Shanika Wells turned up in town seventy-two hours after Big Vic’s murder, presumably to dance on his grave. Thirteen years ago she fled this small-minded, micro burg and no local event in the interim—including her own father’s funeral—had offered lure enough to inspire a return to the scene of her miserable childhood.
Back when he still went by his hated first name, Quintus Viccolander instigated the event that bonded Shanika and me. I was a scrawny six year old that fifth-grader Quintus decided was too effeminate, so he often cornered me and called me vile names, though never within earshot of a teacher. Before the days of #MeToo and being woke, there were still certain things you couldn’t say, even to a little sissy, without getting yourself in trouble.
That particular day I was minding my own business, kicking leaves behind a big oak tree that anchored the far corner of the playground. I didn’t really mind being alone, which worked out great, since most of the other boys were not inclined to play with the wimpy kid picked last for every team in gym class. I heard a crunch of leaves and cringed, knowing instantly who had found me and what I was in for.
“Yo, turd face! ‘Sup?”
Paralyzed by the threat in his voice, I hung my head and stayed mute.
“Answer me when I’m talking to you,” he snarled, before shoving his meaty palm into my sternum and knocking me flat on my back.
“What do you want me to say?” I managed to squeak out.
“Say I’m a little fag baby. Go on, say it!”
Emphasizing the demand, he planted his feet on either side of my thighs, towering over me with an intimidatingly wide stance that would have brought on my tears, had I not seen a tiny, mean-faced Black girl silently creeping up on Quintus from behind. He bent forward to spit his humiliating order into my face again, the move positioning him perfectly for a hard, upward kick to the jewels that dropped him to his knees. I scrambled out of the way before he hit the ground, and the little girl grabbed my hand so we could run to safety together while my tormentor gagged and went fetal.
That was the beginning of the bad blood between Shanika Wells and Quintus “Big Vic” Viccolander. He didn’t dare report the incident that left him limping for days, because of the hit his bully rep would have taken when word got out he’d been bested by a first-grade girl. On the down-low, however, he opened a smear campaign that lasted till the day she blew this pop stand.
And now Big Vic reposed in the most ostentatious casket his brother Quentin (a.k.a. Little Vic) could find and Shanika had waltzed back onto the scene.
A tinkling of the antique silver bells on my door signaled the entrance of a customer, as I grappled with a blue-dyed carnation wired to a short, wooden skewer, carefully attempting to position it in the foam base of a wing-spread dove without damaging the petals of the surrounding white roses.
“I’ll be right with you,” I said, sliding the sapphire eye into place.
“No hurry, Zee.”
I whirled around. More than a decade had passed since I’d heard the voice of the only person who ever called me Zee, but it was as sweet and familiar as if we were still kids sneaking our first smoke and trash-talking our math teacher. Backlit by the late afternoon sun streaming through the glass front of my shop, her facial features were obscured, but there was no mistaking those legs and that glorious mane.
During my childhood I witnessed her hair transform from the tight cornrows and stubby pigtails her mama inflicted on her with the hopeless goal of taming the untamable, into a ragged bush of chaos after Mrs. Wells passed when Shanika was twelve. By the time she hit sixteen, however, and mastered the products and techniques to capitalize on her abundant gift, an ethereal ebony cloud perpetually framed her beautiful face, undulating languidly and seductively as she glided down the hallway between classes.
And those legs! They’d been the knobby-kneed, bony limbs of an underfed pony in kindergarten, but by junior year of high school they had morphed into what one young lothario described as a pair of wet dreams beginning on the ground and rising all the way up to heaven.
Since I had been momentarily struck dumb, my visitor oiled the machinery of conversation with a reliable classic.
“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”
The offer was enough to snap me out of the shock at seeing my best friend after so many years.
“Nika,” I blurted out, rounding the counter and flying into her arms.
She had always been the taller half of our team, but with her four-inch heels, we connected clumsily forehead to chin until she threw her head back and laughed.
“Oh, Zee, I have purely missed you, dude. We need to catch up.”
I enthusiastically agreed, but swept my right arm wide to indicate the wreath-shaped forms covering the countertop and awaiting artfully arranged flowers of every size and color.
“I’m swamped on a deadline for a funeral tomorrow, but you can perch your fine caboose on one of those stools and I’ll bring you a cup of coffee from the back. That way I can keep working while you fill me in on everything you’ve been up to.”
Without waiting for a response, I disappeared into the nook behind the flower cooler and selected a crème brûlée brewing pod.
“Who died?” she called out from the front.
“You didn’t hear?” I spun my hand in a tight circle, as if the Keurig could interpret the gesture as a request to speed things up.
“Well, I haven’t kept a subscription to the local rag, so you’ll have to tell me the beneficiary of your floral creations.”
