Jamal’s block was relatively quiet, as much as could be expected. On the next block over, Detective Rourke sat inside a rented Escolade, quietly rolling a squeeze ball around in his fingers as he stared out at nothing in particular. At any other time he’d be on a stakeout with his partner Simmons waiting to make a bust. This was different. Because of the fight on the dance-floor on the Spirit of New York boat a week earlier, Rourke found himself on suspension for two weeks. Aside from being pissed at the whole situation, he began to wonder if Jamal was part of some master plan. To him, Jamal was either some criminal mastermind, an extremely lucky fool, or just some college kid with good instincts and impeccable timing. Whatever the reason, he didn’t anticipate Jamal staying in the house all day long on a Saturday night.
Tired of staring at the computer screen, Jamal closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. Between homework and handling his business client work, 18 hours had been a mean marathon of typing, brainstorming and mind-bending math — especially for a weekend. In the darkness he could still see his accounting program screens speeding by like traffic on the turnpike. This was the hard part, the brutal pioneering days where all the foundation had to be laid. None of his business classes had prepared him for this part of the deal. He glanced over at his bookshelf and caught a second wind. There, inside an old unabridged Spanish-English dictionary with a hidden compartment, was the box with Leila’s engagement ring. When he noticed the time was 10:31pm, he pushed himself away from the desk and began to get dressed. Leila had been pulling double-shifts at her second job and was scheduled to clock out at 11:30. He wanted to be there in time to walk her home. As he opened the door he suddenly felt incomplete. Where’s the ring, he thought as he returned to his room and retrieved it from the bookshelf. Anytime he knew he would see her he carried it on him just in case.
Jamal arrived at Café Zanzibar, a cross between the legendary Nuyorican Café and a low budget clone of Nell’s lounge. As he walked in and noticed the crowd, he realized he’d forgotten that it was the quarter-finals for some big Slam competition. The place was packed with every kind of Neo-Soul hipster and Spoken Word poet. All this meant to him was that Leila had to work till close — 2am, lucky if she could clock out and leave by 2:30. Since it didn’t make sense for him to go back home, he decided to stick it out. He took a seat at the end of the bar, ordered a plate of wings, and settled in for several hours of what promised to be an unpredictable roller coaster between awe, humor and laughably horrible, depending on who was delivering what poem at the time. Jamal never cared much for the Spoken Word scene; lucky for him, he arrived during the music intermission before the final competitors hit the stage.
“Well, well,” a familiar voice said. “I guess they let anybody up in this piece.”
Jamal looked behind the bar to see a large burly man staring back at him. Beneath a pair of round-rimmed glasses and a well-groomed goatee, the face was unmistakable. “Benny?”
The man flung his arms wide and shook Jamal’s hand with a kind of sincere grin not often seen in the city. “Pound for pound I don’t care if you get an inch bigga you’ll always be my m********! Damn it’s good to see you again Jay. How ya been?”
Although it had only been a few years, it seemed like decades had passed since they last saw each other, back when Justin was deejaying at the clubs every night. Jamal was sixteen when Benny was managing Oscar’s Zoo, one of the hottest spots at the time. After he helped Benny out of a jam by finding an error with the numbers one evening, he was allowed to come hang out whenever Justin was on the turntables — as long as he didn’t order any alcohol. “I know you’ve gotta be legal by now,” he said with a hearty chortle as he gave Jamal a shoulder hug across the bar. “Whatcha drinkin’, champion?”
Jamal laughed, concealing all the bittersweet memories of those bygone days as he asked how long Benny had been bartending there.
“Just started three nights ago. Any other time I’d be on the door but they were short a bartender so I ‘m filling in,” he replied. As if anticipating Jamal’s next question, he continued. “I went away for awhile. Long story short I did a favor for my GM, picked up a package that didn’t have my name on it, got stopped by 5-O on the turnpike and BAM — ended up doing a bid in Rikers. ******* didn’t even write me or nothin’. Enough of that. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for y’all when… Well… Hey, have a drink with me.”
