Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Case of the Dead Trailblazer


Isaac Bledsoe burst through the rear exit door of the University Museum on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The door led to a courtyard surrounded by a tall, black wrought iron fence, one studded with Gothic designs from the last century. Filling the courtyard were the brightest of Philadelphia's Negro youth, nearly two hundred fresh souls identically dressed in powder blue blazers and tan slacks or skirts. The killer of Natalie Rusden walked among them.

Isaac, similarly dressed as the other children although he was not bright or fresh, determinedly scanned the courtyard, looking for Dr. Maurice Wellman, the founder of the Trailblazers, a club for the most promising Negro seventh and eight graders in the city. He soon reached Dr. Wellman, arms folded in front of him in the universal posture of vigilance, a stern Shepard watching his flock.

Isaac quickly described what had happened.

While on the stairs he had heard a scream and he ran toward the noise. After searching the fourth floor he found the body of Trailblazer Natalie Rusden in a storeroom near the exhibit on the American West. Natalie had a knife in her chest. Isaac listened for a heartbeat and felt for a pulse but the girl's body was still and quiet. While saying a silent prayer for the girl's immortal soul he heard the sound of someone running. Whoever it was took off down the stairs. Isaac had given chase and the chase ended in this courtyard.

Dr. Wellman looked past Isaac Bledsoe to his Trailblazers. In briefest moment he imagined the courtyard barren, his dream of creating a powerful core of science and math leaders in Philadelphia's black community evaporated. Dr. Wellman quickly nodded to what Isaac had told him. "I’ll call the police. Don't let anyone leave this courtyard," he said calmly. He hustled across the space and, using his key to unlock the rear door of the museum, quickly disappeared inside.

Isaac found his older, substantially more beefy brother Henry. He gave Henry the quickest version of the story possible and told him to guard the only exit, a set of double gates leading onto Thirty-third Street. According to Henry, no child had walked past him. All obediently, if raucously, awaited the rented buses to take them back to Trailblazer headquarters on North Broad.

Isaac, a child himself, commenced his walk around the courtyard, looking for a killer walking amongst children.

After the first murder of a Trailblazer, two weeks ago at the Lake Island pools, Isaac's brother had been asked to get involved. The detective assigned the case, a good egg named Marty O'Brien, had the bright idea that the killer of Wanda Perch was another Trailblazer or someone connected to the program. Lake Island had been closed to the public on the day of the murder and only the children and a few of the staff were present. With the concurrence of Dr. Wellman, detective O'Brien asked Henry to assist with the investigation. Henry, although just seventeen, was a well-known community do-gooder in the slum called Abbotsford, someone who had graduated from delivering groceries and shoveling snow, to the quasi-detective work of finding lost children or recovering stolen goods.
O'Brien's recruiting target wasn't Henry, who was too old to infiltrate the Trailblazers, but his neer-do-well brother Isaac, at thirteen the perfect age. Problem was Isaac was anything but a do-gooder, with a reputation as a criminal in the making.

To O'Brien's surprise, Henry had convinced his brother to participate and his reluctant spy was now hot on the trail of the killer.

Isaac took a deep breath and stopped walking. Well practiced in helping out with his big brother's investigations, he asked himself a question.

"What do I know?"

He rolled the question around in his mind. He went through it again. Second girl killed in two weeks. He came upon Natalie's body. The girl was dead but the killer was close. Probably watched him or heard him approach. The killer hid, then he ran away.

He? Is it a he? Since it's girls they kill, he must be a he, right? Girls don't kill girls, do they?

Isaac decided that he was looking for a boy, eliminating one third of the children that shared this courtyard.

The killer ran away. What kind of a noise did he make? Was it a sharp noise like that made by dress shoes running or a slap of loafers or the squeak of sneakers? Isaac scanned the feet of the children. The boys wore all types of footwear with loafers being dominant. Dr. Wellman did not allow sneakers.

