Paper Gods—An Atlanta Political Thriller
When a civil-rights icon is gunned down at her church, Atlanta’s mayor finds herself up against the cabal that’s controlled her city for decades—and that’s marked her for death.
The opening three chapters of Daily Beast contributing editor Goldie Taylor’s third novel, Paper Gods.
A small commotion kicked up when Ezra Hawkins entered the sanctuary. Church folks laughed, hugging deep and glad-handing, as they greeted him with effusive “good mornings.” The happy sounds from happy people washed over the gentleman from Georgia like the ripples of the bent creek he played in as a boy. He took his usual seat on the end of the center-front pew and lay his bible on his lap.
Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows, polished hardwoods, and various and sundry dignitaries, he knew his mama, the late Julie Esther Hawkins, would be proud to see her son on the cover of the July issue of Ebony Magazine. Be it not for her husband’s sister, Miss Julie’s boy might’ve been slinging roasted duck sandwiches out at The Lake Club over in Greensboro. He was now, by the grace of God, an esteemed member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a living legend and civil rights icon known the world over. But here in Ebenezer Baptist Church, the place he called home, he was simply known as Brother Hawkins.
He was overcome with a sudden rush of joy when he saw Mayor Victoria Dobbs coming his way. At just over five-feet-eight, her slender yet curvaceous frame filled out a tan linen dress to perfection as she strutted across the altar. Perfect, too, was her shock of coral brown hair, swooped up and pinned into an elegant bun just above the nape of her neck.
“Good morning, Congressman,” she said tenderly.
He leapt up and wrapped his arms around her.
“I am so happy you could come,” he whispered in her ear. “I didn’t think you would make it this morning.”
She kissed his meaty cheek and said, “There is no place I’d rather be.”
An usher made room on the already crowded bench. A pianist opened with a selection, as the mayor smoothed the back of her dress and took her seat.
Hawkins, still beaming, leaned over and said, “And where is the good doctor?”
“Good is being generous. He’s probably walking the fifth hole over at East Lake by now,” she said with a shrug.
It was the kind of indifference that came with a decade of marriage, two children and the rigors of running the city, Hawkins figured. A trivial remark, yes, but one he did not miss.
“Indeed,” he said, with a slight grimace.
“We’re fine. I promise,” the mayor assured him. “If they outlawed golf clubs, my husband would gladly do twenty years in the federal penitentiary.”
After the call to worship, two selections from the Mass Choir and a reading of the morning announcements, the Reverend Doctor Benjamin P. Melham took to the pulpit. The air conditioning unit was on the fritz, Melham explained, and a repairman was working on it. The pastor apologized for the heat as a team of ushers dutifully handed out cardboard fans emblazoned with the face of a decidedly black Jesus.
Hawkins had been on the search committee when the bookish-looking preacher from Osceola, Arkansas turned up at an Southern Christian Leadership Conference conference a few years back and put his name in the running. The son of a junkman and part-time preacher, Hawkins found the young minister mesmerizing at the time and the trial sermon a few weeks later drew two-dozen new members.
Melham opened his sermon this morning with a prayer and a piece of scripture. Dressed in a flowing black cassock with royal purple and silk piping, he took his time getting to the point.
While the preacher rambled on, Hawkins stared down at his Italian leather wing tips. The gone years weighed on him like a wool suit in a high sun. There was the summer of ’64 in Mississippi, and that Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge the following year. Then came Memphis and the sanitation strike. He had been with Dr. King in the pulpit at Mason Temple that fateful night in ’68.
He had loved only two women in his life, Victoria, his protégé, and another he refused to talk about. He’d been married to his work, he’d often explain. When Victoria’s father, his closest friend and confidant, passed on to Glory twenty-odd years back, Hawkins readily fulfilled his promise to stand in his stead. He’d given her away on her wedding day and sat in the front row as she was twice sworn in as mayor of Atlanta.
Time was drawing short, he thought to himself, but Pastor Melham was hitting all the right notes now. Sister Epatha Flowers, her fatty girth spilling off the pew, was filled with the Holy Spirit.
“What a friend we have in Jesus!” she exclaimed. “Make it plain, pastor! Yessuh! Yessuh! Tell it, son!”
