Hell To Pay
The second book in the Derek Strange and Terry Quinn series, 2002
To Dennis K. Ashton Jr., seven years old, shot to death on June 27, 1997, by a criminal with a handgun in Washington, D.C.
“Don’t Look down
On a man…
Unless you gonna
Pick him up.”
Written on a mural outside Taylor’s Funeral Home, on the corner of Randolph Place and North Capitol Street, NW, Washington, D.C.
GARFIELD Potter sat low behind the wheel of an idling Caprice, his thumb stroking the rubber grip of the Colt revolver loosely fitted between his legs. On the bench beside him, leaning against the passenger window, sat Carlton Little. Little filled an empty White Owl wrapper with marijuana and tamped the herb with his thumb. Potter and Little were waiting on Charles White, who was in the backyard of his grandmother’s place, getting his dog out of a cage.
“It don’t look like much, does it?” said Potter, looking down at his own lap.
Little grinned lazily. “That’s what the girls must say when you pull that thing out.”
“Like Brianna, you mean? Your girl? She ain’t had no chance to look at it, ’cause I was waxin’ her from behind. She felt it, though. Made her forget all about you, too. I mean, when I was done hittin’ it she couldn’t even remember your name.”
“She couldn’t remember hers either, drunk as she had to be to fuck a sad motherfucker like you.” Little laughed some as he struck a match and held it to the end of the cigar.
“I’m talkin’ about this gun, fool.” Potter held up the Colt so Little, firing up the blunt, could see it.
“Yeah, okay. Where’d you get it at, man?”
“Traded it to this boy for half an OZ. Was one of those project guns, hadn’t even been fired but once or twice. Short barrel, only two inches long, you’d think it couldn’t do shit. But this here is a three fifty-seven. They call it a carry revolver, ’cause you can carry this shit without no one knowin’ you strapped. I don’t need no long barrel, anyway. I like to work close in.”
“I’ll stick with my nine. You don’t even know if that shits works.”
“It works. Yours jams, don’t be askin’ me for mines.”
Potter was tall, light skinned, flat of stomach and chest, with thin, ropy forearms and biceps. He kept his hair shaved close to the scalp, with a small slash mark by way of a part. His irises were dark brown and filled his eyes; his nose was a white boy’s nose, thin and aquiline. He was quick to smile. It was a smile that could be engaging when he wanted it to be, but more often than not it inspired fear.
Little was not so tall. He was bulked in the shoulders and arms, but twiggish in the legs. A set of weights had given him the show muscles upstairs, but his legs, which he never worked on, betrayed the skinny, malnourished boy he used to be. He wore his hair braided in cornrows and kept a careless, weedy thatch of hair on his chin.
Both wore carpenter jeans and button-down, short-sleeve plaid Nautica shirts over wife-beater Ts. Potter’s shoes were whatever was newest in the window of the Foot Locker up at City Place; he had a pair of blue-and-black Air Maxes on now. On Little’s feet were wheat-colored Timberland work boots, loosely laced and untied.
Little held a long draw in his lungs and looked ahead, exhaling a cloud of smoke that crashed at the windshield. “Here comes Coon. Lookit how he’s all chest out and shit. Proud about that dog.”
Charles White was walking his pit bull, Trooper, past a dying oak tree, its leaves nearly stripped bare. A tire hung on a chain from one of the branches. When he was a puppy, Trooper had swung on the tire for hours, holding it fast, strengthening his jaws.
“That ain’t no game dog,” said Potter. “Coon ain’t no dog man, neither.”
White had Trooper, brown with a white mask and golden-pink eyes, on a short leash attached to a heavy-ringed, wide leather collar. Trooper’s ears were game-cropped at the skull. White, of average size and dressed similarly to his friends, moved toward the car, opened the back door, and let the dog in before getting inside himself.
“S’up, fellas,” said White.
“Coon,” said Little, looking over the bench at his friend. Others thought White’s street name had something to do with his color, dark as he was. But Little knew where the name had come from. He’d been knowing Coon since they were both kids in the Section Eights, back in the early nineties, when White used to wear a coonskin hat, trying to look like that fool rapper from Digital Underground, that group that was popular then. There was the other thing, too: White had a nose on him, big and long like some cartoon animal. And he walked kind of pitched forward, with his bony fingers spread kind of like claws, the way a critter in the woods would do.
“Gimme some of that hydro, Dirty.”
Dirty was Little’s street name, so given because of his fondness for discussing women’s privates. Men’s, too. Also, he loved to eat all that greasy fast food. Little passed the blunt back to White. White hit it deep.
“Your champion ready?” said Potter.
“What?” said White.
It was hard to hear in the car. Potter had the music, the new DMX joint on PGC, turned up loud.
“I said, is that dumb animal gonna win us some money today?” said Potter, raising his voice.
White didn’t answer right away. He held the smoke down in his lungs and let it out slow.
“He gonna win us mad money, D,” said White. He reached over and massaged the dense muscles bunched around Trooper’s jaw. Trooper’s mouth opened in pleasure and his eyes shifted over to his master’s. “Right, boy?”
“Sure he’s strong enough?”
“Shoot, he was strong enough to drag a log down the block yesterday mornin’.”
“I ain’t ask you can he do circus tricks. Can he hold his shit in a fight?”
“Well, he ain’t showed me nothin’ yet.”
“What about that snatch we did with that boy’s dog over on Crittenden?”
Potter looked in the rearview at White. “That dog at Crittenden wasn’t nothin’ but a cur. Trooper a cur, too.”
“The hell he is. You’re gonna see today.”
“We better see. ’Cause I ain’t wastin’ my time or my green paper on no pussy-ass animal.” Potter slid the Colt under the waistband of his jeans.
“I said, you’re gonna see.”
“C’mon, D,” said Little. “Let’s get a roll on, man.”
Garfield Potter’s street name was Death. He didn’t care for it much since this girl he wanted to fuck told him it scared her some. Never did get that girl’s drawers down, either. So he felt the name was bad luck, worse still to go and change it. His friends now called him D.
Potter turned the key in the ignition. It made an awful grinding sound. Little clapped his hands together and doubled over with laughter.
“Ho, shit!” said Little, clapping his hands one more time. “Car’s already started, man, you don’t need to be startin’ it again! Maybe if you turned that music down some you’d know.”
“Noisy as this whip is, too,” said White.
“Fuck you, Coon,” said Potter, “talkin’ mad shit about this car, when you’re cruisin’ around town in that piece-of-shit Toyota, lookin’ like a Spanish Cadillac and shit.”
“All this money we got,” said Little, “and we’re drivin’ around in a hooptie.”
“We’ll be gettin’ rid of it soon,” said Potter. “And anyway, it ain’t all that funny as y’all are makin’ it out to be.”
“Yeah, you right. It just hit me funny, is all.” Little took the blunt that White handed to him over the front seat and stared at it stupidly. “I ain’t lyin’, boy, this chronic right here just laid my ass out.”
THE dogfights were held in a large garage backing to an alley behind a house on Ogelthorpe, in Manor Park in Northwest. The fights went down once a week for several hours during the day, when most of the neighbors were off at work. Those neighbors who were at home were afraid of the young men who came to the fights, and did not complain to the police.
Potter parked the Chevy in the alley. He and the others got out of the car, White heeling Trooper to his side. They went down the alley, nodding but not smiling at some young men they knew to be members of the Delafield Mob. Others were standing around, holding their animals, getting high, and drinking from the lips of bottles peeking through the tops of brown paper bags. Little and Wright followed Potter into the garage.
Ten to twenty young men were scattered about the perimeter of the garage. A group was shooting craps in the corner. Others were passing around joints. Someone had put on Dr. Dre 2001, with Snoop, Eminem, and all them, and it was coming loud from a box.
In the middle of the garage was a fighting area of industrial carpet, penned off from the rest of the interior by a low chain-link fence, gated in two corners. Inside one corner of the pen, a man held a link leash taut on a black pit bull spotted brown over its belly and chest. The dog’s name was Diesel. Its ears were gnarled and its neck showed raised scars like pink worms.
Potter studied a man, old for this group, maybe thirty or so, who stood alone in a corner, putting fire to a cigarette.
“I’ll be back in a few,” said Potter to Little.
“’Bout ready to show the dogs,” said Little.
“Got a mind to put money on that black dog. But go ahead and bet Trooper, hear?”
Potter made his way over to the cigarette smoker, short and dumpy, a raggedy-ass dude on the way down, and stood before him.
“I know you.”
The smoker looked up with lazy eyes, trying to hold on to his shit. “Yeah?”
“You run with Lorenze Wilder, right?”
“I seen him around. Don’t mean we run together or nothin’ like that.” But now the smoker recognized Potter and he lost his will to keep his pride. His eyes dropped to the concrete floor.
“Outside,” said Potter.
The older man followed Potter into the daylight, not too fast but without protest. Potter led him around the garage’s outer wall, which faced the neighboring yards to the west.
“What’s your name?”
“Call you Digger Dog, right?”
“Lorenze called you that when we sold him that hydro a few weeks back. You were standing right next to him. Remember me now?”
Diggs said nothing, and Potter moved forward so that he was looking down on Diggs and just a few inches from his face. Diggs’s back touched the garage wall.
“So where your boy Lorenze at?”
“I don’t know. He stays in his mother’s old house -”
“Over off North Dakota. I know where that is, and he ain’t been there awhile. Leastways, I ain’t caught him in. He got a woman he cribs with on the side?”
Diggs avoided Potter’s stare. “Not that I know.”
“What about other kin?”
Diggs took a long final drag off his cigarette and dropped it to the ground, crushing it beneath his sneaker. He looked to his right, out in the alley, but there was no one there. Everyone had gone inside the garage. Potter spread one tail on his shirt and draped it back behind the butt of the Colt, so that Diggs could see.
Diggs shifted his eyes again and lowered his voice. He had to give this boy something, just so he’d go away. “Lorenze got a sister. She be livin’ down in Park Morton with her little boy.”
“Maybe I’ll drop by. What’s her name?”
“I wouldn’t… What I’m sayin’ is, you want my advice-”
Potter open-handed Diggs across the face. He used his left hand to bunch Diggs’s shirt at the collar, then yanked Diggs forward and slapped him again.
Diggs said nothing, his body limp. Potter held him fast.
“What’s the sister’s name?”
Diggs’s eyes had teared up. He hated himself for that. All he meant to do was advise this boy, tell him, don’t fuck with Lorenze’s sister or her kid. But it was too late for all that now.
“I don’t know her name,” said Diggs. “And anyway, Lorenze, he don’t never go by the way or nothin’. He don’t talk to his sister much, way I understand it. Sometimes he watches her kid play football; boy’s on this tackle team. But that’s as close as he gets to her.”
“Where the kid play at?”
“Lorenze said the kid practices in the evenings at some high school.”
“He live in Park Morton, so it must be Roosevelt. It ain’t but a few blocks up the street there-”
“I ain’t asked you for directions, did I? I live up on Warder Street my own self, so you don’t need to be drawin’ me a map.”
“It ain’t too far from there, is all I was sayin’.”
Potter’s eyes softened. He smiled and released his grip on Diggs. “I didn’t hurt you none, did I? ’Cause, look, I didn’t mean nothin’, hear?”
Diggs straightened his collar. “I’m all right.”
“Let me get one of those cigarettes from you, black.”
Diggs reached into his breast pocket and retrieved his pack of Kools. A cigarette slid out into his palm. He handed the cigarette to Potter.
Potter snapped the cigarette in half and bounced the halves off Diggs’s chest. Potter’s laugh was like a bark. He turned and walked away.
Diggs straightened his shirt and stepped quickly down the alley. He looked over his shoulder and saw that Potter had turned the corner. Diggs reached into his pocket and shook another cigarette out from a hole he had torn in the bottom of the pack.
Diggs’s boy Lorenze was staying with this girl he knew over in Northeast. Lorenze had kind of laughed it off, said he’d crib with that girl until Potter forgot about the debt. Didn’t look to Diggs that Potter was the type to forget. But he was proud he hadn’t given Lorenze up. Most folks he knew didn’t credit him for being so strong.
Diggs struck a match. He noticed that his hand was shaking some as he fired up his cigarette.
BACK in the garage, Potter sidled up next to Little. The owner of the garage, also the house bookie, stood nearby, holding the cash and taking late bets.
In one corner of the pen, Charles White finished sponging Trooper down with warm, soapy water. Diesel’s owner, in the opposite corner, did the same. Many dogs were treated with chemicals that could disorient the opponent. The rule in this arena was that both dogs had to be washed prior to a fight.
White scratched the top of Trooper’s head, bent in, and uttered random words into his ear with a soothing tone. The referee, an obese young man, stepped into the ring after a nod from the owner of the garage.
“Both corners ready?” said the referee. “Cornermen out of the pit.”
White moved behind his dog into the space of the open gate, still holding Trooper back.
“Face your dogs,” said the referee. They did this, and quickly the referee said, “Let go!”
The dogs shot into the center of the pit. Both of them got up on their hind legs, attacking the head of the other with their jaws. They snapped at each other’s ears and sought purchase in the area of the neck. In the fury of their battle, the dogs did not make a sound. The garage echoed with the shouts and laughter of the spectators crowding the ring.
For a moment the dogs seemed to reach a stalemate. Suddenly their motions accelerated. Their bodies meshed in a blur of brown and black, and the bright pink of exposed gums. Droplets of blood arced up in the center of the ring.
Diesel got a neck-hold and Trooper was taken down. Trooper, adrenalized, his eyes bright and wild, scrambled up and out of the hold. One of his ears had been partially torn away, and blood had leaked onto the dog’s white mask. Diesel went in, back to the neck. And now Trooper was down again, in the jaws of Diesel, squirming beneath the black dog.
“Stop it!” shouted White.
Potter nudged Little, who nodded by way of reply.
“That’s it,” said the referee, waving his arms.
White went into the ring and grabbed Trooper’s hind legs, pulling back. Diesel’s owner did the same. Diesel relaxed his jaws, releasing Trooper to his man. The spectators moved away from the pen, laughing, giving one another skin, already trying out stories on one another that exaggerated the details of the fight.
“You were right,” said Little. “That dog was a cur.”
“What I tell you?” said Potter. “Dog’s personality only as strong as the man who owns it.”
White arrived with Trooper, back on his leash. “I need to fix him up some,” said White, not looking into his friends’ eyes.
“We’ll do it now,” said Potter. “Let’s go.”
A COUPLE of blocks away, near Fort Slocum Park, Potter pulled the Chevy into an alley where there seemed to be no activity. He cut the engine and looked over the backseat at White; Trooper sat panting, his hip resting against his owner’s.
“Dog needs to pee,” said Potter.
“He went,” said White. “Let’s just take him to the vet place.”
