate stretched across the opening in the trees. On the other side was an unpaved driveway that led deep into the woods. The man got back in his car and drove down the driveway. Two of the three cars that were approaching followed the first car into the darkness of the woods. One car had Pennsylvania tags, and the other had Delaware tags. The final car, with Maryland tags, drove just past the gate, then stopped. The engine and the lights switched off. A man, roughly six feet seven in height, got out.
The man, wearing an Army combat camouflage uniform that meshed with the late summer foliage, walked to the mouth of the driveway and poised himself against a tree, making him almost impossible for passers-by to see him unless he revealed himself. And he would do just that if some poor inquisitive soul dared to figure out what was at the end of that driveway.
What was there was very nondescript. The driveway ended abruptly at a bank of trees, and a narrow, almost invisible trail led to a circular clearing in the trees. At the center of the clearing, a 25-foot diameter patch of dirt dotted with a few tufts of grass and a mixture of fresh and decaying leaves, sat a bunch of smooth stones arranged in a circle, with ashes in the center. At 5-foot intervals along the edge of the clearing were Tiki torches. To the casual observer, it appeared to be a camping site. But this was private property, converted to be a clandestine meeting spot, that due to the curving of the tree branches above forming a natural canopy, was invisible even to aircraft.
Three white men and three black men climbed out of the three cars that had parked at the end of the driveway. Each carried a folding chair. Using flashlights, they trudged along the path until they came to the clearing. One man lit two of the torches using a cigarette lighter, but left the others untouched. They arranged the chairs around the circle of stones and sat down.
They remained silent for a moment, listening and looking around to ensure there were no interlopers or eavesdroppers nearby. The site was fairly remote, with no dwellings or other buildings within a half mile. But their paranoia and need for extreme secrecy demanded that they be extra careful and vigilant.
Satisfied that no other human was anywhere within earshot, one of the black men, the leader of the group, broke the silence. “I have an update on Gary Walls.”
The other men leaned forward in interest.
“The Southern District, Georgia sector reports that Mr. Walls was located. He has been duly silenced.”
Another man, wearing a gray suit, answered. “That’s good news.”
The leader said, “Indeed it is. If Mr. Walls had told any more preachers about us, we might have had to suspend operations. And that, gentlemen, is not an option.” He looked around at the other men, the orange glow from the Tiki torches flickering on his face. “I hope we’re on the same page here.”
The other men nodded.
“Good. Our man in the Georgia sector is working to silence any other preachers he may have told.” The leader looked at the man in the gray suit. “What about the preacher he talked to at the conference?”
The man with the gray suit said, “The plan is in place. Roth’s going to take care of that tomorrow, during the rally.”
“Make sure Roth knows to do it before he talks to any media. We don’t want him blabbing to any news stations about what he knows.”
“Don’t worry. Once we take care of this, the Maryland and D.C. sectors should be sound.”
“Good.” The leader looked at another man. “Any news from the Pennsylvania sector?”
The Pennsylvania sector leader said, “Nothing to report.”
The man representing Delaware said, “Nothing to report.”
“So, after we take care of the preacher, we can confirm that there are no security risks in this district.”
The men nodded again.
“Good. We can’t afford for anyone to find out about us. It was a huge mistake bringing Gary Walls into our fold to begin with. My team is working on tightening up vetting procedures so that this does not happen again. Gentlemen, I’ll stress again that in order for us to accomplish our mission effectively, society at large cannot know that we exist. Our adversaries cannot win this war if they have no idea who they are fighting against. Even if we have to silence more people, we cannot give the dogs any trace of our scent. I hope we are clear on that.” The leader removed a bulging folded envelope from his jeans pocket and handed it to the man with the gray suit. “Hand this to Roth on the way out. Make sure he doesn’t botch this.”
The man in the gray suit scoffed while taking the money. He motioned toward the driveway, where the tall man was keeping guard. “Roth is the most effective enforcer in this country. When have you ever known him to botch anything?”
“He’s also the most expensive,” the leader pointed out.
“Well, you get what you pay for. Trust me, in less than twelve hours, Pastor Benjamin Lyons will be dead, and no one will know what happened.”
The leader rushed to correct him. “Pastor Benjamin Lyons will be silenced. Remember, we do not use the word dead or kill or any such words.”
The man in the gray suit nodded while parting his jacket to put the envelope in his inner jacket pocket. As he did so, he revealed a security access badge hanging on a lanyard around his neck. The badge was labeled with the words Senior Pastor, Harbor Christian Cathedral.
The man with the gray suit closed his jacket and said, “My mistake. Pastor Lyons will be silenced.”
