By Jack Burbank
With a Boston Red Sox cap pulled far down over their forehead and under the cover of a moonless night, the shooter knew that any camera could only pick up the Red Sox cap and maybe a telltale bushy mustache. But the camera would have, at most, a split second before it was eliminated, and a bushy mustache nowadays would hardly be much of a lead. Taking perfect aim with the silenced AR-15 rifle, the rear security camera was quickly dispatched. Moving forward, a four-foot long two-by-four that had been hid near the rear emergency exit door earlier was retrieved and wedged in tightly between the ground and doorknob. There would be no escape through this exit.
At the front of the building, the time was taken to scan the parking lot for any unexpected witnesses or situations that may affect the escape but there was not a soul to be seen and the way was clear. Aiming the AR-15 again, one more shot took out the front security camera from its side leaving no meaningful recorded image.
It was late for a church meeting of any kind, but the shooter had been told that this meeting would go late, maybe well into the night.
Gliding through the front doors, two men talking in the rear of the hall stood in shock as they beheld a scene out of a bad movie, freezing at the sight of a rifle taking dead aim at them. They were cut short with two bursts, the pops causing all in attendance to swivel around. Then, one by one, each were taken out. It was a mid-week bible study group of just a handful of the more loyal supporters, in an off-the-beaten-path church. All were eliminated, with no witnesses and for now, no sirens or warnings emanating to alert the police. So far, all was going as planned.
The shooter worked swiftly now, first disabling the fire alarms, then a quick check of the restrooms in case he missed one and finally pulling out a plastic container of gasoline from a duffle bag, splashing it around the seats and carpeting and any flammable materials nearby. Enough was saved to cover the way leading to the front doors as exits was made. It was torched as the doors closed and the shooter adhered to the plan made well in advance, making their escape. The flames would be seen ten minutes later, more than enough time to slide into anonymity.
Charlie Hilliard was never so scared in his life. Crouching on the toilet in the men’s room and holding the door shut by grasping the tiny slide lock with his fingers, he said a quick prayer that the shooter wouldn’t check the room too carefully. He had been about to come out when he heard some strange pops and thought he recognized them as gunshots being fired through a silencer. After a few seconds, he cracked the door open only to peek a view of two of his friends lying on the floor and a shooter taking aim at the remaining attendees. With no choice, he scooted back to the stall and took what he hoped would be life saving refuge. He could hear helpless pleas and wails as he took refuge.
He had counted about a half dozen shots, he couldn’t keep up or be sure, but knew that was about equal to how many had attended this evening - his wife, included. A tremendous grief engulfed his body as he quivered almost uncontrollably. He wasn’t a coward, he had run into life-threatening situations several times in his life, successfully thwarting a few potential disasters, but his mind was still clear enough to know that there was nothing he could do here. He would be sacrificing his own life in a futile attempt to save anyone else if he tried. He decided to lay low, quivering from sorrow as he held the door shut tightly.
When the shooter had thrown the men’s room door open, Charlie could sense that they never stepped in. He could barely hear the restroom door close but knew the shooter had remained outside. Then, in an instant, he heard the definite sound of the front door opening and shutting and almost immediately heard a whoosh of fire igniting and a strong smell of gasoline penetrating the restroom. He remained still, not knowing what he would be running into if he tried leaving. But he could tell the flames and smoke were spreading fast, too fast for the shooter to still be inside.
Knowing he had little time to decide on a course of action, he opened the stall door slowly and crept carefully to the rest room door, pushing it open carefully. He couldn’t believe the scene - how fast the flames had engulfed the old, wooden floor of the lobby! It was a wall of flames and he’d have to run through six to ten feet of flames to make his escape. And who knew what he’d face outside if he made it? But having little choice, he doubled back to the sinks, ran both knobs and soaked himself all over as fast as he could. He grabbed handfuls of paper towels, soaked them and held them over his head letting the water dribble down his back and sides. Then, taking a deep breath and still holding the wet towels to his head and face, he broke into a run through the inferno and barged out the door. Probably less than three seconds, but he could feel the flames singing him up his legs, on his sides and especially his left arm.
