It’s a quarter past twelve when Griffin and I pull up to a middle class home in the subdivision of Coventry, only a fifteen-minute drive from the Waynesboro Plantation. I’m annoyed even before I’ve step out the car. As if the pending interview isn’t daunting enough, another nuisance has presented itself in the form of a rugged middle age hippy in a brown leather jacket, chain-smoking on cigarettes as he leans against his busted up yellow bug.
“Alright, now who the hell is this?” Griffin asks.
“Jimmy Coolidge. A persistent nut-job blogger working for one of Atlanta’s most widely read outlets. Mark, you’re looking at a man who thoroughly believes aliens walk among us. That’s Jimmy. Welcome to my life,” I groan before exiting.
Griffin’s never met the guy, but sticking to the “bro code,” he mirrors my displeasure. Jimmy’s scruffy appearance, from his ponytail, to his beer-stained eyes and that peach fuzz of a goatee…it’s like he forgot to fade along with the rest of the 70s. No, he didn’t forget. It’s more like he saw opportunities to throw a monkey wrench in the same corporate machines all his old friends sold out to.
He wheezes in his laughter, letting the cigarette drop from his fingertips before starting off in a jab-step approach. Griffin stops in the middle of the sidewalk and stares in bewilderment as if he was watching a mime performance. I’d like to continue on to the front door but halfway there, I have no choice but to turn around and confront the inevitable confrontation.
“Sir! You need to go.” Griffin says, pointing off down the street.
“Hey man. Hey. Hey. Hey. This is public property, fella. I’m not on the resident’s lawn. I have every right to be here. Hahaha! Howdy, Cloudy! See you caught yourself another doozy. Funny how these bizarre cases seem to keep falling right dab in your lap.”
This S.O.B… He’s way too loud to be spouting that crap. Exercising restraint, I approach Jimmy with my palms pressed as if I’m about to pray. Jabbing my spear-like hands at the center of his chest, I whisper, “What do you want, Jimmy?”
“Screw that. You don’t owe him a damn thing,” Griffin grunts.
Jimmy laughs, “He don’t know bout’ me, do he?”
“Oh no, you don’t know bout’ me!” Griffin asserts. “But you gonna find out real quick if you don’t get the fuck out of here.”
“I saw the suicide video,” Jimmy says. “Weird, right?”
“What the hell you talking about?” Griffin barks.
“The girl’s behavior. KeNedra. I’m here for the exact same reasons you are. I want to know if she’s displayed these strange signs before.”
“What are you talking about!?” Griffin barks as I play the buffer.
Jimmy snickers, “Cloud knows what I’m talking about. Look at him. It’s why he’s here too. He’s thinking the same thing I’m thinking. KeNedra Thompson was clearly possessed. That’s right! Possessed by an evil vindictive spirit. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Tell him, Cloud.”
I shoot my sights to the front of the house. I’m checking the blinds and the windows, scanning for any movement. I really hope no one heard Jimmy’s little theory otherwise the questions I had lined up would’ve been a completed waste of time.
“Are you insane?” Griffin asks him.
“Yes! Like I said!” I blurt out in an explosion of angry whispers. “Look, Jimmy. I don’t know how you got your dick-grabbing hands on that suicide video and I don’t want to make a thing of it. Right now, I need you to leave. You know me. If there’s anything crazy or supernatural, I’ll give it to you. All right? But right now you gotta let me do my job. Now, get the hell out of here. Please!”
Jimmy backs up with puckered lips as he returns to his jalopy. “Aight, Cloud. But hey! I’ll be around.”
“Supernatural?” Griffin asks as we watch Jimmy’s backfiring vehicle scoot off down the road. “You think KeNedra was possessed?”
“No. Of course not. That’s absurd.”
“Seriously, though. You don’t believe in that kind of crap do you?”
“Mark, I swear to you. I only believe what I see with my own two eyes.”