As the sermon came to a close, Hawkins bowed his head. He prayed the same simple prayer before every speech, the one his mama used to say would cover everything.
I am yours, Father God. I receive the fullness of your grace.
Despite the broken air conditioning, praise filled the dense air. There was little relief to be had from the large standing fans humming from the corners of the sanctuary, and Hawkins was sweating profusely by the time Melham was halfway through his lengthy introduction.
“I bring to you my brother, our leader and friend, Congressman Ezra J. Hawkins,” Melham said with outstretched arms.
Hawkins handed his bible to Victoria, rose to thunderous applause, adjusted his necktie and ambled toward the pulpit. Pastor Melham met him at the edge of the stage. They embraced like brothers, gripping hands and heartily patting one another on the back. The organist unleashed a barrage of flourishes, his fingers dancing up the keys. Hawkins took to the lectern. He measured himself, glanced at his notes and wiped his face with a freshly pressed, crisp white handkerchief.
On an ordinary day, he would simply read from his prepared remarks. He would wax poetically about his years as a movement man, the howling dogs and the water hoses, the countless days in various jail cells across the South.
Hawkins heard a popping noise coming from overhead and flinched. He quickly realized it was the air-conditioning system clicking and wheezing. Hawkins wasn’t the kind to scare easily, but he measured his life in moments now.
According to the itinerary prepared by his congressional office staff, Hawkins was scheduled to fly up to D.C. that afternoon. Delta flights ran every hour on the hour and, if he made good time, he could get a taste of Sister Lucille Ballard’s buttermilk fried okra at the repast and still make the 1:50 p.m. departure. And then, the little colored boy from tiny Veazey, Georgia, the child who never had a pair of shoes that didn’t belong to somebody else first until he was fourteen years old, would stand in the White House East Room and receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom the following morning.
If the Good Lord kept him long enough, he would get a seat next to Rep. Thad Pickett in the first-class cabin and bend his ear about how to revive that omnibus transportation bill the region so desperately needed. Hawkins had personally drafted a new amendment and was confident it would be sufficient to get the legislation to the president’s desk.
But there had been a transient ischemic attack just the day before yesterday, the second in as many weeks. His physician warned that a major stroke could soon follow. Medication was prescribed to deal with the increasingly erratic heart rhythm and Hawkins was advised to give up his beloved pulled pork sandwiches and anything deep-fried in Crisco. The blackouts were coming closer together now, though thankfully never in a committee meeting or on the floor of the House.
Hawkins opened his remarks with a glorious salutation, calling several of the congregants by name as he proclaimed his gratitude for their presence. There was little time, he knew. His chest was tightening again, so he decided, right then and there, to forget the four-by-six index cards and get right down to the crux of the matter.
He removed his suit jacket and draped it over an arm of the majestic center chair. He began to preach then, shouting and dancing, whooping and hollering, bending his knees then swooping upward as if to take full hold of the heavens. His baritone voice climbed three octaves, shook and broke.
“I said, glory!” he sang out in a high tenor, clutching his chest. “Oh, glory!”
He bombarded the congregation with an onslaught of soul-shaking declarations without concern for the physical toll on his body. Hawkins was preaching in rapid bursts now, sweating out the pits of his dress shirt.
“Joy!” he bellowed. “I said joy!”
“Joy!” the congregation answered in unison.
“Comes in the morning!” he exclaimed.
By then, the repairman had been on the roof for the better part of an hour. An embroidered patch on his work shirt read “Smitty” if anyone had cared to look when he entered the grounds with a toolbox. The white cargo van parked in the side lot said he was from Atlanta’s Best Heating and Cooling. Deacon Deray Garvin had been kind enough to escort Smitty up the rear stairs and unlatched the metal-hinged, roof hatch. Perched high above the main hall, he lay prone with his belly pressed against the sloping gabled roof, attached to a harness, and went about his work.
He had never done a single religious thing in his entire life, so killing a man in church was just another job.