He hit the ground and rolled, smothering out the flames while trying not to cry out in case the shooter was still in the area. Gasping, hurt and bleeding, he looked up to his right side and saw an amazing sight! He blinked his eyes to clear them and confirm the strange scene before him. That’s when the shooter came into clear view, holding the rifle in a straight aim for Charlie. Two rounds and Charlie buckled into a curled position taking a hit in his right side and another between his neck and shoulder. The pain was excruciating and he accepted that this was the end. He could see his right hand was bloodied and through a fog was able to discern the shooter pulling away for the final escape. With precious little time left, he wanted to do something to help others have something to go on. As the fog got thicker, he took his bloody finger and started writing on the pavement what he thought might be the best clue, but he could barely get two letters scrawled out before the fog thickened into the eternal black.
I’m Yo. Trouble finds me. That’s not to say I look for it or go causing any, far from it. But it seems to find me wherever, why-ever and whatever I’m doing. You’ll see.
So I’m in the middle of my smoking break, I don’t smoke, never did, but it’s what the owner wants to hear if you’re going to dare sneak outside for a stretch in some fresh air, and I can’t help but notice a pitiful Honda moped puttering and wobbling into a spot between a Tesla and a Miata. It’s close to midnight and that tells me two things: He’s on a DUI moped permit and he’s already had a few, searching for a bar that will still serve him. If he lived on one of the boats in this marina like I do, I’d have no problem. But I have my bartenders’ license to protect, so I took notice of what he looked like and went back to work.
As I approached the bar I could see Jimmy hustling off with a tray of drinks for a table. Jimmy usually works the bar but tonight had to sub for a missing waitress. I had noticed him stepping up to the bar with an order as I left for my break fifteen minutes ago. I sure hoped he hadn’t waited that long for the drinks. I’d apologize later if I had time.
The guy entered as I was crafting two old fashions and a Saphire martini, extremely dry, olives if they’re small, twist if they’re not. Picky martini drinkers, I thought - the worst of the lot. Then the guy sits down on the end stool on my side of the bar, so it falls to me.
“Greetings!” I say, “What’ll it be?”
“Gimme a Jack and Coke, hold the Coke,” he said, amused at himself.
I wish I could have got him on a fake ID or no ID, but he was clearly of age, maybe forty-plus. So I poured him a Coke and held the Jack Daniels hoping he’d take the hint.
“It’s on the house,” I said, and looked at him as understandingly as I could muster. He sniffed. He looked back at me as non-understandingly as anyone could muster.
“What’s the gig?” he snorted, like he’s not going to take this.
I leaned into him closely. It may have been close but as I was told in bartender’s school, there’s no greater distance between people as between a bartender and a drunk customer. Softly I said, “I know you’ve had a few already tonight. I’d like to help keep you from any more trouble.”
He stiffened. I could see an assault taking shape.
“Trouble! What’re you talking about?” He didn’t look happy.
I grimaced a bit, looked around. This could go a few ways I thought. So I nodded in the direction of two tables off to the side of the bar.
“Only one of them may be in uniform,” I said, “but the whole bunch of them are law officers. You’ve got a few from Myrtle Beach and a whole lot from Murrells Inlet, Surfside, everywhere. It wouldn’t take too much for them to think maybe you’ve had a few too many, especially if they get a glimpse of you pulling away on your DUI-putt-putt. So I’m hoping you’ll drink the Coke, say, ‘good-bye’, and go home. Safely.”
He turned and stared, at first dubious and ready to come across the bar and set me straight. As he turned, a faint odor of booze and BO wafted up to my nose. But he slowly cooled, sighed and came back to his Coke. He gave me a thumbs-up and I breathed a sigh of relief. Another troublesome episode defused. Funny thing, I’ve used that ploy a few times and it always worked, but this time the tables were actually full with real police officers!
He downed half the Coke, laid a fiver down and scrammed.
While serving and talking up some tourists from Ohio, I couldn’t help noticing a lot of movement at the cop tables. While a few were talking on their phones and rising with worried looks on their faces, three were already flying out the door as all the other phones and pagers started going off. In the midst of the mass exodus, Doug was about to flee but he remembered me, and the tab, and rushed over in a panic.