Amarah Thompson is a single mother, a 56-year-old African-American who worked nightshifts as a manager for a telemarketing firm. She had three children from three fathers. One of the father’s was dead. The other two are serving time for assault charges. KeNedra was the youngest, deceased at fifteen. Her two older half-brothers Jamar and O’Shea work shifts stocking shelves at the supermarket. Both were in their early twenties. Both were still living at the house.
At the moment, Griffin and I sit in the living room facing a distraught Amarah and the eldest son, Jamar. The air’s strong with potpourri. The crème colored carpet was recently vacuum. There isn’t a single speck of dust on the mocha couch set, the coffee, table, the painting of a black Jesus, or the dozens of family portraits adorning the blue walls. Amarah took great care in cleaning the place, making it more inviting than any four-star hotel I’ve seen in the area.
Daylight shines over the kitchen sink. I notice an area of darkness in the hallway by a closed bedroom. I’m corrects to assume this was KeNedra’s room. I’m also correct to assume that the room is full of her boxed belongings.
It was faint, but potpourri overlaid the scent of bleach and lemon cleaner coming from the kitchen. It’s difficult to discern whether the house was always so spic and span or if the excessive cleaning was Amarah’s way to cope with the loss.
Either way, her heartache is fresh. Her eyes, weak with grief. It’s the same for Jamar but his was a different kind of heartache. He’s sad, sure, but I see the fire in him. Being the good son that he is, I’m grateful to even be in his home. Being the good brother he is, I understand his need to take action. Jamar is large and muscular with a thick beard that makes him look much older than he really is.
Thus, I refrain from putting on the mask of sympathy and opt for the role of an avenging knight. I’m on the edge of my seat, my knees just three inches away from Amarah’s. Before saying a single word, I issue an implicit promise conveyed well through the sincerity from my eyes. With a single look, I convey “I’m gonna get this bastard. Rest assured.”
They’re convinced. Well…They’re convinced with me. I would’ve had their full cooperation if Griffin wasn’t standing there looking all stiff. These people already had the cops in their homes. They were already questioned. They lost their daughter in police custody. The last thing they needed was for us to come in and remind them that we’re still the law up in this bitch.
“I’m not sure what all ya’ll need to hear? We’ve turned over her transcripts. We…Please don’t put us through this again,” Amarah says, choking on her words.
“I understand, Ms. Thompson. My associate and I have no intentions of exacerbating the pain and suffering no doubt inflicted upon your family. I just wanted to clarify a few things if you don’t mind. For starters, did KeNedra always walk home by herself after practice?” I ask.
“Sometimes she walks her friends, Jacqui and Meghan. Jacqui is the captain of the team. She and Meghan stayed behind after practice that day to help out the baby majorettes. They’re taking it harder than anyone right now. Bless their hearts.” Amarah explains.
“I can’t even imagine. They sound like awesome friends. When’s the wake? If it’s all right with you, I’d like to attend.”
“Why?” Jamar barks. “So ya’ll can corner err’body up in there. Make them out to be the bad guy? Ya’ll think the dudes that did this gone be up in there? Why? Cause we black? Ya’ll motherfuckus don’t give a damn about us!”
Jamar is amped up, bouncing with the start of each sentence. His hype is contagious. Slowly but surely, Griffin’s shoulders are starting to rise. He’s staring at Jamar like a hawk on a perch.
“Watch ya mouth, boy,” Amarah warns softly.
I nod with understanding, “I’m not going to lie to you, Jamar. I would like to speak with some of the guests in a more informal setting, but I promise it won’t be to seek out a killer amongst them. Truth is, I was raised here. I grew up just a couple of away. I know how it is. Coventry takes care of their own. To be honest, it always made me jealous. Brown Road is just a long stretch of road so I didn’t have any neighbors my age that I could hang out with.”
“What’s yo momma’s name?” Amarah asks.
“Her name was Chelsea, ma’am. She died a while back and…oddly enough, the police didn’t take her case seriously either. And you see me, I’m white as snow. They said my mother committed suicide when it turns out she was actually murdered by a hick in red flannel.”
“So whatchu tryin to say, huh? You know how we feel?” Jamar barks.
