The little heartbeat at my feet.
It was 11:15 pm on Friday night. I was on my way home after dropping my roommate, Suzanne, off on Bourbon Street at the Club Bare Minimum where she performed. The club’s name also described the costume she danced in. There wasn’t much traffic in this area of town and the desolate vibes matched my reflection on how my life was going nowhere…fast. I came to a stop at the Claiborne Avenue intersection and saw a CluckIt sign saying the drive-up window stayed open 24-hours.
I hadn’t taken a lunch break, so I could leave early to get a jump on finishing the move to the new, bigger place Suzanne and I now shared. We were left to move all of our things by ourselves. Everyone we asked to help us bailed at the last minute, including my childhood sweetheart, and on again—off again, boyfriend, Dante.
Suzanne, Dante, and I had all grown up in the Irish Channel. Family or lifelong friends lived in almost every house on our block. Dante and his family lived right next door. Dad said houses were so close people next door could hear us change our minds.
Suzanne asked me to be her roommate right after last Mardi Gras when, according to my mother, I made a spectacle out of myself kissing a man in the parade, I thought a little distance from everyone was in order. A few months later, when I told Dante our lease was up, he never suggested we move in together nor mentioned plans for a future for us. I wasn’t expecting an immediate proposal, but I was expecting something. Nope. Nada. Not a word.
This neighborhood was sketchy, so getting out of the car at this time of night, alone, wasn’t a good idea. Staying in the car wasn’t any better. I looked in my rearview mirror and saw dirt on my face, and my clothes were sweaty from the move. A drive thru was my best bet.
CluckIt’s slogan was More Cluck for your Buck! More Chicken in your Bucket—Home of the 1,000-piece Chicken Feast. They could have also used “More Grease for your Feast!” Hundreds of CluckIt buckets littered the parks or the lakefront after sunny weekends of family reunions and company picnics. It was a success story of a New Orleans boy who made good in the fast food chicken industry.
I pulled into the drive-thru to place my order, when I heard a commotion inside from the speaker laced with static. It didn’t diffuse the voices screaming, or the sound of gunshots.
“Stop! You can’t come in here,” someone garbled over the speaker followed by glass breaking and pots clanging from being dropped to the floor or knocked over.
I threw my car in park and got out so I could sneak along the back wall and peer around the corner.
Playing dodge the bullets is not my favorite pastime, so I felt conflicted between doing the right thing and running away like my shorts were on fire. Maybe I could be a witness or catch a license plate to a robbery in progress and do my civic duty. For my day job, I worked investigating fraudulent activity in computer systems. Even though my childhood sweetheart, Dante, and I didn’t work together, we had similar jobs. We both worked to stop bad guys from doing the wrong things. Dante’s job required him to chase people with a gun and shoot at them, while mine involved sitting in my office with a computer printout and a yellow highlighter.
My hands were shaking so much I almost couldn’t read the screen of my cell phone. I dialed 911 but before I could give the operator the location I heard the second gunshot. I whispered as loud as I could. “Shots fired at the CluckIt on Claiborne Avenue. Send an ambulance.” I hoped she heard it all before I hung up.
The CluckIt’s parking lot was empty and not all the security lights were working. The oak tree at the back of the property cast a giant shadow over the rear of the building including the drive-up order window and the pick-up window. The darkness helped hide me, but also made it hard for me to see everything that was happening.
I forced myself to peek. A black SUV waited at the pick-up window. Someone in a very short black leather miniskirt, a tight spandex top, and black patent leather high heels, perched like a bird on the ledge, was climbing inside. If I were going to crawl through a drive-up window—any drive-up window—I would wear pants, not a miniskirt.
I was pretty sure the one going through the window hadn’t seen or heard me when I dialed 911. The screaming started right after I heard the first gunshot. It was starting to subside, so I forced myself to take another look. I saw the same person in the miniskirt and high heels backing out of the window pulling a worker wearing a CluckIt uniform.
The person in the miniskirt had straight black, shoulder-length hair pulled into a ponytail at the nape of the neck and moved effortlessly, dragging the other body out of the drive-up window. Once Miniskirt was in the SUV, the CluckIt worker was pulled in behind and heaved across to the passenger side like a duffle bag.
When both were in the SUV, Miniskirt hit the gas and took off. I strained to see if anyone else was in the vehicle but the windows were tinted, and they looked black when the vehicle moved out of the drive-up lighting.
A blonde wig was on the ground outside the drive-up window, and a tall skinny black man was leaning out looking in the direction after the car driving away. I ran up to him showing both my hands so he wouldn’t think I was armed.
“I called 9-1-1. Is anyone hurt? I was at the drive-up when I heard the shots.”
Several of the workers were anxiously shifting their weight from foot-to-foot and standing along the farthest wall from the window. When I looked at them they all started talking at once.