“The very editor of that rag, Big Vic.”
I heard her rich, throaty laugh again, this time underscored with delight.
“Please tell me ol’ Quintus’s death was protracted and painful.”
I rounded the cooler to hand her a steaming, ceramic mug.
“Well, it wasn’t as protracted as many of us would have wished, but it sure as hell must’ve been painful.”
Her face lit up, and justifiably so. Although Big Vic had done a lot of shitty things to a lot of people, he always reserved his worst for Shanika. Among the many awful stunts he had pulled over the years was starting a rumor about her alleged involvement with a fifteen-year-old boy who committed suicide. Randy Holland wrote a note saying he had no reason to live if he couldn’t be with Shanika, then hanged himself in his bedroom. By then, Big Vic had graduated and begun apprenticing for his father at the newspaper, so he enlisted Little Vic—still in our grade—to spread word at school that she had treated the boy cruelly, leading him on, teasing him, and laughing in his face when he declared his love for her.
Was it true? No. Did anyone care? Again, no. The story spread, regardless of the fact that Shanika never even had a conversation with the unfortunate boy. In fact, a few days before he took his life, she found a childishly crafted love note in her locker and handed it to me.
“Who the hell is Randy Holland?” she asked, before taking back the note and tossing it in a trash can, assuming it was someone’s idea of a joke. My guess is the kid was somewhere nearby, watching to see her response. Next thing you know, Randy’s dangling and the mean girl squad of campus influencers, envious of Shanika’s over-the-summer transformation into a breathtaking beauty, gleefully embraced and spread the Viccolander boys’ fake news spin on the tragedy.
Who they should have blamed was Big Vic, for lying, or maybe the shrink who treated the troubled teen for years. Turns out Dr. Feelgood prescribed the wrong anti-psychotic and tipped his young patient right over the edge.
Barely a year later, when a college boy died in a single car crash, speeding away in fury after seventeen-year-old Shanika turned down his unexpected proposal, Big Vic used his newspaper’s gossip column to indict an unnamed high school girl for having caused the deaths of two men. Yes, he left her name out, but he dubbed her “the devil’s plus-one,” and no one doubted the identity of the accused. The mean girls gave life to the lie, and, soon, blasé teens routinely quipped that if you invited Satan to a party, Shanika Wells would be his date. And so she slipped out of town one night with only a backpack full of thrift-shop clothes and the forty bucks I had saved from my pizza delivery job.
Shanika sipped her coffee while I poked flower stems into foam forms and repeated the snippets that had fed the rumor mill for the three days since Big Vic had been found, gruesomely murdered in his office at the Crowder County Gazette. In addition to hearing all the lurid details passed from person to person like a relay race for gossip, I possessed inside info courtesy of the smoking hot deputy I had quietly dated for months.
They found Big Vic duct-taped to his leather executive chair, covered in lumps and contusions consistent with a beating from the baseball bat discarded at the scene. He had been shot through the heart and one knee. Sadistically placed cigarette burns had caused Little Vic to upchuck his Denny’s Grand Slam when he discovered his older brother’s corpse.
“Along with the bat, they found a meth pipe and a hammer on the floor. Sheriff Cook’s working theory is a couple of tweakers wanted into the safe, but Big Vic refused to give up the combination. From the patch of scratches and gouges around the opening mechanism, it seems as though the perps went all medieval on the safe after they gave up whaling on Vic and finished him off.”
Shanika snorted in disgust, before saying “Only in this rubbish town could someone be dumb enough to think they could break into a double-walled, one-ton Amsec with a claw hammer.”
That safe had been a topic of speculation several years back when Big Vic installed it at the newspaper office. The Crowder County Gazette had fewer than eight thousand subscribers and barely broke even. So, why did it need such an enormous safe?
Some folks claimed Little Vic deposited the cash from his strip club there every night after closing, but that still would have left multiple cubic feet of empty space. Made people wonder what other unsavory pies the siblings might have stuck their dirty fingers into.
By the time the last foam circle was beribboned, beflowered and crammed into the cooler, it was almost nine, so Shanika and I headed to our favorite burger drive-through from the old days, then carried the paper bags of heart attack roulette back to her room at the Hyatt. The twentyish kid at the desk cast envious eyes on me as I walked toward the elevators accompanied by what must have looked to him like a visiting supermodel. He wasn’t old enough to have firsthand knowledge of Shanika’s sordid reputation.