“He already bleedin’ all over the backseat. He pees back there, too, I ain’t gonna be too happy. Gimme the leash, man, I’ll walk him.”
“I’ll walk him,” said White. His lip quivered when he spoke.
“Let D walk him if he wants to, Coon,” said Little. “Dog needs to pee, don’t make no difference who be holdin’ the leash.”
Potter got out of the car and went around to White’s side. He opened the door and took hold of the leash. The dog looked over at White and then jumped his lap and was out of the car.
Potter walked Trooper down the alley until they were behind a high wooden privacy fence. Potter looked around briefly, saw no one in the neighboring yards or in the windows of the houses, and commanded the dog to sit.
When Trooper sat, Potter pulled the.357 Colt from his waistband, pointed it close to the dog’s right eye, and squeezed the trigger. Trooper’s muzzle and most of his face exploded out into the alley in a haze of bone and blood. The dog toppled over onto its side and its legs straightened in a shudder. Potter stepped back and shot the dog in the ribcage one more time. Trooper’s carcass lifted an inch or two off the ground and came to rest.
Potter went back to the car and got behind the wheel. Little was holding a match to the half of the White Owl blunt he had not yet smoked.
“Gun works,” said Potter.
Little nodded. “Loud, too.”
Potter put the trans in gear, draped his arm over the bench seat, and turned his head to look out the rear window as he reversed the car out of the alley. White was staring out the window, his face dirty from tears he had tried to wipe away.
“Go on and get it out you,” said Potter. “Someone you know see you cryin’ over some dumb animal, they gonna mistake you for a bitch. And I ain’t ridin’ with none of that.”
POTTER, Little, and White bought a kilo of marijuana from their dealer in Columbia Heights, dimed out half of it back at their place, and delivered the dimes to their runners so they could get started on the evening rush. Then the three of them drove north up Georgia Avenue and over to Roosevelt High. They went into the parking lot at Iowa Avenue and parked the Chevy beside a black Cadillac Brougham. There were several other cars in the lot.
Potter looked in the rearview at White, staring ahead. “We straight, Coon?”
“Just a dumb animal, like you said. Don’t mean nothin’ to me.”
Potter didn’t like the tone in White’s voice. But White was just showing a little pride. That was good, but he’d never act on his anger for real. Like his weak-ass dog, he wasn’t game.
“I’ll check it out,” said Potter to Little.
He walked across the parking lot and stood at the fence that bordered the stadium down below. After a while he came back to the car.
“You see him?” said Little as Potter got back behind the wheel.
“Nah,” said Potter. “Just some kids playin’ football. Some old-time motherfuckers, coaches and shit.”
“We can come back.”
“We will. I’m gonna smoke that motherfucker when I see him, too.”
“Wilder don’t owe you but a hundred dollars, D.”
“Thinks he can ignore his debt. Tryin’ to take me for bad; you know I can’t just let that go.”
“Ain’t like you need the money today or nothin’ like that.”
“It ain’t the money,” said Potter. “And I can wait.”
DEREK Strange was coming out of a massage parlor when he felt his beeper vibrate against his hip. He checked the number printed out across the horizontal screen and walked through Chinatown over to the MLK library on 9th, where a bank of pay phones was set outside the facility. Strange owned a cell, but he still used street phones whenever he could.
“Janine,” said Strange.
“Those women been calling you again. The two investigators from out in Montgomery County?”
“I called them back, didn’t I?”
“You mean I did. They been trying to get an appointment with you for a week now.”
“So they’re still trying.”
“They’re being a little bit more aggressive than that. They’re heading into town right now, want to meet you for lunch. Said they’d pick up the tab.”
Strange tugged his jeans away from his crotch where they had stuck.
“It’s a money job, Derek.”
“Hold up, Janine.” Strange put the receiver against his chest as a man who was passing by stopped to shake his hand.
“Tommy, how you been?”
“Doin’ real good, Derek,” said Tommy. “Say, you got any spare love you can lay on me till I see you next time?”
Strange looked at the black baggage beneath Tommy’s eyes, the way his pants rode low on his bony hips. Strange had come up with Tommy’s older brother, Scott, who was gone ten years now from the cancer that took his shell. Scott wouldn’t want Strange to give his baby brother any money, not for what Tommy had in mind.
“Not today,” said Strange.
“All right, then,” said Tommy, shamed, but not enough. He slowly walked away.
Strange spoke into the receiver. “Janine, where they want to meet?”
“Call ’em up and tell ’em I’ll be there. ’Bout twenty minutes.”
“Am I going to see you tonight?”
“Maybe after practice.”
“I marinated a chuck roast, gonna grill it on the Weber. Lionel will be at practice, won’t he? You’re going to drop him off at our house anyway, aren’t you?”
“We can talk about it when you come back by the office. You got a two o’clock with George Hastings.”
“I remember. Okay, we’ll talk about it then.”
“I love you, Derek.”
Strange lowered his voice. “I love you, too, baby.”
Strange hung up the phone. He did love her. And her voice, more than her words, had brought him some guilt for what he’d just done. But there was love and sex on one side and just sex on the other. To Strange, the two were entirely different things.
STRANGE drove east in his white-over-black ’89 Caprice, singing along softly to “Wake Up Everybody” coming from the deck. That first verse, where Teddy’s purring those call-to-arms words against the Gamble and Huff production, telling the listener to open his eyes, look around, get involved and into the uplift side of things, there wasn’t a whole lot of American music more beautiful than that.
His Rand McNally street atlas lay on the seat beside him. He had a Leatherman tool-in-one looped through his belt, touching a Buck knife, sheathed and attached the same way on his right hip. His beeper he wore on his left. The rest of his equipment was in a double-locked glove box and in the trunk. It was true that most modern investigative work was done in an office and on the Internet. Strange thought of himself as having two offices, though, his base office in Petworth and the one in his car, right here. His preference was to work the street.
It was early September. The city was still hot during the day, though the nights had cooled some. It would be that way in the District for another month or so.
“‘The world won’t get no better,’” sang Strange, “‘if we just let it be…’”
Soon the colors would change in Rock Creek Park. And then would come those weeks near Thanksgiving when the weather turned for real and the leaves were still coming down off the trees. Strange had his own name for it: deep fall. It was his favorite time of year in D.C.
FROSSO’S, a stand-alone structure with a green thatched roof, sat on a west-side corner of 13th and L, Northwest, like a pimple on the ass of a beautiful girl. The Mediterranean who owned the business owned the real estate and had refused to sell, even as the offers came in, even as new office buildings went in around him. Frosso’s was a burger-and-lunch counter, also a happy-hour bar and hangout for those remaining workers who still drank and smoked or didn’t mind the smell of smoke on their clothes. Beer gardens in this part of downtown were few and far between.
Strange made his way through a noisy dining area to a four-top back by the pay phone and head, where two women sat. He recognized the investigators, a salt-and-pepper team, from an article he’d read on them in City Paper a few months back. They worked cases retrieving young runaways gone to hooking. The two of them were aligned with some do-goodnik, pro-prosti organization that operated on grants inside D.C.
“Derek Strange,” he said, shaking the black woman’s hand and then the white woman’s before he took a seat.
“I’m Karen Bagley. This is Sue Tracy.”
Strange slid his business card across the table. Bagley gave him one in turn, Strange scanning it for the name of their business: Bagley and Tracy Investigative Services, and below the name, in smaller letters, “Specializing in Locating and Retrieving Minors.” A plain card, without any artwork, Strange thinking, They could use a logo, give their card a signature, something to make the customers remember them by.
Bagley was medium-skinned and wide of nose. Her eyes were large and deep brown, the lashes accentuated by makeup. Freckles like coarse pepper buckshotted her face. Sue Tracy was a shag-cut blonde, green-eyed, still tanned from the last of summer, with smaller shoulders than Bagley’s. They were serious-faced, handsome, youngish women, hard boned and, Strange guessed – he couldn’t see the business end of their bodies, seated at the table – strong of thigh. They looked like the ex-cops that the newspaper article had described them to be. Better looking, in fact, than most of the female officers Strange had known.
Tracy pointed a finger at the mug in front of her. Bagley’s hand was wrapped around a mug as well. “You want a beer?”
“Too early for me. I’ll get a burger, though. Medium, with some blue cheese crumbled on top. And a ginger ale from the bottle, not the gun.”
Tracy called the waitress over, addressed her by name, got a burger working for Strange. The waitress said, “Got it, Sue,” tearing the top sheet off a green-lined pad before turning back toward the lunch counter.
“You’re a hard man to get ahold of,” said Bagley.
“I been busy out here,” said Strange.
“A big caseload, huh?”
“Always somethin’.” A glass was placed before Strange. He examined a smudge on its lip. “This place clean?”
“Like a dog’s tongue,” said Tracy.
“Some say that about a dog’s hindparts, too,” said Strange. “But I wouldn’t put my mouth to one.”
“Maybe they ought to put that on the sign out front,” said Tracy, without a trace of a smile. “Good food, and clean, too, like the asshole on a dog.”
“Might bring in some new customers,” said Strange. “You never know.”
“They don’t need any new customers,” said Bagley. “The regulars float this place.”
“I take it you two are numbered with the regulars.”
“We used to come here plenty for information,” said Tracy. “Here and the all-night CVS below Logan Circle.”
“Information,” said Strange. “From prostitutes, you mean.”
Bagley nodded. “The girls would be in the CVS at all hours, buying stockings, tampons, you name it.”
“Them and the heroin lovers,” said Strange. “They do crave their chocolate in the middle of the night. I remember seein’ them in there, grabbing the Hershey bars off the racks with their eyelids lowered to half-mast.”
“You hung out there, too?” said Bagley.
“Back when it was People’s Drug, which must be over ten years back now, huh? Used to stop in for my own essentials when everything else was closed. I was a bit of a night bird then myself.”
“The demographics have shifted some the last couple of years,” said Tracy. “A lot of the action’s moved east, into the hotel cluster of the new downtown.”
“But this here tavern was a known hangout for prostis, wasn’t it?”
“More like a safe haven,” said Bagley. “Nobody bothered them in here. It was a place to have a beer and a smoke. A moment of quiet.”
“No more, huh?”
Bagley shrugged. “There’s been an initiative to get the girls out of public establishments.”
Tracy moved her mug in a small circle on the table. “The powers that be would rather have them shivering in some doorway in December than warm in a place like this.”
“I guess y’all think they ought to just go ahead and legalize prostitution, right? Since it’s one of those victimless crimes, I mean.”
“Wrong,” said Tracy. “In fact, it’s the only crime I know of where the perp is the victim.”
Strange didn’t know what to say to that one, so he let it ride.
“What about you?” asked Bagley. “What do you think about it?”
Strange’s eyes darted from Bagley’s and went to nowhere past her shoulder. “I haven’t thought on it all that much, tell you the truth.”
Bagley and Tracy stared at Strange. Strange turned his head, looked toward the grill area. Where was that burger? All right, thought Strange, I’ll have my lunch, listen to these Earnest Ernestines say their piece, and get on out of here.
“You come recommended,” said Bagley, forcing Strange to return his attention to them. “A couple of the lawyers we’ve worked with down at Superior Court say they’ve used you and they’ve been pleased.”
“Most likely they used my operative, Ron Lattimer. He’s been doing casework for the CJA attorneys. Ron’s a smart young man, but let’s just say he doesn’t like to break too much of a sweat. So he likes those jobs, ’cause when you’re working with the courts you automatically got that federal power of subpoena. You can subpoena the phone company, the housing authority, anything. It makes your job a whole lot easier.”
“You’ve done some of that,” said Bagley.
“Sure, but I prefer working in the fresh air to working behind a computer, understand what I’m saying? I just like to be out there. And my business is a neighborhood business. Over twenty-five years now in the same spot. So it’s good for me to have a presence out there, the way-”
“Cops do,” said Tracy.
“Yeah. I’m an ex-cop, like you two. Been thirty-some-odd years since I wore the uniform, though.”
“No such thing as an ex-cop,” said Bagley.
“Like there’s no such thing as a former alcoholic,” said Tracy, “or an ex-Marine.”
“You got that right,” said Strange. He liked these two women a touch more now than when he’d walked in.
Strange turned the glass of ginger ale so that the smudge was away from him and took a sip. He replaced the glass on the table and leaned forward. “All right, then, now we had our first kiss and got that over with. What do you young ladies have on your minds?”
Bagley glanced briefly over at Tracy, who was in the process of putting fire to a cigarette.
“We’ve been working with a group called APIP,” said Bagley. “Do you know it?”
“I read about it in that article they did on you two. Something about helping out prostitutes, right?”
“Aiding Prostitutes in Peril,” said Tracy, blowing a jet of smoke across the table at Strange.
“Some punk-rock kids started it, right?”
“The people behind it were a part of the local punk movement twenty years ago,” said Tracy, “as I was. They’re not kids anymore. They’re older than me and Karen.”
“What do they do, exactly?”
“A number of things, from simply providing condoms to reporting violent johns. Also, they serve as an information clearinghouse. They have an eight-hundred number and a Web site that takes in e-mails from parents and prostitutes alike.”
“That’s where you two come in. You find runaways who’re hookin’. Right?”
“That’s a part of what we do,” said Bagley. “And we’re getting too busy to handle all the work ourselves. The county business alone keeps us up to our ears in it. We could use a little help in the District.”
“You need me to find a girl.”
“Not exactly,” said Bagley. “We thought we’d test the waters with you on something simpler, see if you’re interested.”
“There’s a girl who works the street between L and Mass, on Seventh,” said Tracy.
“Down there by the site for the new convention center,” said Strange.
“Right,” said Tracy. “The last two weeks or so a guy’s been hassling her. Pulling up in his car, trying to get her to date him.”
“Ain’t that the object of the game?”
“Sure,” said Bagley. “But there’s something off about this guy. He’s been asking her, Do you like it rough? Telling her she’s gonna dig it, he can tell she’s gonna dig it, right?”
Strange shifted in his seat. “So? Girl doesn’t have to be a working girl to come up against that kind of creep. She can hear it in a bar.”
“These working women get a sense for this kind of thing,” said Bagley. “She says there’s something not right, we got to believe her. And he doesn’t want to pay. Says he doesn’t have to pay, understand? She’s scared. Can’t go to the cops, right? And her pimp would beat her ass blue if he knew she was turning down a trick.”
“Even a no-money trick?”
Strange stared hard at Tracy. Her eyes did not move away from his.
Tracy said, “This is the information we have. Either you’re interested or you’re not.”
“I hear you,” said Strange, “but I’m not sure what you want me to do. You’re lookin’ for me to shake some cat down, you got the wrong guy.”
“You own a camera, right?” said Tracy.
“Still and video alike,” said Strange.