“That he-she kidnapped…” a short woman stammered while pointing a shaking finger at the window.
I looked at a young man standing next to the woman pointing to the feet of someone down on the floor. Those feet had on the largest pair of women’s high heels I’ve ever seen. My eyes moved up two hairy legs to a CluckIt uniform dress belted at the waist, and finally stopped at a man’s face wearing makeup with a blonde wig askew on his head.
A woman wearing a uniform with the name Earline sewn over the pocket, sat on the floor with his head in her lap trying to arrange the wig back in place. She was rocking back and forth mumbling, “She didn’t deserve this, no, she didn’t deserve this.”
“She…she…shot first, she…she got shot first,” another young worker, maybe in his teens was repeating the same thing over and over while nodding to the victim on the floor.
“That’s right. First, she got shot then…” the other two workers shouted their versions of what happened, talking over each other trying to tell me at the same time.
“Is she still alive?” I asked the tall, skinny man wearing a name tag that read Lionel, Manager. He was wiping the grease off his hands down the front of his uniform shirt and looking at the person on the floor. He was the one at the window when I ran up and had stepped back, giving me a clear view of the aftermath inside.
“Lionel—your name’s Lionel, right?” I asked him trying to get his attention.
He nodded while he stared at the body on the floor. He continued wiping his hands up and down the front of his shirt.
“My name’s Brandy, Brandy Alexander. I heard it all over the drive-thru speaker. Can you let me in? I’m kinda scared standing out here and I might be able to help,” I said.
Lionel finally looked at me as if he were seeing me for the first time, and moved toward the entry door next to the drive-up window. I looked around to see if there were any other potential witnesses, or anyone planning to add a robbery to the shooting and kidnapping. It was midnight and streets were dark and empty lacking the crowds found only a few blocks away.
The slightest breeze caused wicked shadows from street lamps to dance under the giant oaks. One hundred years of limbs entwined across the neutral ground forced most of the light upward, illuminating the second story of nearby homes leaving their entrances shrouded in darkness. This same street that made you lock your doors and look over your shoulder at night invited you to stroll under the shade of the same trees in the daytime.
Lionel unlocked the door to let me in, then quickly locked it behind me saying, “Everything gets locked at ten o’clock. Only the drive-thru stays open.”
I followed him behind the fast food counter and noticed how his arm was shaking as he pointed to the person bleeding on the floor, with a gaping chest wound. Everyone went silent.
“I told you putting on a dress would get you nothing but trouble,” Lionel shouted at the victim on the floor. “It got you shot, and now, Chardonnay’s gone and got his self hit in the head and kidnapped.”
“I called 9-1-1. An ambulance should be here soon,” I said again to the woman sitting on the floor. “Does anyone know CPR?”
No one responded as I glanced around. I checked for a pulse and could not find one. “Your friend might have a chance. Get some towels, please. We have to put pressure on the wound to try and stop the bleeding.”
The smell of hot grease that reeked of not having been changed frequently made me gag. I put my hand over my mouth.
The woman on the floor stopped praying and looked up. “Shut up, Lionel. Get some towels,” she said and attempted to straighten the wig on the victim’s head. I wondered if she thought the sight of blood was making me nauseous.
All the employees were looking at the victim bleeding on the floor and shaking their heads.
“He…uh,” Lionel stammered and wiped his hands down the front of his uniform again, “uh…she, the one came in the window, never even asked for money,” Lionel said handing me some clean towels he grabbed from the front counter.
I sat down on the floor next to the woman. The grease smell wasn’t as pungent down here and the coolness of the tile floors seemed calming.
I placed the towels over the bullet hole and noticed there was no blood pooling underneath the body I motioned for one of the boys standing along the wall to come and help me and showed him how to apply pressure to the wound.
“Lionel, find as many towels as you can,” I said.
To avoid another wave of nausea, I stayed close to the floor so the smell of rancid grease wouldn’t overtake me. I crawled far enough away to give the young man room to work, but kept an eye on him until the ambulance arrived. The air-conditioning was on full blast and I started to shiver sitting on the cold tile floor in shorts. I hugged my knees into my chest.
Focusing on the crisis, I put aside my annoyance at Dante for not helping me move, and dialed his NOPD work number. It was always easier to talk to Dante about life and death matters where others were concerned than anything personal going on with us. I hoped his partner didn’t answer.
“Homicide. Detective Deedler.”
“It’s me. I’m at…”
“I can’t talk right now. I just took a call. There’s been a shooting at the CluckIt on…”
“I know, I called 9-1-1. I’m at the CluckIt now.”
“Get outta there,” he cut me off. His words tumbled out in one quick breath.
“I can’t. I drove into the drive-thru and was about to place my order when shots were fired.”
“You were there during the shooting?”
“Yes, I called 9-1-1 for an ambulance.”
“You called an ambulance? Have you been shot?” he fired off the questions before I could interrupt him.