Smitty carefully applied the suction cup on the glass skylight and positioned the carbide tip. When he was satisfied with the cleanliness of the incision, he slipped the titanium AS50 sniper rifle and its sock suppressor from the custom made, foam-lined encasement. He quickly snapped its two major components into place, twisted the silencer around the muzzle, and clicked the pre-loaded .50 caliber magazine into its slot. He could let off five rounds in 1.6 seconds, if it became necessary, the floating mechanism minimizing any impact on his aim.
One shot, one kill.
He gripped the small black suction cup, twisting it slightly, and carefully removed the impeccably cut, four-inch glass disc. As if winding up for a pitch, he situated the butt stock high and firm in the pocket of his shoulder, right up against his jutting collarbone and stabilized his elbow on the flat gables. Resting his cheek on the stock of the rifle, he wrapped his firing hand around the grip. His callused forefinger now on the trigger, he peered through the ocular lens and waited.
Three miles away, in a split-level bungalow along the northwesterly edge of Candler Park, Hampton Bridges woke up with a dull pain in his neck. He fumbled around in the nightstand for a bottle of generic aspirin, but quickly decided going for water wasn’t worth the trouble. Somewhere in the darkness, his Blackberry was humming and a stream of sirens swept by outside. Hampton let out a groan and, slowly, the haze began to lift.
These days, getting out of bed before noon was an accomplishment. Hampton was satisfied if he could start a day with clean underwear, which at the moment seemed unlikely. The laundry was piling up and he was content to remain bare-ass in bed anyway. At least it was Sunday, he thought with some small bit of relief, and that was enough to allay the slight pang of shame tapping at the walls of his belly. Hampton exhaled, and gently rubbed the crick in his neck, his pale boney fingers pressing against the tender knot at the top of his spine.
An open laptop glowed from a corner table across the room. The thought of another half-finished and overdue feature story stung like warm whiskey tumbling down his throat. He still had a paying job at the Atlanta Times-Register. Though, at the moment, even that was like a drunken seadog that had the nerve to burp and beg for more. He used to tell himself that Atlanta was going to be a stopover on his way to the Big Leagues. A man like him belonged in D.C. or New York. That wild-eyed dream was now wasting away in a bucket of hopes he had yet to live.
He was thirty-nine and, while he was stuck covering the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park, younger and lesser reporters had Pentagon press badges and tossed back their copious goblets of wine on live TV at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. Others posted thousand-word columns on much-ballyhooed political blogs and watched their pedantic ramblings go viral. He hated watching them spew their vagaries under the Klieg lights from cable news studios, while he was marooned in Atlanta “covering Dixie like the dew.”
Just as he’d settled in and learned to love, or at least tolerate, the Atlanta Braves, everything fell apart. Getting reassigned to the weekly Sunday Living & Arts section was due punishment for his many foibles, he reckoned, but the bills were springing out of the cracks like kudzu. Debt collectors representing various doctors, medical facilities and credit card companies chasing maxed out balances still called sun up to sun down, six days a week. He’d been sued twice that he knew of, but never answered the summons. The rent was current and the electricity was still on and, for now, that had to be enough.
Such were the spoils of war, the dregs of a costly divorce. The three-page, double-spaced final decree had left him penniless. He tried in vain to convince himself that the two-bedroom house with its outdated kitchen, complete with matching gold harvest appliances and water-stained linoleum tiling, was a temporary setback. But right now, Hampton wondered if he might not be better off banking on a union-backed pension like his father who did 33 years on the assembly line at the Chevy plant back in Michigan.
His father shook his fist in the air and called him all kinds of no-good sons-a-bitches the day Hampton told him he wanted to be a journalist. Hampton was more than happy to get out of Flint and even happier to escape his father’s whiskey-fueled tirades.
He buried his head under a pillow when the work-issued Blackberry buzzed again. He fought off the impulse to answer it. Whoever it was and whatever they wanted could wait.
It’s Sunday, damn it. We’re closed.
A few months back, his managing editor Tucker Stovall unceremoniously dumped him from the Statehouse beat, suspended him indefinitely from his bi-weekly political column and took him off the editorial board. Hampton thought it was the beginning of the end. The drinking had been too much, the girls too young and pretty. One more false move, Hampton calculated, and he’d be lining up for Styrofoam plates of pork and beans down at the Union Mission. Then came the car accident that nearly took his life.