“Get some shots for us,” said Bagley, “or a tape. We’ll run the plates and contact this gentleman ourselves. Trust me, we can be pretty convincing. This guy’s probably got a wife. Even better, he has kids. We’ll make sure he never hassles this girl again.”
“Damn,” said Strange with a low chuckle, “you ladies are serious.”
The waitress came to the table and set Strange’s burger down before him. He thanked her, cut into it, and inspected the center. He took a large bite and closed his eyes as he chewed.
“They cooked it the way I asked,” said Strange, after he had swallowed. “I’ll say that for them.”
“The burgers here are tight,” said Bagley, smiling just a little for the first time.
Strange wiped some juice off his lips. “I get thirty-five an hour, by the way.”
Tracy dragged on her smoke, this time blowing the exhale away from Strange. “According to our attorney friend, he remembers paying you thirty.”
“He remembers, huh?” said Strange. “Well, I can remember when movies were fifty cents, too.”
“You can?” said Tracy.
“I’m old,” said Strange with a shrug.
“Not too old,” said Bagley.
“Thank you,” said Strange.
“You’ll do it, then,” said Tracy.
“I assume she works nights.”
“Every night this week,” said Tracy.
“I coach a kids’ football team early in the evenings.”
“She’ll be out there, like, ten to twelve,” said Tracy. “Black, mid-twenties, with a face on the worn side. She’ll be wearing a red leather skirt tonight.”
“She say what kind of car this guy drives?”
“Black sedan,” said Bagley. “Late-model Chevy.”
“Caprice, somethin’ like that?”
“Late-model Chevy is what she said.” Tracy stubbed out her cigarette. “Here’s something else for you to look at.” She reached into the leather case on the floor at her feet and pulled out a yellow-gold sheet of paper. She pushed it across the table to Strange.
The headline across the top of the flyer read, IN PERIL. Below the head was a photo of a young white girl, unclear from generations of copying. The girl’s arms were skinny and her hands were folded in front of her, a yearbook-style photo. She was smiling, showing braces on her teeth. He read her name and her statistics, printed below the photograph, noticing from the DOB that she was fourteen years old.
“We’ll talk about that some other time,” said Bagley, “you want to. Just wanted you to get an idea of what we do.”
Strange nodded, folded the flyer neatly, and put it in the back pocket of his jeans. Then he focused on finishing his lunch. Bagley and Tracy drank their beers and let him do it.
When he was done, he signaled the waitress. “I see on the specials board you got a steak today.”
“You’re still hungry?”
“Uh-uh, baby, I’m satisfied. But I was wondering, you guys got any bones back there in the kitchen?”
“I suppose we do.”
“Wrap up a few for me, will you?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
The waitress drifted. Strange said to the women, “I got a dog at home, a boxer, goes by the name of Greco. Got to take care of him, too.”
Later, Bagley and Tracy watched Strange exit the dining room, his paper bag of steak bones in hand. Bagley studied his squared-up walk, the way his muscled shoulders filled out the back of his shirt, the gray salted nicely into his close-cropped hair.
“How old you figure he is?” said Bagley.
“Early fifties,” said Tracy. “I liked him.”
“I liked him, too.”
“I noticed,” said Tracy.
“Like to see a man who enjoys his food, is all it is,” said Bagley. “Think we should’ve told him more?”
“He knew there was more. He wanted to find out what it was for himself.”
“The curious type.”
“Exactly,” said Tracy, draining her beer and placing the mug flat on the table. “I got a feeling he’s gonna work out fine.”
STRANGE turned down 9th, between Kansas and Upshur, one short hop east of Georgia. He saw a spot outside Marshall’s funeral home, steered the car into the spot, and locked the Chevy down. He walked past a combination lunch counter and butcher shop, the place just said “Meat” in the window, and nodded to a cutter named Rodel, who was leaning in the doorway of Hawk’s Barbers, dragging hard on a Newport.
“What’s goin on, big man?”
“It’s all good,” said Strange. “How about you?”
“Same old soup, just reheated.”
“Bennett workin’ today?”
“I don’t know about workin’. But he’s in there.”
“Tell him I’ll be by in forty-five or so. Need a touch-up.”
“I’ll let him know.”
Strange looked up at the yellow sign mounted above the door to his agency. The sign read “Strange Investigations,” half the letters bigger than the rest on account of the picture of the magnifying glass laid over the words. Strange really liked that logo; he’d made it up himself. He made a mental note that there were smudges on the light box of the sign.
Strange stood outside the windowed door of his offices and rapped on the glass. Janine buzzed him in, a bell over the door chiming as he entered. George “Trip Three” Hastings, his hands resting in his lap, sat in a waiting area to the right of the door.
“I’ll be with you in a minute, soon as I get settled.”
Hastings nodded. Strange turned to Ron Lattimer, seated behind his desk. Lattimer wore an off-the-rack designer suit with a hand-painted tie draped over the shirt, had one of those Peter Pan-looking collars, the kind Pat Riley favored. A little too pretty for Strange’s taste, though he had to admit the young man kept himself cleaner than the White House lawn. And he made the office his home as well; Lattimer sat in an orthopedically correct chair and had one of those Bose compact units, always playing some kind of jazz-inflected hip-hop, set back behind his desk.
“What’re you workin’ on, Ron?”
“Faxing a subpoena right now,” said Lattimer.
“You still on that Thirty-five Hundred Crew thing?”
“Many billable hours, boss.”
“Shame, clean as you look, can’t nobody see you in here. I mean, you go to all that trouble to be so perfect, how’s anybody gonna know?”
“Let me ask you somethin’. You ever walk by a mirror you forgot to look into?”
“SUVs are pretty good, too,” said Lattimer, his eyes on the screen of his Mac. “The windows they got in those things, they’re just the right height.”
Strange passed a desk topped with loose papers and gum wrappers and stood in front of Janine Baker. He picked up the three or four pink message slips she had pushed to her desk’s edge and looked them over.
“How was lunch?” said Janine.
“Nice women,” said Strange. “C’mon in the back for a second, okay?”
She followed him back to his office. Lamar Williams, a gangly neighborhood boy of seventeen, was emptying Strange’s wastebasket into a large garbage bag. Lamar took classes at Roosevelt High in the mornings and worked for Strange most afternoons.
“Lamar,” said Strange, “need some privacy for a few. Why don’t you get yourself the ladder and Windex the sign out front, okay?”
“You comin’ to practice tonight?”
“You got somethin’ more important?”
“Watchin’ my baby sister for my moms.”
“All right, then. Close the door behind you on your way out.”
The door closed, leaving Strange and Janine alone. She came into his arms and he kissed her on the lips.
“Now it is,” said Strange.
“How about dinner tonight?”
“If we can eat right after practice. I got a job from those women and I’m gonna try and knock it out late.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Strange kissed her again and went behind his desk. He had a seat and noticed the PayDay bar set beside his phone.
“That’s you,” said Janine, her liquid eyes looking him over. “Thought you’d like to cleanse your palate after that lunch.”
“Thank you, baby. Go on and send George in.”
He watched her walk to the door in her brightly colored outfit. She was the best office manager he’d ever had. Hell, she ran the damn place, he wasn’t afraid to admit it. And, praise God, the woman had an ass on her, too. It moved like a wave beneath the fabric of her skirt. All these years, and it still stirred Strange to look at her. The way she was put together, some people who knew something about it might say it was poetry. He’d never been into poems himself. The best way he could describe it, looking at Janine, it reminded him of peace.
GEORGE Hastings and Strange had known each other since the early sixties, when both had played football for Roosevelt in the Interhigh. In those days he ran with George and Virgil Aaron, now deceased, and Lydell Blue, also a football player, a back who was the most talented of the four. Strange and Blue had gone into law enforcement, and Hastings had taken a government job with the Bureau of Engraving.
“Thanks for seeing me, Derek,” said Hastings.
“Ain’t no thing, George. You know that.”
Strange still called Hastings George, though most around town now called him Trip or Trip Three. Back in the early seventies, Hastings had played the unlikely combination of 3-3-3 and hit it for thirty-five grand. It was a fortune for that time, and it was especially significant from where they’d come from, but, with the exception of the new Deuce and a Quarter he’d purchased, Hastings had been smart and invested the money wisely. He’d bought stock in AT &T and IBM, and he had let it ride. By neighborhood standards, Strange knew, Hastings had become a wealthy man.
He also knew that Hastings liked to hear Strange call him by his given name. George was a name out of fashion with the younger generation of blacks. It had been a generic name used by plantation owners to refer to their male slaves, for one. And in the modern world it had become a slang name to refer to a boyfriend, as in, “Hey, baby, you got yourself a George?” So young black people didn’t care much for the name and they rarely considered it as a name for their own babies. But George Hastings’s mother, a good old girl whom Strange had regarded with nearly as much affection as his own, had thought it was just fine, and that made it all good for Hastings and for Strange.
Hastings leaned over and flicked the spring-mounted head of the plaster Redskins figure that sat on Strange’s desk. The head swayed from side to side.
“The old uniform. That goes back, what, thirty-some-odd years?”
“Forty,” said Strange.
“Who painted his face brown like that? I know they weren’t sellin’ ’em like that back then.”
“Janine’s son, Lionel.”
“How’s he doin’?”
“Finishing up at Coolidge. Just applied to Maryland. He’s a good boy. A knucklehead sometimes, like all boys tend to be. But he’s doing all right.”
“You see Westbrook the other night?”
“Boy made some catches.”
“Uh-huh. Still makin’ that first-down sign when they move the sticks. That drives the defenders crazy. He is cocky.”
“He’s got a right to be,” said Strange. “Some call it cocky; I call it confidence. Westbrook’s ready to have the season of his career, George. Gonna bust loose like Chuck Brown and all the Soul Searchers put together.”
“He ain’t no Bobby Mitchell,” said Hastings. “And he sure ain’t no Charley Taylor.”
Strange smiled a little. “No one is to you, George.”
“Anyway,” said Hastings. He reached inside his lightweight sport jacket. Strange figured from the material that the jacket went for five, six hundred. Quiet, with a subtle pattern in there. Good quality, and understated, like all George’s possessions. Like the high-line, two-year-old Volvo he drove, and his Tudor-style house up in Shepherd Park.
Hastings dropped a folded sheet of paper on Strange’s desk. Strange picked it up, unfolded it, and looked it over.
“I got what you asked for,” said Hastings.
Strange read the full name of the subject: Calhoun Tucker. Hastings had provided the tag number for the Audi S4 that Tucker owned or leased. Mimeographed onto the sheet of paper was a credit card receipt from a nightspot that Strange recognized. It was located on U Street, east of 14th. Hastings had scribbled a paragraph of other incidental character details: where Tucker said he’d lived last, where he’d last worked, like that.
“How’d you get the credit card receipt?” said Strange.
“Looked through my little girl’s purse. They went to dinner, he must have said, Hold on to this for me, will you? Didn’t like going through her personal belongings, but I did. Alisha’s getting ready to step off a cliff. I mean, young people, they decide to get married, they never do know what it means, for real.”
“I heard that.”
“My Linda, God love her, she’d be doing the same thing, she was still with us. She was harder on Alisha’s boyfriends than I ever was, matter of fact. And here this boy just rolls into town six months ago – he’s not even a Washington boy, Derek – and I’m supposed to just sit on my hands while everybody’s world gets rocked? I mean, I don’t even know one thing about his family.”
Strange dropped the paper on the desk. “George, you don’t have to justify this to me. I do this kind of background check all the time. It’s no reflection on your daughter, and as of yet it’s no reflection on this young man. And it damn sure is no reflection on you. You’re her father, man, you’re supposed to be concerned.”
“I’d do this even if I thought the boy was right.”
“But you don’t think he’s right.”
Hastings ran a finger down his cheek. “Somethin’ off about this Tucker boy.”
“You sure the off thing’s not just that some young man’s getting ready to take away your little girl?”
“Sure, that’s a part of it; I can’t lie to you, man. But it’s somethin’ else, too. Don’t ask me what exactly. You live long enough, you get so you know.”
“Forget about exactly, then.”
“Well, he’s drivin’ a luxury German automobile, for one. Always dressed clean, too, real sharp, with the gadgets that go with it: cells, pagers, all that. And I can’t figure out what he does to get it.”
“That might have meant somethin’ once. Used to be, you had to be rich or a drug dealer to have those things. But look, any fool who can sign his name to a lease can be drivin’ a Benz these days. Twelve-year-old kid can get his own credit card.”
“Okay, but ain’t no twelve-year-old kid gonna march my baby girl down to the altar. This here is a twenty-nine-year-old man, and he’s got no visible means of support. Says he’s some kind of talent agent, a manager. Puts on shows at the clubs around town. He’s got this business card, says ‘Calhoun Enterprises.’ Anytime I see ‘Enterprises’ on a business card, way I look at it, might as well print the word ‘Unfocused’ next to it, or ‘Doesn’t Want No Real Job,’ or just plain ‘Bullshit,’ you know what I’m sayin’?”
Strange chuckled. “Okay, George. Anything else?”
“I just don’t like him, Derek. I plain do not like the man. That’s somethin’, isn’t it?”
Strange nodded. “Let me ask you a question. You think he’s into somethin’ on the criminal side?”
“Can’t say that. All I know is-”
“You don’t like him. Okay, George. Let me handle it from here.”
Hastings shifted in his seat. “You still gettin’ thirty an hour?”
“Thirty-five,” said Strange.
“You went up.”
“Gas did, too. Been to a bar lately? Bottle of beer cost you five dollars.”
“That include the two dollars you be stuffin’ in their G-strings?”
“How long you think this is gonna take?”
“Don’t worry, this won’t take more than a few hours of my time. Most of it we do from right here, on computers. I’ll have you happy and stroking checks for that wedding in a couple of days.”
“That’s another thing. This reception is gonna cost me a fortune.”
“If you can’t spend it on Alisha, what you gonna do with it? You got yourself a beautiful girl there, George. Lovely on the outside, and in her heart, too. So let’s you and me make sure she’s making the right decision.”
Hastings exhaled slowly as he sat back in his chair. “Thank you, Derek.”
“Strictly routine,” said Strange.
STRANGE dropped the paper Hastings had given him on Janine’s desk.
“You get time, run this information through Westlaw and see what kind of preliminary information you can come up with.”
“Background check on a…” Janine’s eyes scanned the page. “… Calhoun Tucker.”
“Right. George’s future son-in-law. I’ll pick up Lionel and swing him back with me after practice.”
“And, oh yeah. Call Terry; he’s workin’ up at the bookstore today. Remind him he’s coaching tonight.”
Lattimer looked up as Strange passed by his desk. “Half day today, boss?”
“Need a haircut.”
“Next door? You ever wonder why they got the butcher and the barber so close together on this block?”
“Never made that connection. One thing I don’t need is to be spending forty dollars on a haircut like you.”