“Yo, we’ve gotta go. We’ll settle next time.” Then he leaned close and very softly brought me more trouble. “Big shooting at the SeaSide Church. Fatalities. We gotta get there, but stay close. This is big – national. I want to talk to you tomorrow when I know more.”
He would have been out the door leaving me stunned, but I snapped out of my shock and yelled to him, “I’m gone tomorrow. Headed to Thailand.”
He turned around while still pressing through the door.
“I forgot.” He tapped his head as to say, “doh!” then said, “Keep in touch. I think we’ll want to talk with you.” And he was gone.
Now why would the chief detective of the Surfside Police Department want to talk with me about a shooting in a local church? Same reason “Deck 231” has become the natural hangout for half the police staff for most towns around, especially their detectives. Some time ago word got out that I was a novel writer, writer of mysteries. Some brainiac on the force walked in to our bar, of all the towns in all the world, and starts chatting me up about a jewelry store heist they couldn’t get a lead on and dropping more details than I knew he ever should. Then I realized he was hoping I could maybe come up with something, add a little insight as to how everything fit together - something, anything!
My twisted novelist mind instead started to think of how I could use this in a story, tried to work out how it might play out with some interesting characters. In a moment of what some might call “inspiration”, I blurted out a scenario that I thought would make a great story. But he hears this and thinks I solved his case! Unfortunately, it did. Word soon got out that the crazy novelist bartender was pretty sharp and next thing I know, all sorts of badges began showing up, introducing themselves to me. Well, they were a nice bunch overall and Deck 231 soon became a regular after-hours hangout for police from several neighboring communities. I sure don’t solve most of their crimes, but I keep the door open because I get material that I’d never get any other way. They keep coming because every once in a while I come through. And as you might imagine, it’s always trouble.
But this shooting, in a church, what could I do about this? I’d be out of the country and I didn’t know if I’d be able to do any texting or calling and who even knows if I’ll get Internet enough to Facetime or email. I expected to be incommunicado and frankly, was looking forward to it. Why wrap me up in this trouble?
I’m always the last to leave. I live on a boat docked thirty yards away, a beautiful 38 ft. Catalina sloop named, what else? Trouble. It was a beauty with every amenity and feature a young, successful professional could ever want, but I live on it anyway. It’ll be a lot of fun if I ever learn to sail.
The restaurant and bar, “Deck 231” is a picturesque dream out of a Key West scene and nestled into what must be the quietest and most secluded marina around. Located on the Intracoastal Waterway, the water’s typically calm and protected, but there’s scarce few sailboats that moor here. It’s too long of a trawl to get to the ocean, but then again, I don’t know how to sail so it makes no difference to me. I put port here to live. Somewhere there’s an old Navy admiral rolling over in his grave thinking, “That’s not what a ship was built for.”
I love the life here. It’s quiet, beautiful, and I could write during the day with few disturbances. The walk to work to tend bar each night, and then back, couldn’t be more convenient. Everyone else working here at the Deck lives a normal life in a real home a drive away and they bug out first, leaving me to lock down.
“Locking up late tonight, aren’t you, Yo?” I recognized Bab’s voice immediately, surprised she was up so late herself. I turned to confirm it was her. The moonlight reflected well off her 88-year old face and a smile formed on me as I again marveled at her spry step and youthful vigor.
“We stayed open as long as we could,” I responded. “We were waiting for you to come over for your last-call-nightcap.”
“Ohh, I won’t be ready for that for another few hours,” she kidded.
We shot the breeze for a few minutes while I locked up and turned over the outside deck chairs. Then I asked what she was doing up so late strolling on the docks.
“Trying to wake-up a deadbeat.”
I gave her the squint-stare, pressing her for more information. As the live-in manager of the marina, Babs was always available for any emergency, complaint or general insurrection that might arise from us tenants, some of us pirate-wanna-be’s. She was also the bookkeeper, making her the “collector”, and I would never want to be on her list.