Isaac decided that the noise was more of a heavy slap, indicating a big foot, wearing loafers or some other type of comfortable shoe.

He thought about the chase down the stairs. Isaac was a small boy but quick. He prided himself in his ability to run fast; usually he was running hard, away from the law or toward trouble. The boy outran him easily. The rear door of the building wasn't even moving when Isaac reached it. Isaac remembered the noise the boy made on the stairs, a noise different in rhythm from his own, suggesting that the boy was taking two steps to each one trod by Isaac. The boy was either very athletic or very tall.

"What do I know?" he asked himself again. I know the victim. Natalie was a cute and smart whippet with a mouth full of bad words when out of an adult's earshot; the girl was pure street, all flash and attitude. She was no one's victim and probably fought back hard. Her killer may be injured, scratched maybe.

"What do I want?" Henry had taught him to ask this question although Isaac couldn't understand why he would need to ask this in most circumstances. The answer this time was easy. He wanted to catch the killer before he took another beautiful black child from this earth.

Isaac began walking again, looking for a boy, tall and in shape, wearing loafers or some other comfortable, soft or wide soled shoe. The boys that most fit this description he asked to gather near the exit in front of Henry. As he completed his circuit of the courtyard, he had gathered half a dozen boys. He knew them all by name as he had spent time with all of them over the past two weeks. These were real children, not the hardened youth of Abbottsford. Their main crime was being young boys - liable to the flaws of any early teen. Growing up and surviving day to day in Abbottsford, Isaac was often in the company of killers. He didn't sense that there was a killer in his midst at the present. Despite that, Isaac pressed on.

He quickly got to the point. "I asked you all here because I think one of you just killed Natalie Rusden." Isaac carefully watched the reactions.

Only Jimmy Wilkins and Harold Smith maintained eye contact, trying to cut Isaac with their eyes. Frank Truehart buried his head in his hands. Willie Cromarty looked down at the concrete while the other two, Horace Jessup and Percy Childs, looked away from Isaac, toward the other children, seemingly wishing they too were still playing innocently.

Isaac crossed Jimmy and Harold off his list. Guilty people don't like to make eye contact.

"I need to see your hands," Isaac said.

"What for?" Jimmy asked.

Isaac stepped to the boy. Jimmy was a head taller but he unconsciously took a step back as Isaac confronted him.

"Natalie wouldn't have just let someone hurt her. She would have fought back. Now show me your hands."

Jimmy presented his hands, palms up and the other boys followed his lead.

Sirens now cut the air. Isaac heard the muted screech of tires as the cop cars stopped in front of the building.

There were no marks on the hands of the boys. "Turn your hands over and pull up your sleeves," Henry ordered.

The boys did as commanded. There, on the back of Percy Childs' hand, were three long scratches.

Isaac grabbed the boy's hand. "How did you get them scratches, Percy?"

Percy's eyes spun wildly from Isaac's face to the other children and back.

"He killed Natalie. Percy killed her!" shouted Willie.

"I…I," stammered Percy.

"Killer!" cried Frank, his voice drawing the attention of some of the other children.

"Let him speak," Isaac said. "Tell us Percy," he said coolly.

"You gotta believe me, I would never hurt Natalie."

"Horace is his best friend," Willie said. "Why don't y'all ask him?"

All eyes fell upon Horace. Horace eyes took in the pathetic, pleading face of his friend then studied the concrete.

"You were sweet on her, you told me so," Horace whispered.

Tears filled Percy's eyes. Water dribbled off his lips as he spoke. "Natalie is…was a pretty girl. Half the boys here were sweet on her. I tried to talk to her but she said her heart belonged to someone else," he said.

"He still ain't explained those scratches," Jimmy said.

"I tried to steal something in there, okay. There was an Indian necklace behind some thick glass. The glass had a small slot cut into it, near the bottom. I thought I could get my hand through it and grab the necklace. I tried to get my hand in there but the glass wasn't wide enough and it was nicked up. I scratched my hand pulling it out."