“Well, you better get on over there. ’Cause you’re startin’ to look like Tito Jackson.”
Strange turned and looked into a cracked mirror hanging from a nail driven into a column in the middle of the office. “Damn, boy, you’re right.” He patted the side of his head. “I need to get my shit correct.”
STRANGE dropped a couple of the kids off at their homes after practice. Then he and Lionel drove up Georgia toward Brightwood in Strange’s ’91 black-over-black Cadillac Brougham, a V-8 with a chromed-up grille. This was his second car. Strange had an old tape, Al Green Gets Next to You, in the deck, and he was trying hard not to sing along.
“Sounds like gospel music,” said Lionel. “But he’s singing it to some girl, isn’t he?”
“‘God Is Standing By,’” said Strange. “An old Johnny Taylor tune, and you’re right. This here was back when Al was struggling between the secular and the spiritual, if you know what I’m sayin’.”
“You mean, like, he loves Jesus but he loves to hit the pussy, too.”
“I wasn’t quite gonna put it like that, young man.”
Strange looked across the bench. “You got studies tonight, right?”
“I guess so.”
“Don’t want you to let up now, just ’cause you already applied to college. You need to keep on those books.”
“You want me to stay in my room tonight, just say it.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
Lionel just smiled in that way that drove Strange around the bend.
Janine Baker’s residence was on Quintana Place, between 7th and 9th, just east of the Fourth District police station. Quintana was a short, narrow street of old colonials fronted with porches. The houses were covered in siding and painted in an array of earth tones and bright colors, including turquoise and neon green. The Baker residence was a pale lavender affair down near the 7th Street end of the block.
In the dining room they ate a grilled chuck roast, black on the outside and pink in the center, along with mashed potatoes and gravy and some spiced greens, washed down with ice-cold Heinekens for Strange and Janine. Lionel went upstairs to his bedroom as soon as he finished his meal. Strange had a quick cup of coffee and wiped his mouth when he was done.
“That was beautiful, baby.”
“Glad you enjoyed it.”
“You want me to come back after I’m done working?”
“I’d like that. And I’ve foil-wrapped the bone from the chuck for Greco, so bring him back, too.”
“Between you and me we’re gonna spoil that dog to death.” Strange came around the table, bent down, and kissed Janine on the cheek. “I’ll be back before midnight, hear?”
STRANGE returned to his row house on Buchanan Street and hit the heavy bag in his basement for a while, trying to work off some of the fat he’d taken in from his meat consumption that day. He broke a sweat that smelled like alcohol when he was done, then showered and changed clothes up on the second floor, which held his bedroom and home office. In the office, Greco played with a spiked rubber ball while Strange checked his stock portfolio and read a stock-related message board, listening to Ennio Morricone’s “The Return of Ringo” from the Yamaha speakers of his computer.
Strange checked his wristwatch, a Swiss Army model with a black leather band, and looked at his dog.
“Gotta go to work, old buddy. I’ll be back to pick you up in a little bit.”
Greco’s nub of tail made a double twitch. He looked up at Strange and showed him the whites of his eyes.
STRANGE drove down Georgia in his Chevy, through Petworth and into Park View. The street was up, Friday night, kids mostly, some hanging out, some doing business as well. Down around Morton a line had formed outside the Capitol City Pavilion, called the Black Hole by locals and law enforcement types alike. D.C. veteran go-go band Back Yard had their name on the marquee, as they did most weekends. In a few hours, Fourth District squad cars would be blocking Georgia, rerouting traffic. Beefs born inside the club often came to their inevitable, violent resolution at closing time, when the patrons spilled out onto the street.
Strange saw Lamar Williams, wearing pressed khakis and wheat-colored Timbies, standing in the line outside the club. Strange drove on. Between Kenyon and Harvard, kids sold marijuana in an open-air market set up on the street.
Georgia became 7th. Soon Strange was nearing the convention center site, a huge hole that took up several of D.C.’s letter blocks, on his right. On his left ran a commercial strip. His hooker, wearing a red leather skirt, was standing in the doorway of a closed restaurant, her hard, masculine face illuminated by the embers of her cigarette as she gave it a deep draw. Strange did not slow the car. He went west for a couple of blocks, then north, then east again, circling back to a spot on the east side of the future center, where he parked the Chevy on 9th, alongside a construction fence. He slipped a notepad into his breast pocket and clipped a pen there before exiting the car.
Strange opened the trunk of his Chevy. He pushed aside his live-case file, his football file, and his toolbox, and found his video camera, which was fitted in a separate box alongside his 500mm- lens Canon AE-1. He checked the tape and replaced it in its slot. Strange liked this camera, his latest acquisition. It was an 8mm Sony with the NightShot feature and the 360X digital zoom. Perfect for what he needed, perfect for this job right here. He’d gotten the camera in a trade for a debt owed him by a client; the camera was hotter than Jennifer Lopez in July.
Strange went over to a place by the fence at 7th and L, just north of the hooker’s position, where there was an open driveway entrance breaking the continuity of the construction fence. He situated himself behind the fence in a position that would render him unseen by the passengers or drivers of any southbound cars. He stood there for a while, setting up the camera the way he wanted it and shooting some tape for a test. He watched the hooker talk to a potential john who had pulled up his Honda Accord beside her, and he watched the john drive off. The hooker smoked another cigarette. Strange’s stomach rumbled, as he thought about AV, his favorite sit-down Italian restaurant, just around the corner on Mass. Hungry as usual, and having just eaten, too.
A black late-model Chevy rolled down 7th, slowed, and came to a stop near where the hooker stood. Strange leaned against the corner of the fence, brought the zoom in so the car was framed and clear, and shot some tape. Cigarette smoke came out of the driver’s side of the car as the john rolled his window down. The hooker rested her forearms on the lip of the open window. She shook her head, and Strange could hear male laughter before the car drove off. The car wore D.C. plates. It was an Impala, the new body style that Strange didn’t care for.
He waited. The Impala came out of the north once again, having circled the block. The driver stopped the vehicle in the same spot he had minutes earlier. The hooker hesitated, looked around, walked over to the driver’s side but this time did not lean into the car. She seemed to be listening for a while, her face going from passivity to agitation and then to something like fear. Strange heard the laughter again. Then the driver laid some rubber on the street and took off. The hooker flipped him off, but only after the car had turned the corner and was gone from sight.
Strange wrote down the Impala’s license plate number on the notepad he had placed in the breast pocket of his shirt. He didn’t need to record it, not really; he had memorized the number at first sight, a talent that he had always possessed and that had served him well when he had worn the uniform on the street.
Anyway, the two letters that preceded the numbers on the plate had told him everything he needed to know. Bagley and Tracy must have known it, too. They had put him onto this, he reasoned, as some kind of test. He wasn’t angry. It was just a job.
The letters on the plate read GT. Plainclothes, undercover, whatever you wanted to call it. The abusive john was a cop.
HOLD on a second, Derek,” said Karen Bagley. “I’m going to conference you in with Sue.”
Strange held the phone away from his ear and sat back in the chair behind his desk. He watched Lamar Williams climb a stepladder to feather-dust Strange’s blinds.
“You coming with me to practice tonight, Lamar?”
“You want me to, I will.”
“I was just wonderin’ on if you could make it. If you had to sit your baby sister again, I mean.”
“’Cause I saw you outside the Black Hole Friday night.”
Lamar lowered the duster. “Yeah, I was there. After I did what I told you I had to do.”
“Kind of a rough place, isn’t it?”
“It’s a place in the neighborhood I can listen to some go-go, maybe talk to a girl. I don’t eye-contact no one I shouldn’t; I ain’t lookin’ to step to nobody or beef nobody. Just lookin’ to have a little fun. That’s okay with you, isn’t it, boss?”
“Just tellin’ you I saw you, is all.”
Strange heard voices on the phone. He put the receiver back to his ear.
“Okay,” said Strange.
“We all here?” said Bagley.
“I can hear you,” said Tracy. “Derek?”
“I got what you needed,” said Strange. “It’s all on videotape.”
“That was quick,” said Bagley.
“Did it Friday night. I thought I’d let the weekend pass, didn’t want to disturb your-all’s beauty sleeps.”
“What’d you get?” said Tracy.
“Your bad john is a cop. Unmarked. But you two knew that, I expect. The flag went up for me when you said he was talkin’ about ‘I don’t have to pay.’ Question is, why didn’t you just tell me what you suspected?”
“We wanted to find out if we could trust you,” said Tracy.
Direct, thought Strange. That was cool.
“I’m going to give the tape and the information to a lieutenant friend of mine in the MPD. I been knowin’ him my whole life. He’ll turn it over to Internal and they’ll take care of it.”
“You’ve got a videotape of his car,” said Bagley, “right? Did you get his face?”
“No, not really. But it’s his car and it’s a clear solicitation. He might say he was gathering information or some bullshit like that, but it’s enough to throw a shadow over him. The IAD people will talk to him, and I suspect it’ll scare him. He won’t be botherin’ that girl again. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Bagley. “Good work.”
“Good? It was half good, I’d say. You two ever see that movie The Magnificent Seven?”
Bagley and Tracy took a moment before uttering a “yes” and an “uh-huh.” Strange figured they were wondering where he was going with this.
“One of my favorites,” said Strange. “There’s that scene where Coburn, he plays the knife-carryin’ Texican, pistol-shoots this cat off a horse from, like, I don’t know, a couple hundred yards away. And this hero-worship kid, German actor or something, but they got him playin’ a Mexican, he says something like, ‘That was the greatest shot I ever saw.’ And Coburn says, ‘It was the worst. I was aiming for his horse.’”
“And your point is what?” said Bagley.
“I wish I could’ve delivered more to you. More evidence, I mean. But what I did get, it might just be enough. Anyway, hopefully y’all will trust me now.”
“Like I said,” said Tracy, “there’s no such thing as an ex-cop. Cops are usually hesitant to turn in one of their own.”
“There’s two professions,” said Strange, “teaching and policing, that do the most good for the least pay and recognition. But you want to be a teacher or a cop, you accept that goin’ in. Most cops and most teachers are better than good. But there’s always gonna be the teacher likes to play with a kid’s privates, and there’s always gonna be a cop out there, uses his power and position in the wrong way. In both cases, to me, it’s the worst kind of betrayal. So I got no problem with turnin’ a cat like that in. Only…”
“What?” said Tracy.
“Don’t keep nothin’ from me again, hear? Okay, you did it once, but you don’t get to do it again. It happens, it’ll be the last time we work together.”
“We were wrong,” said Bagley. “Can you forget it?”
“What about the other thing?” said Tracy. “The flyer we gave you.”
“I’ve got a guy I use named Terry Quinn. Former D.C. cop. He’s a licensed investigator in the District now. I’m gonna give it to him.”
“Why not you?” said Bagley.
“How can we reach him?” said Tracy.
“He’s not in the office much. He works part-time in a used-book store in downtown Silver Spring. He can take calls there, and he’s got a cell. I’m gonna see him this evening; I’ll make sure he gets the flyer.”
Strange gave them both numbers.
“Thank you, Derek.”
“You’ll get my bill straightaway.” Strange hung up the phone and looked over at Lamar. “You ready, boy?”
STRANGE retrieved the videotape of the cop and the hooker, wedged in the football file box, and shut the trunk’s lid.
“This here is you,” said Strange, handing the tape over to Lydell Blue.
“The thing you called me about?”
“Yeah. I wrote up a little background on it, what I was told by the investigators who put me on it, what I heard at the scene, like that. I signed my name to it, Internal wants to get in touch with me.”
Blue stroked his thick gray mustache. “I’ll take care of it.”
They walked across the parking lot toward the fence that surrounded the stadium, passing Quinn’s hopped-up blue Chevelle and Dennis Arrington’s black Infiniti I30 along the way.
Strange knew Roosevelt’s football coach – he had done a simple background check for him once and he had not charged him a dime – and they had worked it out so that Strange’s team could practice on Roosevelt’s field when the high school team wasn’t using it. In return, Strange turned the coach on to some up-and-coming players and tried to keep those kids who were headed for Roosevelt in a straight line as well.
“You and Dennis want the Midgets tonight?”
“Tonight? Yeah, okay.”
“Me and Terry’ll work with the Pee Wees, then.”
“Derek, that’s the way you got it set up damn near every night.”
“I like the young kids, is what it is,” said Strange. “Me and Terry will just stick with them, you don’t mind.”
Midgets in this league – a loosely connected set of neighborhood teams throughout the area – went ten to twelve years old and between eighty-five and one hundred and five pounds. Pee Wees were ages eight to eleven, with a minimum of sixty pounds and a max of eighty-five. There was also an intermediate and junior division in the league, but the Petworth club could not attract enough boys in those age groups, the early-to-mid-teen years, to form a squad. Many of these boys had by then become too distracted by other interests, like girls, or necessities, like part-time jobs. Others had already been lost to the streets.
Strange followed Blue through a break in the fence and down to the field. About fifty boys were down there in uniforms and full pads, tackling one another, cracking wise, kicking footballs, and horsing around. Lamar Williams was with them, giving them some tips, also acting the clown. A few mothers were down there, and a couple of fathers, too, talking among themselves.
The field was surrounded by a lined track painted a nice sky blue. A set of aluminum bleachers on concrete steps faced the field. Weed trees grew up through the concrete.
Dennis Arrington, a computer programmer and deacon, was throwing the ball back and forth with the Midgets’ quarterback in one of the end zones. Nearby, Terry Quinn showed Joe Wilder, a Pee Wee, the ideal place on the body to make a hit. Quinn had to get down low to do it. Wilder was the runt of the litter, short but with defined muscles and a six-pack of abs, though he had only just turned eight years old. At sixty-two pounds, Wilder was also the lightest member of the squad.
Strange blew a whistle that hung on a cord around his neck. “Everybody line up over there.” He motioned to a line that had been painted across the track. They knew where it was.
“Hustle,” said Blue.
“Four times around,” said Strange, “and don’t be complaining, either; that ain’t nothin’ but a mile.” He blew the whistle again over the boys’ inevitable moans and protests.
“Any one of you walks,” yelled Arrington, as they jogged off the line, “and you all are gonna do four more.”
The men stood together in the end zone and watched the sea of faded green uniforms move slowly around the track.
“Got a call from Jerome Moore’s mother today,” said Blue. “Jerome got suspended from Clark today for pulling a knife on a teacher.”
“Clark Elementary?” said Quinn.
“Uh-huh. His mother said we won’t be seein’ him at practice for the next week or so.”
“Call her back,” said Strange, “and tell her he’s not welcome back. He’s off the team. Didn’t like him around the rest of the kids anyway. Doggin’ it, trash-talking, always starting fights.”
“Moore’s nine years old,” said Quinn. “I thought those were the kind of at-risk kids we were trying to help.”