“Your neighbor, with the big, blue imitation yacht, is three months down and I just can’t raise him. I saw him drive in and gave him five minutes to walk to his boat and get settled before I followed him to hound him, only to be greeted by a dark and locked-up floating home. And he won’t answer my knocks. I know he’s in there, I saw him go in.” Her frustration was readable. “The schmuck owns a big boat like that and can’t even afford his rent and electricity.”
She was right - the schmuck was a nuisance. I never met him myself but his loud music just two slips away drives me bananas when I’m trying to write. And here’s Bab’s, going above and beyond what any manager should be expected to do, out here at 2:00 in the morning trying her best to track down the scoundrel.
And I had an idea of what to do.
“Babs, go to sleep. Let’s see what the morning brings.”
She smiled, nodded and patted me on the shoulder. Then she said, “I know. Tomorrow’s another day,” and left while waving me over her shoulder.
“That would be today,” I called out, but I didn’t think she caught my drift.
I retraced my steps, unlocked the door and went in to grab a handful of toothpicks, then went back out and locked up. This was going to be trouble. Remember, it found me.
As I approached the scum’s slip, I could see that Bab’s was right about the boat being locked up and dark. I could see no indication of a curtain or blind being pulled aside with sneaky eyes peering out, so I was sure he was either asleep or otherwise occupied, not too concerned about what was happening outside his boat. A glance at his power hookup on dock told me it wasn’t locked as many are, so I could avoid the noise I would have had to make otherwise. Again, I didn’t go looking for this trouble. Well, maybe a little.
I crouched in front of the hookup, pulled the plug and quickly jammed as many toothpicks into the sockets and ground hole that I could, breaking them off level to the base. I threw the remnants into the water and scurried away. It would take him a while to pull them all out, likely having to first contact Bab’s about cutting the power while he worked on it, and that’s when she could let him have it. Or he would take the chance that he could handle it by himself with the power still on, which is what I was hoping for. I doubted he had either the tools or the knowhow to do it right, but probably the nerve to try. I think he was from New York.
Doug had texted me five times since leaving Deck 231 for the shooting, all quick texts that reflected the urgency and drama of the situation. I knew there were nine dead before the news ever had it. Nine. Everyone that was in the church, not one escaped.
Just as I came aboard my boat and unlocked to the galley another text came through.
“FBI just arrived, ATF on the way. We get booted soon.”
It would be useless to text him back as I knew he was busy. But I scrolled back to re-read his earlier texts to see if he was trying to tell me anything I could work on. I never bragged that I had any more insight than any of them, less in fact, but since Doug and a few other officers thought I had the mind of a criminal (I must to write the kind of things I write about) and of a sleuth detective (I do manage to solve all the crimes I write about, but then I made them all up to begin with), so Doug likes to keep me abreast of all the crimes he comes across. I let him because he brings me more material than my devious mind could ever make up.
First one: “All dead. Watch news – this is national.”
Second one: “No witnesses or gunfire reports but all shot. 6 women, 3 men.”
Third one: “Cameras shot out. No tracks, clues, nothing left behind.”
Fourth one: “8 dead inside. 1 man dead in parking lot.”
Fifth one: “Scene secured, for the big boys.”
I wondered, why so many churches? It seemed like just a few months ago the Charleston episode broke, not more than two hours away. Other churches nationwide are also attacked. And schools! Why so many of the most innocent? I know I’m not unique in wondering this, what sane person doesn’t. But I’ve yet to hear a good answer. I shook my head at the gravity of what happened just a few miles up the road.
I’d have to put it to bed for now. I had a few things to do and had to get some sleep. I was booked to go to Thailand tomorrow - make that today, late morning. I’d talk to Doug while at the airport. Something told me he’d still be working.
District FBI Special Agent, James Kelly, needed no introductions. Before his car even came to a stop, the Myrtle Beach and Surfside police captains along with the Horry County Sheriff, three other high ranking officials and two marshals were at the car to meet him.
“Not all at once,” Kelly implored, seeing them all gather quickly to be first to state their facts and concerns. “Which one of you is Surfside?” a crumb thrown to show respect for proper jurisdiction, which would soon be forgotten.
