What Doesn’t Kill Us by David Housewright: New Excerpt
By Crime HQApril 22, 2021
Read on for an excerpt and leave a comment on this post after you read to enter for a chance to win 1 of 5 Advance Reader Copies!
JUST SO YOU KNOW
I was shot in the back at close range by a .32-caliber handgun yet did not die, at least not permanently. Dr. Lillian Linder, the emergency medical specialist who saved my life, said it was a miracle. Lilly had patched me up on numerous occasions over the past decade, though, and I knew that she was prone to hyperbole. The cops, of course, were anxious to interview me but Lil had placed me in a coma. Apparently, I had coded twice while she was doing her thing. The second time I suffered cardiac arrest, I was dead for four minutes and ten seconds. To bring me back, Lilly zapped my heart with a defibrillator. That got it pumping again, although erratically. At least, that’s what I was told. I wish I could tell you that I saw Jesus while I was gone, but I didn’t. I didn’t see anything. There was no bright light for me to go to; my mom and dad weren’t waiting for me on the other side. I didn’t even know that I had died until three days later. Anyway, during those four minutes and ten seconds there was no electrical activity in my brain and no blood circulating. Lilly was concerned that I might suffer brain damage, if I hadn’t already (insert your own joke here). Thus the induced coma. In any case, there was nothing I could have told the cops. I did not see who shot me. I did not know why I was shot. Hell, I was as surprised at being shot as the woman who screamed when the bullet spun my body against hers. Eventually, I would piece the entire story together; my friends related bits and pieces to me while I was recovering. Apparently, I have more friends than you can shake a stick at. Who knew? Their stories began where mine ended, so to speak. They began with the scream . . .
I had been standing outside the club, looking first right and then left. I saw her when I looked left, a middle-aged woman who was walking toward me in three-inch heels. I found out later that her name was Nancy Moosbrugger. Her hair was brown and her eyes were brown and her body—if I had a body like that I would wear skintight clothes, too. She smiled at me and I smiled at her. I thought she was a working girl, especially after she said, “Hello,” with a voice that suggested that all things were possible.
“Good evening,” I replied.
She nodded her head and smiled some more and reached past me for the handle of the club’s door, moving slowly as if she expected me to stop her.
That’s when I felt the hard punch in my back and I tumbled forward. I didn’t feel the pain at first, and then I did. I reached for Nancy in a futile attempt to remain upright. She screamed and everything went black.
Someone called 911, I never learned who. Officer Jeremiah Healy arrived five minutes and twenty-seven seconds later, which was an excellent response time. He saw a woman in a skintight dress that was cut low on the top and high on the bottom and splattered with blood. She was sitting on the sidewalk and cradling my head in her lap.
“Someone shot him,” Nancy said.
“Someone shot him. I heard a shot and he fell against me.” The way Nancy held me in her lap, my back was to the sidewalk, the officer didn’t become fully aware of how seriously injured I was until he knelt next to us and the blood pooling beneath me wetted his knee. The bullet that had entered my back and lodged itself in my chest had ruptured at least one major vessel and I was in danger of bleeding to death.
The officer activated the radio microphone attached to his shoulder.
He carefully explained that he was on the scene, that shots had been fired as the 911 caller had reported, and that he found a white male who was badly in need of immediate medical attention. The SPPD was big on what it called “plain speak.” For example, Healy was very clear when he said, “Officer requires assistance.”
He interviewed Nancy while he waited for it to arrive.
“Who is he?” the officer asked.
“I don’t know. I never saw him before.”
“Is he a john you picked up?”
“What the hell?”
“It’s okay. I’m not judging.”
Only Nancy felt as if she was being judged.
“I was walking down the street . . .”
The officer smirked.
“I was walking down the street and I saw him standing in front of the door and I heard the gunshot and he fell against me, and somehow we both ended up on the sidewalk.”
“Were you the one who called 911?” Healy asked.
Her cell phone was in her small handbag. The bag was resting on the other side of the sidewalk where it came to rest after flying out of her hand. Nancy would have had to lay my head on the concrete and crawl over to reach it. The fact that she didn’t, that she continued to cradle me in her arms, a complete stranger—well, let’s not get emotional. We have a long way to go yet.