"Why steal a necklace, Percy?" Isaac asked.

The boy ducked his head. "I thought Natalie would like me if I gave her a present," he said.

Dr. Wellman, Detective O'Brien and a handful of uniform police burst through the museum's rear door. Wellman pointed toward the rear gate and the group quick walked in that direction. Seeing this, Percy's eyes widened and he swam past Henry's outstretched arms and flew onto Thirty-third Street.

Henry had reached the edge of the sidewalk when he felt a hand grab his collar. Isaac tugged his brother back as they heard the sickening screech of tires. A large car slammed into Percy, flipping the boy onto its substantial hood and back to the asphalt.

The police, Dr. Wellman, Detective O'Brien, Isaac and Henry rushed to the prone boy.

"He just came out of nowhere," the driver said as he exited his Buick. "I swear to God," he added for the benefit of the uniforms.

Two of the cops crouched down beside Percy. "Knocked cold. Looks like a broken leg, maybe a broken arm," one said. "We need to get him to the hospital. I'll bring my car around." The man rushed off.

"I'll carry him," Dr. Wellman said. He took off his jack and placed it over the young boy. He lifted Percy from the asphalt. As the noted scientist crouched down, Isaac admired the soft soles of his walking shoes. Isaac's eyes traveled up Wellman's lean frame and quickly noticed the blood on the cuff of the man's right sleeve.

"Dr. Wellman, where did you get that blood?" Isaac pointed to the small spot of blood.

"I must have got it lifting young Mr. Childs," Wellman answered. The cop car appeared and Wellman began to carry Percy to the vehicle.

"One second, Dr. Wellman," Detective O'Brien said. "Terrence, take the boy to the hospital."
Another officer took Percy and soon the cop car was speeding with flashing lights toward the hospital.

"Dr. Wellman, I'll have to ask you to pull back your shirt sleeves."

"This is ridiculous, detective."

"Humor us," O'Brien said. Wellman shot a hard look toward Isaac Bledsoe. "Now, please Dr. Wellman."

Surrounded by the children he had hoped to save, Dr. Maurice Wellman undid the buttons on his sleeve. Natalie had fought back - both his arms were raked with long scratches.

"Dr. Wellman, you'll have to come with us," O'Brien said calmly. He eyed the surrounding children. "I'll wait to cuff you until we are out of sight of the kids."

"She said she loved me, detective," Wellman said. "Turns out she was lying. She didn't love me, after all."

Two officers roughly grabbed Wellman by the arms, yanking him away from the crowd.

"The less you say Professor, the better," Isaac heard O'Brien say as they placed Wellman in a squad car. Soon the buses came to collect the children and Isaac and Henry stood alone in the courtyard.

"What do you think happened Henry?" Isaac asked.

"I think Natalie and maybe the other girl had a crush on Dr. Wellman." He shrugged, uncomfortable with what he was about to say to his baby brother. "I think Wellman wanted something from them that they were not ready to give."

Isaac nodded, partially understanding.

"What's to become of the Trailblazers?" Isaac asked.

"Like you and me, little brother, they gonna have to make it on their own."

Isaac nodded and took one more look around the courtyard, eyes scanning for the lost promise of the Trailblazers. He shook his head and quickly fell in step with his brother, who had already begun walking for the bus that would take them home.

Huck Finn

I went walking the other day. Saw a group of white guys getting ready to play touch football. (Real men don't play touch, but that is another story for another day.) My ears were assaulted by the sounds coming from their car. The voice was black, the so called music rap, and every other word out the fool's mouth was nigger. The white boys' heads were bobbing along to the music like one of these bobble head dolls. Really strange - nigger is now the foundation of a whole form of entertainment, enjoyed by the people who used to hurl the word at us as a weapon, while raping our women or lynching our alpha males.