We laughed, talked, reminisced and made a dent in the mini bar’s stock as I updated her on thirteen years of weddings, divorces, scandals and petty feuds, most of them involving people she once knew. And while I was forthcoming about my own life—both professional and romantic—Shanika deflected every one of my inquiries into her own travels and activities since her disappearing act one month into our senior year, after which post cards and the occasional extremely brief letter from her marked the parameters of our one-way communication. Those precious (to me) tidbits were postmarked from a different city every time, some of them exotic and foreign, so I surmised her life was way more exciting than mine.
Shortly before two in the morning, I made my excuses: early wake-up, ginormous delivery to the funeral home chapel the next day, blah-blah-blah, but as she walked me to the door of her room, I made one last attempt to glean some details about her life. Earlier, when she kicked off her shoes, I clocked their red soles and knew they had cost a small fortune. My curiosity was piqued.
“Nika, you know I would take any secret of yours to my grave, so, please, won’t you tell me the truth about where you’ve been and how you’ve been getting by?”
She leaned against the open door and gazed at me, her glistening brown soul windows unfocused after four miniature bottles of Hennessy. Lightly grazing my cheek with her perfectly manicured nails, she whispered, “Like they say in the movies, sweetheart, you can’t handle the truth.”
My own indulgence in two itty-bitty Tia Marias emboldened me.
“That’s bullshit and you know it. I was always there for you and I always will be.” Getting shut out of her life thirteen years earlier broke my heart, but her refusal to share any of it with me now that she was back piled insult on top of injury.
My reminder that I was her oldest ally and confidante must have gotten through to her, because she suddenly sighed with resignation. We stood close enough that the oaky, fruity aroma of cognac on her breath wafted into my nostrils.
“Zee, what do you think the career options are for a runaway high school drop-out who finds herself in an unfamiliar city with forty dollars and no marketable skills?”
She took a step back and swept her right hand down to draw my attention to her perfectly proportioned body, a stark reminder that, although I was immune to those formidable assets, no straight male over the age of twelve could look upon them without prurient thoughts. An understanding of what she implied caused a clenching in my gut, quickly followed by guilt for having insisted on answers to questions I had no right to ask. Before I could apologize, she barreled ahead.
“I’ll tell you what my choice was. I developed a set of skills for which very wealthy men are willing to pay top dollar.”
“Shanika,” I said, before she could go on. “I would never judge you and I don’t want to hear any more.”
“Maybe you don’t want to hear more, but you need to know the truth about me, if only to decide if you still want to be friends.
Before she could share further details, I turned and ran like the coward I am and have always been.
The day of Big Vic’s funeral, I woke with a hangover and guilt. I owed Shanika an apology for forcing her to admit to an embarrassing truth, but a vanload of floral arrangements needed delivering and I had a service to attend. Deciding I would skip out before the interment and go to the Hyatt to beg forgiveness, I scoured the flower cooler for the best of the leftovers and put together a dramatic bouquet to pair with a groveling mea culpa.
After filling the modest chapel with colorful but insincere condolence displays for a dead bully who was universally loathed, I had thirty minutes to kill before the service started, not enough time to go see Shanika, but time enough to call her. I had not thought to ask for her cell phone number the night before, as I was besotted and brainless in her presence, so I called the Hyatt and asked to be connected to her room. The dozen unanswered rings told me she either wasn’t there or did not want to speak with me.
Seated in the last row, I didn’t notice her at the service, so I followed the cars to the cemetery in case she showed up there. Again I swept my eyes over the attendees without finding her. Bored with a droning list of the deceased’s good qualities the pastor had obviously manufactured out of thin air, I let my eyes roam the acres of headstones, many of them shaded by mature trees with spreading canopies.
A flash of movement caught my eye, a swaying cloud of black hair mostly hidden behind the trunk of a huge elm tree about fifty feet away. Shanika stepped from behind the tree, but I couldn’t be sure she was looking at me until she smiled and blew a kiss in my direction. There was no way I could retreat through the crowd and go to her without drawing disapproving notice, so I anxiously waited for those first dropped long-stem roses (provided, of course, by me) and the sound of the initial shovelful of dirt hitting the gold-festooned mahogany before making my getaway.
Carrying the lavish apology bouquet into the hotel lobby, I asked the desk clerk to ring her room. Instead, he handed me a key and said he had been instructed to send me up when I arrived.
Respectful of the Do Not Disturb sign hanging on the door, I knocked. When no answer came, I had a moment of concern for her safety and quickly unlocked the door to enter a cleared-out room. No clothes in the drawers or compact hanging space. No toiletries in the bathroom. Held down by the clock radio on the nightstand was a ten dollar bill, presumably a tip for the housekeeper who would come in the next day, and a note for me.
Zachary, it was great to catch up. See you again at Little Vic’s funeral. Love always, your Nika.