Healy asked Nancy if she could identify the man who shot me. It was a leading question, something an experienced investigator would never ask. Good for Nancy, she answered, “I don’t know if it was a man or a woman. I didn’t see the person.” Healy told her that the detectives would want to interview her just the same.
By then the ambulance had arrived. And more cops. And bystanders. Before they reached us, though, Officer Healy had the presence of mind to search me for an ID. He found a wallet in the inside pocket of my black sports jacket and opened it. On one side was my driver’s license, conveniently tucked behind a plastic window, which told him that my name was Rushmore McKenzie and I lived across the river in Minneapolis. On the other side, also protected by plastic, was a second ID card that I used primarily to get out of speeding tickets. It proclaimed that I was a proud member of the St. Paul Police Department—retired.
“Oh, shit,” Healy said.
Bobby Dunston was playing hoops with his daughter in the driveway of his pre-World War II colonial in the Merriam Park neighborhood of St. Paul. It was the house where Bobby grew up; he bought it from his parents when they retired. It’s also where I practically grew up after my mother died when I was in the sixth grade. I didn’t have a family except for my father after that and the Dunstons had all but adopted me. It was the reason I never felt like an orphan even after my father passed.
It was approaching eight thirty, yet because of daylight saving time it was still light outside. Bobby was wishing that the damn sun would set already. His daughter was kicking his ass and he wanted to quit while he still possessed a shred of athletic dignity. He suggested, not for the first time, that he was a hockey player, not a basketball player. If he thought his second child would take it easy on him, though, he was mistaken. Katie Dunston had made the Central High School women’s varsity basketball team as a freshman and helped lead them to the City Conference finals. She was ferocious. Meanwhile, Katie’s older sister, Victoria, was sitting at a picnic table in the backyard and trash-talking him.
The girls bore little resemblance to each other. Victoria had a dark, almost brooding appearance like Bobby’s, yet possessed an expressive, outgoing personality that matched her mother’s. Meanwhile, Katie was all sunshine and wheat fields like Shelby but possessed the reticent characteristics of her old man. Victoria was the intellectual in the family; she was just finishing up her junior year of high school yet had already amassed enough Advanced Placement credits to qualify as a second semester college freshman. Katie was the athlete; college scouts were already expressing interest in her. Victoria suggested that was fortunate because the only way Katie was going to get into a decent school was with an athletic scholarship. Katie’s response was to quote Princess Leia in The Empire Strikes Back—“You stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder!”
Eventually, Bobby became frustrated enough with Vic’s heckling that he told her if she could do better, she was welcome to try. The girls both oohed and aahed at that. They might not always get along as well as they could, yet it was forever the two of them against the world and the world often included their parents.
Bobby had to admit that he was being a poor loser, only he never felt so old in his life. Or proud. Katie was wearing her practice jersey with a bright red “4” on the back. Number four had been Bobby’s number on every jersey in every sport he had ever played.
“One more game,” Katie said. “First one to ten.”
“I’m coming hard this time,” Bobby said.
“You do that.”
Before he could check the ball, however, Shelby Dunston came out of the back door and dashed across the lawn to the driveway. She looked panicked, which came as a shock to every member of her family. Shelby never looked panicked.
She halted at the edge of the concrete apron and held out a cell phone.
“Mom?” Victoria said.
“What is it?” Bobby asked.
“McKenzie,” Shelby said. “He’s been shot.”
“Is he dead?”
Bobby took the cell from Shelby’s hand and spoke into it.
“This is Commander Dunston,” he said.
“Commander, this is Jean Shipman. I’ve just been informed that Rushmore McKenzie has just been shot outside a club on Rice Street.”
“What the hell was he doing on Rice Street?”
“How bad is it?”
“Pretty bad, I think.”
“Where is he?”
“On his way to Regions if he’s not there already.”
“The officer who took the call?”
“Jerry Healy. Seven-year man working out of Central. He’s accompanying the ambulance to the hospital.”
“Tell him to stay there; tell him to wait until I arrive.”
“Suspects in custody?”
“No. I don’t—Major Crimes just received the call. Probably we wouldn’t have it this early except that Healy IDed McKenzie as one of us.”
“All right, you take lead.”
“Jeannie, I want everybody on this.”
