Murder on the Down Low
When a brazen gunman targets some of L.A.’s most prominent citizens, the police are completely baffled. The victims are all quintessential family men. Well-educated. Attractive. Successful. But appearances can be deceiving.
Read an Excerpt Below!
Standing outside Exam Room 5, the doctor scanned the chart of the first patient he was scheduled to see after his lunch meeting. His office suite in the Horton Medical Plaza was tastefully decorated with muted walls and dark slate tile. Colorful prints of jazz musicians lined the long, bright hallway. The place was classy, but not over the top. Just like Dr. Banks.
He checked his watch. It was almost eleven-thirty. Time to leave. The doctor closed the chart and dropped it into the plastic casing posted at eye level outside the exam room. He strode into his private office, locked the door, then retrieved a throwaway cell phone from his desk.
“I’m about to leave,” he said. “The President’s Suite, right?”
It was always that cut and dry. He was a happily married man who did not have the time or the need for emotional connections. His lunch meetings were all about the sex.
The doctor slipped out of his white coat and hung it on a metal rack. Casually but impeccably dressed, he wore a khaki-colored shirt and black slacks made from an expensive linen fabric. The kind that didn’t wrinkle much. He was forty-two years old, just shy of six feet, and a hearty 215 pounds. He had the build of an aging ex-football player. Not nearly as lean as in his prime, but thick and firm enough to advertise that he still hit the gym on a regular basis.
After telling his office manager that he’d be back by one-thirty, Dr. Banks took an elevator to the parking structure. He eased his black Jag onto Hillcrest Street. At the light, he turned left on Manchester Boulevard and headed for the northbound ramp of the 405 Freeway.
Without question, Dr. Banks was one of the best OB/GYNs in Southern California. From the day he had applied to Howard Medical School, he had vowed to return home to Inglewood to set up shop. And despite the sacrifices, he’d kept his word, turning down opportunities that were far more lucrative, in terms of both prestige and compensation. Having a predominantly black and Latino patient base meant keeping late office hours and working one, sometimes two, Saturdays a month. The people he served couldn’t afford to take time off from work. Not even for medical care.
When he wasn’t working, the doctor cherished his family life. Though he now lived just a few miles from his childhood stomping grounds, in many respects it was a world away. View Park was a haven for L.A.’s black elite. Professionals with six and seven-figure salaries who actually liked the idea of having neighbors who looked like them. The doctor’s residence spanned five thousand square feet and had a full-length basketball court, a circular swimming pool, and a guesthouse. The Mrs. was a stay-at-home mom who loved her job as wife and mother to their two sons as much as she loved her husband. All in all, life was good.
The doctor pulled his Jag to a stop in front of the Marina Marriott on Admiralty Way, hopped out, and took a ticket from the valet. He felt invigorated by the very thought of the treat that awaited him. Dr. Banks rotated his lunch meetings among different hotels in the area. His favorite was the much more elegant Ritz-Carlton just up the street. As he crossed the hotel lobby, he tossed the cell phone into the trash, then made a mental note to switch locations for next week. He was many things. Sloppy wasn’t one of them.
When Dr. Banks reached the hotel room, there was no need to knock. The door was always left open just a crack. He could not risk being seen with his lunch date for even the few seconds it would take to open and close the door.
As usual, the main room of the spacious suite was empty. His lunch sat on a sterling silver room service tray on the coffee table in front of the couch. He’d have the turkey sandwich, root beer, and Caesar salad after his other hunger had been satisfied.
Stepping over to the large picture window, Dr. Banks stared across the street at the sailboats lolling in the Marina. Maybe he’d buy himself a boat.
He walked back to the couch, undressed, and slipped into the white terrycloth robe left waiting for him. Another part of the ritual. Dr. Banks sank down onto the couch and for the next five minutes, fell into a deep, calming meditation. The more intensely he fantasized about what awaited him in the adjoining room, the longer and harder his erection grew. He reached down and gently stroked himself, then picked up the condom on the end table and slipped it on.