“Think of this as some paid time off,” Tucker said. “When you’re ready, we’ll get you back into the thick of things.”
“You want to fire me?” Hampton shouted, gripping the cushioned armrests of his wheelchair. “Be a goddamn man, why don’t you, and fire me!”
“It doesn’t have to come to that,” his editor said, evenly.
Tucker calmly shut the glass door and closed the blinds.
“You don’t need me to tell you how good you are,” Tucker said. “Don’t let your career end here. Take the assignment and do what I know you can do with it.”
Lying in bed, unsure of the time, still ignoring his cellphone and cooking up yet another excuse for yet another blown deadline, Hampton could hear Tucker admonishing him in his head:
Take the assignment and do what I know you can do with it.
Hampton was sitting up now. Only his mother called on Sundays and he wasn’t in the mood for that. She’d been asking about his physical therapy sessions and he didn’t have the heart to tell her that he hadn’t kept an appointment in a good long while. Inman, his golden retriever, tugged at the bed covers.
“Come on now. Cut me some slack.”
Hampton eyed the empty wheelchair stationed at the foot of his bed with resentment.
Inman sat on his haunches and whined. Hampton gave in. He slipped on a house robe, maneuvered himself into the wheelchair, and rolled himself to the kitchen. Inman followed him. The morning feeding used to be Claire’s job. The marriage had been short and the split hasty, but his ex-wife had been kind enough to leave the pooch with him.
Hampton poured a mound of dry food into one dish and filled a second with cool tap water. Inman watched intently now, his tail wagging with delight. The dog’s marvelously light brown eyes, the way he loved him better than anyone else, made Hampton feel like there was at least some good left in the world.
“There you go, you greedy mongrel,” he laughed.
Inman buried his snout in the plastic bowl. Fifteen minutes later, Hampton was sipping coffee and thumbing through the New York Times book review, still blissfully naked under the terrycloth robe, when his Blackberry chimed again. He grumbled and finally answered.
“Where’ve you been?” Tucker’s voice thundered. “I’ve been calling you since noon.”
“Long night. Look, Tuck, I know I promised to turn that piece by Friday press time but something came up,” Hampton started to explain.
“Congressman Hawkins is dead.”
“He was murdered, Hamp.”
Mayor Victoria Dobbs lingered in the rear seat of a blacked-out Chevy Suburban, clutching the congressman’s bible. The horrific scene — the shots and splattered blood, the agonizing screams and moans — played itself over and over again in her head.
She shifted in the seat to alleviate the searing heat radiating from her left hip. The raining glass and plaster had clipped her arms and ripped a patch of skin from her forehead, but she had survived. It was difficult to see the blessing in that now, given the carnage inside the church, and nearly impossible to hold back the tide of anger flooding her bones. This was her city and her church, and it was hers to protect. That someone had come to this place, with such malice and destruction, required a reckoning that she had only begun to measure.
Victoria squeezed the bible, bound in cowhide, and noted its tattered gold trimmed pages. There was a bookmark, a neatly pressed piece of origami inside. It was beautiful and red, shaped like a bird and was left on a page marking Proverbs 21. She’d spotted the book, still resting on the front pew, and taken it from the sanctuary. It didn’t belong in an evidence locker, she decided.
Every street and alleyway had been shut off two blocks to the north and south of Auburn Avenue, from Peachtree Street to the west and Boulevard Avenue to the east. Residents of Wheat Street Towers, a nearby senior citizen’s high-rise, and customers at the Silver Star Barbershop next door, were told to shelter-in-place until every inch of every surrounding building was cleared. Riot gear-clad strike forces lined the intersections, tightening the perimeter.
Victoria surveyed the chaos unfolding outside the back passenger window, the blaring sirens muddling her thoughts. Not more than twenty yards away, under the stately clock tower, first responders were treating victims with non-life threatening injuries. Tourists visiting The King Center were evacuated and loaded into waiting buses. She watched solemnly as a large family, dressed in matching t-shirts, was led away. The building was then chained shut.
Over her police chief’s objections, the mayor refused to leave the scene, refused a change of clothes or even to be examined by a paramedic. Victoria needed to see this through to the end, she told Chief Otis Walraven, no matter how long that took and whatever that might come to mean.
