At ten o'clock at night a rusty black pickup edged to the curb before a stately white Colonial house. Earlier, on that bright fall morning, Artis Browne had targeted the property. There was only one car in the driveway, a shiny black Lincoln Navigator.
No wife kissing the man good-bye, no dog trying to get out as he opened the front door. Artis watched the man lock the door and pull a suitcase that bounced down the steps behind him. He wheeled the suitcase over to the driveway and loaded it into the rear of the Navigator. The man got into the driver's side and Artis watched while the man fumbled around for a moment. He started the engine and the Navigator moved smoothly out of the driveway and headed south toward Folsom.
Artis slapped his hand on the steering wheel. He licked his lips and smiled broadly. This was going to be easy. Well, maybe--if, like so many people, the homeowner did not bother to set his alarm.
Now, in the moonless night, two dark figures descended from the pickup and headed up the leaf strewn driveway toward the rear of the house.
The only illumination at the rear fell in a yellow ring from a small coach light above the back door. A cricket's chirp stopped abruptly as the two young men came to a halt just outside the ring of light. The men stood looking up, listening.
Artis, taller and thinner, flexed sinewy fingers on the screwdriver he carried in his right hand. He nodded to his buddy, Leon Curtis. With Leon close at his heels, Artis moved up the five steps to the door.
"Why didn't we just back up here in the first place?" Leon whispered.
Artis sighed, speaking slowly and distinctly, as if talking to an idiot child: "Because if there's somebody in the house, Leon, they might hear the fucking engine." Artis pulled his lips into his mouth, moistening them. "Get ready now," he cautioned. He shifted his grip on the screwdriver.
With their dark skins and clothing, the men had been nearly invisible until they mounted the five steps and stepped into the pool of light by the back door. They might have been brothers.
Leon shot a nervous glance into the shadows around him. He sniffed. "Smells like a graveyard." He moved closer to Artis.
"How would you know?" Artis said. He peered through the window set in the door, but it was too dark inside to see clearly. He tested the doorknob. Both the men glanced nervously about again and Artis wedged the screwdriver into the jamb. The door ceded to the screwdriver with barely a whimper.
Immediately the men took off, racing around the corner of the home and down the driveway. By the time they reached the pickup, sweat popped from their skin despite the coolness of the evening. Their faces shone in the weak light that fell from the street light half a block away.
They hopped into the vehicle and Artis deftly inserted the key into the ignition. Then they waited, listening.
"When you going to get that nasty white tailgate painted?" Leon asked.
"Maybe tonight's the night, my man," Artis said. "I'll get the whole fucking truck painted. Maybe purple with racing stripes." He stared into space for a moment. "Yeah ... green racing stripes." He smiled.
After a moment of silence, Leon said, "I don't hear anything." He sniffed. "Man, smells worse than a locker room in here."
"Yeah, well you half deaf anyways," Artis told him, ignoring the remark about the smell of the truck's interior. "We'll wait ten minutes."
"I ain't deaf," Leon protested without conviction. "I hear just fine." Then in a more contemptuous tone, "Hah, half the time these rich people don't set their alarms anyway."
"I'm the one told you that," Artis reminded him.
Leon's eyes shown white in the darkness. "Oh yeah," he said. He fell silent for a moment, then: "Are you sure about this, Artis? I never did anything like this before."
"I have," Artis boasted. "I just never told you about it before. That's how these mothers get caught; they go around bragging about what they did. You got to learn to keep your mouth shut."
"Oh--no you didn't," Leon said. "You didn't tell me about that." He glanced through his window at the house. It looked much like most of the homes on this street, big and luxurious. He noted how the house sat well back on the beautifully manicured lawn, the drive curving gracefully around toward the garage at the right rear of the house. "Looks like there's a light on upstairs there," he said, noticing the pale light that illuminated one of the upstairs windows.
"That's just a night light," Artis said in exasperation. "It was on when we drove up here."
Leon nodded and looked back at Artis. "Oh," he said. As he glanced back at Artis, Leon just missed the faint passage of a shadow across the softly lighted upstairs window.