11:16 am, Wednesday
The preacher stood behind the red oak pulpit and looked out over his audience. As he prepared to speak, his heart felt both elation and disappointment. He and his pastor’s coalition had been planning this Rally for Racial Reconciliation for over three months. Several suburban white churches and several urban black churches had agreed to come together to sing, preach and pray, presenting a united front against racism. He quickly estimated there were over 500 people in the crowd standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the concrete plaza in the blazing sun on an eighty-degree day. A few witnessed the event from the fringes. Some stood on the steps of the Wilson Building, the seat of the District of Columbia government, directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the south side of the Plaza. Others filed in and out of the Marriott Hotel on the north side of the Plaza, stopping long enough to see if the event would interest them and then either staying or moving on. Despite his rally having been scheduled on a weekday morning, Pastor Ben Lyons was pleased with the turnout.
However, Pastor Lyons was not happy about the lack of news media. He saw only one reporter with a tripod-mounted camera close-by. He wasn’t sure how many print reporters were there, but there didn’t appear to be many. He had sent out press releases and called media contacts weeks before the event, trying to draw attention to societal racism. Pastor Lyons was disappointed there had been no requests for on-location interviews. He knew that without substantial press coverage, events like this were not as effective. Maybe I would have drawn more media had I held this event on the Capitol grounds instead of the Plaza, he thought. From his vantage point on the Plaza, he could actually see the Capitol dome, even though it was fourteen blocks away.
Knowing he would probably get only 15 seconds of coverage on a local station during the C block, he would press on. He pulled a cotton handkerchief from his pants pocket and wiped the sweat from his bald, dark head. He saw he had the crowd’s rapt attention-they had been waiting to hear from the man who had championed this cause of racial unity ever since his 17-year-old son disappeared in a Birmingham suburb two years before. Speculation from local residents was that his son was killed by a white police officer, then disposed of to cover up the crime. No evidence had ever come forth to support this theory, but Pastor Lyons felt in his spirit that the theory was likely correct.
Pastor Lyons adjusted the microphone, the clunking noise ringing loud over the speakers and the constant roar and drone of nearby traffic. Several pastors, both black and white, stood behind him on the raised platform, fanning themselves under a green tent. Feeling their energy, he started his speech. “First of all, I want to thank all of you for being here today. It warms my heart to know that so many of you are willing to come together to present a united front, to show our elected officials, our communities, our families and our churches that people of different racial backgrounds can lock arms together, despite the continued racial animosity that exists in our country.”
His remarks earned a few amens from the crowd. He looked over briefly and saw that the news crew was recording his comments on camera. Pastor Lyons couldn’t see what station was recording him. He hoped it was the AP, or maybe Reuters, which gave him the chance of getting broader coverage beyond the local channels.
He acknowledged a few key individuals who were there, men and women who had helped him to organize the rally, and several who weren’t—his wife, who was at his upper northwest Washington church preparing a luncheon for rally organizers, several D.C. councilmembers, the mayor, a few other prominent pastors. For good measure, he threw in the reps the National Park Service, with jurisdiction over Freedom Plaza.
Pastor Lyons continued. “We stand just across the street from the hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King wrote his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and this plaza is named in honor of him. It is unfortunate that although we have made a few strides in the area of race relations, the—”
They were the last words out of his mouth before something slammed into the outer corner of the pulpit and shattered a chunk into splinters. A few seconds later, Pastor Lyons jerked back and then fell backward on the raised platform.
The crowd stood shocked for a moment. Someone yelled, “He’s been shot!” Then, chaos broke loose. Amid screams, shouts, and confusion, some spectators dropped to the ground. The rest of them scattered in various directions, causing traffic to screech to a halt on Pennsylvania Avenue and on 15th Street to avoid hitting them. The spectators spewed into the street as fluid as water, knocking down the green metal barriers that surrounded the Plaza, some tripping and falling over them. The pastors standing on the platform ran to the rear and crouched down behind it. A few bravely ran up to the platform to attend to Pastor Lyons. They could see the jagged hole in his jacket just above his waist, and the widening pool of red moisture surrounding it.
A few spectators ran up the steps and inside the Wilson building, which alerted the guards inside to the melee. “Somebody’s shooting,” the spectators yelled. The lieutenant in charge of the guards quickly sprang into action. Using an active shooter scenario, he ordered the building shut down, and sent word through the building’s intercom that all employees should shelter-in-place, at least until they can ascertain there was no greater threat. He ordered another guard to dispatch police and an ambulance to Freedom Plaza, although myriads of people had dialed 911 on their cell phones.