“I’m saying I never gave up in the pursuit of the truth. And in order to seek the truth one must ask questions. Am I right?” I ask, appealing to her Christian upbringing.
“You ain’t lying, child. The wake is Thursday. I don’t mind yall comin, but I’ll have to ask that ya’ll use a little discretion.” Amarah says.
“Certainly!” I smile with gratitude.
I was about to extend my warmest thanks when Griffin comes looming over the coffee table with a forced smile. It was an angry smile. I can tell he’s frustrated but I’m not sure why. I hope it wasn’t the fact that I brought up my mother’s case.
“That’s sounds great. Lovely,” Griffin begins. “And I know you’ve already spoken to the other detective but is there anything you can think of that might point us in the right direction?”
“Ya’ll want us to do your jobs for you? Ain’t this a bitch!” Jamar scoffs.
“You want the guy caught or not?” Griffin says bluntly.
“She was a majorette!” Amarah stresses. “Dancing was her life. I already told you! I can’t think of anyone who’d do this to my baby. We don’t have rapist or pedophiles running round here. We have gangs but all they do is scrap and get blazed. That’s it. And they rep their school colors. That’s it.”
“What about her personality? Was she depressed? Did she have a falling out with one of her boyfriends or brothers?” Griffin asks.
“Hold up! Say what!?” Jamar snaps as he raises up.
I knew that was only a matter of time. Griffin and Jamar are about the same height and build. Tempers flare and both are alpha males not willing to back down. Both wear the same furious smile, waiting for the other to make a move.
“First off! Pump yo brakes, my nigga. You want to know what kind of person KeNedra was? KeNedra was smart! She was strong! She was involved! You feel me? She was an activist. She did all kinds of videos that went viral! That’s right, dumbaass! She was protesting the police, brutality against blacks in this fucked up country. You feel me? We saw that man get choked out in New York. We were ready to hit up Baltimore when ya’ll killed Freddie. Her spoken word performance got over a million views and she was asked to perform at Acorn and a whole bunch of other colleges. Ya’ll weren’t ready! That was KeNedra! That was my sister! Standing up against punkass pigs like you.”
Griffin’s eyebrows were about jump up and high-five his hairline. I could feel the heat as if someone had just opened the door to a blazing oven.
“You need to stand down,” Griffin warns in a scary whisper.
“Or what, white boy. Hmm? Ya’ll in my house!” Jamar snaps back.
I rise and interject, “Ma’am, I understand your son’s concerns but I’m not with the city police, I’m with the state.”
“Oh, I know why they sent you from Atlanta. And I shouldn’t be telling you this, but ya’ll don’t need to worry about uprisings or rioting in the streets. We’re putting our faith in a higher power, knowing my baby’s in a better place. If the congregation from South Carolina taught us anything, it’s that forgiveness and the gospel of the Lord is far more powerful than any earthly vengeance. You put God first and everything else will fall into place,” Amarah assures me.
Her words astound me. I have to ask, “Is that what KeNedra believed?”
“Fuck’s that supposed to mean?” Jamar barks.
“Hey!” Amarah scold.
“Forgive me and I ask this with the utmost respect. But I know you saw the suicide video. There was no tampering with the footage. She did commit suicide. That’s why I’m asking if her faith was strong as well.”
Amarah ponders for a moment before the floodgates of emotion comes gushing out. “KeNedra was like most young people in the truth. She was God fearing and loved Jesus as her lord and savior. But she was impulsive. She acted upon passions and wasn’t about to wait for no man to do for her what she could do for herself. That’s how I raised my baby.”
It was in this moment of escalated tensions that Amarah’s second son, O’Shea, came in through the front door. He wasn’t alone. Following behind him were two of his buddies. They had just finished from a pick-up game. Thus, they were sweaty, warmed up, and still steamed about their loss on the court.
That’s right. A hot-blooded O’Shea enters to find Griffin in his brother’s face while I looked like a corporate lawyer handing his distraught mother an eviction notice. I knew no words could prevent the imminent physical confrontation. Griffin had his back to the front door and Jamar was ready to lift him up for a body slam. It was on me. I had to act quickly.
