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KEITH THOMAS WALKER

THE MASTER OF ROMANTIC SUSPENSE AND URBAN FICTION

CHAPTER ONE

DC

          At 6:30pm on a Friday afternoon, the skies above Overbrook Meadows were seasonably beautiful. In the east, the setting sun was hidden behind an upscale apartment building and an adjacent parking garage. The shopping center, called the Village Square, was also home to several department and retail stores, Target, the Gap and Macy’s. A variety of smaller shops and restaurants drew crowds to this locale daily, but it was the weekends and weekend nights that saw the largest influx of traffic.

          From his vantage point, DC watched a steady stream of traffic flow in and out of the shopping center, moving at a snail’s pace. The multitude of pedestrians had a better go at it. Most of the faces he observed were pale and smiling. The Village Square was nestled in the northern portion of a neighborhood that was known for its high-priced housing, which contributed to the area’s lack of diversity. DC had nothing against dining with folks his uncle would label Richie Rich, but he was curious about why his date chose to meet there. He knew she didn’t live in the area. But this was their first date, and he was more inclined to enjoy her company, rather than question or complain about the spot she had picked.

          In any event, Bar Louie’s was a nice gastrobar. The outside seating was pleasant, and he didn’t think he’d ever had better loaded tots. His date was as pretty as the pictures that had attracted him on the dating app as well as the pics she’d sent later, when they began to communicate directly. He wouldn’t say there was anything exceptional or striking about Kelli. She didn’t wear makeup, her jewelry was minimal, and although he was pretty sure she was wearing a weave, it looked natural. It was her deep, brown skin and full lips that DC found most attractive. He liked her eyes, which were always serious, even when she was smiling. After downing another mouthful of the tots and washing it down with a manly sip of his margarita, he inquired about why those eyes were not focused on him.

          “What’s wrong?” he said. “You not hungry? You seem distracted.”

          Kelli hadn’t been looking at him, but she met his eyes then. DC, who’d never been to the District of Columbia, was good-looking in his own right. After taking a six-month hiatus from dating and striking out in her search for Mr. Right for another six months, she understood that she should be more into the man sitting in front of her. Daniel Collins was a catch, by any woman’s standards: A divorcee with his own home, a good job and more interests in the real world, rather than sports. By those standards alone, he was more appealing than the last three men she’d dated. His strong jawline, piercing eyes and athletic physique was icing on the cake.

          “I’m sorry,” she said. “How’s your food?”

          He smiled. “It’s good. Thought you were gonna share it with me, though. I wouldn’t have got the wings too, if I knew I’d be eating alone.”

          “Sorry.” She pulled the small skillet the tots were served on closer to her side of the table and used a fork to scoop a portion onto her small plate. She jabbed one of the lemon pepper wings with the same fork and deposited it next to the potatoes, which were oozing with cheese and topped with diced bacon, jalapenos and chives. She hadn’t had an appetite before, but looking at the food made her mouth water.

          “How was your day?” she asked as she began to peck at the meal.

          “Same old, same old,” he replied. “I didn’t have to cuss nobody out, so I guess you could say it was a good day.”

          Kelli knew he was the co-owner of an appliance repair shop. “Didn’t know your job got so hectic you had to cuss people out,” she said. “I assume you’re talking about employees – not customers…”

          “Oh, I’ve cussed out a few customers over the years,” he countered. “But, yeah, I was talking about employees. Come Friday, some folks act like they forgot how to work, especially on payday.”

          “Today was payday?”

          He nodded. “But not for you…” He shook his head. “I don’t think I ever met nobody as young as you who was officially retired. Hell, I don’t meet too many older people who are lucky enough to clock out for good.”

          “I don’t know if I’m officially retired,” she said. “I might go back one day.”

          “Why you so secretive about how you managing to pay your mortgage in the meantime?” he wondered.

          “You think I’ve known you long enough to talk about my finances?”

          DC’s smile deepened. There it was again. Since he’d been talking and facetiming with her, there had been a few instances when her – he wouldn’t call it attitude, it was more like spunk – had made an appearance. He knew she wasn’t the type of woman who was inclined to take a lot shit from someone. He found that endearing.

          “No,” he said with a shake of his head. “I don’t know you well enough to be all up in your finances. I’m only trying to find out who I’m dealing with. You know what I do for a living.”

          “And you know I used to teach, but I’m not working right now.”

          “But I don’t know if you got some nigga paying yo bills.”

          “That’s what you worried about?” she asked with a smirk.

          “I wouldn’t say I’m worried about it. Just curious…”

          “I told you I haven’t been in a relationship in over a year. I been on a few dates, but nothing serious.  There’s no man in my life who likes me enough to pay my bills,” she assured him.