The news broke yesterday that some idiot is publishing a new edition of Huck Finn that removes the word nigger. What a desecration. What's next, removing every other 'bad word' from literature? Removing every other 'bad image' or 'bad sound' from art, movies or music? The rap idiots have a right to use nigger. To me, so does Mark Twain and writers like me.

Just wanted to get that off my chest. Thanks for listening.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Clarence Newberry, along with 140,000 other management employees could sense the sharpened blade about to strike. There was a gentle breeze to his back, caused by the executioner taking practice swipes with his instrument. The ax would fall soon.

Or at least that is what Clarence has heard.

Reduction in Force or RIF, the most frightening words ever invented; ones guaranteed to strike fear in even the boldest middle class heart. Thirty percent this year, more next.

East Coast Mega Telecom has been losing their war for the hearts and minds of the cable TV viewer. The big cable companies were not only holding onto their cable TV customers, they were taking ECMT's landline customers. Soon all ECMT will have left is its booming wireless business and that was not enough to keep Clarence and the other landline workers employed.

Clarence was forty-nine, having battled racism and a lack of college credentials to a low six figure middle management position. ECMT had long ago eliminated severance pay; Clarence's savings were nil so he had no safety net. His 401K would mostly be eaten up by repayment of his two significant loans; the rest by his need to pay something on his mortgage lest they take his suburban McMansion.

As was his habit, Clarence did not inform his wife Mae of his impending RIF. After twenty-two years of marriage he knew better to open his mouth; by the time he closed his mouth his wife would use his openness as a weapon, beating him down, describing in detail his shortcomings as a man, husband and father.

She'll even throw in how she doesn't get IT enough, he thought.

She'll say how he's letting down his children. For the umpteenth time Clarence felt a pang of regret. Five years ago, both of them having lost their minds temporarily, little Clarence was born. After having two girls who were nearly grown, they had another child. Mae would hit him with the 'C bomb': You're not setting a good example for your son. His ears bleed from the assault. You need to be a strong provider for the family.

Finally, when he's almost unconscious from the assault, she'll unload the big gun, the bunker buster. Show your boy what it is to be a man. It's her favorite phrase.
Clarence spent a couple week scouring the 'Net for a new job, assessing his prospects. He quickly found that given his age and his lack of college, his prospects were bleak. Black guy pushing fifty, he was a heart attack and the accompanying major medical bills, waiting to happen. He didn't even have the educational and career gravitas necessary to convince corporate America he was worth the risk. Plus the economy is in the toilet. There was no doubt in Clarence's mind that he would lose everything: house, cars, LCD TV, his son's love and respect.

Clarence was left with one option: death.

He was worth more to his family dead than alive. The half million dollar life insurance policy and another quarter million through ECMT would certainly take care of Mae and the children. The home and his big screen TV would be safe. Is that all his wife and kids care about? Their stuff and the mansion that holds it?
Clarence took a day off from work without telling his wife. Dangerous, yes, but he felt it worth the risk. He drove into the 'hood, deep in the jungle until he reached the abode of his ne'er do well Cousin Greg. Greg was nearly the same age as Clarence but still clung to the artifice of youth: XBOX, hookers, crack and living off your parents. For a man who like Clarence was nearing fifty, it was a pretty impressive feat.

After greeting his aunt, Clarence went down the basement, Greg's fiefdom. Greg was playing Resistance on the XBOX 360. He gave his cousin's hand a quick shake and went back to his game. Realizing that he would not have his cousin's full attention, Clarence started talking.

He told him about the upcoming RIF. (He spoke slowly since Greg had never held a job and the whole 'work thang' was a mystery to him.) He got a corner of his cousin's eyeball when he mentioned the LCD TV. Finally Clarence got to the point.

"I need you to find me a hitman," he said.

"Who do you want deaded?" Greg asked. He was very calm, as if someone stopped by daily to hire a killer.

"I don't want anyone deaded….dead."

"Ya'll sure? I would kill the bitch you married for nothing my damned self."

"I want to die," Clarence said. "I want the hitman to kill me."