The driver’s side door clicked open. Lieutenant S. A. Pelosi, her body man and driver, slid behind the steering wheel and peered at her in the rearview mirror.
Locking eyes with her, he cranked the engine and turned on the air conditioning.
“Sal, is he still inside?”
“Yes, ma’am, he is.”
“I need to see him,” she said, almost inaudibly. She steadied her voice, brushed away a rush of tears, and said, “Please, take me to see him.”
Pelosi studied her face and cut the ignition.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he said.
“Yes, I am sure.”
A wave of tremors swept through her as she stepped out of the vehicle. She lost her footing on the side step railing and stumbled. Pelosi caught her by the elbow. The open gash that snaked up her forearm was bleeding more profusely now.
“Let me help you,” he said, examining her blood on his hand. “Let me call a medic over here.”
“I’m fine, Sal,” she responded, planting her feet firmly on the sidewalk. “It’s just a little blood.”
Her legs tensed and, for a moment, she froze in place. Standing in front of the old Ebenezer, where Dr. Martin Luther King was baptized and preached, mere steps from the fountain where he was laid to rest in an above ground tomb, the gone years washed over her. Dr. King’s mother, Alberta Williams King, was gunned down six years after her son was assassinated, while sitting behind the organ in June of ‘74. And twenty-two years ago, the mayor’s own father had been eulogized on the altar of the tiny red brick church.
There was no safe harbor here and there never had been. The history she knew all too well rolled through her head. She felt Pelosi’s light touch, his comforting strong hand securing the small of her back, as she scanned the crevices between the bricks and calculated the gravity of the loss. She felt faint, but dared not yield to that weakness now.
The mayor looked at the chain of APD patrol cars clogging the avenue and noted the scrum of somber-faced reporters sequestered between barricades in front of The King Center. To her right, oversized live-shot trucks were jammed, bumper-to-bumper. She had personally ordered the media pen put in place.
A small contingent of uniformed APD officers flanked her sides and back as she crossed the street and navigated the short concrete walkway leading up to the main doors of Historic Ebenezer, the newer, larger church built in the late 1990s. A horde of reporters and photographers packing zoom lenses, still stationed behind A-frame police barricades, captured her every step. News choppers hovered above.
Even in her grief, Victoria held her bearings. She clasped her hands behind her as she strode passed the clock tower and stepped inside the vestibule. An agent from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation met her at the framed glass double doors.
“Mayor Dobbs, I’m Agent Jason Clearwater, GBI,” he announced, extending his hand.
She gave him a firm, brief handshake and nodded.
“We don’t have much to go on,” he advised her. “We’ve got techs combing the rooftop, but it’s clean as far as we can tell. The van was reported stolen three days ago from an E-Z Rental lot up in Dahlonega and…”
“It’s my understanding that Congressman Hawkins is still in the sanctuary,” she said, cutting him off.
“Yes, ma’am. There are four bodies. If I can ask you to have a seat here, my agent-in-charge is on the third floor in the pastor’s study,” he said, waving his open hand over a foldout chair. “I will let him know that you’re here.”
“I need to see them,” the mayor said abruptly and still standing. “I need to see the bodies.”
“Ma’am, I’m afraid we cannot allow that. I’m sorry, but I have to remind you that the GBI has jurisdiction now. This is our crime scene at least until the Feds arrive. Homeland Security…”
“I don’t really care who has jurisdiction,” she said, clenching her teeth. “Not today, not tomorrow, not the day after that.”
Pelosi placed his hand on her shoulder. She immediately cooled. There was a better way, Victoria admitted to herself.
“Give us a moment,” she said, waving Pelosi away. “What was your name again? Clearwater, right?”
“Yes ma’am. Agent Jason Clearwater,” he responded, formally. “I work out of the field office in Conyers.”
Victoria studied his buzz shaven ginger-red hair and emerald green eyes. She silently noted the absence of a telling accent. Wherever the bookish-looking agent was from, it certainly wasn’t Georgia or anywhere in the south for that matter and, given his stone-faced demeanor, he likely had not been around long enough to appreciate how the political winds blew inside of I-285.