Two police officers, who were already in the area, sprinted to the Plaza, guns drawn, to see what was going on and to mitigate any threat. After seeing the officers and deciding there was no longer an immediate threat, the people that remained at Freedom Plaza gathered around the pastor and prayed. The pastor had slipped into unconsciousness. A woman cradled his head in her lap and rebuked whatever demons interrupted a peaceful event with sickening violence.
A man knelt next to the pastor, his head nodding as the woman prayed, his hand laid on the pastor’s shoulder. His actions appeared genuine and caring to everyone around him, but were as fake as the knockoff Gucci loafers he wore.
This man had not only engineered the attack, but secretly hoped that the pastor would die right there on the Plaza.
9:30 am the same day
The assignment editor had called him earlier that morning on his day off. “Windy, get down to Freedom Plaza. Pastor Lyons is giving some sort of rally down there. I’ll shoot you the NR.”
Wynn Delano, a one-man-band reporter at local station NewsNetwork 10, had only been at the station for a year, not long enough to ruffle feathers by refusing to work on his day off. And besides, all the station’s other reporters were across town covering the aftermath of a violent storm that had blown through the night before. Wynn was often assigned to do filler stories that aired after sports, stories not important enough to merit airing during the coveted A block. Wynn knew that almost every producer in town thought Pastor Lyons to be a blowhard using his son’s disappearance as an opportunity to gain publicity for himself and his church. Most producers had decided to no longer accommodate Pastor Lyons’ media hogging. But one producer for NewsNetwork 10’s dinnertime broadcast was a member of Lyons’ church. Wynn was assigned just so the producer could save face, although the story stood almost no chance of airing.
Wynn arrived at Freedom Plaza and parked his black Ford Escape in the prohibited zoning parking spots along the northern neck of Pennsylvania Avenue. According to the news release that his station had sent to his cell phone, the rally was scheduled to start at ten; at least three hundred people were already present and watching the stage hands as they installed sound equipment. A group of nattily dressed men and two women stood off to the side of the platform and appeared to be in an impromptu meeting. Wynn saw Pastor Lyons among the group and was tempted to approach and get comments from him before the rally began, but decided against it. He was probably too busy and hectic right now. If need be, he could always pull Lyons to the side afterward. Best to see how the event would progress.
Wynn checked himself in his car mirror, hoping that his carefully coiffed black hair, peaches-and-cream skin, and his boyish good looks would one day win him an anchor position, or, at least, the attentions of one of the lovely young corporate ladies he had seen walk past his vehicle.
Wynn popped out of the vehicle and surveyed the Plaza for a moment. He walked to the rear of the SUV, popped the hatch, and pulled out his camera, tripod, and a fistful of cords and microphones. He approached the Plaza, walked up three steps to the Plaza floor, and found an abutment, raised higher than the floor, where he could set his tripod and record the events without worrying about people walking in from of his camera.
Just as he had set up, a multi-racial choir of about 40 singers took the stage. Wynn pointed the camera toward them, found a good angle, and let the camera record. He hadn’t been to church in almost four years, but from the looks of it, he would be getting plenty of church today.
11:10 a.m. the same day
“So, did I get the job?”
That was always Celia’s last question at interviews. If she had absolutely no chance at getting the job, that question would make interviewers squirm, which was her sign she should not expect a call back. But if the interviewer was engaging and encouraging, she figured she might have a shot.
The interviewer responded with, “Well, you were better than the last two candidates. We still have a few more interviews to do before we can decide who gets the job.”
Ambiguous, but at least it wasn’t an outright denial. Celia thanked the interviewer, expressed once again her interest in the job, and stood to leave.
Her interview was at a corner table in the food court of a sixteen-story office building directly across the street from Freedom Plaza. The manager of the pizza place had no office in the booth where he served pseudo-Italian fast food, so he would meet potential employees in the dining area. Celia didn’t mind people buzzing around while she was being interviewed. Having come from a family of six siblings, not including herself, she was used to such distractions.
Celia took the escalator downstairs to the lobby and headed for the Pennsylvania Avenue exit. She felt confident the pizza place guy would call her back and offer her the job. Her ace in the hole was mentioning that she had worked in her father’s restaurants in Detroit and Canada.
When Celia left the building, she saw that the rally that had begun when she entered the building was in full swing. The message of racial unity resonated with her and struck a personal chord. She was a twenty-six-year-old African American woman who, five years ago, married Justin Rayburn, a white man four years her senior. In Celia’s old Detroit neighborhood among her peers, that was an act akin to a federal crime.