“They’re all at risk down here, Terry. I’ll let go of one to keep the rest of the well from getting poisoned. It’ll school them on something, too. That we’re tryin’ to teach them somethin’ more than football here. Also, that we’re not gonna put up with that kind of behavior.”
“Way I see it,” said Quinn, “it’s the giving up on these kids that makes them go wrong.”
“I’m not giving up on him or anyone else. He straightens himself out, he can play for us next season. But for this season here, uh-uh. He blew it his own self. You agree with me, Dennis?”
Dennis Arrington looked down at the football that he spun in his thick hands. He was Quinn’s height, not so tall, built like a fullback. “Absolutely, Derek.”
Arrington gave Quinn a short look. Quinn knew that Arrington wouldn’t agree with him on this or anything else. Arrington was quick with a smile, a handshake, and a back pat for most any black man who came down to this field. And Quinn did like him as a man. But he felt that Arrington didn’t like him, or show him respect. And he felt that this was because he, Quinn, was white. Quinn had gotten that from some of the kids when he’d first started here as well. The kids, most of them, anyway, had gotten past it.
Strange turned to Quinn. Quinn’s hair was cropped short. He had a wide mouth, a pronounced jaw, and green eyes. Among friends his eyes were gentle, but around strangers, or when he was simply in thought, his eyes tended to be flat and hard. In full winter dress he looked like a man of average height, maybe less, with a flat stomach and an ordinary build, but out here in sweatpants and a white T-shirt, his veins standing on his forearms and snaking up his biceps, his physical strength was evident.
“Before I forget it, some women might be callin’ you, Terry. I gave them your number-”
“They already called me. Got me on my cell while I was driving over here.”
“Yeah, they do work quick. I brought you the information, if you’re interested.”
“Do you want me to take it?”
“It’s a money job for both of us.”
“It would mean more jack for you if you just took it yourself.”
“I’m busy,” said Strange.
The boys came back in, sweating and short of breath.
“Form a circle,” said Blue. He called out the names of the two captains who would lead the calisthenics.
The captains stood in the middle of the large circle. They commanded their teammates to run in place.
“How ya’ll feel?” shouted the captains.
“Fired up!” responded the team.
“How y’all feel?”
With each command the boys went into their breakdown stance and shouted, “Whoo!” This running in place and vocal psych-out lasted for a few more minutes. Then they moved into other calisthenics: stretches, knuckle push-ups, and six inches, where they were instructed to lie on their backs, lift their legs a half foot off the ground, keep their legs straight, and hold the position, playing their bellies like a tom-tom until they were told they could relax. When they were done, their jerseys were dark with sweat and their faces were beaded with it.
“Now you’re gonna run some steps,” said Strange.
“Aw!” said Rico, the Pee Wee starting halfback. Rico was a quick, low-to-the-ground runner who could jook. He had the most natural talent of any of the players. He was also the first to complain.
“Move, Reek,” said Dante Morris, the tall, skinny quarterback who rarely spoke, only when he was asked to or to motivate his teammates. “Let’s get it done.”
“C’mon Panthers!” shouted Joe Wilder, sweeping his arm in the direction of the bleachers.
“Little man gonna lead the charge,” said Blue.
“They’re following him, too,” said Strange.
A few more mothers had arrived and stood on the sidelines. Joe Wilder’s uncle had shown up, too. He was leaning against the fence that ran between the track and the bleachers, his hand dipped into a white paper bag stained with grease.
“Humid tonight,” said Blue.
“Don’t make ’em run those steps too long,” said Strange. “Look, I gotta run back up to my car for a second. Wanted to give you the Midget roster, since you’ll be takin’ them permanent. Be right back.”
Strange crossed the field, passing Wilder’s uncle, not looking his way. But the uncle said, “Coach,” and Strange had to stop.
“How’s it goin?” said Strange.
“It’s all right. Name’s Lorenze. Most call me Lo. I’m Joe Wilder’s uncle.”
“Derek Strange. I’ve seen you around.”
Now Strange had to shake his hand. Lorenze rubbed his right hand, greasy from the french fries in the bag, off on his jeans before he reached out and tried to give Strange the standard soul shake: thumb lock, finger lock, break. Strange executed it without enthusiasm.
“Y’all nearly through?”
“We’ll be quittin’ near dark.”
“I just got up in this motherfucker, so I didn’t know how long you been out here.”
Lorenze smiled. Strange shifted his feet impatiently. Lorenze, a man over thirty years old, wore a T-shirt with a photograph of a dreadlocked dude smoking a fat spliff, and a pair of Jordans, laces untied, on his feet. Strange didn’t know one thing for certain about this man. But he knew this man’s type.
Blue called the boys off the bleachers. Exhausted, they began to walk back toward the center of the field.
“I’ll be takin’ Joe with me after practice,” said Lorenze. “I ain’t got my car tonight, but I can walk him back to his place.”
“I told his mother I’d drop him at home. Same as always.”
“We just gonna walk around some. Boy needs to get to know his uncle.”
“I’m responsible for him,” said Strange, keeping his tone light. “If his mother had told me you’d be comin’, that would be one thing…”
“You don’t have to worry. I’m kin, brother.”
“I’m taking him home,” said Strange, and now he forced himself to smile. “Like I say, I told his mother, right? You got to understand this.”
“I ain’t gotta do nothin’ but be black and die,” said Lorenze, grinning at his clever reply.
Strange didn’t comment. He’d been hearing young and not-so-young black men use that expression around town for years now. It never did settle right on his ears.
They both heard a human whistle and looked up past the bleachers to the fence that bordered the parking lot. A tall young man was leaning against the fence, smiling and staring down at them. Then he turned, walked away, and was out of sight.
“Look,” said Strange, “I gotta get something from my car. I’ll see you around, hear?”
Lorenze nodded absently.
Strange walked up to the parking lot. The young man who had stood at the fence was now sitting behind the wheel of an idling car with D.C. plates. The car was a beige Caprice, about ten years old, with a brown vinyl roof and chrome-reverse wheels, parked nose out about four spaces down from Strange’s own Chevy. Rust had begun to cancer the rear quarter panel on the driver’s side. The pipe coughed white exhaust, which hovered in the lot. The exhaust mingled with the marijuana smoke that was coming from the open windows of the car.
Another young man sat in the shotgun seat and a third sat in the back. Strange saw tightly braided hair on the front-seat passenger, little else.
Strange had slowed his steps and was studying the car. He was letting them see him study it. His face was impassive and his body language unthreatening as he moved along.
Now Strange walked to his own car and popped the trunk. He heard them laughing as he opened his toolbox and looked inside of it for… for what? Strange didn’t own a gun. If they were strapped and they were going to use a gun on him, he couldn’t do a damn thing about it anyway. But he was letting his imagination get ahead of him now. These were just some hard-looking kids, sitting in a parking lot, getting high.
Strange found a pencil in his toolbox and wrote something down on the outside of the Pee Wees’ manila file. Then he found the Midget file that he had come to get for Blue. He closed the trunk’s lid.
He walked back across the lot. The driver poked his head out the window of the Caprice and said, “Yo, Fred Sanford! Fred!”
That drew more laughter, and he heard one of them say, “Where Lamont at and shit?”
Now they were laughing and saying other things, and Strange heard the words “old-time” and felt his face grow hot, but he kept walking. He just wanted them gone, off the school grounds, away from his kids. And as he heard the squeal of their tires he relaxed, knowing that this was so.
He looked down toward the field and noticed that Lorenze, Joe Wilder’s uncle, had gone.
Strange was glad Terry Quinn hadn’t been with him just now, because Quinn would have started some shit. When someone stepped to him, Quinn only knew how to respond one way. You couldn’t answer each slight, or return each hard look with an equally hard look, because moments like this went down out here every day. It would just be too tiring. You’d end up in a constant battle, with no time to breathe, just live.
Strange told himself this, trying to let his anger subside, as he walked back onto the field.
THE Pee Wee offense said “Break” in the huddle and went to the line. Strange saw that several of the players had lined up too far apart.
“Do your splits,” said Strange, and the offensive linemen moved closer together, placing their hands on one another’s shoulder pads. Now they were properly spaced.
“Down!” said Dante Morris, his hands between the center’s legs. The offense hit their thigh pads in unison.
“Set!” The offense clapped their hands one time and got down in a three-point stance.
On two, Rico took the handoff from Dante Morris, bobbling it a little, not really having possession of the ball as he hesitated and was cut down by two defenders behind the line.
“Hold up,” said Quinn.
“What was that, Rico?” said Strange. “What was the play?”
“Thirty-one on two,” said Rico, picking some turf off his helmet.
“And Thirty-one is?”
“Halfback run to the one-hole,” said Joe Wilder.
“Joe, I know you know,” said Strange. “I was askin’ Rico.”
“Like Joe said,” said Rico.
“But you weren’t headed for the one-hole, were you, son?”
“I got messed up in my head.”
“Think,” said Strange, tapping his own temple.
“You had your hands wrong, too,” said Quinn. “When you’re taking a handoff and you’re going to the left, where’s your right hand supposed to be?”
“On top. Left hand down at your belly.”
“Right. The opposite if you’re going right.” Quinn looked to the linemen who had made the tackle. “Nice hit there. Way to wrap him up. Let’s try that again.”
In the huddle, Dante called a Thirty-five. The first number, three, was always a halfback run. The second number was the hole to be hit. Odd numbers were the left holes, one, three, and five. Evens were the two-, four-, and six-holes. A number larger than six was a pitch.
They executed the play. This time Rico took the ball smoothly and found the hole, running low off a clean Joe Wilder block, and he was gone.
“All right, good.” Quinn tapped Joe’s helmet as he ran back to the huddle. “Good block, Joe, way to be.”
Joe Wilder nodded, a swagger in his step, his wide smile visible behind the cage of his helmet.
CLOSE to dark, Strange blew a long whistle, signaling the boys into the center of the field.
“All right,” said Blue, “take a knee.”
The boys got down on one knee, close together, looking up at their coaches.
“I got a call today,” said Dennis Arrington, “at work. One of you was asking me how to make his mouth guard from the kit we gave you. Course, he just should have asked me before he did it, or better yet, listened when I explained it the first time. ’Cause he went and boiled it for three minutes and it came out like a hunk of plastic.”
“Tenderized it,” said Blue, and some of the boys laughed.
“You put it in that boiling water for twenty seconds,” said Arrington. “And before you put it in your mouths to form it, you dip it in some cold water. You don’t do that, you’re gonna burn yourselves fierce.”
“You only make that mistake one time,” said Strange.
“Any questions?” said Blue.
There were none.
“Want to talk about somethin’ tonight,” said Strange. “Heard you all discussing it between yourselves some and thought I ought to bring it up. One of your teammates got himself in big trouble at school today, something to do with a knife. Now I know you already got the details, what you heard, anyway, so I won’t go into it, and besides, it’s not right to be talkin’ about this boy’s business when he’s not here. But I do want to tell you that he is off the team. And the reason he is off is, he broke the deal he made with his coaches, and with you, his teammates, to act in a certain way. The way you got to conduct yourselves if you are going to be a Panther. And I don’t mean just here on the field. I’m talking about how you act at home, and in school. Because we are out here devoting our time to you for no kind of pay, and you and your teammates are working hard, sweating, to make this the best team we can be. And we will not tolerate that kind of disrespect, to us or to you. Do you understand?”
There was a low mumble of yesses. The Pee Wee center, a quiet African kid named Prince, raised his hand, and Strange acknowledged him.
“Do you need to thee our report cards?” said Prince. The boy beside him grinned but did not laugh at Prince’s lisp.
“Yes, we will need to see your first report card when you get it. We’re especially gonna be looking at behavior. Now, we got a game this Saturday, y’all know that, right?” The boys’ faces brightened. “Anybody hasn’t paid the registration fee yet, you need to get up with your parents or the people you stay with, ’cause if you do not pay, you will not play. I’m gonna need all your health checkups, too.”
“We gettin’ new uniforms?” said a kid from back in the group.
“Not this season,” said Strange. “I must answer this question every practice. Some of you just do not listen.” There were a couple of “Dags,” but mostly silence.
“Practice is six o’clock, Wednesday,” said Blue.
“What time?” said Dennis Arrington.
The boys shouted in unison, “Six o’clock, on the dot, be there, don’t miss it!”
“Put it in,” said Quinn.
The boys formed a tight circle and tried to touch one another’s hands in the center. “Petworth Panthers!”
“All right,” said Strange. “We’re done. You that got your bikes or live close, get on home now before the dark falls all the way. Anyone else needs a ride, meet the coaches up in the lot.”
THERE were about ten parents and other types of relatives and guardians, dedicated, enthusiastic, loving, mostly women and a couple of men, who came to every practice and every game. Always the same faces. The parents who did not show were too busy trying to make ends meet, or hanging with their boyfriends or girlfriends, or they just didn’t care. Many of these kids lived with their grandparents or their aunts. Many had absent fathers, and some had never known their fathers at all.
So the parents who were involved helped whenever they could. They and the coaches watched out for those kids who needed rides home from practice and to and from the games. Running a team like this, keeping the kids away from the bad, it was a community effort. The responsibility fell on a committed few.
Strange drove south on Georgia Avenue. Lamar and Joe Wilder were in the backseat, Wilder showing Lamar his wrestling figures. Joe usually brought them with him to practice. Lamar was asking him questions, patiently listening as Joe explained the relationships among all these people, whom Strange thought of as freaks.
“You gonna watch Monday Nitro tonight?” asked Joe.
“Yeah, I’ll watch it,” said Lamar.
“Can you come over and watch it?”
“Can’t, Joe. Got my sister to look after; my moms is goin’ out.” Lamar punched Joe lightly on the shoulder. “Maybe we can watch it together next week.”
Strange brought Lamar along to practice to keep him out of trouble, but he was also a help to him and the other coaches. Both Lamar and Lionel were good with the kids.
Next to Strange sat Prince, the Pee Wees’ center. Prince was one of three Africans on the team. Like the others, Prince was well behaved, even tempered, and polite. His father drove a cab. Prince was tall for ten, and his voice had already begun to deepen. Some of the less sensitive boys on the team tended to imitate his slight lisp. But he was generally well liked and respected for his toughness.
“There’s my office,” said Strange, pointing to his sign on 9th. Whenever he could, Strange reminded his kids that he had grown up in the neighborhood, just like them, and that he owned his own business.
“Why you got a picture up there of a magnifying glath?” said Prince. He was holding his helmet in his hands, rubbing his fingers along the panther decal affixed to the side.
“It means I find things. Like I look at ’em closer so other people can see better. That make sense?”
“I guess.” Prince cocked his head. “My father gave me a magnifying glath.”