“Agent Clearwater, I mean no disrespect, but the congressman was like a father to me,” the mayor said, looking up again, her caramel brown eyes baking with sincerity. “I was sitting next to him this morning.”
“Ma’am, I am truly sorry for your loss,” Clearwater said, eyeing her bloodied dress and the open cut on her arm. “My section commander would have my head. I’d be fired before sundown.”
She stepped in closer, leaning in toward his ear.
“I employ two thousand sworn officers and investigators,” she said, glancing back at Pelosi. “I can guarantee you that you’ll always have a paycheck. If this costs you your job, you’ll always have one with me.”
Clearwater radioed his section chief and the sanctuary was ordered cleared. A crime scene technician dutifully covered her Prada sling-back flats with mesh booties and helped her snap on a pair of latex gloves. The mayor was then escorted inside.
Stepping over debris, flakes of broken glass and bits of broken plaster, Victoria fixed her eyes on the wooden cross that was suspended above the regal altar.
“We don’t think he expected a firefight,” agent Clearwater said over her shoulder. “Although, it really wasn’t much of one.”
“He? One shooter did all of this?”
“Yes, ma’am, we believe so. A deacon described a man, olive complexion, average height with a slender build. He was disguised as a repairman. The first shot came from that center-front skylight,” Clearwater said, pointing toward the ceiling.
“The shooter was packing enough firepower to pin down an entire Army squadron. I can’t say for sure and you didn’t hear it from me, but every indication says this was a professional hit. This was an assassination, ma’am. We found a safety harness dangling from the rear of the building. Otherwise, he made a clean getaway.
The mayor nodded her head and said, “Indeed.”
A hired security guard and an off-duty Fulton County deputy returned fire, Clearwater went on explaining. Both men were a part of the pastor’s security detail. The deputy was cut down almost immediately, according to preliminary witness statements. His 9mm SIG Sauer pistol was now tagged and bagged. Metal shell casings littered the powder blue carpeting. The shooter used military-grade armor piercing rounds with a hardened steel core, Clearwater said. By the time the first SWAT unit arrived, the damage was done and the suspect was long gone.
“How is that possible? He disappeared in broad daylight?”
Three more parishioners and two church staffers, including Deacon Garvin, were triaged and sent by ambulance to Grady Memorial and Atlanta Medical Center,” Clearwater went on saying. “We believe Mr. Garvin may have led the shooter to the roof and unwittingly unlocked the door. We’ve got agents stationed outside his hospital room in case he pulls through.”
“Deacon Garvin never met a stranger in his life. In his mind, everybody he meets is a child of God.”
“There was nothing godly about what happened here, ma’am. Mr. Garvin may be the only person who can make a positive identification.”
“Are you a praying man, Agent Clearwater?”
“Then pray that Deacon Garvin sees another tomorrow,” Victoria said, looking down at the heap of plastic on the floor.
“His name is Claude Robinson,” the agent said.
Victoria stepped to the dark plastic covering, stooped down and pulled back the sheath. She took in his lifeless face, pushing down the overwhelming sadness bubbling up in her chest.
Without looking up, the mayor said, “Mr. Robinson was a dear friend of my parents. I’ve known him my entire life.”
Her eyes sketched his freshly trimmed, salt and pepper mustache, his clean-shaven, hard-squared jaw, and the deep cleft in his chin.
“He was a phone bank volunteer on my campaign,” she said, growing tearful. “Retired Marine. Pulled three tours in Vietnam. He never had a lot of money, but he put everything he had into every one of my campaigns. If I could thank him a thousand times a day for a thousand years, it would never be enough.”
“Promise me something?” she said. “Promise me that you won’t stop until you find the man who did this.”
“We won’t stop.”
The air inside the main hall was thick and smelled of warm blood and metal. The standing fans were shut off to preserve the crime scene and Victoria began sweating as she moved closer to the pulpit. The deputy was laid out on the right side of the altar. A darkened pool of blood collected around the top end of the plastic sheath.
“I’m afraid there isn’t a lot left to see. Deputy Finlaysen took a direct hit.”
Clem Finlaysen? God no.
Her legs locked up again, but she kept moving, one footfall at a time, until she was standing under the wooden cross dangling from the ceiling. She now had a clear view of the black sheeting in the center of the pulpit.