          “No woman, either?”

          She cut her eyes at him. Nope. This girl was taking no bullshit.

          “That was a joke.” He offered a smile that melted most women’s hearts. Kelli was not immune. She smiled back at him, and then her gaze drifted again to the left, where her attention had been for the past thirty minutes. DC looked in that direction but only saw the patio’s side entrance.

          He had to ask, “Uh, are you waiting on someone?”

          He’d heard of men getting set up and robbed after connecting with women through dating apps. It didn’t seem logical for Kelli to do something like that – not in such a populated place at least – but he knew he wasn’t crazy.

          She told him, “No.” Then, “Hey, do you wanna hit up another bar?”

          He frowned. She’d barely touched her drink or her food. Plus, she was the one who’d picked this haughty taughty scene in the first place.

          “Uh, yeah, I guess,” he said. “You done with all this?” He looked down at their leftovers, thinking about all the starving people in the world, in this very city.

          “Yeah,” she said. “I guess so.”

          His eyes narrowed.

          “I’ll pay for it,” she said, reaching for her purse.

          “It’s not that…”

          “No, it’s only right,” she insisted. “This is our first date. You shouldn’t have to pay, since I barely ate anything.”

          As far as first dates go, DC thought this one was bombing quickly, but she was offering to continue it elsewhere, rather than call it off altogether. He took that as a good sign.

          “It’s cool,” he said. “Where you wanna go? I know this spot–”

          “There’s a place called Peppersmash, not too far from here,” she said. “You know where that’s at?”

          He did, and he predicted they’d be the only spots in the building. Her second choice only served to add to the peculiarity of this evening.

          “Yeah, I know where it is,” he said. They’d arrived in separate vehicles, so he added, “I guess I’ll, uh, want me to meet you there?”