Snarling with rage, O’Shea charged for Griffin’s back. In a single stride I rush over and hook the back of O’Shea’s neck with one hand. Using two middle fingers to pinch a nerve in O’Shea’s neck, I redirect his momentum to swing him sprawling over the sofa.
In the corner of my eye, I see one of his friends lunging back. I quickly sink down, deflect his swing with a palm up tan sau (wing chun technique), and pop the top of his ribcage with a snapping punch. He stumbles over with a paralyzing shock coursing through his frame. Confusion keeps him down.
The third friend rushes me with both hands. He hopes to tackle me, which he could have done easily considering his size and a strength advantage. Thankfully my chi sau training allowed me to feel my opponent’s movements, isolating the muscles they’re using to take advantage. Here, the bong sau technique was handy.
Taking one step to his left, my right arm comes up and snakes around his left arm. I trap his elbow and move forward while dragging him face down to the ground. As soon as his adrenaline pumped chest touches the carpet, my knee presses into his back, pinning him to ground. I then proceed to pull up on his left wrist to the point of dislocating his arm. The real pain, however, comes from my thumb placement on the back of his hand. All it takes is a little pressure, no more than pressing elevator button, to send a burning sensation shooting down his arm. It’s a pain he’s not used to. He screams with a wad of spit flying from his lips, begging me to stop.
All of this happens in less than five seconds with Jamar and Griffin still standing in place. They’re looking at me as if I suddenly have three heads. O’Shea is back on his feet. He scowls, rearing for another charge, but I apply pressure to his friend’s wrist. Another bloodcurdling scream keeps O’Shea at bay.
Amarah shoots up from her seat. “All right! We answered ya’ll’s questions. Now ya’ll got to go. And you can forget about showing up at the wake. If I see nan one of yall, best believe I’m talking to a reporter. An exclusive!”
Now, I’m pissed. I release the wrist with a jaw-clenching glare. Friggin Griffin…
The drive to Cedar Creek High School was abysmal. Jimmies were rustled. We’re brooding, Griffin and I. It’s unknown to me why Griffin was so easily tweaked and at the moment, I didn’t care. We were just five minutes out with school buses already rounding corners. I need to focus on my next line of questioning and to be honest, I prefer to do it alone. I’m not impressed with Griffin’s diplomacy and what little respect I have for him dwindles.
“Perhaps I should take the lead in talking to the girls,” I suggest, finding no other way to break the silence.
“Yeah, you’re a smooth operator. Silver fucking tongue! Able to just switch your personality on a dime whenever it suits you. You know? Like a sociopath,” He grumbles.
I squint, trying my best not to condescend. “Detective, it’s part of the job. I have to empathize to get them to open up. I don’t understand. What’s the problem?”
“Nothin!” Griffin dismisses, flashing the palm of his hand to shut me up.
We park on China Street near the football field. It’s where we were told to meet the majorette team following their practice. The principal had promised to notify the team of our presence and we agree to question them only after they’ve finished. It’s 2:47 and I haven’t eaten anything since I left the apartment this morning.
Hunger pangs are real. It exacerbates my frustrations and makes my enemies all the more intolerable. So while Griffin sits in the car by himself, I approach a spot near midfield and lean my long-sleeved elbows over the smooth gaps of a perimeter chain-link fence.
Majorettes…It’s a squad of nearly thirty-five working their asses off in the end zone. The sweat is just dripping from their faces. The heat digs into their scalps. And even with the fatigue setting in, making their muscles ten times heavier, they just buck harder, faster, whipping their hair back and forth like it’s the finals of a competition.
They’re wearing jumpsuits of yellow and blue. It’s the school colors, the same as KeNedra’s in her interrogation video. With the exception of on, all of the majorettes are black. It was interesting to watch, and I confess that I let my mind wonder about that one white girl. There was nothing about her visage that seemed to stand out and she wasn’t the best dancer. Yet, there she was, bucking and twerking with her arms swinging with power and grace. Her effort is a hundred and it seems the other girls accept her. Yes, things certainly have progressed since my time here.