“No, I’m not hurt. One of the workers here was shot.” There was a brief pause and I thought he had hung up. Then I heard Dante release a big exhale into the phone.
“Wait right where you are. I’ll be there in five. No. Get in your car. Lock the doors and stay in it ’til I get there.” He hung up.
This classic Dante behavior annoyed the daylights out of me. He’d been doing it all of our lives, dictating what to do, expecting me to follow his instructions without question. Unfortunately for me, this was a police matter, and I was a key witness, so I had to wait for him and his partner. Still, I didn’t have to sit in my car.
Since Dante knew I was here at the crime scene, it would most likely improve the police response time the evening news had been reporting—unfavorably—as somewhere between two hours and never. My dad said, “shots fired” was code for all units to take a coffee and donut break so they would arrive—safely—long after the shootout.”
Hanky, Dante’s partner, would make it here in record time if she thought I was the one shot and left for dead. She’d stop for a manicure if she thought I was still breathing.
I put the cell in the pocket of my shorts and leaned over to see if the bleeding slowed and to check and see if I could find a pulse. I still couldn’t find one. I wanted to ask some questions before the cops got here and took over. The workers might tell me things they wouldn’t tell the police.
Three employees and Lionel went to sit on chairs against the wall at the back of the kitchen. I scooted over on the floor and sat next to the lady who still had the worker’s head in her lap while we waited for the police. I smiled at her and rubbed her arm until she spoke first. When she started talking, I went back to keeping pressure on the victim’s wound, but it had stopped bleeding. I was pretty sure she was dead.
“She didn’t deserve this,” the woman said as she kept trying to arrange his wig and straighten his uniform. “She tried to save Chardonnay, but that one, that one that got dragged outta here,” she nodded toward the drive-up window, “he never looked out for this one here.”
“Your name’s Earline?” I asked, reading her name tag. “My name’s Brandy. They were together? Partners?”
She touched the name on her own uniform blouse and nodded.
“This one thought so, but that other one, he didn’t treat her right. He stepped out on her all the time. Even so, she always in a good mood, smiling at everybody. She always say nice things to people. She say she like your new hair, or she like your lipstick.”
“What’s her name?” I asked. Where the name was sewn on the uniform was soaked in blood.
“Her real name is James Batiste, but she called herself Jimmie until she hooked up with that other one. Then, she called herself Merlot because she darker and the other one was light skinned. She called him Chardonnay.”
“What’s his real name?” I nodded to the drive-up window.
“His name is Charles Ballon. I heard him on his cell phone talking trash to somebody, some other woman, even when Jimmie was right here. She acted like she didn’t hear him. I think he one that go both ways, if you know what I mean.”
I nodded. “Why do you think that woman who came in through the window pulled him outta here?”
“That was no woman that climbed in here. He had on a miniskirt, but that was a man, and he said to Merlot before he shot her, ‘You not taking my’…then he said some name that starts with a Z, like Zanda or Xavier…’from me’.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her Xavier didn’t start with a Z. “Do you think it was the name he knew Charles by? You know, did he think it was Charles’ real name, not the Chardonnay name?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. It all be happening fast.”
“Did he hurt Charles, I mean, Chardonnay?”
“Oh, yeah, that he-she whacked Chardonnay in the head with the gun real hard. Knocked him out. Then he pulled him outta the window. Maybe he comes back to work with some sense knocked in.”
“Did either Chardonnay or Merlot act like they knew him, or say a name?”
The short woman standing away from us said, “Earline, that be none of her business. Why you answering all them questions? You better keep your mouth shut.”
Earline ignored her. “I don’t think Merlot knew him. Maybe Chardonnay knew who it was because he said, ‘I’m not going anywhere with you,’ but he never said no name. That’s when the one in the miniskirt shot Merlot, and Chardonnay got himself knocked in the head. Merlot told me she was transgender and only liked men for company, but she told me Chardonnay was a bisexual or whatever it’s called that likes everybody.”
“Earline, shut your mouth when the police get here or you be yanked out that window next,” the same woman huffed and turned her back to us.
“Don’t you want to help find who did this to Jimmie?” I asked Earline. “The police won’t find who did this if no one wants to come forth with information, or help in an investigation,” I said more to the rest of the workers standing around.
The short woman turned her back on me when I started talking. She would really be going off on Earline if she knew I dated a cop.
We sat and waited for Dante and his partner, Detective Hanky, to show up.
Copyright © 2017, Colleen Mooney
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
No part of this book shall be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the publisher. Although every precaution has been taken in the preparation of this book, the publisher and author assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. Neither is a liability assumed for damages resulting from the use of the information contained here.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
eBook ISBN-10: 0-9905527-5-6
eBook ISBN-13: 978-0-9905527-5-8
Print ISBN-10: 0-99005527-6-4
Print ISBN-13: 978-0-9905527-6-5