Celia stopped for a minute, adjusted her purse on her arm, and watched the goings-on. Her parking meter would expire in fifteen minutes, but she still had enough time to hear the words of the preacher, who had just started his speech. Her silk-linen white suit, the only one she owned, was sharp and professional, yet still lightweight enough for her to survive a few minutes in the heat, although she despised wearing it with a passion. She would have preferred to wear ripped blue jeans and a crop-top, but knew it wasn’t appropriate. Her bob haircut with rose-colored streaks shone in the sunlight and danced in a slight breeze around a face the color of ceylon cinnamon and eyes big and round with full eyelashes.
Celia watched as the pastor’s words were cut short with a grunt and a sonorous dull, cracking sound, as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to an old rotten oak tree. Bits and pieces of the edge of the pulpit catapulted into the air, and suddenly the preacher was on the ground. There was no sound other than the crashing of wood and the muted thud as the bullet hit Pastor Lyons body.
Despite the chaos and screams and scattering of several people from various directions of Freedom Plaza, Celia stood transfixed, shocked, unable to believe or register what she was seeing. Did she just see a man get shot? She felt the urgency and fear as people ran for their lives. She heard no gunshot, and she saw no apparent assailants, but the confusion and uncertainty of what was going on compelled her to move. She quickly ran back inside the office building and stood in the lobby, watching the scene through the floor-to-ceiling windows. She saw no less than ten people gather around Pastor Lyons’ body, and several people ran up the steep stairs to the Wilson Building to promptly alert the D.C. Protective Service guards inside. And just ahead of her, there was a cameraman, standing on an abutment, who was intently recording everything around him, seemingly unconcerned about his own safety.
The sounds of sirens blared in the near distance over the noise of traffic. Celia watched as two D.C. police cruisers charged the wrong way down 15th Street and screeched to a stop on the western edge of the Plaza. Two officers emerged from each cruiser, and they immediately started to squirrel to a far corner any remaining people still on the Plaza. Within three minutes, an ambulance and ten more police vehicles pulled up. Swarms of officers in Crayola blue shirts blocked off streets around the Plaza. One officer shooed the cameraman away from his vantage point just at the edge of the Plaza and stretched yellow crime scene tape around the perimeter.
An office building security guard came to the window and stood beside Celia. “What’s going on?”
“A minister got shot over there.”
The security guard uttered a vulgar phrase that meant, “No kidding?” He walked out of the building, but a canvassing police officer ordered him to go back inside. The security guard quickly obeyed and stood next to Celia, watching as U.S. Park Police officers arrived, adding to the throng of cops. About fifteen police vehicles and 40 police officers, some holding assault rifles, were now milling around.
“This city,” the security guard huffed. “Always something.”
Despite the seriousness and the fact that a minister was shot, Celia’s mind now drifted to other concerns. Lord, how angry will my husband be if I come home too late?
This was Wynn’s big opportunity to get out of the C block dungeon. This story just turned from an insignificant fluff piece to the biggest catch in D.C. at the moment. A shooting of a high-profile D.C. pastor, and he had caught it live on camera. And he was the only reporter on the scene. He had already texted one of his contacts in the public relations office at the MPD, trying to get some inside information on what had happened. Now he needed to talk to some witnesses, the ones that hadn’t scattered away, and get their perspective. And he needed to do it quick. He had to get this story on the air before the other stations discovered it.
Using his camera. He rolled back the footage and watch it again, trying to catch any details so he could craft more compelling questions for witnesses. As he watched the moment leading to the shooting, something caught his eye, something strange, maybe inconsequential, but suspicious.
Only 30 seconds before the shot was fired, a man, standing on the dais behind Pastor Lyons, looked up and to his right. Wynn froze the footage. Yes, the man was looking upward toward one of the hotel windows. No, this didn’t look like a momentary glance at something that had just invaded his peripheral vision. Wynn slowed the footage and saw the man glanced furtively around as if to see if anyone was paying any attention to him. From what Wynn could see, all eyes were on Pastor Lyons.
The man’s next move told Wynn that something was amiss. The man gently took two steps back and moved to the left, away from the pulpit and several feet away from Pastor Lyons. Several seconds later, the gunshot found its target.
Wynn continued to watch. After Pastor Lyons hit the ground, the man stood there, watching. Even as everyone else scrambled away, he stood there, for more than a few seconds, with no sense of surprise or danger. Then he ran off the platform and hid behind it. His delay in retreating would have not been noticed by the casual witness due to the chaos on the Plaza, but Wynn saw it clearly. His guy was as dubious as a three-dollar bill.
A few seconds later, a beefy police officer ordered him behind the yellow police tape stretched around the block. It was not a problem. Wynn had gotten enough footage to fill out his story. He gathered his equipment and moved outside of the crime scene tape, looking around for the man he had seen in the video. He spotted him, standing on the other side of the Plaza, behind the crime scene tape, talking with a group of men and a woman as they watched the EMTs prepare Pastor Lyons for transport to the hospital.