The only other item on the nightstand was a matchbook from the Wander Inn, a run-down motel a mile outside of town, best known as a trysting place for lovers married to others, and an overnight stop for weary travelers who couldn’t bear another hour of driving, but didn’t want to pay the price of a decent hotel.
Why a matchbook? Shanika doesn’t smoke. I’m hypersensitive to the smell of tobacco, and would have noticed it on her breath or clothes. And what reason did she have to visit the Wander Inn? Perhaps because I had no other mementos of her brief visit, I pocketed the matches along with the note. Once home, I phoned the Wander Inn and asked for her, but was told they had no one registered under that name.
When I didn’t hear from her over the next week, I cursed myself for being an insensitive clod, but remained puzzled about why she had insisted I needed to know the truth about her if I were to remain her friend. And if she wanted me to know the truth, why didn’t she stick around long enough to convey that information? My mind went back to the matchbook I’d found. Could she have chosen a more oblique way to communicate what she felt I should know about her? Perhaps a way that spared her the face-to-face awkwardness of enlightening me about the life of a high-class call girl?
With the sleazy motel’s matchbook as my only lead, I put together a lovely arrangement of peach roses, white peonies and cascading sprigs of Lily-of-the-Valley. If Shanika was staying at the Wander Inn under a different name, the bouquet would be my personal apology; if she wasn’t in residence, a delivery of flowers would justify requesting information from the staff.
Wearing my short-sleeved work shirt with Zach’s Floral Creations embroidered on the breast pocket, I approached the slacker watching TV behind the stained and scratched counter.
He didn’t bother looking up from whatever athletic competition was inspiring the tinny roar of enthusiastic fans, when I said: “Delivery for Ms. Shanika Wells.”
“No one here by that name.”
“Maybe she’s using a different name.”
“Nah. She used her real name when she was here, but she ain’t here anymore.”
Okay, first clue. I asked if I could check the register to see the dates of her stay.
“Knock yourself out,” he said, flailing one hand in the direction of a worn, spiral notepad at the end of the counter, without taking his eyes off the TV screen. “Go! Go! Go, you son of a bitch,” he shouted, his involvement deep enough that I could have easily made off with something valuable, had their been anything of value in the shabby office.
Paging backwards in the notepad, I found Shanika’s name. She had checked in four days prior to Big Vic’s murder, and checked out three days after it. Her departure date coincided with the day she checked into the Hyatt, the day I had assumed she blew into town.
She obviously had enough money to stay at a nicer place than the Wander Inn, so why did she spend a week there before moving over to what passes locally for a luxury hotel? What reason would she have to obfuscate her arrival date?
A sickening suspicion compelled me to parse every word she said to me during her brief stay.
Only in this rubbish town could someone be dumb enough to think they could break into a double-walled, one-ton Amsec with a claw hammer.
Had I mentioned the safe was an American Security product? I didn’t think so. And, even if I did, how would she know it was double-walled and weighed one ton? For that matter, was she merely guessing the hammer was a claw, as opposed to a club style or ball peen? Or did she know because she was present at the scene?
I developed a set of skills for which very wealthy men are willing to pay top dollar.
My immediate assumption had gone to the prurient, the obvious. And I thought it was the shame of being a prostitute that caused her to demur when I asked her outright about her life. Now I wondered if it wasn’t shame, but fear, that kept her silent, made her willing to reveal her secret in only the most roundabout way. If I took my suspicions to Sheriff Cook—which, of course, I would never do—could he connect her to the bat, the meth pipe or the gun that killed Big Vic ?
The sloppy crime scene indicated incompetence, the careless leavings of a couple tweaked out meth-heads. But maybe it had been designed to look like something other than what it was: a calculated, ruthless hit. I recalled the cigarette burns, telling myself there was no way Shanika could have deliberately inflicted such torture on another human being, even one as scummy as Quintus “Big Vic” Viccolander, who, along with Quentin “Little Vic” Viccolander, had made her life a living hell for more than a decade: called her the N-word; lied about having had sex with her; accused her of not just using, but selling drugs.
Desperately searching for a shred of proof she was a lady of the evening, not a killer for hire doing off-the-books work for her own revenge, I came up empty.
But then, I recalled her note on the night stand at the Hyatt, and suddenly knew without a doubt what she did for a living.
See you again at Little Vic’s funeral. Love always, your Nika.
April Kelly is a former TV comedy writer (Mork & Mindy, Webster, Boy Meets World, ad nauseum) who now writes short fiction. Her work has appeared in Down & Out Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Mystery Weekly (now Mystery Magazine), Tough Crime, Mysterical-E, Floyd County Moonshine, DASH Literary Journal and many other publications. Her story Oh, Here! won enough money to buy a car (toy, plastic, model: Dollar General) in the Mark Twain royal Nonesuch Humor Contest.