“I’ve sent Mason Gafford to the club; FSU should already be there—”
“Everybody!” Bobby shouted.
“Yes, of course.”
“I’m heading to Regions Hospital now. I’ll call as soon as I learn anything.”
“Do you know if Nina Truhler has been informed?”
Bobby ended the call and stood staring at his wife and wondered what she was thinking. Shelby and I shared a bond that went all the way back to college. The joke was that if I had been the one who spilled his drink on Shelby’s dress instead of Bobby, all of our lives would be different. Bobby had never really given it much thought in the twenty-some years that had passed since then. Why would he? After all, he’s the guy who won the girl, not me. Yet now it seemed to matter immensely. Was it a joke? Well, of course it was.
Bobby and Shelby moved into each other’s arms and held each other as tightly as they ever had.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Shelby said.
“McKenzie’s always getting into trouble. Remember the last time we got a call like this? Someone tried to blow him up.”
“This feels different somehow.”
“I’m going to the hospital.”
“I’m going with you.”
“Bobby . . .”
“I’ll be working.”
“Then I’ll drive separately. Nina will need a friend.”
Shelby and Bobby explained the situation to their daughters. I have no idea what they were thinking at that moment, but they must have remembered that I had designated them as my heirs, that they both stood to inherit a couple of million bucks each when I cashed in, mustn’t they? Or not. I don’t know. I never asked them, not even to be funny.
They remained in the driveway while mom and dad went into the house for their keys and whatnot, opened the garage doors, and walked to their separate vehicles.
“I love you,” Shelby said across the roof of her car.
“I love you more,” Bobby replied.
The girls didn’t say much of anything as they watched their parents drive off. Katie went back to shooting baskets, slowly, methodically, telling herself Just get the ball through the hoop; don’t think about anything except getting the ball through the hoop. Victoria soon joined her. Katherine gave her tips. Victoria accepted them. The girls kept shooting until the next-door neighbor told them it was late and the noise and bright garage lights were keeping everyone awake. Katie was tempted to tell the neighbor where he could go, only Vic restrained her. After all, she was the mature sister. Or at least the eldest. Nancy Moosbrugger sat on the passenger side of Detective Mason Gafford’s unmarked car parked with a clear view of the club’s entrance, her long legs dangling over the edge of the seat toward the street, the hem of her dress hiked up to there. She was trembling like a leaf in a high wind.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said. “I was perfectly fine when I was holding that poor man in my lap. I wasn’t even bothered by the blood.”
Gafford glanced at her legs, at the blood staining her thighs and calves. The EMTs should have given her a towel or something. He wondered if there was one in the trunk. He had never driven that particular unit before so he wasn’t sure.
“The cop was more upset than me,” Nancy said, “and I hadn’t seen anyone shot before.”
“Probably he hadn’t, either,” Gafford said.
“He got real upset when he found out that the man was a police officer.”
“Ex-police officer, retired.”
“Do you think that’s why he was shot, because he was a
“I don’t know. He often worked as a kind of unlicensed private investigator, so there’s that.”
“Is that why he was hanging around this part of town? The North End? Rice Street? I mean it’s not as bad as the East Side, but still.”
“McKenzie? His name was McKenzie, right?”
“Did you know him?”
“He was a nice guy, wasn’t he?”
“I thought so.”
“I could tell, the way he smiled and said, ‘Good evening,’ like he meant it. Most men . . .”
Nancy didn’t finish the thought. Instead, she glanced down at her hands shaking in her lap as if it was something she had never seen before. Gafford squatted down in front of her. At a distance she could pass for late twenties, but up close she appeared to be in her late thirties, perhaps early forties, especially around the eyes. Gafford rested his hand on top of Nancy’s. She slipped one hand on top of his, catching it between both of her hands, and squeezed. Gafford let her even though it hurt.
He glanced around. The officer assigned to crowd control was having a tough time of it; people attempting to enter and exit the club through the front door were treating him with all of the respect given a bouncer brandishing a red velvet rope. Meanwhile, the Forensic Services Unit was carefully inspecting the crime scene under the bright lights that they had taken from the tricked-out van they utilized. If they found anything, they hadn’t bothered to inform him.
“Why can’t I stop shaking?” Nancy asked.