Chief Lynn stepped forward, hand in the air, and introduced himself.
“How many? Officially.” Kelly had been thoroughly briefed and assumed that he already knew the answers but needed to hear first-hand and determine who else was on top of things.
“Nine,” Lynn spoke. “Eight inside, one out.”
That surprised Kelly. He had gotten no report of a body outside, but things had been so chaotic, he couldn’t know for sure if he was even given the correct address.
“How’d that happen? Man, Woman?”
“Male, likely early forties. We assume he survived the shooting inside somehow. From the way he had fallen, with multiple burns up and down his body, two gunshots taken to his side and blood only splattered where he fell, it looks like he ran through the flames and into a sniper.”
Kelly took this all in and sized up Chief Lynn. All seemed credible and he decided he could work with Lynn. He asked to be taken to the outside victim.
“So he died immediately?” Kelly asked.
“Almost. He definitely didn’t last long as the shots were pretty accurate and deadly. But it looks like he tried to write something with the blood on his hands.”
A classic movie scene, thought Kelly, but something that hardly ever happens in real life. Whatever came next was going to be taken with a grain of salt, but he had to ask anyway.
“What did he write?”
“Just two letters, it seems, “h” and “e”. Lynn could see a slight smirk on Kelly’s face but didn’t know what it could mean. So he added, “Likely points to a male doing the shooting. That’s what we think.”
Kelly put up his hand to halt, a real smirk on his face now. “Not much of a clue. Virtually every mass shooting in this country and around the world is done by a man. Rarely is a woman even involved.” Noticing the blank looks on the local officers faces, he could only add, “A wasted effort if he was trying to give us a lead.”
“So I leave in about eight hours. I dread the long flight.” I was on my laptop, talking with Niralyn, my Thai girlfriend, better known by her nickname, “Ping”. All Thai people have nicknames that are pretty funny I think, but then, who am I to talk? This would be my second trip. The first trip was to confirm that neither of us smelled or waddled when we walked or things like that. You see, our whole courtship was through emailing, Skyping and using Line, the Asian answer to Facetime, though I think they had it first. So you can imagine we were both interested in meeting in person to make certain we had a clear image of the other. Evidently, even after an almost 48 hour trip door-to-door, I showed up not smelling.
“It’s so late here now, if I get two hours of sleep I’ll be lucky. But with 24 hours of flight time and a long layover in Narita ahead of me, I think I’ll catch up.”
She smiled. That always weakens me. “I wait for you,” she says. That always does too.
It was a close friend of hers, living here in the area, and her friends that would often come to Deck 231 for happy hour and then stay for the happier hours. We would joke and kid around, but she was engaged and I’m not that kind of a boy. But as she was about to leave the state for her wedding, she asked if I’d mind emailing or Skyping her good friend back in Thailand. The ruse was that her friend was trying to polish her English and having someone to communicate with in English would help. It sounded good to me. Besides, I never had me a Thai girlfriend before.
After our second email, with pictures included and her writing “I goofy”, meaning her, and that she thought I was funny and then signing it with :)))))))))))), we graduated to Skyping. With apologies to Renee Zellweger, she had me at :)).
I told her a little about the shooting but didn’t want us to get too morose. Frankly, she couldn’t fully understand. Thailand is from all reports such a peaceful land and the culture is one of respect and patience as was evident from Niralyn’s personality and in meeting many of her friends and family through Skype and Line.
“I not understand,” she said with a sincere, puzzled look.
“Well… No one really does,” I struggled to explain, “but here in the U.S, things like this happen. A lot.”
Her eyes widened. “I so sorry.” She shook her head in disbelief.
“Well, it doesn’t involve me, but I have a lot of friends on the police force and they’ve been on the scene since it started. I’ll be anxious to keep up with the story even when I’m with you in Thailand if I can get the news there.”
I know very well she only understands half of what I say, but she’s smart enough to get the gist and we seldom misunderstand each other. Thanks to her. I’m a man and don’t understand half of what women say in English as a rule.