This moved Greg to pause the game. "Ya gotta be shitting me, cus. You don't want to go out like that."

"I do," Clarence said. "And I'll give you a thousand dollars to make it happen."

"Bet," Greg said quickly. Clarence assumed that meant they had a deal and shook his cousin's hand. They spent a few minutes discussing the details and then Clarence handed over the cash (another loan from his 401K).

After declining his cousin's elegant offer to smoke crack – yo, just like old times, cus! – Clarence stumbled onto the harsh sidewalk knowing that he was finally being a man, THE MAN, for his family.

Clarence spent the next two days waiting for the shot to the head that would end his life. He had requested that the hitman blow his brains out with a high powered rifle, preferably when he was alone so that he would not scar his children for the rest of their lives. If he had the shot when Clarence was in the presence of his wife it was okay to kill him then. Mae Newberry would be too busy counting her money to be scared by something as mundane as Clarence's head exploding like JFK's.
Clarence wore brightly colored suits and shoes to work, in the hope that he would make a better target. He hoped to be knocked off before now because he had heard that today was RIF day, when the unfortunate thousands would learn their fates. By the end of today many heads would reside in the wicker basket, the executioner smiling underneath the hood.

Who would be Clarence's executioner?

Sitting at his desk in his lime green suit nervously tapping his pencil on his desktop Clarence got the call. His boss' boss, the Senior VP, wanted to see Clarence in his office.

"Nice suit," Mr. Westerly said as Clarence strolled into his office, a dead man at peace with the life he has lived. He gave the man a casual shake of the hand and sat in the uncomfortable chair facing a colossal desk.

"Thank you for coming to see me so promptly," Westerly said. He was smiling.

Clarence hated a happy hangman.

Just get it over with! he screamed inside.

"The reason I called you here is because we have made the decision to let Carol Harley go."

Clarence was stunned – Carol was his boss and, as an older woman, would have an even harder time finding another position.

"I'm sorry to hear that, sir. Carol is a good person." Okay, motherfucker, let the other shoe fall. I'm gone too, right?

"We've decided that you are the right person to lead her division. In fact, Clarence, with the consolidations, you will be leading two divisions, with a considerable increase in pay." Weatherly wrote down Clarence's total compensation package and Clarence's eyeballs nearly fell out and on to the paper.

The man droned on for another twenty minutes, discussing budgets, objectives, team building and other executive tripe, but Clarence was not listening. Soon the man stopped talking and Clarence floated out of the office and back to his desk. It was quitting time before Clarence thought of the hitman who was somewhere out there, ready to make his head explode. He called his cousin's house. His aunt answered and informed Clarence that Greg was high right now and would have to call him back later. Clarence hung up.

Somehow I have to stay alive until I can reach Greg, he thought.

He considered remaining at work until then. Mae would be pissed that he was late but better late than dead; dead being slightly worse than an angry black woman on your ass. The problem was he did not know what the hitman looked like. Given the shoddy security at ECMT's headquarters the killer could simply waltz up to Clarence's cubicle and blow his brains out.

Clarence spent the next twenty minutes perusing every individual who walked by. At this point, his pointy toed light green shoes were doing a nervous rumba underneath his desk. He stood; he would be a man and go home with his head held high.
High, but not too high. To cover his green suit Clarence borrowed a brown trench coat from the community closet. He slunk into the eighty degree heat of the early August evening dressed for a rain shower that was never coming. He decided against going for his car – parked on the rooftop of the parking garage – a lonely spot convenient for both a high powered rifle fired from nearby rooftops or the approach of a quiet assassin.

Clarence ran down into a nearby subway station. He purchased a dozen tokens and soon was riding the subway north. He kept a careful eye on his fellow passengers – his suburban eyes read danger in all their rough urban faces. There was one person who caught his attention, a black man in a white windbreaker and black cap. It occurred to Clarence that many killers wore windbreakers – better to hide a gun, my dear.