Dr. Banks entered the bedroom and nodded at his lunch date, who sat naked in a velvet club chair, a sly grin stretched across his bearded face. Clarence Mitchell was his youngest son’s soccer coach. They had been hooking up on a semi-regular basis for over a year.
Clarence stood up, showing off a solid, mink brown body. “Good to see you, man,” he said, smiling.
Dr. Banks didn’t respond, his growing excitement over what was about to occur more internal than external. The two men awkwardly embraced, then let go. Extended foreplay or professions of love were unnecessary. They saved that for the women in their lives.
Clarence walked over to the bed. Following close behind, Dr. Banks discarded his robe and prepared to treat himself.
Just over an hour later, as he exited the freeway, Dr. Banks heard his cell phone ring. He glanced at the caller ID before picking up.
“Hey, beautiful,” he said into the phone.
“Hi, honey,” his wife chirped back. “I’m catching a movie with Karen tonight. The kids are with my parents.”
“Have a good time.”
Diana was always good about making sure he knew her precise whereabouts, and Dr. Banks appreciated that. Now that he was free for the evening, the thought of arranging another hookup with Clarence crossed his mind, but he quickly dismissed the thought. He was not a greedy man. He never prowled for sex and the thought of going to a gay bar disgusted him. Only gay men did that, and he wasn’t gay.
His lunchtime excursions were just a freaky little hobby. Nothing more. Nothing less. He was a fanatic about safe sex and always chose partners who were family men with as much to lose as he had. Dr. Banks even required his sexual partners to periodically produce written proof that they were HIV negative, and he gladly did the same. He loved his wife too much to demand anything less. In the twelve years since he’d said I do, there had only been five other men besides Clarence.
Dr. Banks turned left into the parking structure, made his way to the second level and backed into a stall that bore his name in neat block letters. He hummed his favorite Temptations song, My Girl, as he took off his shades and clipped them onto the sun visor.
Pushing open the car door, Dr. Banks planted his left foot on the ground at the same moment that a bullet pierced his cheek, just below his right eye. The force of the shot sent his head hurtling backward, then slowly forward, as a splash of crimson darkened the car’s pristine beige interior.
As the second and third bullets entered his neck and chest, Dr. Banks’ body fell sideways toward the open car door. His hand reached out for something to grasp, but found nothing to break his fall.
In what looked like a slow motion videotape, Dr. Banks tumbled onto the dirty garage pavement, head first.
Vernetta Henderson could not remember the last time she’d seen Mt. Moriah Baptist Church crammed with so many people. Crowds this big only showed up on Easter Sunday or right after some natural disaster. Like a 7.0 earthquake or a hurricane like the one that nearly wiped New Orleans off the map.
A lone tear inched its way down Vernetta’s right cheek, but she didn’t bother to wipe it away. Another one would replace it soon enough. She peered over her shoulder for the umpteenth time, praying that she’d spot her best friend, Special Moore, somewhere among the mourners. Instead, she saw Jefferson, her husband, slip in and take a seat on the back pew.
Where in the hell was Special? She was taking her cousin’s death pretty hard, but Vernetta couldn’t believe Special would actually miss the entire funeral.
In the pulpit just a few feet away, the testimonials were going into overkill now. Another twenty or so people were lined up along the church’s east wall, waiting for their chance to speak. A petite white woman with curly red hair had already been at the microphone way too long.
“. . . and when we first joined the D.A.’s office,” the woman sniffed in a mousy voice that matched her appearance, “Maya and I would work late into the night. And whenever I needed help with one of my cases, she would always stay to help me out.” The woman paused to blow her nose, blaring right into the microphone. “I couldn’t believe it when I found out she had pneumonia.”
Pneumonia. Yeah, right.
Vernetta closed her eyes and tried to shut out the anguish that felt like it was oozing from her pores. Maya Lavelle Washington was not supposed to be dead. Not at thirty-two. The comforting presence of the friend sitting to Vernetta’s left made it a little easier to cope with the pain. Nichelle Ayers held Vernetta’s hand in a grip so tight it nearly cut off her blood supply. Every two seconds she blubbered something incoherent and dabbed at her cheeks with a wadded up Kleenex.