After a moment Leon moved his shoulders. "What are we looking for, exactly?"
Artis arched his eyebrows at Leon. "Whatever, man. Jewelry, DVD player, silver shit. Just small shit. Money would be nice."
"Yeah, I guess," Leon murmured. "And bling bling ... or a laptop. Everybody wants laptops."
Artis screwed up his face. Had the man been carrying a laptop? "Yeah, maybe. Maybe he left a laptop up in there."
"And DVD's, CD's," Leon said.
Artis threw Leon a contemptuous look. "Man ... that shit don't bring nothing."
"Maybe not," Leon conceded. "But we could use them." He sat silent for a moment and then brightened. "You really think you going to hump Alvin's sister?"
"Shit yes," Artis told him. "I already been through all that with you. I told you: Anybody be dumb enough to pay her, she'd be a ho'. You know that. I can hump that girl anytime the urge hits me."
"She's not a ho'," Leon said. "Least I don't think so. I mean ... man, she's talking about going to college next year and she goes to church regular as clockwork."
"Going to church, that don't mean nothin'. Lots of ho's go to church. That don't mean nothin'..." Artis studied his Geneva watch closely." He sighed. "All right. It must be about ten minutes. Let's go, man."
Artis shifted into reverse and slowly backed the truck around and up the driveway toward the garage. He braked near the back door.
"Nobody hardly can see us from the street," he murmured. Leon nodded, and they descended from the truck with small flashlights in their hands. They closed the doors quietly.
"Don't forget the bag," Artis instructed.
Leon fumbled around behind the seat and brought up a large canvas bag. He rolled it up and stuffed it under his jacket.
On the back porch again, Artis gently pushed the door open. He briefly flashed a light about a mudroom. The flashlight's pale beam touched on a utility sink; a chair and a small table with a couple of gardening tools. Yellow rain jackets on hooks at the side. He passed that and tried the actual back door. It too was locked. But this time Artis did not waste time. He popped the door quickly. Inside the kitchen, he hesitated for one beat.
"Okay," he breathed. He shoved the screwdriver down into his belt beneath his jacket and moved forward with Leon at his heels.
"Wow," Leon whispered as his eyes roved over a large stainless restaurant type range that stood against the left wall, and a stainless built-in refrigerator that took up another large space nearby. He stared in admiration at the granite island with a sink in the center of the room, and above that, pots and pans that gleamed in the jumping beam of his flashlight.
"Man, could my mama cook up some shit in this kitchen," Leon whispered.
"Well," Artis grumbled, "your mama ain't fixing to cook nothing up in here tonight. Come on."
Artis moved forward through a small pantry filled with shelves of foodstuffs and on into a dining room. Beneath a heavy crystal chandelier, a long table gleamed in the darkness. Chairs surrounded the table and to one side a wide hunt board held vases and a silver tea service.
"See if they's any silverware or something in those drawers," Artis commanded.
While Artis continued into the central hall, Leon dutifully pulled out drawers and smiled widely at the sight of heavy silverware laid out in dark felt compartments.
"Yeah, we got us some shit here," he breathed, smiling broadly. Suddenly he jerked and hurried out into the hall. He touched Artis' arm. "Artis. You hear something?"
Artis froze, listening. He turned back to Leon. "Don't you go getting antsy on me, man."
Leon sighed and grinned. "We got some silver in there," he said, "but--"
"Keep it down, stupid" he admonished, "or you'll be hearing something from me. Maybe we'll pick up some of that silver shit on the way back."
They stepped across the hall into a media room.
"Damn!" Leon exclaimed, having a difficult time keeping his voice low as stood behind the double row of large leather seats and stared at the very large plasma screen that dominated one end of the room. "Get me some popcorn! This's just like the Cineplex."
"Will you shut up, Leon? You want to admire big TV's I'll take you down to Sears or someplace."
Artis glanced at the television with a sneer. "Shit, what these people be needin' with a TV like that anyway? Well, I guess we ain't packin' off this set," he said. "But there must be some video stuff behind some of those cabinets. Maybe we can get something there. DVD players, shit like that. We check on the way back."
