17 Hours by Missye K. Clarke

Late Saturday night, 4 February, 1991.

Sam had himself a time at a sweet jam in Upper Harlem. Talk at the party flowed: plans to rock out Disney World in the spring, because he, Charlie, Marie, and several other family members hadn’t yet been. Sam Junior was doing well in school. He had job security. He’d be a grandpop later that year. The drinks were maybe a touch better than the present company, but on the whole, Sam felt, life was good.

Too bad it all would soon end.

Sam left the Lenox Avenue apartment roughly 1:30am back to Queens and to bed. Mornings come faster when you’ve been partying, and he wasn’t the exception.

The station was quiet when he fed his $2.25 token fare in the Queens-bound turnstile. Distant laughter echoed in the labyrinthine station, and he cut the token booth a glance. The clerk behind the bullet-proofed glass gave a small nod in acknowledgement before returning to his Daily News.

More laughter carried through the chilly station, part of a monstrously complex network New York City Transit is. Although the best method getting around the Big Apple, a cab in that same distance to his Flushing, Queens residence was twenty times the transit fare, and he prided himself on being an unapologetic cheapskate.

He took a seat on the Queens-bound A train platform, sighs. Minutes skidded past. Nice party. Work’s been brutal. I need to do that more oft–

“You got money?” a voice asked over the hard thunder of an approaching train.

Sam looked up. Several teens in dark clothes semi-circle him. “No.”

“That watch says different, man,” a second teen said.

“So?”

The train still barreled in, but slowed as regulations dictated.

The teens rushed the man. No time to think, Sam pulled out a .9. Several against one wasn’t a fair fight, but in a fight, is anyone ever worried about fair?

Shouts, confusion, havoc. Cursing, punches thrown, shots fired. So much chaos for a small number in a tussle on a cold, lonely platform in the young Sunday morning. From a motorman’s viewpoint, powerless he couldn’t stop his run in time seeing a panicked human’s eyes while trying to climb back to the platform, and to safety, he’d find work not so conscience-bruising. No more would he play another part in a senseless end.

A teen involved with the scuffle–to his mother, he was still her firstborn bear cub, doing her proud he was college-bound–felt remorse he found himself in a fight he wanted nothing to do with.

Maybe his fellow thugs, eager to get high on a generous stash of rolls, blunts, and bowls, saw the event as a way to power up an otherwise witch’s tit-cold early Sunday morning. Their weed dude was late, they had to pass time some kind of way. And hey, a pulse of adrenaline kept them warmer a hell of a lot better than sitting in a boring Con Ed heated apartment devoid of weed would do.

Whichever the case, or the thoughts, those affected might see sunrise hours later. One man on a literal collision course with fate wouldn’t. Nor would he see the mid-year arrival of his first grandchild.

NYPD caught two perps, those outcomes unknown. But being underage, those boys’ criminal records are sealed, if not expunged altogether. The rest of that crew, if any to account so, or would cop to, fled into the ubiquitous shadows of the Manhattan night, maybe hit or missed by bullets, bur definitely gone like cold smoke. Bear Cub, the college-bound, might’ve been among the runners. Conceivably, he kept his mama’s promise and made good in school and then some: he shielded his bear cub child from the life he’d lived, knowing Bear Cub Sr. altered another family’s lives he’d never meet. Perchance this was the bear cub’s way to atone–God sees all but waits. He’d let Bear Cub tell that family his regrets in the next life.

* * *

Early Sunday evening, 5 February, 1991.

“Missye, I gotta talk–” my husband Pete told me as I had my key in the lock of our front door.

“One side, one side, let a rabbit through,” I demanded, feeling like an overfilled water balloon after finding no bathrooms between traveling home from a friend’s memorial for her husband.

Pete side-stepped my mad dash. I let my backpack purse hit the worn carpet outside the loo, not caring if something broke, got wet, or crumbled within the bag. When you’re the start of second trimester pregnant and your remaining wisdom teeth are floating, all bets are off.

I dropped on the seat, let ‘er rip. The release felt needed-laugh good, needed-cry good, or a solid right hook to a boss’s egotistical nose needing a get-back-in-line alignment, good. “Okay, babe . . . now talk to me,” I said.

Expression more solemn than when he’d told me his dog died four years before, Pete said sotto voce, “Honey . . . it’s about Reggie.”

“What about him?” I asked while tidying up.

“I really don’t know how to say this . . . but he’s dead.”

“Not funny, Pete.” I cut my husband a steeled look. “I saw him three days ago, and I just came from a service. Stop bullshitting me.”

Peter shook his head no. “I’m serious. He’s been killed. Charles just told me.”

Like 9/11 a decade and seven months later, shock hit me first. Still semi-dressed, I demanded our cordless phone, dialed my favorite uncle. From his flat tone on the fourth ring, my old normal imploded. So had his. (To this day that old normal’s still imploded with my favorite uncle gone, too. I fucking hate cancer.)

Sam–Reginald Samuel Briggs, and my birth father–was the man under six of eleven train cars headed to Queens those seventeen hours before. As of this post, NYPD has no leads or clues, the case among thousands of homicides in that agency’s cold files. The account of his death, based on scant details offered at the time, permitted me creative license fragmenting together his last moments alive.

Do I know the festering, nagging why behind this crime? No. Do I want to know that why? Again, no. Am I macabre enough to conjecture that night’s events to see how close I’ve come to being right? I have–it’s in the soul’s design to crave answers to things unknown. To a degree, it’s been fun giving this case closer scrutiny NYPD didn’t do–and beats crying to the final verses of Mike + the Mechanics’ “The Living Years” yet again :). But with the key players of this story unable to be found, recently or long dead, and an agency bent on leaving its shortcomings under lock and key, forensic speculation’s all I have.

Although crafting fiction sates my inner Nosy Nancy–I love bamboozling anyone who reads my stuff, if ever they do!–this event, bookending the still-murky motives of the AZ move a decade prior, my wild imagination and inner sense of stark right and wrong, have an outlet. What I can’t do alone in the clearly broken justice system I can do fictionally. I don’t know how purposeful it’ll gift mankind to convince them to do better in solving cold cases, but if it’s a pinpoint of hopeful, philosophical light at the end of a scary-dark tunnel for somebody else worse off than I, justice is served. But I’m forever changed by this. For the better, I’d like to think so, but that’s open for debate and perception.

Or maybe I’m in deep need for good trick-or-treat candy unloaded on me while I ensure good mostly triumphs in my mysteries. Make the haul anything citrus, cherry, watermelon, and sour apple in Jolly Ranchers®, Tootsie Rolls®, and Starburst®, please, and thanks. Kindly hold the bag of rocks–those are Charlie’s. Brown’s, that is.

👻🎃 Happy Halloween! 🎃👻

 

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