Their coach, Candice, is an intimidating taskmaster who taught the majorettes all their stands and choreography. She screams the importance of line arrangement and timing so much so that I began to understand the criteria by which they were judged in competitions. She curses like a son of a gun and, in my opinion, it was downright degrading the way she slung her chair and got up in girls’ faces, girls half her size.
One would think someone would have their cell phones out to record her and make a big deal out of it through social media. But these young ladies, they took it with a grain of salt. In their persistence, they absorbed Candice’s angst and used it to perfect their routine, snapping their kicks, spinning with excitement. After ten minutes, I had great deal of admiration for these girls. One day they’ll grow up and become decent hard-working young women, a valuable antivirus to today’s self-entitled society. This was where KeNedra Thompson belonged. I’m not even part of the squad and even I miss her presence.
The jingle of keys alerts me to Griffin’s approach. Still leaning on the fence, I turn to rest my chin on my shoulder. The blinding sun squints my eyes but I think I can see remorse. He doesn’t say anything, but with a hardened disposition he joins me in watching the practice.
“I don’t like black people.”
Instinctively, my horrified gaze slaps to Griffin as if he just claimed he could control dragons and unicorns. The revelation comes straight out of left field. I’m pretty good at putting on a poker face, but damn! My comical expression is brief, however, when I see how serious he is.
He continues with, “I never liked black people. They’re loud and obnoxious, inexplicably large and bulbous. I’m terrified of them. Sometimes I wished they’d stop procreating altogether. You know? Like, how great would America be if there weren’t anymore car-jackings, rapes, or drug fueled gang wars? I know I shouldn’t think like this. I know its racist and if anyone on the force found out, I’d be out on my ass. But I really do hate them. It’s bad. I’ve always been like this. I don’t know what to do? How do you deal with it?”
Why on Earth is he telling me this? Now that I think about it, it actually explains a lot. At any rate, I have to say something. If I don’t come back with something of equal or greater value, this case could get out of hand and the focus will shift away from that which is most important.
I begin with, “I used to feel that way about senior citizens. As you know, no one in my family has ever lived past the age of forty-five so I never had the pleasure of meeting any grandparents. I had a strong dislike for old people. Their wrinkly old skin disgusted me. It’s like watching a dirty bag of bones walk around and I wished someone would put each and every one of them out of their misery.”
“Then I went to UGA and started working at this local bookstore. I just started talking to them, engaging in discussion. I got to know them, their history, the experiences they’ve been blessed with. I look at it this way. Being alive can be extremely difficult. Sometimes I fucking hate it. But senior citizens have endured this wretched planet and all the stupid people that come along with it for the better part of a century. How can I not respect that? You know? And in talking with them I actually learned that we agree and have a lot in common. Now, I know that’s not the same thing as hating an entire race, but I think exposure is the key. It’s like with martial arts, the more you expose yourself to it, the more you don’t even have to think about it. Reaction and the knowledge of what to do comes naturally.”
Griffin seems impressed. He nods while holding back a chuckle. “Yeah you do got some impressive martial arts skills.”
“Oh yeah? You liked that?”
“It was okay.”
By now, practice had let out. The huddled group of blue and yellow is heading our way. Teenagers…I know this might sound awkward but I’m always flattered when girls of all ages are so enthralled at the sight of me. I’ll take it a step further by saying it’s rare for a women my own age to show an interest in me. It’s always women either so many years older than me or so many years younger than me. I guess I can add that in with the rest of my curses.
Every one of them has the same shy smirk. They try to look everywhere else as if they hear the grass or leaves calling them by names. A few in the back snicker and whisper into each other’s ears. There’s only a few still in mourning for KeNedra. I discern that two of them must be Jacqui and Meghan. Putting on my professional face, I receive them with the decorum expected of a civil servant.
“Good afternoon, ladies. You guys were amazing out there.”