They peered into the living room. They saw lots of furniture. "Nothing here for us," Artis said. His flashlight beam swept over an ivory parlor grand piano.
"I bet that piano's worth a few ducats," Leon said.
"Yeah," Artis agreed. "You put it up on the truck, man, and I'll sell it." He shook his head. "Come on, man." He headed toward the wide curving staircase at the front of the house. Leon ducked his head and followed close behind.
Halfway up the staircase, Leon grabbed Artis' arm again. "You hear something now?"
Artis stopped and listened. After a long silent moment he looked back at Leon with scorn. "Don't you be trying to fuck me up now, man. This shit makes me nervous enough without you running your mouth. You want to be a sheep, you don't be runnin' with no wolves."
"I don't know man. I thought I heard something." After a moment, Leon added: "You make that up--about the running with the wolves?"
Artis ignored this and they continued up the stairs. "Ninety-nine percent of the time these rich people they hide the good shit up in their bedroom," Artis whispered. He snickered. "They think people don't know that."
They headed past other rooms toward the front of the house where a faint light glowed around the slightly open door.
Artis nudged Leon, "I think that's just the night light we saw," he whispered. "But we'll make sure."
With Leon right behind him, Artis stepped very softly across the thick carpeting to the doors. The door was open inward barely half an inch, just enough for Artis to put one eye to it. Seeing nothing, he pressed his hand against the door. At that very instant a violent grunt and a heavy thunk froze his hand on the door. A meteoric trail of blood shot past his line of vision spattering against the ceiling, this followed by a heavy sickening thud. Another grunt, and more blood shot past his line of vision. After what seemed to him an eternity, he licked his lips and swallowed hard. He managed a shaky step backward bumping hard into Leon. Suddenly alive again, he spun about and jabbed hard at Leon, pushing violently. "Go man! Go!"
With Leon at his heels, Artis ran in total panic back down the hall. They hit the main floor and as they ran through the pantry, the bag slipped from beneath Leon's jacket. The bag fell between his feet throwing him roughly to his knees on the tile floor. He got back to his feet, moaning slightly as he furiously snatched up the bag and continued after Artis who had already exited the home.
Moments later the boys were back in the pickup, breathing hard and throwing quick glances behind them. Artis gunned the engine and the pickup shot back down the driveway and into the street. As they hit the street, the upstairs window opened and a shadow nearly blocked the window completely.
Inside the pickup, Leon leaned forward rubbing his tender knees. He threw another quick nervous glance back at the house and then turned to Artis. "Man, what happened? What did you see there, man? Man, what did you see?"
"Man, you don't even want to know," Artis told him. "Man--I never see nothing like that in my life before." He steered recklessly toward Folsom Boulevard now. He kept pulling his upper lip in and biting it. "That's a fucking madhouse up in there, you know what I'm saying, man? I don't know what's goin' on up in that bedroom. I mean I never saw so much blood in my life, I--"
Leon's eyes widened. "Blood?"
"That's what I said. Blood. Oh man, it been flying all over that place. Man..." He fell silent, his mind confused by what he had seen.
"Oh man," Leon said. "Oh man," he repeated. "Oh my God, Artis, we can't be mixed up in any murders." They rode in silence for a moment as they barreled west down Folsom while Leon allowed this information to soak in. Suddenly he had another chilling thought. "You don't think anybody saw us, do you?"
Artis drove without responding.
"No. I don't think so." Artis continued driving. He wet his lips, frowning. Suddenly he spoke again, more loudly: "Fuck no, man. Nobody saw us. And you didn't see nothing either, man. Just remember that--and you keep your fat mouth shut. We were never there, Leon. Remember that. We don't know nothing, and we sure don't want to get messed up in no white people's troubles. I don't know what's going on, and I don't want to know. Next thing they be setting us up to go to San Quentin or something--unless you're a personal friend of Johnnie Cochran."
"Johnnie Cochran? Get out! You know I don't know him."
"Well, I rest my case. You keep your fat mouth shut, hear?"
The pickup turned south into Franklin and disappeared into the night.