Wynn ran this over in his mind. This was his chance. Being on the air before the other stations was no longer a concern. He now had an angle the other stations did not have. He was certain this man knew that the shooting was about to happen and moved out of harm’s way. The other stations could only report what had happened. Wynn had a suspect.
He grabbed his equipment and hauled it to the other side of the Plaza. He set up the equipment just a few yards away from his suspect and set the camera to record. He then approached the man, who had been eying him since he rounded the corner to the side of the Plaza where he stood.
“Hi,” Wynn said to the man, ignoring the others in the group. “I’m Wynn Delano with NewsNetwork 10. May I speak with you for a minute?”
The man, wearing a crisp black suit as if he had prepared to go to a funeral, nodded affably and said, “Sure.” He moved a few yards away from the group, closer to the camera, with Wynn following.
“Again, I’m Wynn Delano.” He extended his hand. ”Your name is- “
The man reluctantly shook Wynn’s hand, then hesitated. “Um, I’m Jonathan Newberry.”
“It looks like you were close to the pastor. I wanted to get some on-the-air comments from you about the shooting.” Wynn removed his notepad from his pocket. “Would that be okay?”
“I’d prefer not.” The man avoided eye contact with Wynn. “My friend has been shot, and I’m not in any mood to make any comments at this time.” He looked to the right and saw that the EMTs were moving the pastor on a stretcher toward the ambulance.
“I understand that, but there is some footage on the video I’d like to ask you about before I turn it over to the police.”
Wynn hoped his bluff would work. He had no intention of turning the footage over to the police, and such a thing would have to be handled by his front office anyway. He was surprised that no cops had requested his footage, even though he was recording. But in this age of cell phones, umpteen people probably caught that shooting on camera. Maybe the cops didn’t need his footage.
The man’s eyes finally turned to Wynn. “I need to get to the hospital to see about my friend.”
“Not a problem, Mr. Newberry. Maybe I could speak to you there?”
Jonathan looked at Wynn for an uncomfortably long few seconds before he said, “Yes. I should be in the waiting area.”
Wynn could tell he had gotten this man’s attention. “Do you know what hospital?”
“Um, I don’t know yet. Maybe you could give me your card, and I’ll call you once I know.”
“Not a problem.” Wynn pulled a card out of the cardholder in his pocket and handed it to Jonathan.
Jonathan looked at the card briefly, then moved away, saying, “I’ll call you.”
“Please do.” Wynn watched as Jonathan joined the group again as they gathered near the ambulance. He knew Jonathan would not call him. So, that angle was dead unless he decided to bum-rush Jonathan at the hospital.
He needed someone else to comment. He looked across the Plaza, remembering earlier seeing a petite black woman with rose-colored streaks in her hair standing not far away from where his camera had been perched. He remembered her because she was pretty and because she was dressed like a professional. He needed someone like that in his life rather than the emo women he usually hung out with.
Wynn gathered his equipment again and walked to the other side of the Plaza, near the office building where he had seen the woman. If she was still there, he might kill two birds with one stone: get a comment for his story, and get her telephone number. If he did that, it would be a relatively successful day.
Jonathan did not take his eyes off him.
There didn’t appear to be an urgency of danger outside anymore, nor anything else to see, so Celia decided to get home before her meter expired and a D.C. parking control officer slapped her car with a pink love note. As she walked out of the building, a man approached her directly, as if he had every intention to speak with her and no one else.
“Did you see that?” Wynn asked her.
“See what?” Celia responded, thinking how rude of this man to ask questions before he introduced himself.
“Pastor Lyons get shot.”
“Yeah. I was looking right at it.”
“Would you be willing to be interviewed on camera?”
“Who are you?”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Wynn was a little miffed that he still had to introduce himself, even though he had been filing stories on the air for the station for a year now. Maybe she wasn’t local, or maybe she didn’t watch the news. Wynn gathered his equipment on his left arm and extended his right hand. “I’m Wynn Delano, a reporter with NewsNetwork 10.”
Celia shook Wynn’s hand. “Celia.” She intentionally left out her last name.
“Celia, would you be willing to give an interview on camera about what you saw across the street?”
Celia quickly agreed. Being on the news would give her a readily confirmable alibi on why she was getting home so late. Plus, the exposure couldn’t hurt her job prospects.
“Cool. Give me a minute to set up.” Wynn found a spot directly in front where he could interview Celia against the backdrop of Freedom Plaza. Once he was set up, he motioned for her to come over and had her stand in front of the camera, her back to Freedom Plaza. Wynn pulled a notepad and pen out of his pocket, switched on the camera, and started his interview.