“Uh-huh. One day it was thunny, and me and my little brother put the glath over some roach bugs that was outside on the alley porch, by the trash? The thun made those bugs smoke. We burned up those bugs till they died.”
Strange knew that here he should say that burning bugs to death wasn’t cool. But he said, “I used to do the same thing.”
Prince lived on Princeton Place, in a row house in Park View that was better kept than those around it. The porch light had been left on in anticipation of his arrival. Strange said good night to Prince and watched him go up the concrete steps to his house.
Some boys hanging on the corner, a couple years older than Prince, made some comments about his uniform, and then one of them said, “Pwinth, why you steppin’ so fast, Pwinth?”
They were laughing at him, but he kept walking without turning around, and he kept his shoulders erect until he made it to the front door and went through.
That’s right, thought Strange. Head up, and keep your posture straight.
The light on the porch went off.
Strange returned to Georgia Avenue, drove south, and passed a small marijuana enterprise run by a half dozen kids. Part of the income made here funneled up to one of the two prominent gangs that controlled the action in the neighborhood. South of the Fourth District, below Harvard Street, was a smaller, independent operation that did not encroach on the turf of the gang business up the road.
At Park Road, Strange cut east and then turned into the Section Eight government-assisted housing complex called Park Morton. Kids sat on a brick wall at the entrance to the complex, their eyes hard on Strange as he drove by.
The complex was dark, lit only by dim bulbs set in cinder-block stairwells. In one of them a group of young men, and a few who were not so young, were engaged in a game of craps. Some held dollars in their fists, others held brown paper bags covering bottles of juice halved with gin, or forties of malt liquor and beer.
“That your unit, Joe?” said Strange, who always had to ask. There was a dull sameness to these dwellings back here, broken by the odd heroic gesture: a picture of Jesus taped to a window, or a string of Christmas lights, or a dying potted plant.
“Next one up,” said Lamar.
Strange rolled forward, put the car in park, and let it idle.
“Walk him up, Lamar.”
“Coach,” said Joe, “you gonna call Forty-four Belly for me in the game?”
“We’ll see. We’ll practice it on Wednesday, okay?”
“Six o’clock, on the dot,” said Joe.
Strange brushed some bits of lint off of Joe’s nappy hair. His scalp was warm and still damp with sweat. “Go on, son. Mind your mother, now, hear?”
Strange watched Lamar and Joe disappear into the stairwell leading to Joe’s apartment. Ahead, rusted playground equipment stood silhouetted in a dirt courtyard dotted with Styrofoam containers, fast-food wrappers, and other bits of trash. The courtyard was lit residually by the lamps inside the apartments. A faint veil of smoke roiled in the light.
It was a while before Lamar returned. He rested his forearms on the lip of the open passenger window of Strange’s car.
“What took you so long?”
“Wasn’t no one home. Had to get a key from Joe’s neighbor.”
“Where his mom at?”
“I expect she went to the market for some cigarettes, sumshit like that.”
“Watch your mouth, boy.”
“Yeah, all right.” Lamar looked over his shoulder and then back at Strange. “He’ll be okay. He’s got my phone number he needs somethin’.”
“Get in, I’ll ride you the rest of the way.”
“That’s me, just across the court,” said Lamar. “I’ll walk it. See you tomorrow, boss.”
Strange said, “Right.”
He watched Lamar move slowly through the courtyard, not too fast like he was scared, chin level, squared up. Strange thinking, You learned early, Lamar, and well. To know how to walk in a place like this was key, a basic tool for survival. Your body language showed fear, you weren’t nothin’ but prey.
Driving home, Strange rolled up the windows of the Brougham and turned the AC on low. He popped a War tape, Why Can’t We Be Friends, into the deck, and he found that beautiful ballad of theirs, “So.” He got down low in the bench, his wrist resting on the stop of the wheel, and he began to sing along. For a while, anyway, sealed in his car, listening to his music, he found some kind of peace.
SUE Tracy sat in a window deuce, watching the foot traffic on Bonifant Street in downtown Silver Spring, as Terry Quinn arrived at the table carrying two coffees. They were in the Ethiopian place close to the Quarry House, the local basement bar where Quinn sometimes drank.
“That good?” said Quinn, watching her take her first sip. She had asked for one sugar to take the edge off.
“Yeah, it’s great. I guess I didn’t need the sugar.”
“They don’t let the coffee sit out too long in this place. These people here, they take pride in their business.”
“That bookstore you work in, it’s on this street, isn’t it?”
“Down the block,” said Quinn.
“Near the gun shop.”
“Yeah, and the apartments, the Thai and African restaurants, the tattoo parlor. Except for the gun place, it’s a nice strip. There aren’t any chain stores on this block, it’s still small businesses. Most of which have been wrecking-balled or moved, tucked under the rug to make way for the New Downtown Silver Spring. But this street here, they haven’t managed to mess with it too much yet.”
“You got something against progress?”
“Progress? You mean the privilege of paying five bucks for a tomato at our new designer supermarket, just like all those suckers on the other side of town? Is that the kind of progress you’re talking about?”
“You can always stick to Safeway.”
“Look, I grew up here. I know a lot of these shop owners; they’ve made a life here and they won’t be able to afford it when the landlords up the square-foot price. And where are all these working people who live in the apartments going to go when their rents skyrocket?”
“I guess it’s great if you own real estate.”
“I don’t own a house, so I couldn’t really give a rat’s ass if the property values go up. I walk through this city and every week something changes, you know? So maybe you can understand how I don’t feel all warm and fuzzy about it, man. I mean, they’re killing my past, one day at a time.”
“You sound like my father.”
“What about him?”
“He thinks that way, too, is all.” Tracy looked Quinn over, held it just a second too long, so that he could see her doing it, and then reached down to get something from the leather case at her feet.
He was still looking at her when she came back up, holding some papers in her hands. She wore a scoop-neck white pullover with no accoutrements, tucked into a pair of gray blue slacks that looked like work pants but were probably expensive, meant to look utilitarian. Her breasts rode high in her shirt, its whiteness set off by her tanned arms. Black Skechers, oxfords with white stitching, were on her feet. Her blond hair was pulled back, held in place by a blue gray Scunci, with a stray rope of blond falling forward over one cheek. He wondered if she had planned it to fall out that way.
Quinn wore a plain white T-shirt tucked into Levi’s jeans.
“What?” said Tracy.
“You were staring at me.”
“I don’t know why I mentioned my father.”
“I don’t either. Let’s get to work, okay?”
Tracy handed Quinn a stack of flyers exactly like the one Strange had given him the night before. “You might need more of these. We’ve got ’em posted around town, but they get ripped down pretty quick.”
Quinn picked up the Paper Mate sitting atop the notepad he had brought along with him. “What else can you tell me about her?”
Tracy pushed another sheet of paper across the table at Quinn. “Jennifer ran away from her home in Germantown several months ago.”
Quinn scanned the page. “This doesn’t say why.”
“She hit her teens and the hormones kicked in. Add to that, the kids she was hanging with were using drugs. It’s the usual story, not so different from most that we hear. From interviews we did with her friends out in the county, it sounds like she started hooking before she split.”
“In the outer suburbs?”
“What, you think that part of the world is immune to it? It starts out, girl will take a ride with an older guy and fellate him so she can buy a night of getting high for her and her friends. Or maybe she lets herself get penetrated, vaginally or even anally, for a little more cash. She doesn’t get beat up or ripped up those first couple of times – she doesn’t learn something, I mean – it accelerates pretty quickly after that. It gets easy.”
“She’s only fourteen.”
“Okay, so she leaves Germantown. What makes you think she’s in the District?”
“Her friends again. She told them where she was going. But they haven’t heard from her since.”
“You said she was using drugs. What kind?”
“Ecstasy was her favorite, what we heard. But she’d use anything that was put in front of her, if you know what I mean.”
“We haven’t done a thing except interview her parents and a few of her friends. Like we told Derek, we’re up to our ears in county business right now. That’s why we were looking to hook up with you guys for the D.C. side of things. My partner wanted to meet you, but she’s out rounding up a girl she found as we speak.”
“Basically, we yank ’em right off the street when we find them. We’ve got this van, no windows-”
“This legal, what you do?”
“As long as they’re minors, yeah. They have no domain over themselves, and if the parents sign a permission form for us to go after them it’s all straight. If there are any repercussions, we deal with it later. We work with some lawyers, pro bono. Basically, we’re out to save these kids.”
“That’s nice. But this work here, Derek didn’t say anything about it being pro bono. And on top of our hourly rate, I’m gonna need expense money.”
“Keep detailed records and you got it.”
“It could get rich.”
“We’re covered by the APIP people.”
“They must have some deep pockets.”
“Because I got a feeling I’m going to have to pay some people to talk.”
“Okay. But I’m still going to need those details.”
Tracy’s hand kept going into a large leather bag set on the table. She had been fondling something inside of it, then removing her hand, then putting it back in again.
“What’ve you got in there?”
“Well, you might as well stop romancing that pack. You can’t light up in here.”
“You can’t light up anywhere,” she said, adding by way of explanation, “It’s the coffee.”
“Gives you that urge, huh?” Quinn reached into a pocket and dropped a pack of sugarless gum between them. “Try this.”
“We’ll be done in a minute, you can step outside.” Quinn tapped his pen on the notepad. “The one thing I’m wondering is, a girl runs away from home, there’s got to be good reason. It can’t just be galloping hormones and drugged-out friends.”
“Sometimes there’s an abusive parent involved in the equation, if that’s what you’re getting at. Emotional or physical or sexual abuse, or a combination of the three. Part of what me and Karen do is, we spend considerable time in the home, trying to figure out if that’s the best place for the kid to go back to. And sometimes the home’s not the best environment. But you’re wrong about one thing: It often is just hormones and peers, and accelerating events, that make a kid run away. With Jennifer, we’re convinced that’s the case.”
“Where do you suggest I start?”
“Start with stakeouts, like we do. The Wheaton mall, it’s near D.C. and it’s been good for us before. The overground rave clubs, trance, jungle, whatever they’re calling it this week. The ones play a mix of live and prerecorded stuff. What’s that place, in Southeast, on Half Street?”
“That one. Platinum is good, too, over on Ninth and F.”
“I don’t like stakeouts. I’d rather get out there and start talking to people.”
“No one likes stakeouts. But suit yourself, whatever works for you.”
“Just in general terms. White-girl runaways tend to start out in far Northwest, where they’re around a familiar environment.”
“Other white kids.”
“Right. Places like Georgetown. They get hooked into drugs in a bigger way, they get taken in by a pimp-”
“They move east.”
Tracy nodded. “It’s gradual, and inevitable. Last stop is those New York Avenue flophouses in Northeast. You don’t even want to know what goes on in those places.”
“I already know. I was a patrol cop in the District, remember?”
Tracy turned her coffee cup slowly on the table. “Not just any cop.”
“That’s right. I was famous.”
“It’s not news to me. We ran your name through a search engine, and there were plenty of hits.”
“Some people can’t get past it, I guess.”
“Maybe so. But as far as you and me are concerned, this is day one.”
“Anyway, first impression, you seem like an okay guy to me.”
“You seem like an okay guy to me, too.”
“I bought a tomato at Fresh Fields once.”
“You probably spent too much for that shirt you’re wearing, too.”
“It’s a blouse. I paid about forty bucks for it, I think.”
Quinn touched his own T-shirt. “This Hanes I got on? Three for twelve dollars at Target, out on Twenty-nine.”
“I better get out there before they run out.”
Quinn tapped the stack of flyers on the table. “I’ll phone you, keep you caught up.”
“You ready for this?”
“Been a while,” said Quinn. “But yeah, I’m stoked.”
She watched him step out of the coffee shop, studying the way he filled out the seat of his Levi’s and that cocky thing he did with his walk. Talking about her father, giving up something of herself to this guy who was, after all, a stranger, it was not what she would normally do. Add to that, Christ, she should have known better, he was a cop. But there was a connection between them already, sexual and probably emotional; it happened right away like that with her if it happened at all. She had known it two minutes after they had sat down together, and, she had seen it in his damaged green eyes; he had known it, too.
STRANGE looked over the file on Calhoun Tucker that Janine had dropped on his desk.
“Thanks,” said Janine. She was sitting in the client chair in Strange’s office. “I ran his license plate through Westlaw; everything came up easy after that. People Finder gave me the previous addresses.”
Strange studied the data. Tucker’s license plate number had given them his Social Security number, his date of birth, his assets, any criminal record, and any lawsuits. Janine had printed out his credit history, with past and present employment, as well. Credit drove the database of information; it was the foundation of computerized modern detective services. It was useless for getting histories on indigents and criminals who had never had a credit card or made time-payment purchases. But for someone like Tucker, who was part of the system, it worked just fine.
Janine had fed Tucker’s SS number into People Finder, a subprogram of Westlaw. From this she had gotten a list of his current neighbors and the neighbors of his previous addresses.
“He looks pretty straight, first glance.”
“No criminal record,” said Janine. “Apart from a default on a car loan, he’s barely stumbled.”
Strange read the top sheet. “Graduate of Virginia Tech. Spends a few years in Portsmouth after college, working as an on-site representative for a company called Strong Services, whatever that’s about.”
“I’ll find out.”
“Looks like he owned a house in Portsmouth. Check on that, too, will you? Whose name was on it, any cosigners, like that.”
“Then he moved over to Virginia Beach.”
“Most likely that’s where he got into entertainment,” said Janine. “Got involved in promotions in clubs, hookups with fraternities, like that. Looks like that’s what he’s doing up here now, with the Howard kids along U Street and the upscale club circuit over around Ninth and on Twelfth.”
“That Audi he’s driving-”
“Leased. Maybe he’s beyond his means, but hey, he’s in a business where image is half of what you are.”
“I heard that.” Strange dropped the file onto his desk. “Well, let me get on out of here, see what I can dig up. Can’t tell much until you face-time.”
“Tucker looks pretty clean to me.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Strange. “There’s nothin’ I’d like better than to give George Hastings a good report.”
Strange got up from his chair and walked around the desk. His office door was closed. He touched Janine on the cheek, then cupped his hand behind her neck, bent down, and kissed her on the mouth.
“You taste good.”
“Strawberry,” said Janine.
Strange clipped his beeper onto his belt and picked up the file.
“Terry phoned in,” said Janine. “He was in Georgetown when he called. Asked Ron to run some girl’s name, see if she has an arrest record in the District.”
“He’s workin’ a job those county women farmed out to us. Did you bill them for that one I did the other night?”
“It went out yesterday.”
“All right, then.” Strange headed for the door. “See you later, baby.”
“Tonight?” said Janine to his back.
Strange kept walking. “I’ll let you know.”