Gafford decided that he was the one who should be asking the questions. It’s what they were paying him for after all.
“Did you see the assailant?” he asked.
Nancy repeated the word, “As-sai-lant,” as if she liked the way it rolled off her tongue. “No, I didn’t. He must have been standing behind McKenzie.”
“He. She. I couldn’t tell. McKenzie was blocking my view and when he fell I was watching him.”
“Did you see anyone else on the sidewalk . . .”
“While you were walking toward the club?”
“No. Just McKenzie.”
“You heard the shot,” Gafford said.
“Did the shot come from inside the bar?”
“No. McKenzie was standing sideways to the bar, sideways to the entrance and watching me. The door was closed. I was moving past him to open the door and thinking—the way he smiled and said, ‘Good evening,’ I thought maybe . . . Then I heard the gunshot.”
“Coming from behind him?”
“I guess,” Nancy said. “It wasn’t loud. Not like in the movies. It didn’t go boom, you know? More like crack, crack.”
“You heard two shots?”
“No, just the one. Crack.”
“What happened next?”
“Then he fell against me. Well, not fell. More like he was shoved. I screamed because—I heard the crack and he fell against me and I knew, just knew that he had been shot. I had never seen anything like this before except in the movies, yet I knew. It seemed so clear to me. He fell and I caught him and kinda lowered him to the ground. I screamed because it seemed like the thing to do. I wasn’t afraid. I am now. I can’t stop shaking. But I wasn’t at the time.”
“What happened next?” Gafford repeated.
“A couple of people walked out of the bar and a couple of people walked in. No one bothered to stop and ask what was going on. They must have thought McKenzie was a drunk who passed out or something. It seemed like we were there for a long time although I suppose it was only a couple of minutes before I heard the siren. The cop car siren. All of a sudden the sidewalk was filled with people. One of them called the cop a dirty name. I don’t know why. He was just trying to help.”
Gafford gave Nancy’s hands a shake and stood up.
“You’re a good person,” he said.
“No, I’m not.”
“You are what you do and you did good.”
“Should I be honest, Detective Gifford?”
“Forgive me. Detective Gafford. I’ll be honest. I came here tonight to get laid. I would have done McKenzie if he had let me, the way he smiled and said, ‘Good evening.’ My husband left me for a sweet young thing that worked as an intern in his office and for the past six months I’ve been sitting around the house feeling sorry for myself, telling myself that I’m old and ugly and no one wants me. Finally, I decided to prove that it wasn’t true. Or maybe that it was. That’s why I came down here. Alone. To Rice Street. I don’t know how I got up the nerve. Then I saw him, McKenzie. I saw him standing outside the club, this good-looking man who smiled and stared at me exactly the way I wanted to be stared at. Now look at me. I look hideous.”
“No, you don’t,” Gafford said.
Nancy’s eyes met his.
“My dress is ruined.”
“Like I said, I know McKenzie. If he pulls through, I’m going to tell him about you. I bet he buys you a new dress.”
“Is he married, do you know?”
“But I’m not.”
Before he left his house in Merriam Park, Bobby made a phone call. It was received by Nina Truhler. She was sitting behind her desk in her office at Rickie’s, the jazz club she had named after her daughter Erica, and doing something with her computer. She answered the phone without bothering to check the caller ID.
“Rickie’s,” she said.
“Nina, it’s Bobby.”
Something in his voice made her stand up.
“What is it?” she said.
“Hang on to yourself, honey—McKenzie’s been shot.”
“Yes. He’s . . .”
“Is he dead?”
“No. No, Nina. He’s going to be fine.”
“Is that a promise?”
“He’s at Regions Hospital. I’m heading over right now.”
“I’ll see you there.”
Nina hung up her phone and stared at it for a few beats before forcing herself to move. Dammit, Nina’s inner voice said. Four months. We’ve been married for four lousy months, not even four months, and he does this to me?
Yet she reserved most of her anger for Bobby.
“You sonuvabitch,” she said aloud. “You didn’t promise.”