“Please state your full name,” Wynn asked.
Celia hesitated. Wynn quickly reassured her. “We won’t be using your full name on camera. Just for our information.”
“Okay. Celia Rayburn.”
“Celia, can you tell me what you saw over there?”
Celia recounted everything she had seen from the moment she walked out of the office building following the interview. Wynn periodically interrupted with questions to get more detail. When it was done, he switched off the camera and nodded his thanks.
“Appreciate it, Celia.” Wynn offered his business card. “You know, I’d really like to thank you by taking you to dinner.”
Celia scoffed at first, but then checked him out. He was decent looking. Not the most handsome man she had ever seen, but since she was certain she would be in divorce court with her husband within a year, she would entertain his interest. A dinner wouldn’t hurt. She wondered what it was about herself so many white boys were attracted to.
“I’ll call you,” Celia said, intending to control the communication so her husband didn’t discover.
Wynn had heard that before. He knew he would never hear from her again. “Not a problem. Call me anytime, day or night.”
Celia heard a siren and looked back at the Plaza. The ambulance, with Pastor Lyons inside, was speeding away to the hospital. Some police officers were milling about, while others were talking to the witnesses who had not run away. She watched as Wynn dismantled his equipment and made his way back over to the Plaza, hoping to speak to an on-site police supervisor about what had happened.
Celia, feeling as if there was nothing more to see, headed back to her car, knowing she would have a whopper of a story to tell when she got home.
12:16 p.m., Wednesday
Celia’s apartment was on the 10th floor of a luxury sixteen story high-rise in Silver Spring, a city in Maryland at the upper northeastern edge of the District of Columbia. The neighborhood was downtown Silver Spring, located just over the D.C. line, boasting a large shopping and dining district. The one-bedroom apartment cost $1700 per month and had a great view of downtown Silver Spring. It was the only apartment she had lived in since leaving Detroit five years before, and was a far cry better than any flat she had rented in the Motor City.
Yet she still dreaded coming home because of who was waiting for her inside.
When she inserted the key in the door, she hoped—prayed—that he wasn’t at home. Her hopes were dashed when she opened the door, and a strong smell of hybrid strain weed assaulted her nose.
Celia rushed inside, dropped her purse on the carpet, and headed for the kitchen just to the right of the door. She grabbed the aerosol air freshener from under the kitchen counter and sprayed liberally around the living room and in the outside corridor near the door. Lord, she couldn’t stand that smell. She quickly closed the door and headed to the bedroom.
Justin Rayburn lay on the queen-sized bed, a joint smoldering in the ashtray on a nightstand next to the bed. He wore only a pair of dingy, wrinkled boxer shorts. A daytime talk show was playing on the flat screen TV affixed to the wall across from the foot of the bed. Justin never took his eyes off the TV as Celia entered.
“J, I thought I told you you can’t smoke in here,” Celia said with a slight tremble in her voice. “This is a non-smoking building.”
“Who are these people to tell me what to do in my own apartment?” Justin’s defiance rode on a very smooth, deep voice. It was that voice, his perpetual tan, his unruly brown hair, his square face and prominent cheekbones that attracted him to Celia. She was sure there were other things, but she had long forgotten them.
“It’s my apartment,” Celia said with an edge that on any other day would have earned her a smack in the face. But thanks to the effects of the weed, Justin was much too mellow now. It was a different story when he had three or four boilermakers in his system.
“How’d the interview go?” Justin feigned interest.
“Might be a possibility.”
“What took you so long?”
“Something happened downtown. Somebody shot a preacher speaking at a rally. I saw the whole thing.”
Justin grabbed the remote and switched channels. “Nothing on TV about it.”
“It’s probably gonna air on Channel 10 tonight. The reporter interviewed me.”
“Why’d you do something dumb like that?”
Celia was used to Justin criticizing her, but this time, it especially bugged her. She had told him she saw a shooting, and all he could think to do was to call her dumb. Maybe she was, for thinking that Justin would care about her enough to ask how she was doing.
“Don’t be dramatic. I just told him what I saw.” Celia turned toward the door.
“Where are you going?” Justin asked.
“To make lunch,” Celia responded. “And to put something out for dinner, if you don’t mind.”
Getting no further response from Justin, Celia kicked off her shoes, left the room and headed to the kitchen. The kitchen was a lot smaller than she desired, with only a stove, a refrigerator, and six feet of faux oak counter space spilt in half by a stainless-steel sink. It was a kitchen made for people who didn’t use kitchens. However, Celia, back when he first rented the apartment, didn’t see it as an issue. There were so many restaurants nearby, she knew she wouldn’t spend much time cooking.