The woman at the microphone stopped to honk her nose again, and the willowy Reverend Jones seized the opportunity, making it over to her in two long strides. He gave her shoulder a sympathetic squeeze, then waved up the next person in line.
Just over two years ago, they had all celebrated Maya’s thirtieth birthday with a blowout party at The Savoy in Inglewood. Maya had danced so hard her press ’n curl had poofed into a kinky afro by the time the last guest departed. Afterwards, the four of them—Maya, Special, Nichelle, and Vernetta—buzzed from way too many strawberry margaritas, headed over to the Denny’s on Jefferson, where they drank coffee and hot chocolate and laughed until daylight. That had been the last really good time they had all shared together. Three weeks later, Maya found out about her illness.
Nichelle’s cries had turned into hiccupping sobs now, which was only to be expected. Nichelle was so emotional Vernetta often wondered how the girl was able to function as a lawyer. She had barely lasted two years at the City Attorney’s Office in West L.A. before throwing in the towel. Nichelle was a more-than-competent prosecutor. She just had a bad habit of letting her heart cloud her legal judgment. Every defendant Nichelle was assigned to prosecute, she wanted to set free. Her current law practice was limited to preparing living trusts and helping people through the probate process. Now she could feel sorry for her clients and get paid for it.
J.C. Sparks, the woman on Vernetta’s opposite side, shifted in her seat. J.C. was a colleague of Maya’s who had been just as much of a fixture at Maya’s bedside as they all had been during the final weeks of her life. Vernetta could see that J.C. was struggling to maintain her composure. In her line of work—she was a detective with the infamous LAPD—J.C. saw death on a regular basis. Tears weren’t in her job description.
A portly Hispanic man stood before the microphone now, praising Maya’s pro bono work for a homeless shelter in Watts. Vernetta listened without hearing, her thoughts now focused on the mountain of work that awaited her back at the offices of O’Reilly & Finney, one of L.A.’s top law firms. Lately, her professional life had been nothing but drama, drama, drama, and she was not looking forward to more of it come Monday morning.
A commotion emanating from the back of the church wrenched Vernetta’s attention away from her work woes. When she turned around, she saw Special stalking down the center aisle, her arms swinging wildly with each step. Special was tall and curvaceous, with a fun, outrageous personality to match. But today, she looked haggard and borderline anorexic. Her eyes were swollen and red from crying and her long thick hair was mussed together in a scraggly bun.
To everyone’s amazement, including Vernetta’s, Special sidestepped two ushers, shrugged off a funeral director and charged straight into the pulpit. The mourner who was speaking stumbled aside as Special snatched the microphone from its stand.
“Everybody thinks Maya died from pneumonia,” Special said, choking back a sob. “Well, she didn’t.”
Vernetta shot out of her seat and was at Special’s side in a flash. “What’re you doing?” she whispered, covering the mike with her hand. “Don’t do this!”
J.C. followed after her, and the two of them formed a tight half circle around their distraught friend. Reverend Jones took a half step toward them, but froze when J.C. shot him a cop glare that didn’t require any verbal instructions.
“People need to know the truth,” Special replied in a weak but angry voice.
Nichelle had also joined them, which was a surprise considering how much she hated confrontation. She stood off to the side, still dabbing her eyes with the tattered Kleenex.
Vernetta placed a hand on Special’s shoulder. “Maya’s family doesn’t want people to know.”
“I’m her family, too,” Special replied stubbornly. “And I think they should know.”
A muffled clamor drew all eyes to the front pew. Maya’s mother slowly rose to her feet. Pearl Washington was a young woman. Just over fifty. But the weight of her daughter’s death had added a good ten years to her otherwise flawless face.
“Special’s right . . . ” Mrs. Washington said in a weathered voice that had Maya’s feminine raspiness. “People should know. Let her speak.”