          She nodded and pulled three twenties from her purse. She rose from her seat and left the money on the table, rather than ask their server to bring the check.


~~~~~~~~~~


          At the new bar, they met in the parking lot and walked in together as a couple. DC couldn’t tell what type of vibe she was looking for, but he could tell by the way her eyes lit up that she liked what she saw at Peppersmash. He headed for the bar, but she told him, “Let’s get one of those tables over there.” He shrugged and let her take the lead. It gave him an opportunity to briefly stare at her ass, which looked mighty nice in her jeans.

          When they approached the table, he moved to take the seat closest to the wall. He had a thing about not sitting with his back to the entrance of any building. But Kelli must have had the same notion.

“I wanna sit here,” she said and proceeded to pull the chair out and sit facing the door.

DC compromised and took the seat next to her, rather than across. When their waitress came, he took a cue from what happened at Bar Louie’s and told her, “I think we’re only having drinks.”

          But Kelli surprised him by saying, “Actually I want the sliders. You hungry?” she asked her date.

          His eyes narrowed. “Yeah. I guess so. I didn’t get to finish eating at the other place...”

          “You good with the sliders?” she asked him. “Let me get some lemon pepper wings too,” she told the waitress. “And I want a Pineapple Express,” she continued. “You want another margarita?” she asked her date.

          DC fought to hide his confusion. “Yeah. That’s cool.”

          “Great,” the waitress said. “I’ll be right back with those drinks.”

          “This some Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde shit,” DC commented when she was gone.

          Kelli laughed at that. It was a real laugh. It did his heart good to see it, made him think that maybe she wasn’t so weird after all.

          Thirty minutes later, he began to rethink that.

          While Kelli was eating and drinking now and engaging him in conversation, her level of distraction was equal to what it had been at Bar Louie’s. Finally, DC looked over his shoulder, saw nothing out of the norm, and confronted her.

          “Is somebody over there flirting with you? You into white guys – is that why you wanted to come here?”

          He met her eyes. Hers were as serious as ever. He sensed a shift in the energy at their table. He hoped that would translate to her being honest with him.

          “I’m sorry I haven’t been honest with you,” she said, all smiles and pretense gone now. “I’ll tell you why we’re here. If you decide to leave, that’s cool. To be honest, I probably would, if I was you...”

          Frowning, he said, “We’re not here for our date?”

          “Yes, but there was something else I needed to do tonight. I know it’s wrong, but I thought I could do both at the same time. I see that I was wrong, and I shouldn’t have drug you into this.”

          DC’s brows furrowed. He didn’t know how to respond to that, so he said nothing.

          “My daughter died one year ago,” Kelli told him. “She was murdered. The police haven’t arrested anyone, but they have the killer’s DNA – he left it on my daughter. They haven’t named a suspect, but I have. Actually, I have a few. One of them is sitting over there.” She gestured slightly with her eyes. Before her date freaked, she told him, “You can look, but don’t stare at him.”

          DC glanced in the direction she was facing and saw nearly two dozen people.

          “He’s sitting at a table with two other men,” Kelli clarified. “He’s wearing a beige shirt. His name is Chandler Garza. He works for a contractor who’s building what I think is a Walmart three miles from here. Garza usually goes to Bar Louie’s after work on Fridays, but sometimes he comes here. I want to get a sample of his DNA. That’s why I’m here. The reason you’re here with me is because if I kept putting this date off, I knew you’d think I don’t like you. I thought I could do what I had to do tonight and also keep my date with you. I can see that was a bad idea. I apologize.”

          DC could do nothing but blink at her, while he tried to wrap his mind around what she had told him. Her story was too outlandish to be a lie, but it was equally hard to believe she was telling the truth. He had more questions than a five-year-old at an erotic boutique, and like that five-year-old, none of his questions seemed appropriate.

          He started with the easiest one. “Your daughter was murdered?”

She nodded. There may have been a time when the mere thought of it caused her to break down in tears, but she seemed past that now. What DC saw was the same resolve she displayed when she scoffed at the notion of telling him how she paid her bills.

          “Why – how do you know that man had something to do with it?”

          “I don’t know that he does, not for sure anyway. The police are out of leads, so I’m doing what they should be doing – creating my own leads. I know that man is a registered sex offender. I know his victim was a little girl. I know that the contractor he works for was building an office near my daughter’s school around the time of her murder. Other than that, there’s no connection between Garza and my daughter. My interest in him is completely circumstantial.

          “It’s not enough for the police to knock on his door and demand a DNA sample. It’s not even enough for them to follow him around and get his DNA the way I’m doing it, but I got nothing to lose by checking. If I’m right, I can solve my daughter’s case. If I’m wrong, I can cross him off my list.”

Gradually DC accepted that he wasn’t in an old episode of The Twilight Zone. He really was on a date with a grieving mother who was hurting so badly, she’d taken the reigns in investigating her daughter’s murder.

          “You, you have other suspects?” he asked.

          She nodded. “But I really shouldn’t call them suspects. Just because they’ve touched a child in the past and may have had some vague interaction with my daughter doesn’t mean they did anything wrong. Like this guy, I don’t even know if he was working for the same contractor when my daughter was killed. For all I know, he never laid eyes on Kandice.”

          “Kandice? That’s your daughter’s name?”

          She nodded.

          “So, this Garza fellow, he’s not a suspect, but it wouldn’t hurt to rule him out…” DC said, surprising himself by how easily he’d gotten into this.

          She nodded. “That’s right.”

          “But even if you manage to get his DNA,” he said, “how do you check it against the killer’s?”

          “There are a lot of companies that will do a DNA analysis,” she informed him. “You don’t have to be looking for your long-lost great granddad to get them to do it.”

DC sighed, his eyes still wide. He glanced in the direction of the perp (geez, was he so involved he was using cop lingo now?).

          “Don’t stare,” she warned him.

          “Sorry,” he said, his eyes back on her. “Can I ask how many times you’ve done this?”

          “How many times I’ve followed Garza, or how many samples I’ve collected?”

          DC was wondering about the samples, but now that she mentioned it… “Both.”

          “I’ve been keeping up with Garza for two and a half weeks. That’s how I knew he’d be here.”

          “Or at Bar Louie’s.”

          “Yeah.”

          “And the samples?”

          “I’ve collected a few,” she said vaguely.

          “And how do you go about that?” He imagined her walking up to Garza’s table and shoving a cotton swab in his mouth, but he knew it wouldn’t be anything like that.

          “Once you leave something behind,” she told him, “like at a table you were eating at, it’s considered trash. It’s legal for anyone to take the trash you leave behind. If your trash has your DNA on it, so be it.”

          “So you’re gonna…”

          “I’m hoping for a fork,” she said, watching Garza furtively. “I know the bar’s silverware isn’t trash, but it’s fair game once he leaves the table. Anyway, it doesn’t look like him and his friends are eating anything, so I may have to go for his glass.”

          DC took in all that she’d told him and could only respond with, “Wow.”

          All things considered, Kelli thought that was the best response she could’ve hoped for.

Chandler Garza did end up filling his belly with food in addition to drinks, but everything their waiter brought to their table was finger foods – chicken wings and flatbread pizza. Kelli kept her eyes on the glasses Garza and his friends were drinking from. With three of them at the table, it was sometimes hard to keep track, especially with the waiter swapping out their used ones for fresh drinks. But it wasn’t as hard as a game of 3-card Monte. By the time the boisterous trio decided to head out, Kelli knew exactly which glass she was taking. The next hurdle was making it to their table and swapping it before the busser came to take everything away. She wasted no time with this. She was out of her seat almost as quickly as Garza’s crew was.

          “Can you get the check?” she asked her date. “I’ll meet you outside.”

           DC nodded. He watched as she approached the table and placed her purse on it, which was actually more of a large bag. She fished her phone from the purse, pretended to check something on it, and returned the phone to the bag. When her hand appeared again, she had a fresh paper towel. She used it to lift the glass and gracefully deposit it in her bag. The whole operation took less than ten seconds. She exited the main entrance innocently, as if nothing was amiss.

          When he made it outside, DC approached her car and saw that she’d transferred the maybe-killer’s glass to a large Ziplock bag. She placed it on the passenger seat next to her purse.

Despite the strangeness of their date, DC didn’t want their time together to end. Once she’d opened up about her true intentions for the night, he found her company enjoyable. And the way her ass looked in those jeans was still on his mind.

          “You headed home?” he asked when she rolled down her window and looked up at him.

          “Yeah. How about you?”

          “I was thinking we could go somewhere and talk some more.”

          He flashed the smile again. It still worked.

          She smiled back. “You wanna stop by my place?”

          His eyes said, Hell yeah! but his mouth played it cool. “Yeah, that’d be nice.”