QUINN parked his Chevelle on R Street along Montrose Park, between Dunbarton Oaks and Oak Hill Cemetery in north Georgetown. He walked over to Wisconsin Avenue with a stack of flyers, a small staple gun, and a roll of industrial adhesive tape that he carried in a JanSport knapsack he wore on his back.
Foot traffic was moderate in the business district, with area workers breaking for lunch, along with college kids and the last of summer’s visitors window-shopping the knockoff clothiers and chain stores. There wasn’t anything here that couldn’t be had elsewhere and at a better price. To Quinn, and to most of D.C.’s longtime residents, Georgetown during the day was a charmless tourist trap and a parking nightmare to be avoided at any cost.
Quinn went along Wisconsin and west to the residential side streets, stapling the flyers to telephone poles and taping them to city trash cans. He knew the flyers would largely be gone, ripped down by residents and foot cops, by nightfall, maybe sooner. It was a long shot, but it was a start.
South of the P Street intersection he stopped to talk to a skinny man, all arms and legs, built like a spider, who was leaning in the doorway of Mean Feets, D.C.’s longtime trendsetting shoe boutique, dragging on a Newport. Inside the shop, Quinn saw a handsome older man smoothly fitting a shoe onto the foot of a young woman as a D’Angelo tune came from the open front door.
As a former cop, Quinn knew that urban shoe salesmen spent a good portion of their day standing outside their shops, talking to women walking down the sidewalk, trying to get them inside, into their web. As it was an occupational necessity, they tended to remember not just shoe sizes but faces and names as well. They also serviced many of the city’s hookers and their pimps.
Quinn greeted the skinny man, then opened a leather holder, flashing his badge and license. To the public, it looked like a cop’s badge. Beside a picture of the D.C. flag, it actually read, “Metropolitan Police Department,” over the words “Private Investigator.” It was Quinn’s habit, suggested to him by Strange, to show the license and badge long enough for the flag and MPD moniker to register, then put it away just as fast.
“Investigator, D.C.,” said Quinn. Strange had taught him this, too. It wasn’t against the law. It wasn’t even a lie.
“What can I do for you, officer?”
“Name’s Terry Quinn. You?”
Quinn unfolded a flyer he had kept in his back pocket and handed it to Antoine. Antoine squinted through the smoke curling up from the cigarette dangling from his mouth.
“Any chance you’ve seen this girl?”
“Don’t look familiar.”
“You sell shoes to prostitutes from time to time, don’t you?”
“Sure, I got my regular ladies, come in for their evening shoes. But I don’t recognize this one. Been doin’ this a long time in the District, too. She hookin’?”
“I don’t recall ever seeing one this young in my shop. Not that I knew of, anyway.”
“Do me a favor. Put this up in the back room, by the toilet, whatever.” Quinn handed Antoine his card. “You or your coworkers, they see her, even if she’s walking down the street, you give me a call.”
Antoine dropped the cigarette, ground it out. He reached for his wallet, slipped Quinn’s card inside, and retrieved a card of his own, handing it to Quinn.
“Now you do me a favor, officer. You need a pair of boots or somethin’, get you out of those New Balances you got on, somethin’ a little more stylin’, you give me a call, hear? Antoine. You walk in here, don’t be askin’ for anyone else.”
“I got a wide foot.”
“Oh, I’ll fit you, now. Antoine can stretch some shoes.”
“All right,” said Quinn. “I’ll see you around.”
“The name is Antoine.”
Quinn walked north to a strip club up the hill on Wisconsin, stopping at an ATM along the way. He entered without paying a cover and was seated by a bouncer at a table in the middle of a series of tables set tightly in a row throughout the depth of the narrow club, facing one of several stages. Three men wearing ties, their shirtsleeves rolled back off their wrists, occupied the table. The men did not acknowledge Quinn. A nice-looking young woman in a sleeveless dress quickly arrived and took his order. She cupped her ear to hear him over the Limp Bizkit, their cover of “Faith,” booming through the speakers.
Quinn checked out the dancers, working the poles on their stages, into the music, smiling politely at the audience but with their eyes someplace else. Thin, young, toned, and generally pleasant to look at. One of them was straight-up attractive, with a cheerleader’s bright face and ruby red nipples. Connoisseurs claimed this place had the finest, cleanest-looking dancers in town. It was all perception and taste; Quinn knew men who swore by that joint near Connecticut and Florida Avenues. Quinn had been there once and judged it to be a skank-house.
The woman returned with a bottle of Bud, for which he paid dearly. He showed her the flyer. She barely looked at it and shook her head. Quinn paid her, tipped her, and asked for a receipt.
There were several bouncers working the room, all wearing radio headsets. The customers could go to the stages and tip the dancers, but they couldn’t linger in the aisle, and if they did, one of the bouncers told them to get back to their seats. Patrons judged to be nursing their beers were encouraged to drink up and reorder or leave. This was the New World Order of strip clubs. To Quinn, it was all too bloodless and it didn’t seem to be much fun.
Quinn recognized one of the bouncers, a black Asian-featured guy now standing by the front door, as a moonlighting cop. He didn’t know the cop personally and didn’t know his name. Quinn waited for his receipt, left his beer untouched, and walked over to the bouncer. He introduced himself, shook the guy’s hand, and showed him the flyer.
“I don’t know her,” said the cop. He looked closely at Quinn. “Where’d you say you were at?”
“In the end, I rode Three-D.”
The cop got that look of recognition then, the clouding over of the eyes, that Quinn had seen many times.
“Keep the flyer,” said Quinn, handing the cop his business card as well. “You see her, do me a favor and give me a call.”
Quinn walked out, Kid Rock screaming at his back. He knew the bouncer would throw the flyer and his card in the trash. He was one of those guys, once he figured out who Quinn was, he didn’t want to have anything to do with him. He’d never get past the fact that Quinn had killed a fellow cop.
Quinn returned to his car and drove east, over the P Street Bridge and onto the edge of Dupont Circle. He found a spot on 23rd Street, walked past a gay nightclub that had been there since disco’s first wave, and stopped at a coffeehouse at the next intersection. It was near P Street Beach, a stretch of Rock Creek Park that in years past had been known for sunbathing, cruising, and open-air sexual activity. Quinn remembered from his patrol days that this was also an area where ecstasy could be easily scored, as the 18th Street clubs were in the vicinity. It was a perimeter that young hustlers worked as well.
He bought a cup of regular and took it out to where tables were set on the sidewalk. He found a seat and checked out the crowd. Teenagers were interspersed in the mostly adult customer base of coffee drinkers and smokers. Some of the teenagers sat with friends; others, both boys and girls, sat with older men. Quinn guessed that some of these kids were cutting school, just slumming, and some were runaways who crashed wherever they could around town. That left the few who had gone professional and were working the crowd.
Quinn had the feeling, from the eye contact he was getting, that a couple of the kids had marked him as a cop. Strange claimed you never lost the look. Quinn was way too old to be one of them, too young to be a john, and, he told himself, too attractive to look like the type who would pay for it. He was mulling over all of this, sitting there trying to decide how to approach one of these kids.
Fuck it, he thought, getting up and crossing the sidewalk patio to a table where two teenage girls sat, empty cups in front of them, ashing the pavement with their cigarettes.
“Hey,” said Quinn, “how you ladies doing?”
Both of the girls looked up, but only one of them kept her eyes on him.
“We’re fine, thanks.” The girl, who had the look of hard money, someone who had been taught never to thank the waitress, said, “Something we can help you with?”
Quinn had obviously made a mistake. “I was wondering, can I snag a cigarette from you?”
She rolled her eyes and gave him one from her handbag without looking at him further. He thanked her and returned to his table, noticing a boy and his female friend laughing at him, feeling a flush of anger and trying to stifle it as he adjusted himself in his seat. Holding a cigarette and without even a match to complete the ruse.
He retrieved his cell from his pack and phoned the office. Janine switched him over to Ron Lattimer.
“Any luck?” said Ron.
“Nothing yet. Our girl got a sheet?”
“Jennifer Marshall. Got it right here.”
“Man wins the Kewpie doll.”
“What about an address?”
“Listed as five seventeen J Street, Northwest. You might have a little trouble finding it, unless someone went and built a J Street in the last week or so-”
“There is no J Street in D.C.”
“She’s got a sense of humor, anyway.”
“Or the one who told her to write it like that does.”
“Thanks, Ron. I’ll look over the rest of it when I come in. Derek around?”
“Uh-uh, he’s out doing a background check.”
“Tell him I was looking for him, hear?”
“Call him on his cell.”
“He doesn’t keep it on most of the time.”
“You can leave a message on it, man.”
“I see him, I’ll tell him.”
Quinn was replacing his cell in his bag when he noticed a girl standing before him. She wore boot-cut jeans and a spaghetti-string pink shirt with a cartoon illustration of a Japanese girl holding a guitar slung low, à la Keith. Her shoulder bag was white, oval, and plastic. Her dirty-blond hair fell to her shoulders. Her hips were narrow, her breasts small, mostly nipple and visible through the shirt. She was pale, with bland brown eyes and a tan birthmark, shaped like a strawberry, on her neck. She wore wire-rim prescription eyeglasses, granny style. She was barely cute, and not even close to pretty. Quinn put her in her midteens, maybe knocking on the door of seventeen, if that.
“You gonna smoke that?”
Quinn looked at the cigarette in his hand as if he were noticing it for the first time. “I don’t think so.”
“Can I get it from you, then?”
She sat down without invitation. He handed her the cigarette.
“You got a light?”
“You need a new rap,” she said, rooting through her shoulder bag for a match. Finding a book, she struck a flame and put fire to the cigarette. “The one you got is lame.”
“You think so?”
“You be hittin’ those girls up for a smoke, you don’t ask ’em for a light, you don’t even have a match your own self?”
Quinn took in the girl’s words, the rhythms, the dropping of the g’s, the slang. Like that of most white girls selling it on the street, her speech was an affectation, a strange in-and-out blend of Southern cracker and city black girl.
“Pretty stupid, huh?”
“And if you was lookin’ to score some ass, you went and picked the only two girls out here ain’t even had their boots knocked yet. Couple of Sidwell Friends girls, trying out the street for a day before they go back to their daddy’s Mercedes, got it parked around the block.” She grinned. “You prob’ly don’t even smoke.”
“I tried it once and it made me sick.”
“But you want something,” she said, no inflection at all in her voice, just dead. It made Quinn sad.
“I’m looking for a girl.”
“You a cop?”
“You have to tell me if you are. It’s entrapment otherwise.”
“I’m not a cop. I’m just looking for a girl.”
“I can get you some pussy, now.” She lowered his eyes, magnified behind the lenses, suggestively. “Shit, you can have this pussy right here, that’s all you want.”
Quinn found a flyer in his knapsack and slid it across the table. “I’m looking for her.”
He watched her examine the face and data on the flyer. If she recognized Jennifer Marshall, her eyes did not give it up.
“I don’t know her,” said the girl. “But maybe I can hook you up with someone who does.”
“You work the middle,” said Quinn.
“When I can. It’s rough out here, you know; I’m talkin’ about the competition. My looks are, like, an acquired taste. Guys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses, and all that. My mother, when she was dolin’ out one of her famous pearls of wisdom, used to remind me all the time. But contacts hurt my eyes. So here I am, lookin’ like a magnet-school geek tryin’ to peddle her ass. And my tits are too little, too. White johns like that black pussy, and with this kiddie pelvis I got, the brothers just tear my shit up. So maybe I’m not cut out for the life. You think I am?”
Quinn gave the girl a chin nod. “What’s your name?”
“Terry Quinn. You were gonna hook me up, Stella.”
“It’s gonna cost you fifty.”
“For a name?”
“It’s a good name.”
“How do I know?”
“’Cause I ga-ran-tee it, dude. Now how about that fifty?”
Quinn paid her discreetly. She finished her cigarette and dropped it to the concrete.
“There’s a girl dances over at Rick’s, on New York Avenue, on the way out of town, past North Capitol?”
“I know the place.”
“Black girl, goes by Eve. They call her All-Ass Eve; you see her, you’ll know why. She knows this girl.”
“How do you know that she knows her?”
For the first time, Stella’s confidence was visibly shaken. She recovered quickly, though, smiling crookedly like a child caught in a lie. And Quinn saw the little girl then, just for a moment, that someone had rocked to sleep, bought presents for, loved. Maybe not always – maybe the mother or the father had fucked up somewhere along the way. But he had to believe that this girl had been loved at one time.
“Okay, I don’t know for sure that Eve knows this girl right here, but listen to me: This is the kind of girl Eve gets to know. She cruises through this intersection, and in bus stations and malls, lookin’ for new talent so she can steer it to her pimp. Everyone workin’ this area knows who she is. The ones been around know to stay away from her and stick to this side of the creek. But the girl in this picture right here? She is fresh meat. I mean, she looks like she don’t know jack. It’s the dumb ones, the desperate ones that go with Eve. I’m just connecting things, is all. Anyway, Eve don’t work out for you, you come back, we’ll start again.”
“For more money.”
Stella shrugged. “I’m strugglin’, dude.”
“How do I reach you?”
Stella gave Quinn her cell number. He used his to phone her right there at the table. Her cell rang in her shoulder bag. She fished it out and answered.
“Hellooo? Officer Quinn?”
“Okay.” He killed the call on his cell and gave her one of his cards. “You want to talk, you call me, hear?”
“Talkin’ don’t pay my bills.” She looked him over. “I’ll suck your dick for another fifty, though.”
“This pans out, there’s another fifty in it for you just for giving me the lead.”
“I’ll take it. But don’t use my name when you’re talking to Eve.”
“You don’t need to tell me that. Eight years on the force, I never once lost a snitch.”
“Knew you were a cop.”
“In another life,” said Quinn, getting up and stepping back from the table. “Let’s stay in touch, all right?”
CALHOUN Tucker was tall and lean and visibly muscled beneath a crisp beige shirt tucked into tailored black slacks. He had a thin Billy D mustache and some kind of pomade worked into his close black hair that gave it shine. He wore expensive-looking shades and a small, new-tech cell clipped to his waistband. All of this Strange could see through his 10×50 binoculars as he sat in his Chevy, surveilling Tucker across the street from his residence, a rental town house near a medical park between Wheaton and Silver Spring.
Tucker went down the sidewalk toward his car, a cherry red S4, Audi’s hopped-up model in the 4-series line, their version of the BMW M3. Tucker’s complexion was a deep brown, not so dark as to hide his features, not so light as to suggest white blood. He walked with confidence, chin up, like the handsome young man he undoubtedly knew he was. He had the package women liked; the confidence thing, they liked that, too. Strange could see right away why Alisha Hastings had been attracted, surface-wise, to Tucker.