Clarence noticed that the subway doors bounced before their final close – open, closed, and bounced back open then closed for good. Timing his exit to coincide when his assumed killer was distracted, Clarence managed to bolt out of the subway car on the door's second opening. As the car sped away he looked in satisfaction as the black hat got smaller and smaller.

From there his took a southbound train back into downtown and a light rail out to the 'burbs. There was no transportation out to his house so Clarence had to hoof it, making sure he stayed off the road, in the shadows of shrubs and trees. It was nearly eleven when he got home. He was filthy, sweaty, and just plain dead tired. But, he was not dead, he had made it.

The phone was ringing as he entered his house.

"Where have you been, Clarence?" Mae asked as she handed him the phone. She shook her head and smacked her teeth as she stepped away.

"Clarence, it's me." It was Greg! Perfect.

"Greg, I want you to call it off."

His cousin laughed. Clarence had a sinking feeling – maybe he wouldn't call it off.

"You can keep the money, Greg. Just call it off, man."

Greg laughed again. Clarence could hear the XBOX going in the background – thousands of virtual men were dying while Clarence sweated out his oh so real life.
"Cus, it was never on. I knew you would have second thoughts about it, after you calmed yourself down. I even called that wife of yours – told her what you wanted to do."

"You told Mae?" Clarence now felt a pair of hard eyes boring into his back. He turned and instead of an angry look his wife actually appeared to be the picture of empathy and love.

"Yeah, cus, she told me that you've been under a lot of pressure at work." He laughed again. He sure did seem to be enjoying my misery, Clarence thought.
"But, pressure or not son, you ain't getting your money back. Already smoked that shit up."

Clarence thanked his cousin and hung up the phone.

Mae Newbery approached her husband and took his hand. "I think we need to talk," she said.

They sat on the couch, close for once, and Clarence poured his heart out. He told his wife of his fear of being RIF'd, his desire to take care of his family and to be a man.

Mae nodded her understanding and patted his hand on cue. This was the most comfort she has given him since their son was conceived.

"Obviously you were mistaken, Clarence. I tell you all the time that you underestimate yourself."

He told her about his increased responsibilities then he told her about his new compensation plan. He expected her to be happiest about that change but her expression did not alter; there was love and sympathy in her eyes. "I think you need to go upstairs and get cleaned up, my husband." Her ample lips softly brushed his cheek. "I'll have your supper warm for you when you come back down."

Clarence stepped into the master bedroom and before he could turn on the light he felt something strange under his feet. In the light he determined that it was some type of plastic painter's cloth. Was Mae going to paint the room?

He took another step in the room when a man stepped out of the master bath; it was the man in the white windbreaker. The jackets were good for concealing weapons. The man extracted a large pistol made even longer by the silencer on the end of the barrel.

Before Clarence could explain that it was all a mistake he was shot in the forehead. As he lay on the ground bleeding out, a pair of sensible shoes joined the white tennis shoes of his killer.

His wife bent down so that her face was near his.

She smiled. "For once, Clarence, you decided to stand up, be a man."

Clarence tried to make a sound but the only once he could muster was the sound of his bowels emptying.

Mae patted her husband's face. "That's okay, baby, that what the plastic's for." She laughed with a joy Clarence had not heard in twenty years.

"When Greg called I knew I couldn't let you punk out of this. This was my chance to make you a man that I and our children could be proud of."

A strange satisfaction flowed over Clarence's body. He actually felt good as the windbreaker dude deposited another bullet into his cranium, finally ending his life.

First Story Posted

Hello readers. I write tons of short stories and sometimes sell them to online magazines. I'll post some of those stories and new materials on this blog. The first story I'll post is called RIF. RIF stands for Reduction In Force, a term many of us have heard in the last 2 years as the economy has tanked.

RIF is the story of Clarence Newberry who, facing a certain RIF'ing, gets creative in his desire to take care of his wife and children long term.

Enjoy the story and comments are welcome, good or bad.