~~~~~~~~~~

          

          Kelli lived in a modest three-bedroom flat on the west side of town. It was the kind of place a single mother who happened to be a teacher could afford. It was not the kind of place the same teacher could afford if she quit her job and had been unemployed for almost a year. But DC wasn’t about to ask about her finances again. He was more interested in the cozy demeanor on display when Kelli entered her home and invited him inside.

          She kicked off her heels immediately, giving him a view of her nearly naked feet (she wore a pair of nylon footies) and another great view of her ass as she went to the kitchen to prepare a drink for him. She didn’t have any tequila, only a bottle of Crown Royal and a bottle of Stella Rosa. DC said he’d take the Stella with a shot of Crown mixed in. She fixed herself the same, both on the rocks.

          She came to the couch and sat next to him. They sipped slowly as he complimented her home. The conversation inevitably returned to her daughter. He saw that she wanted to open up to him, and he was a good listener. He made all the right moves, appearing grief-stricken when she did, offering a comforting shoulder to lean on when she began to cry. She was open to a deep hug and even a soft kiss. But she pushed his hand out of her lap and then pushed his chest when he tried to make a move towards second base.

          Frowning, she asked, “What do you think you’re doing?”

          “Nothing,” he muttered, his eyes filled with lust. “I thought you wanted to.”

          Her frowned morphed into an outright sneer. “What part of what I said made you horny? Better yet, what part of it made you think I was getting horny?”

          He sighed gruffly. “You playing mind games.”

          “How am I playing mind games? I been straight up with you all night.”

          “Yeah, and I been putting up with yo shit all night.”

          The look in his eyes made her chuckle. “You niggas is all the same. All you had to do was listen to me, comfort me, take yo dumb ass home and maybe try to slide the next time I invited you over. But you couldn’t do that. You too busy thinking with yo dick to see anything past tonight.”

          “I know you ain’t tryna read me,” he said, “like the shit you got going on makes perfect sense. You out here doing a stakeout, on some CSI shit, when we supposed to be on a date.”

          “At least I know when it’s a good time and a bad time to try to fuck somebody.”

          Frowning, he said, “You think I’m finna sit here and be a gentleman with a crazy bitch? Maybe if you was normal I woulda been more compassionate. But you a fucking nut job.”

          “Yeah, and here you was trying to fuck my crazy ass. Guess you’ll stick yo dick in anything. That says more about you than it does about me.”

          “Yeah, whatever.”

          “Nigga, why you still sitting here? Get the fuck out my house!”

          He rose to his feet but had a few parting words.

          “Fuck you, ol’ crazy ass bitch.”

          Never one to back down, she shot to her feet as well. Her eyes were wide and what he would describe as demented. “If I’m as crazy as you think I am, then you know I’m crazy enough to put a hot one in you, if you ain’t gone in the next ten seconds.”

          When he didn’t move, she turned on her heels and headed for the bedroom.

          “This nigga think I’m playing…”

          DC had long ago determined that anyone who was crazy enough to talk to themselves was crazy enough to do just about anything. No point in waiting to see if she’d return with a gun. He headed for the door the moment she disappeared from sight.


© Keith Thomas Walker