Hawkins had been her political godfather. Through the years, they joked that the only way he would give up his congressional seat was face up in a pine box. He had earned his place in the sun, she assured him while staving off her own ambitions. Certainly other members had served in the House longer, though not many, and Hawkins was getting up in age and health issues had begun to mount. She’d rushed out to St. Joseph’s Hospital twice in the last month alone to see about him, only to find him giggling with the nurses while he dined on Jell-O pudding pops.
Hawkins was supposed to die peacefully in his sleep, she’d decided long ago, maybe from years of eating open-faced, fried catfish sandwiches, mini tubs of mustard potato salad, and fistfuls of collard greens over at Pascal’s, where he had a regular table. Victoria managed a slight grin at the thought of how he always ate belly-to-the-table, his elbows planted on the Formica countertop, while listening to Aretha Franklin wail on the jukebox.
Clearwater pulled back the covering, just enough so that she could see his face.
The mayor paused for a moment and said, “Please, I need to see all of him.”
“Please,” she whispered.
His blood-soaked dress shirt had been cut open by a church medic in a pointless attempt to revive him. She was transfixed by the gaping hole in the left-center of his chest.
“Can I touch him?”
Clearwater gave her the go-ahead. Victoria leaned in, stroking his meaty scalp. His chocolate smooth-as-cake-batter skin now looked ashen. Another wave of tears fell. She felt her body quaking.
The coming days would bring lengthy elegies and memorials in his honor, she knew. Victoria would stand in this very pulpit to deliver her own public eulogy to thousands of mourners. Human rights leaders and Heads of State from around the world would sit shoulder-to-shoulder alongside no-name grassroots activists and local elected officials in freshly polished pews. She wondered if she’d be able to do justice to his life, everything that he’d meant to her.
“You said there were four.”
Clearwater looked down and away, unable to bat away his own tears.
“You said there were four,” she said again, gently pressing for an answer.
The agent pointed to the left aisle, just beyond where she had been sitting during the morning worship service. Victoria panicked when she saw the small, brown leather shoe lying beside a plastic tarp.
She remembered the whipping sound then, and how Hawkins’ eyes widened and locked as he fell. She’d scrambled beneath the pew, instinctively clasping her hands around her head. The horrifying screams filled her ears. Victoria balled herself up and whimpered as glass rained down over the sanctuary.
And then it was over. The sanctuary was suddenly and eerily still. The moans seemed to come from all around her. She’d spotted a small, coffee brown face under a pew across the aisle and called out to him.
“Are you okay, sweetheart?”
He shook his head slowly, from left to right and back again. The boy was maybe seven or eight, no older than her daughters, and lying on his side. There was an unmistakable look of terror in his wide, nickel-sized dark eyes. Victoria saw the smooth tide of blood oozing beneath his shoulder.
She crawled toward him, on her hands and knees, carefully taking him into her arms, cradling his body as they lay together on the floor. She pressed her hands tightly against his clavicle, his shoulder blade pinched to her breast, in hopes of staunching the flow of blood.
“What’s your name?” Victoria asked, struggling to calm the child.
He parted his lips, but did not answer.
“Come on, stay with me,” she whispered gently. “You’re going to be okay. Stay with me.”
“Keenan,” he said, softly. “My name is Keenan Bouleware.”
“Okay, Keenan. Stay awake.”
He shook his head, yes. Victoria rocked him in her arms and started to sing the first song that came to mind.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…
She could hear the sirens shrieked over the distance. “Help is coming,” she said. “They’ll be here soon. Stay with me, son.”
Then finally, the sound of boots rumbling. She was relieved to hear the heavy voices and see the beams of white light, as the SWAT unit flooded into the building and entered the sanctuary.
Thank you, Jesus.
A female officer, wearing in a helmet and face shield, peered beneath the bench.
“I think he’s been shot,” Victoria said. “I don’t know…”
The last thing she remembered was someone sweeping the boy from her arms, maybe a medic, maybe an officer. Keenan’s eyes were closed, his mouth slightly open.
Staring at the shoe, Victoria realized what had come of him. She wept aloud now. Her wails echoed through the grand hall.