“I help you. I make hot spot for you everywhere we go.”
That sounded good, but I didn’t know what a hot spot was. I’m in my late 40’s, just old enough to not be tech savvy. She’s in her very early 30’s, just young enough to be. “Hotspot” sounded to me like it could be trouble. But fun trouble - I’d just have to wait to see what she means.
We said our good-byes for the night and I promised to “Line” her from the airport just before boarding. I’d have a quick hop to Newark out of Myrtle Beach, then an eighteen-hour flight to Narita, then almost six more to Bangkok. Hope I’m alive to meet her.
Just before turning in I checked my phone again for texts from Doug. There was one more:
“Standing on 17 Business, controlling traffic. Out of the loop from now on.”
Rushing down the dock to meet my friend who would drive me to the airport, I couldn’t help but chuckle as I ran by the deadbeat’s boat. He was outside with a sorry looking tool kit that was probably purchased from a Dollar store, kneeling at his power hookup. He had a screwdriver in his hand but was replacing it with what looked to be an awl as I ran past without saying more than a muffled “’Sup?” I had just rounded the first corner of the dock when I heard a pop, some rather loud sparks and a bit of a scream but didn’t bother to look back.
Roy was waiting for me at my car. He owns the only cigarette boat docked here at the marina, kind of cool, but I hate the noise, the smell of petro and the hard bounces. Give me a sailboat any day. On a motorboat you’re always rushing to get somewhere. On a sailboat, you’re already there. But Roy was a good friend and willing to drive me and my car to the airport, drop me off and return my car to it’s spot for the two weeks I’d be gone. He owned a souped-up Porsche and kept it for show more than driving.
“That’s all you’re bringing?” he asked, staring at my laptop case and one rather small carry-on.
“I try to keep the airplane light. Better speed.”
He harrumphed. “Too bad the other 267 overweight and over-baggage’d passengers didn’t feel the same way.”
It didn’t deserve a reply. I travel light because it speeds up everything on my end, from checking in to checking out. I always wear a sport coat for the extra pockets and something to keep warm with at altitude. And the airlines have yet to lose any baggage that I was holding on to.
The small talk was hardly small. We were enwrapped in the news of the shooting. While I had been one of the first to hear of it late last night and was texted developments throughout the night, Roy hadn’t heard anything until he woke up this morning and went on-line. Not the cheeriest way to start a day. Names of the victims had still not been released but I doubt there was a person in town that wasn’t dreading that they might know one of them. Most of us knew of the church, but not many of us know which of our friends go where.
“You heard anything from Doug? Any inside information?” He knew Officer Forrester well as they were both regular features at the bar.
“Doug got the first call I believe. So far, the inside information is that there hasn’t been a single clue found.” I pondered that a bit, and then added, “The shooter must have planned pretty well.”
We talked the subject out after about ten minutes, a scene that no doubt was taking place all over the Grand Strand area, even the whole country by now. But until more information was forthcoming, there wasn’t much further the discussion could go. So we sat in silence a few more minutes, lost in our own thoughts.
“Yo,” Roy asked, a little suspiciously, “you live on a sailboat. You’re a novelist, of sorts. You’re a bartender. You’re single.” He stopped and threw me a glance as if something strange were about to come. “You should be the coolest guy around! Even cooler than me,” he said, peering over the top of his Ray-Ban shades and no doubt with reference to his cigarette boat and exotic car. “So why do you drive a grey, older Ford Taurus? With a roof-rack on top to boot!”
I get that a lot.
“It’s not just a Ford Taurus,” I said. “It’s the fastest Ford, or fastest any other sedan for that matter, on the Strand.” That meant the Grand Strand, from North Myrtle Beach through Georgetown, even beyond.
He laughed. “It’s a used, stock car. You did nothing to it, no super-charger, no exhaust modifications, no tricked-out wheels, no-nothing! How is it the fastest Ford around?”
“Drive me around enough and you’ll see. You might not notice on this trip, but after a few times out, you’ll see.”
He gave me a quizzical look, but conceded. A “to-be-continued” hung in the air as he dropped me off at the terminal.