She opened the refrigerator and found one package of chicken legs, the only thing edible in the fridge except for a carton of milk and two half-drank bottles of beer. Food was scarce these days. Justin had been unemployed for several months after losing his job as a car mechanic because he couldn’t stop getting high. They were two months behind in rent, and Justin’s meager unemployment payments weren’t helping much.
Celia’s attempt to find employment was the last-ditch effort to get money flowing into the house before they got evicted. At least, that’s what she wanted Justin to believe. But Celia’s real plan was to make enough money so she could get as far away from Justin as humanly possible.
Celia switched on the kitchen radio, hoping the smooth sounds of Jill Scott would infuse pleasure into what had been a challenging day.
It was 5:30 pm when Justin suddenly announced, “I’m going out for a minute.”
Celia knew what that meant. He was headed to a bar, where he would hang out for a few hours and then come home drunk, if he came home at all. Celia almost wished he wouldn’t come home. When he stayed out all night, the buzz would wear off, and she stood little chance of being beaten at the least little thing she said. She tried to convince herself that when he stayed out all night, he was just sleeping it off in his car, or on a park bench somewhere. It couldn’t be that he was with another woman, because who, other than her, would want a drunk, unemployed stoner? These were the things she told herself to make herself feel better. But her woman’s intuition always reigned supreme, and she knew he was likely hanging out with some woman who was as much a loser as he was. But it also meant that between his episodes of intoxication and womanizing, he had little interest in her, which was all right with Celia.
At 5:58 p.m., Celia sat on her living room couch, a modernesque aqua leather one she had bought during more lucrative days from a nearby furniture store. She favored pastels, as everything else in the living room was white or pink. She switched the flat screen TV to channel 10, and watched the teaser while she enjoyed fresh-out-of-the-oven barbecue chicken and some green beans out of a can. She was disappointed to see that the teaser did not mention the pastor’s shooting.
Celia grabbed the remote and switched to another channel, and then another, and then another. All local channels had the pastor’s shooting as the lead story and were working the angle that the shooting was likely a hate crime in response to the racial unity aspect of the rally. Some channels had obtained cell phone footage from attendees at the rally.
Celia turned back to channel 10, hoping that maybe they would cover the story later. She eventually watched the entire half hour telecast, but there was no mention of the Plaza shooting. Her fifteen minutes of fame dwindled to nothing.
Celia grabbed her purse and pulled out her phone and Wynn’s business card. Within five minutes she had accessed several TV and print news sites on her phone-all of them listed the Plaza shooting as one of their top stories. NewsNetwork 10-nothing.
Celia read all the stories and pieced together a few facts. Police were investigating the shooting as a hate crime. They speculated that the shot likely came from a sniper in one of the buildings surrounding Freedom Plaza and that the bullet that had struck the pastor was from a military grade weapon. This wasn’t a casual drive-by from some street hood. This was a carefully calculated assassination attempt.
But the best part of the story for Celia was that the pastor was still alive. In critical condition, but alive. She prayed, as she had done several times that day, that the pastor would recover from his injuries.
Then she looked at Wynn Delano’s business card. She thought about calling him, if only to discover why NewsNetwork 10 had no coverage of the shooting. At least, that would be her excuse for calling. She knew that after discussing the reasons for the lack of coverage, that Wynn would segue the conversation into a more personal one. Then, she could decide if she wanted to risk cheating on her husband and go out with this guy.
After a few minutes, Celia thought the better of it and decided not to call, at least not now. She had no desire to sneak around Justin, although she was certain he was sneaking around her. No, first things first. Get enough money, then an apartment away from Justin, then the date with the forlorn news reporter.
Celia slipped the card back into her purse, hoping that within a month, she could put that card to use.
George and Marjorie Wise
Forest Hill, Toronto
With his stomach pleasingly overstuffed from another of his wife’s fabulous dinners, George Wise headed toward his study just down the corridor from the living room. On the way, he opened a door, walked into the garage, and checked the garage side door to make sure it was locked. He then headed to his study.
He checked his postal mail immediately upon arriving. Amid the voluminous pieces of junk mail and bills was a statement from Royal Bank with his daughter’s name on it. He sat at his desk and gently opened the envelope. He pursed his lips and gently shook his head as he read the numbers on the statement. He ran his hand over his closely cropped gray speckled hair as if trying to assuage a non-existent headache.
Seconds later, his wife, Marjorie, walked in. She flipped on a light switch. “Honey, what have I told you about reading in the dark?”