Thaddeus Coleman was an entrepreneur. He was currently managing a ticket-scalping operation out of an office in a converted warehouse with a view of Target Field, where the Twins played baseball in downtown Minneapolis. When I first met him, though, back when I was with the SPPD, Coleman was running a small but lucrative stable of girls around Selby and Western, a neighborhood in St. Paul that used to be rich with prostitution until patrons drifted to the next trendy hot spot. Afterward, he dealt drugs around Fuller and Farrington. Sometimes he sold the real thing; sometimes he passed laundry soap and Alka-Seltzer tablets crushed to resemble rock cocaine to the white suburban kids who drove up in Daddy’s SUV. I busted Coleman for that—representing and selling a controlled substance, whether it’s an actual drug or not, is a felony. Only, the judge threw the case out. I blamed the prosecutor.
While the court might have been lenient with Coleman, though, the Red Dragons not so much. They objected to his activities on what they considered to be their turf, and pumped two rounds into his spine as a way to express their displeasure, thus the wheelchair that he was now sitting in and the nickname he became widely known by—Chopper. I’m the one that scooped him off the sidewalk and got him the medical attention that saved his life. We’ve been friends ever since, even though six weeks after Chopper wheeled himself out of the hospital in a stolen chair, we discovered the bodies of three Red Dragons under the swings at a park near St. Paul College of Technology. We could never prove who did the deed; although the ME reported that the bullet holes had an upward trajectory as if the Dragons were shot by someone who was sitting down. Still, innocent until proven guilty is what the law says.
Chopper was sitting at his desk, and reviewing the latest computer gadgetry that would help him circumvent the online security systems employed by ticket sellers and allow him to buy bundles of the best seats in the house for whatever concerts and sporting events promised him a hefty ROI. His head came up when he heard my name.
“Go back,” he said.
“Go back, go back.”
Herzog was relaxing in a leather lounger and pointing a remote at a flat-screen TV. He had been channel surfing, one of his favorite occupations, landing on one channel before moving to the next and the next, sometimes watching for a few minutes, sometimes only for a second or two, entertaining himself for hours. Chopper had taught himself to block out the distraction, except he had heard someone say, “McKenzie.”
“Go back,” he said again.
Herzog flicked the channels until he landed on a local TV reporter named Kelly Bressandes who was looking into the lens of a camera as if it were the best friend she ever had. She was wearing a tight sweater so her male audience would know that she had curves. I’d had dealings with her in the past. Believe me, she could be wearing a burlap sack and the world would know that she had curves.
“The third shooting in St. Paul in the past week,” she said. “Rushmore McKenzie remains in critical condition in Regions Hospital. Barry?”
The camera moved from Kelly’s face to that of her co-anchor, who began talking about a health care initiative that was being argued in the state legislature.
“See if he’s on any of the other news programs,” Chopper said.
Herzog switched channels. He found a male anchor who seemed put out by the story he was reporting.
“The shooting remains under investigation,” he said. “It should be noted that this is not the first time that police have been called to the RT’s Basement, located on Rice Street in St. Paul, because of a violent act. Over to you . . .”
Herzog knew what Chopper was thinking.
“Ain’t none of our business,” he said.
“Shooting remains under investigation means they don’t know who did it.”
“We could find out.”
“How we gonna find out?”
“RT’s Basement—who we know down there?”
“C’mon, Chop. We don’t owe McKenzie nothin’.”
“It’s St. Paul, man. That means fucking Bobby Dunston. He’d like t’ put us inside just for the fun of it.”
“He’s McKenzie’s friend.”
“He ain’t ours, you know what I’m sayin’?”
“Cops always whining about not gettin’ no cooperation from the African-American community. We just cooperating is all.”
Herzog shook his head and muttered a few obscenities before turning off the flat-screen and climbing out of the chair. He was the largest, hardest man I had ever met in person; you could roller-skate on him. He was also the most dangerous. He had done time for multiple counts of manslaughter, assault, aggravated robbery, and weapons charges, but was working hard to clean up his act. He’d been out on parole for the past four years with one more to go and had been Chopper’s right-hand man ever since they released him from the halfway house. He tolerated me—but just barely—because we both liked baseball and jazz and Chopper, and because I had arranged through Nina to get him and his date the table closest to the stage when Cécile McLorin Salvant sang at Rickie’s.
“Jus’ so you know, I think this is a really bad idea,” he said.
Copyright © 2021 by David Housewright. All rights reserved.
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