“Nah, I’m cool. Never been much of a drinker.”
Benny tossed his hands to the side. “I’m not supposed to be either but if you won’t tell,” he said with a hushed tone. “I won’t tell. Consider it for old time’s sake. Justin was there for me when my mom passed — he practically saved my life. Every now and then we’d do a Seven-and-Seven together. Have one with me in his honor.”
By the look in Benny’s eyes, Jamal could tell that prison sentence had been rough, but not enough to break him. Benny’s vigor and newly bulked-out muscles made that quite apparent as he placed a fuming highball glass in front of him. Outside of communion wine and wedding occasions, Jamal couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a drink. He picked up the glass only because this was for Justin. Benny eloquently stated a few heartfelt words, shared a Dominican dedication in Justin’s honor, looked around for any sign of his boss then downed his drink as if it was the first he had in decades. Jamal sipped his slowly, surprised that it was smoother than he thought it would be.
Before Benny made his way to serving patrons at the other end of the bar, Jamal was feeling the effects of the drink. His thoughts meandered into a weird kind of cruise control, dwelling on random thoughts: A week had passed since the boat ride and his attempted marriage proposal, derailed by his encounter with Detective Rourke. Although he was still upset that Rourke’s antics disrupted his plans on the harbor cruise, as the days passed he began to hear brutal things on the street. Another turf war was brewing a few blocks over from his house, retaliation indirectly stemming from the shooting that he had witnessed. The latest incident landed a 15-year old boy in ICU at the hospital. Jamal began to second guess his decision to withhold those details from Rourke while he was being questioned. On top of all that, he wanted to plan the next perfect opportunity to sweep Leila off her feet again and break out with his marriage proposal.
Several blocks up the street, Detective Rourke found a place to park and set out walking toward Café Zanzibar. After following Jamal there and seeing the crowd waiting to get inside, he figured that Leila would be there until close. A vagrant approached asking for money. Keyed up on more caffeine and angry determination than any cop should be, Rourke flashed his badge and exposed the gun holster under his leather jacket until the man backed away. Several of his cases had body counts that were steadily growing out of control. A bloodbath was brewing in Queensbridge and the only way to stop it was to nail Donny Summers and his crew to the wall. Unless somehow Donny got caught in the act, the only way Rourke could get the warrants he needed and hopefully make an arrest was with Jamal Washington’s eye-witness account. Without it, he knew that the prosecution’s case was still weak. With Donny’s money and all the high-powered defense attorneys in the city waiting for his business, he knew Donny and his crew would probably walk.
Jamal couldn’t recall the last time he had a buzz. It had to be back in his high school football days, before Justin’s murder. Part of him began to wish he had taken a Pepsi instead when he spotted Rourke walk in the door. Slowly he backed away from his chair when Benny spoke up. “You got a visitor, ‘mano. That dude that came in last night askin’ one of the other bartenders about you. They didn’t say nothin’. I think he knew–“
“Mr. Washington my friend,” Rourke said then laughed at Jamal’s nervous expression as he took a seat next to him. “Don’t worry, I ain’t gonna take you in. I’m still dealing with all the b******* your last stunt caused me.”
A flash of angst crossed Rourke’s face. Jamal chuckled, “You gotta admit, it was pretty sick.”
Rourked ordered a shot of Jameson. “Yeah, you’re a regular f****** Houdini with that disappearing act,” he said then pulled out his PDA-phone and slid it over to him. “See if you can make some of these disappear.”
On the PDA’s screen was a snapshot of a teenage boy; Stunned, Jamal might have recognized him from around the way except the boy wasn’t missing an eye and half his forehead was a brown and pink fettuccini splattered on the pavement. “But wait! It gets better,” Rourke said as he scooted closer and flipped to a photo of another young dead brotha. Several more followed, including one of a kid that couldn’t have been more than 13 with a gaping hole in his chest. Rourke downed his shot like it was water. “These were all brought to you by your boy Donny Summers and his crew, hard at work.”