George did not respond to her comment, although he took pride he could still read so clearly in the dark at fifty years of age. Instead, he said, “Honey, come over here and look at this.”
George watched his wife as she walked over. There were those who thought they were brother and sister because they looked so much alike. Both were thin, tall, well-spoken, and well-educated. Marjorie’s dark-chocolate complexion was a tad darker than George’s, but that didn’t stop the comparisons.
Marjorie stood just over George’s shoulder and peered at the statement. “Only $218.00?”
“She had almost ten grand last year.”
“Should I be worried?”
“Maybe she has another account?”
“When she calls tonight, I’ll ask her. And if I find out Justin is bleeding her dry-”
“Now, George, please don’t go prodding into her affairs. You know how proud and independent Celia is.”
“Marge, I can’t just sit back and do nothing.”
“That’s exactly what you’ll do,” Marjorie said emphatically. “If Celia needs our help, she’ll tell us. The last thing I need is for your trigger-happy self to go down to Maryland and catch a case.”
The desk telephone rang, the one attached to the number for family only. George knew it was Celia, calling them faithfully as usual once per week. “He answered quickly. “Hey, Pookie.” He put the call on speakerphone so Marjorie could hear.
George noticed her voice was devoid of the usual spirit. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Celia lied. “How’s everyone?”
“Everyone’s great. Your mother’s here, too.”
“You wouldn’t believe what I saw today.”
George and Marjorie answered together. “What?”
“I was in downtown D.C. today, and this pastor who was leading a rally got shot.”
Marjorie drew in a sharp breath and covered her mouth “Oh, my God. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, Mommy, I’m fine.”
“Is he dead?”
“No. The news said he was alive.”
“Thank Jesus for that,” George chimed in. “And you saw all this happen?”
“Yeah. I was right ‘cross the street. It wasn’t like in the movies, where somebody gets shot, and blood and guts fly all over the place. He was just giving his speech, and then he just fell like somebody gave him an uppercut.”
“What were you doing in downtown D.C.?”
“Meeting a friend for breakfast,” was the quickest lie Celia could come up with. She hoped it worked.
It didn’t. George knew something was going on. He shot his wife a disappointed frown for forbidding him from prying any further. “Pookie, are you sure you’re okay? It must have been scary to see someone shot like that.”
“Yeah, it was scary. But I’m okay. It reminds me of that time you took me up near Runners Mill, and we went hunting, and you shot that deer.”
“And you cried for two days and would not eat any of the meat.”
“The funny thing was, I didn’t cry for that pastor. I don’t know why. Why would I cry for an animal, and not a human being?”
While George searched his mind for an answer that would never come, Marjorie broke in with, “Sweetheart, maybe if you knew this pastor, you’d feel differently.”
“But why should that make a difference? The man gets shot, and I feel nothing.”
“Maybe you’re distracted by something.” George hoped his subtle hint would draw something out of her on what was going on in her life. If this girl was okay, then he was a Chinese bamboo salesman.
Celia quickly skipped the subject. “How’s business?”
“Business is great. We got a write-up in one of the local papers. We were one of the 10 best charbroiled chicken restaurants for Millennials. How’s that for a ringing endorsement?”
“Wow, that’s great, Dad,” Celia said with barely detectable sarcasm. She could not understand how her father became a self-made millionaire off of his special organic recipe for charbroiled chicken. She cared little for the chicken herself, but with an average 1.2 million in sales at each of his restaurants around Ontario and in Detroit, there were a lot of customers who begged to differ. Must be all those Millennials.
Not that she was complaining. Once her father struck it rich, he moved the family from a rough neighborhood in Detroit to the tony Forest Hill village of Toronto. That allowed Celia to spend a few months in the splendor of wealth before she eventually hit rock bottom with Justin.
“Thanks, hon,” George replied. “Speaking of Runners Mill, we might be opening up another location there soon.”
“Dad, isn’t that a little far? It’s like a two-hour plane ride.”
“I know, but it’s a great opportunity. Rent is dirt cheap, and a good location right across from a Mickey D’s. But enough about me and my business. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine, Daddy. Really.”
“You know I’m here if you need anything.”
“Okay, Pookie. Well, we have to hang up now. Me and your mother are going to turn in early. She’s joined a morning prayer group, and they pray at 4 in the morning.” George rolled his eyes at his wife.
Marjorie clicked her teeth at him and said to Celia, “No distractions, no TV, no cell phone. Good time to pray, sweetie.”
“Good time to sleep, too.”
Marjorie gave George a playful punch on the shoulder. “Okay, sweetie. Talk to you later.”
“Bye, Mom. Bye, Dad.”