After a long, uncertain moment, J.C. took a step back. It took another few seconds before Vernetta reluctantly did the same.
As the congregation waited, Special dropped her head as if she had suddenly lost her nerve and was searching for it on the floor. But in an instant, she straightened into a lofty, almost regal pose.
“Maya wasn’t just my cousin,” Special began, fighting to control her emotions. “She was like a sister to me. And she shouldn’t be lying in that casket. The only reason she is, is because somebody deceived her. And it would be a crime to deceive all of you.”
She stopped and rubbed her right eye with the heel of her hand. “Maya didn’t die of pneumonia. Maya died of AIDS. And Eugene Nelson was the man who infected her.”
An elderly woman gasped from the back row, and a teenager sitting up front cupped his mouth with both hands.
“Maya didn’t know that Eugene was gay or on the down low or whatever you want to call it,” Special continued, ignoring the waves of shock ricocheting through the church. “Eugene needs to pay for what he did. And I promise you . . .” Her lower lip began to quiver and for a second it seemed as if she would not be able to go on. “I plan to make sure that he does.”
Special let out a loud, agonizing wail as her three friends rushed over to her. Reverend Jones waved frantically at the pianist, whose fingers hit the wrong keys, then broke into Amazing Grace.
Vernetta wasn’t sure what emotion she felt as they escorted Special from the pulpit. But she didn’t blame her friend for what she had just done. It didn’t make sense for Eugene to be walking around looking like the picture of health when Maya was dead. What was God’s lesson in that? Special was absolutely right. Eugene had to pay.
As a matter of fact, they had already come up with a plan to make sure that he did.
Vernetta felt her breath catch as she watched Maya’s casket descend into the ground. A whimpering Nichelle held hands with Maya’s mother. This time, even J.C. couldn’t hold back her tears.
It was barely sixty degrees. Cold in L.A. for March. Vernetta scanned the cemetery grounds, hoping to spot Special someplace in the distance.
“I’ve already looked,” J.C. whispered into her ear. “She’s not here.”
When the church service ended, Special had insisted on driving to the burial site alone. They had tried to follow her in J.C.’s Range Rover, but lost her in the long funeral procession. So where is she?
Reverend Jones said a final prayer and several mourners formed a haphazard line to extend condolences to Maya’s mother.
“I can’t believe Special didn’t show up,” Nichelle said, her cries having finally tapered off.
“She’s having a hard time,” J.C. reasoned. “She’ll be alright.”
J.C. wore her hair short, with just enough perm to enhance its natural curl. Her slimming black skirt and leather pumps showed off long, muscular legs. She was a pretty woman with flawless chocolate skin. She wasn’t one of those female cops who hid her femininity, but she didn’t flaunt it either.
Vernetta linked her arm through Nichelle’s, more for her own comfort than her friend’s. Nichelle was of average height, barely five-six, with a thick, brick house frame. She was always stylishly dressed and wore her size fourteens with the swagger of a runway model. The color, print and design of her clothes always separated her from the crowd. Today she donned a flower-print dress that was tapered at the waist with yellow rhinestones along the collar. She said funerals were already too depressing, so she never wore black.
Looking down at her black pants suit, Vernetta wished that she had worn something colorful. Her shoulder-length hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail. Other than her favorite bronze lipstick, she hadn’t bothered to put on any makeup.
“We should head over to the repast to help out,” J.C. said.
They trudged toward J.C.’s SUV and were almost there when Nichelle abruptly stopped and pointed. “There she is!”
Special was sitting alone on a stone bench at a gravesite adjacent to Maya’s.
“It’s just not right,” they heard Special mutter as they approached. “It’s not right for that man to be walking around without a care in the world.”
“I’m sure he cares,” Nichelle said, unable to be anything but sympathetic. “He’s hurting as much as we are. He loved Maya, too.”
Special shot Nichelle a look meant to wound, if not kill. “He didn’t love her enough to tell her he was out screwin’ men. He should be the one in that casket, not Maya.”