“Thank you.” They reply shyly.
“I know you must be tired so I promise to keep this brief. I’m special agent Cloud Beaudry with the GBI and this is Detective Mark Griffin of the Augusta Metropolitan Police Department. I uh…I was hoping to get a word with your coach Candice but I don’t see her.”
“She say she don’t want to talk to ya’ll. She already talked to the police,” Jacqui, the team captain tells me.
“I see.” I acknowledge, exchanging a mutual glance with Griffin. “Well first off, I’d like to extend my condolences for your loss. By all accounts, KeNedra was very talented, an amazing human being. Is there anyone you could think of who could possibly do this to her?”
“What happened?” Meghan asks. “All we was told was that she died at the station. In ya’ll’s custody?”
A shiver coincides with the cool breeze to raise goosebumps over my arm. I don’t want to lie to them, at the same time, I’m not sure if they’re ready for the truth.
“That’s right.” Griffin steps up to say. “Unfortunately, she suffered mortal injuries from her abduction. Sadly enough, she ended up passing away.”
Almost at once, everyone stops smiling.
“We want you to know that we’re determined to get this asshole off the streets by any means necessary. Before he can do this to anyone else.” Griffin assures them.
“We understand KeNedra was something of an unspoken leader on the team. A force to be reckoned with,” I add.
The girls nod in harmony. Jacqui elaborates with tearful eyes, “She wasn’t afraid of anything. At competitions, it’s my job as the captain to get everyone motivated. But on the floor whenever a rival team started taunting us or making faces, it was KeNedra shouting for us to give it everything we got. She was my best friend.”
The girls huddle around to comfort a weeping Jacqui. It’s sad but sweet, the way they’re here for each other. I wonder if KeNedra knew the murdered victim, Tiquasia. That would explain a guilty conscience of being unable to save her and resorting to suicide. No…that’s dumb. If what everyone is saying about KeNedra is true, then she would’ve wanted to survive and help out in the investigation. She’d probably be more zealous than anyone.
A honking horn from a nearby gas station gets my attention. I look over my shoulders to the intersection of China and Mike Padgett. There’s the “Go-Quik” gas station, filling up with cars hoping to refuel before rush hour. A light bulb goes off.
“Ladies! I want you to do me a favor and think real hard for a sec. Was there ever a time where you felt uncomfortable or uneasy? Did you ever notice anything suspicious or strange going down out here at the practice? Like, someone who wasn’t supposed to be here?”
Oh, it’s so cute! They follow my orders to the T and ponder deeply with low brows. Some of them were even looking up to the sky for answers.
Meghan speaks up. “Not really. There’s always a cop parked as the gas station when school lets out. It’s not like we’re in danger or nothing like that. I have a big brother. Nobody bout to run up on us unless they want to get jumped.”
Griffin and I turn to see the cop car parked near the air pump in the gas station. There’s also an ambulance in the parking lot with the logo “Halo-Star” painted on it. I assume it’s a privatized emergency transport company that freelanced to hospitals and gets paid on commission. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. If they’re always there, I can see Meghan’s point.
On the other side of China Street, where Griffin’s car is parked, there’s nothing but a flat barren field where JV squads usually held scrimmages. Beyond the field is the residential area of the Coventry subdivision behind a six-foot high wooden fence. So it’s not like someone could have been spying on them without notice.
“What about the competitions?” Griffin asks. “Is there anyone there who shows up at every event and gives you the creeps?”
About ten of them snicker. “Yeah!” They say in unison, groaning at the ordeal of even having to think about him.
“J-Poopy,” Jacqui answers. “He’s the announcer’s son. Tavvy’s son.”
“He, like, old enough to be out of college but he stay flirting with all the girls from other teams. He call himself trying to spit that weak-ass game at me. But like I said. My brother don’t play that. He almost got smacked the fuck up,” Meghan adds.
Griffin writes it down. “J-Poopy. Do you know his real name?”
“No!” Meghan cringes in disgust.
“It’s okay,” I smirk. “We’ll find out.”