Jamal was speechless. Was all this mayhem due to him withholding what he knew? The thought of the blood being on his hands made him nauseous. Echoes of Rourke’s claim that the same gun used by Black Mike to kill his brother Justin might have been used in the other murders only made it worse — and the Seven-and-Seven coursing through his brain made these horrific thoughts inescapable.
“Have another drink on me,” Rourke smiled as Jamal rubbed the shock and disgust off his forehead. “Bartender, get him a double of whatever he had and get me a James.”
“Naw man,” Jamal added, seeing exactly what the detective was trying to do. He pushed the PDA-phone away then took a deep breath. “It was a Pearl colored Lex SUV. That’s what the guy jumped out of — the same Pearl colored Lexus Donny drives.”
Benny placed another shot in front of Rourke and Jamal then left the bar. Hiding his joy, Rourke leaned closer and tapped on the PDA screen as if it was a crime scene photo. “The shooter?”
“Yeah the shooter,” Jamal replied with a hint of a booze-induced sarcasm. “Pearl colored Lex SUV. I don’t know who jumped out but it was the same SUV I’d seen Donny sportin’. Crazy rims and all. I didn’t want to say anything ’cause I didn’t know if they saw me or not. And they woulda never known it was me if you jerks hadn’t put my face all up on the news. Now that you know go do somethin’ about it.”
Rourke blinked hard, almost as if he didn’t believe what he heard. “Would you be willing to give a sworn statement?”
Across the lounge, Leila walked out and bumped into Benny. Not sure of what Jamal and Rourke were discussing, he pointed out that Jamal was being questioned by a detective. She wasted no time easing her way around the crowded lounge toward the bar, making sure neither of them seeing her.
“If you’ll leave me and my people alone, keep me out of court, and get outta my life then, yeah, I’ll sign whatever it takes!” Jamal replied.
“And you attest to the fact that this wasn’t under duress?”
“Yeah, on my word I will. Just stop hasslin’ me and stop that dude.”
Rourke picked up his PDA-phone and clicked a button. Their entire conversation replayed out of its tiny speaker as Benny returned behind the bar. “Put that mess on the news if ya want,” Jamal said with a slight slur. “Just leave me and my girl the f*** alone.”
“Leave me alone for what?” Leila said from behind him, astonished at his choice of words. She snatched the shot glass and gave it quick sniff. “And what the hell are you drinking whiskey for?”
Benny, Rourke and Jamal all paused at the outburst. Rourke placed the PDA-phone back in its holster, downed his shot and turned toward the stage as if he didn’t know either of them. Benny quickly found distraction by cleaning some glassware. And Jamal, frozen at first from a loss for words, simply said, “Leila, you’re gonna laugh when I explain all this. At least I’m not driving, eh?”
Benny and Rourke busted out laughing. Filled with all her suspicions that Jamal was changing for the worse, Leila crossed her arms and smiled. “It’s all good,” she courteously replied as if she had just been stiffed on a $100 dollar tab. “Then it’ll be easy for you to find your way home,” she added as she walked away.
“You’ll be aight,” Rourke leered as he watched her disappear into the crowd. Seeing that happen brought him more satisfaction than some trumped-up charges against Jamal for getting him put on suspension. “Good luck popping the Big Question,” he said then headed for the door. “Stay up. I’ll be in touch.”
Typical of a bartender avoiding a catty situation, Benny didn’t look up as he moved toward the other end of the bar while cleaning the beer taps. A poet finalist on stage started to deliver a piece called “Love your Treasure”, almost as if it was meant for Jamal to hear. Once again he found himself in the doghouse for trying to do the right thing by shielding Leila from the madness that kept popping up and looking like a jerk in her eyes whens it was all over. Tired of this strange loop that kept creeping up because of other people’s drama, he knew he couldn’t wait any longer. There wasn’t gonna be a perfect time, he thought. He had to tell her the truth about everything that had happened over the past week, especially what could have gone down that night on the harbor cruise. It was time to let her know what was really going on in his heart.