Vernetta sat down next to Special and pulled her close. “We need to get over to Maya’s place. Where’s your car?”
Special raised a limp hand and pointed to her decade-old Porsche several yards away. She pulled her keys from her purse and dropped them into Vernetta’s lap. “You drive. I’m lucky I made it here alive.”
“You guys ride back with Special,” J.C. said. “I’ll meet you at the house.”
As J.C. drove off, Nichelle struggled to stuff herself into the backseat of Special’s Porsche. Vernetta had just started up the engine when Special flung open the passenger door and charged out of the car. “What the hell is he doing here?”
Before Vernetta could cut off the engine, Special was halfway to Maya’s gravesite, where Eugene stood staring down at her casket.
Special was jabbing her finger in Eugene’s face by the time they caught up with her.
“Why didn’t you come to the church?” Special demanded, giving him no time to answer. “Because you’re a coward and a murderer, that’s why.”
Eugene looked anxiously over his shoulder. He seemed disoriented and had a disheveled look about him. His eyes were sunken, and he needed a shave. His black shoes, brown slacks, and tieless green shirt did not match.
“I didn’t come because I knew you would make a scene.” He sounded as defeated as he looked. “You don’t have to keep doing this, Special.”
“I hate you!” She was sobbing now and pounding his chest with feeble punches that seemed to do little damage. Eugene took a single, controlled step backward but did not bother to otherwise protect himself from Special’s blows.
Vernetta slid between them and clutched Special by the wrists. “None of this is going to change anything, Special. Let’s just go.”
She jerked free and charged at Eugene. “You’re a murderer, you know that? You’re a goddamn murderer!”
Eugene closed his eyes and looked away. “There’s nothing I can say, so I’m not going to even try. I loved Maya as much as you did, I only wish that—”
“You didn’t love her!” Special spat at him. She was about to strike him again when Vernetta grabbed her from behind and hauled her several feet away.
“Take her to the car,” Vernetta said to Nichelle, handing Special off like a rag doll. Her tirade had sent Nichelle into another crying fit. The two of them were now bawling uncontrollably.
“You’re going to pay for this!” Special yelled back at Eugene as Nichelle dragged her toward the car. “I swear on Maya’s grave, you’re going to get yours!”
Vernetta studied Eugene’s pained expression. Even in his rumpled state, he was a striking man. She could still remember Maya’s excitement after meeting him at a singles’ retreat sponsored by a friend’s church. “Fine, successful, and saved!” Maya had bragged to her friends over dinner. “I’ve finally met my soul mate.”
Eugene proposed nine months later, and they had all celebrated Maya’s lucky catch.
Vernetta could think of nothing to say to Eugene so she turned to leave.
“Could I talk to you for a minute?” Uncertainty filled his voice. “If there’s anything I can do to help out. . .” His words trailed off. “If Maya’s mother needs anything, would you let me know?”
“We’ll take care of anything she needs,” Vernetta snapped. She had never gone off on the man the way Special had, but she wasn’t about to give him the impression that she had even an ounce of sympathy for him.
She was about twenty feet away when Eugene called out to her again. She stopped and waited as he hurried over.
“Uh, what do . . . um . . .” He looked down at his hands as if he didn’t know what to do with them. “People still think Maya died of pneumonia, right?”
The resentment Vernetta had been carefully holding in check teetered on an eruption. She took a second to compose herself. “So it’s still all about you, huh, Eugene? You and your deadly little secrets.”
“No, I . . . uh . . . I just wanted to know.” He looked down again and kicked the grass with his foot. “If people know, it’s fine. I just . . .”
“Well, you know what?” Vernetta’s lips eased into a wicked smile. “Everybody knows Maya suffered from AIDS and everybody knows that you infected her. In fact, Special stood up at the funeral and announced it to the whole congregation.”
Vernetta chuckled softly to herself as she turned away, relishing the horrified look on Eugene’s face.
The brother wasn’t on the down low anymore.