Tucker fired up the Audi and pulled out of his space. Strange followed him south, making sure there were plenty of cars between them all the way. Just over the District line, Tucker shot right on Alaska, then another right up 13th, into the cluster of “flower-and-tree” streets, where he cut a left onto Iris. He was heading for George Hastings’s house. Strange went around the block, counter to the route Tucker had taken, and parked in the alley behind Juniper. He got out of his car and left the alley on foot, his binos in his hand.
By the time Strange made it to the intersection of Iris and 13th, Alisha Hastings had come out of her father’s house and was leaning into the driver’s-side window of Tucker’s ride, idling out front behind George’s Volvo. Alisha had on some kind of casual, wear-around-the-house hookup that looked spontaneous but had probably been planned. Tucker had probably called her from his cell and told her he would be stopping by on his way into town. Strange didn’t blame Tucker for wanting to get a look at her before he started his day; Alisha was radiant and poised, with deep dimples framing her lovely smile. Tucker had his hand on her forearm and he was lightly stroking it, talking to her, making her laugh, making her so happy she had to look away. Seeing the two of them there, it reminded Strange of a girl he had loved hard back in the early seventies. He watched them kiss. A twinge of guilt snapped in his chest, and he went back to get his car.
He followed Tucker down into Shaw. Tucker parked on U Street, and Strange put his Chevy in a spot along a construction fence on 10th. He jogged up to the corner and saw Tucker walking west, carrying a briefcase of some kind. He followed Tucker until he went up the steps and into a nightclub that was a quiet bar and lunch joint during the day. Tucker came out ten minutes later and walked farther west to a similar club. He entered, and Strange stood back and leaned against a parking-meter pole stripped of its head. Back from where he’d come, he could see the lunch crowd going in and out of Ben’s. His felt his mouth water and a rumble in his stomach, and he looked the other way.
It took Tucker a while to come out of the club. Strange knew the place. He used to drink there occasionally when it was a neighborhood bar, just a few short years ago. In the summer the management had strung speakers outside, and on some nights, driving slowly down U Street, Strange could hear James Brown doing “Payback,” or a Slave tune, or Otis and Carla singing “Tramp,” and that was enough to cause him to pull over and stop in for a beer. All types were in the bar then, even a few whites; you could wear what you wanted to, it was cool. But then they changed things over, instituting a dress code, and a race code, it seemed, as one night Strange had seen some fancy brothers punk out this one young white dude who was sitting at the bar quietly drinking a beer. The white dude, he wasn’t bothering anyone, but he wasn’t the right color and he wasn’t wearing the right clothes, and they hard-eyed him enough to make him feel like he wasn’t wanted, and soon he was gone. Strange hadn’t gone back since. The truth was, he was too old for the crowd himself, and he preferred a working-class atmosphere when he sat down to have his drinks. Mostly, he didn’t dig that kind of intolerance, no matter who was on the giving or the receiving end. He’d seen too much in his life to excuse that kind of behavior from anyone, even his own people. If this was the New U, then it wasn’t for him.
Strange retrieved his car and kept it running on the street, waiting for Tucker to come out of the bar. Soon Tucker walked down the steps of the club, slipping his shades on, and went to his car. He pulled out onto U, and Strange followed.
Tucker went east, over to Barry Place, parking his Audi between Sherman and 9th, not far from Howard University. Strange kept going and circled the block.
He parked on the Sherman / Barry corner and got his AE-1, outfitted with a 500mm lens, out of his trunk, keeping his eye on Tucker, who was now walking down the street, talking on his cell. Strange returned to the driver’s seat of his Chevy, where he had a clear view of Tucker, and snapped several photographs of him walking up the steps of a row house and waiting at its door. He got a last shot of Tucker going though the open door, and of the woman who let him in. He used the long lens to read the address off one of the brick pillars fronting the porch of the house. He used his cell to phone in the address to Janine. Janine had a reverse-directory program on her computer that would give them a phone number and name for the residence.
Strange sat there for an hour or so, sipping water from a bottle, listening to Joe Madison’s talk show on WOL, while he thought of what was going on in the house. Maybe that was a business appointment in there, or it was a friend and the two of them were having lunch. More likely, right about now Tucker was knocking the back end out of that woman Strange had seen in the open door. Strange was disappointed but not surprised. Thinking about that young man and woman in there, it stirred something in him, too. He’d done enough today. He was hungry and he had to pee.
Strange ignitioned the Chevy and drove over to Chinatown, where he parked in an alley behind I Street. A man whom Strange recognized, a heroin addict who worked the alley, appeared like a phantom, and Strange handed him a five to look after his car. Then he went in a back door next to a Dumpster, down a hall where he passed a kitchen and several closed doors, and through a beaded entranceway into a small dining area where dulcimer music played softly. He took a deuce and ordered some hot-and-sour soup and Singapore-style noodles from an older woman who called him by his name. He washed the lunch down with a Tsingtao.
“Everything okay?” said the hostess.
“Yes, mama, it was good. Bring me my check.”
“You want?” she said, her eyes moving to the beaded curtain leading to the hall. “Your friend here.”
He paid cash and went down the hall to a door opposite the kitchen. He went through the door and closed it behind him. He was in a white-walled room lit by scented votive candles. The music from the dining area played in the room. A padded table was in the center of the room, with a small cart set beside it holding lotions, towels, and a washbasin.
Strange went through another door, turned on a light, and undressed in a room containing a toilet, sink, and tiled shower stall. He hung his clothing on a coat tree and took a hot shower, wrapping a towel around himself when he was done. Then he returned to the candlelit room and lay facedown on the padded table. Soon he heard a door open and saw light spear into the room. The light slipped away as the door was closed.
Strange heard the squirt of an applicator and next felt the woman’s warm, slick hands. She kneaded the lotion, some sweet-smelling stuff, into his shoulder muscles and his lats. He felt her rough nipples graze his back as she bent in to whisper in his ear.
“You have good day today?”
She hummed to the music as she massaged his back. The sound of her voice and the sensation of her touch made him hard. He turned over, the towel falling open. She massaged his chest, his calves, his upper thighs, working her way up to his balls. The lotion was warm there; Strange swallowed.
“Yeah, that’s good right there.”
She applied more lotion to her hands and fisted his cock. Her movement was slow. As her hand went up his shaft, she feathered the head with her fingers. Strange opened his eyes.
The woman was in her twenties, with carelessly applied lipstick and eyes like black olive pits. She wore red lace panties and nothing else. She was short and had the hips of a larger woman. Her breasts were small and firm. He brushed his fingers across one nipple until it was pebble hard, and when the fire rose up in his loins he pinched her there until she moaned. He didn’t care if it was all fake.
“Go now,” he said, and she pumped him faster.
His orgasm was eye-popping, his own jism splattering his stomach and chest.
“You need,” said the woman, chuckling under her breath.
As she wet-toweled him, Strange said, “Yes.”
Dressed again, he left forty-five dollars in a bowl by the door.
Out in the alley, his beeper sounded. It was the office number. He debated whether or not to return the call. He got into his car and used his cell to dial the number. Quinn’s voice came through from the other end.
“I stopped by the office to pick up Jennifer Marshall’s sheet from Ron,” said Quinn. “Where you at?”
“Chinatown,” said Strange.
“Had some lunch.”
Strange had spilled his guts to Quinn one night when both of them had put away too many beers. Giving up too much of himself to Quinn had come back to him in a bad way. It was always a mistake.
“I’m headed down to Rick’s, on New York Avenue,” said Quinn, then explained the reason. “You wanna join me?”
“C’mon over to the office. We can drive down together.”
“I’ll meet you at Rick’s,” said Strange. “Say, half hour?”
“Fine,” said Quinn. “Bring some dollar bills.”
Strange cut the line. He didn’t want to go back to the office and have to small-talk Janine. He was relieved it hadn’t been her on the phone when he’d called in.
On his way east, he drove by the row house on Barry Place, the site of Calhoun Tucker’s afternoon tryst. Tucker’s Audi was gone.
RICK’S was a stand-alone A-frame establishment located a few miles east of North Capitol on New York Avenue, a bombed-out-looking stretch of road that was the jewel-in-the-crown introduction to Washington, D.C., for many first-time visitors who traveled into the city by car.
The building now holding Rick’s had originally been built as a Roy Rogers burger house. It had mutated into its current incarnation, a combination sports bar and strip joint for working stiffs, when the Roy’s chain went the way of corded telephones.
The conversion had been simple. The new owners had gutted the fast-food interior, keeping only a portion of the kitchen and the bathroom plumbing, and hung some Redskins, Wizards, and Orioles memorabilia on the walls. The omission of Washington Capitals pennants was intentional, as hockey was generally not a sport that interested blacks. The final touch was to brick up the windows that had once wrapped around three sides of the structure. Bricked windows generally meant one of three things: arson victim, gay bar, or strip joint. Once the word got around on which kind of place Rick’s was, the owners didn’t even bother to hang a sign out front.
Rick’s had its own parking lot, an inheritance from the Roy’s lease. A couple of locals had been shot in this parking lot in the past year, but pre-sundown and in the early evening hours, before the liquor turned peaceful men brave, then violent, the place was generally safe.
Strange pulled his Caprice alongside Quinn’s blue Chevelle, parked in an empty corner of the lot. Quinn got out of his car as Strange stepped out of his. They met and shook hands. Quinn made a show of sniffing the air.
“Damn, Derek. You smell kinda, I don’t know, sweet. Is that perfume?”
“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, man.”
It was the lotion that girl had rubbed on him back in Chinatown. Strange knew that Quinn was remarking on it, in his own stupid way.
They walked toward Rick’s.
Strange nodded at the JanSport hanging off Quinn’s shoulder. “What, we goin’ mountain climbing now? Thought we were just gonna have a beer or two.”
“You been waitin’ on me long?”
“Not too long,” said Quinn.
“You coulda gone inside,” said Strange, giving Quinn a long look. “I bet I would have spotted you right quick.”
“I’d be the one on the bottom of the pile.”
“With the red opening in his neck, stretchin’ from one ear to the other.”
“Not too many white guys in this place, huh?”
“Seeing a white guy at Rick’s be like spottin’ a brother at a Springsteen concert.”
“I figured I’d just wait for you to escort me in.”
“No need to tempt fate. It’s what I been telling you the past two years. You’re learning, man.”
“I’m trying,” said Quinn.
They went into Rick’s. Smoke hovered in the dim lights. The place was half filled, just easing into happy hour. A bar ran along one wall where the order counter for Roy’s had been, and beyond it was a series of doors. Guys sat at the stick, watching the nostalgia sports channel, Packers uniforms dancing in a flurry of snow, “Spill the Wine” playing on the stereo throughout the house. In two corners, women danced in thongs, nothing else, for groups of men seated at tables. Waitresses wearing short shorts and lacy tops were servicing the tables. Big men with big shoulders and no headsets were stationed around the room.
Floor patrons fish-eyed Strange and Quinn as they stepped up to the bar. Those seated at the bar barely noticed their presence, as their eyes were glued to the television set mounted on the wall.
Strange nodded up at the set. “You want to get a man’s attention, put on any Green Bay game where it got played in the snow. Guy’ll sit there like a glassy-eyed old dog, watchin’ it.”
“It’s like when they run The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on TNT.”
“You mean, like, every week?”
“Tell me the truth; if you’re scanning the channels with the remote and you see Eastwood, or Eli Wallach as Tuco-”
“‘Otherwise known as the Rat.’”
“Right,” said Quinn. “So, when you recognize that movie, have you ever been able to scan past it? I mean, you always sit there and watch the rest of the film, don’t you?”
“The Wild Bunch is like that, too,” said Strange. “How many times you figure you’ve seen that one?”
Quinn pumped out two short strokes with his fist. “With my pants on, or with them around my ankles?”
Strange chuckled as the bartender, a young guy with a hard face, arrived before them. “What can I get y’all?”
“I’ll take a Double R Bar burger and a saddle fulla fries,” said Quinn, but the bartender didn’t smile.
“Heineken for me,” said Strange.
“Bud,” said Quinn.
“In bottles,” said Strange. “And we’re gonna need a receipt.”
The tender returned with their beers. Quinn paid him and dropped a heavy tip on the bar, placing his hand over the cash. “Which one of the girls is Eve?”
“That’s her right there,” said the bartender, chinning in the direction of a big-boned dancer working one of the corners of the room.
“When does she stop?”
“They work half hours.”
“Any idea how long she’s been at it?”
“’Bout ten years, from the looks of her.”
“I meant tonight.”
“Ain’t like I been clockin’ her.”
“Right,” said Quinn. He took his hand off the money, and the bartender snatched it without a word. He had never once looked Quinn in the eye.
Strange saw two men get up from their table near Eve’s corner. He folded the bar receipt, put it in his breast pocket, and said to Quinn, “There we go, that’s us right there.”
They crossed the floor, one of the stack-shouldered bouncers staring hard at Quinn as they passed. “Sweet Sticky Thing” came forward from the house system. Quinn and Strange had a seat at the deuce. Strange leaned forward and tapped his beer bottle against Quinn’s.
“Relax,” said Strange.
“I get tired of it, is all.”
“You expect all the brothers to show you love, huh?”
“Just respect,” said Quinn.
They drank off some of their beers and watched the work of the woman the bartender had identified as Eve. She was squatting, her back to a group of men, her palms resting atop her thighs, working the muscles in her lower back. Her huge ass jiggled rapidly, seemingly disconnected from the rest of her. It moved wildly before the men.
“Someone ought to give that a name,” said Strange.
“She does have a nickname: All-Ass Eve.”
“Bet it didn’t take long to come up with it.”
“You like it like that?”
“Is seven up?”
“She doesn’t hold a candle to Janine.”
“That’s what I know. You don’t have to tell me, man.” Strange smiled and pointed to one of the speakers suspended from the ceiling by wires. “Listen to this right here. The third verse is comin’ up.”
“The horn charts behind this verse are beautiful, man. The Ohio Players never did get much credit for the complexity in their shit.”
“That’s nice,” said Quinn. “You know, Janine was askin’ where you were when I was back in the office.”
“You tell her I was in Chinatown?”
“I don’t like lying to her.” Quinn’s eyes cut off Strange’s stare. “No, I didn’t say where you were.”
Strange had a sip of beer. “You met with Sue Tracy, right?”
“What’d you think?”
“She’s a pro. She’s nice.”
“Bet you didn’t find her all that hard to look at, either.”
“Knock it off.”
“Just wanted to make sure you still had some red blood runnin’ through your veins. While you’re sittin’ over there judgin’ me with your eyes.”
Quinn didn’t respond. Strange said, “Ron give you the sheet on the Marshall girl?”
“I got it.”
“What did it tell you?”
“She got popped for solicitation. It’s a no-paper, so we won’t be finding her in court.”
“She put an address on the form?” said Strange.
“A phony. But the spot where she wrote down her contact was interesting. A guy named Worldwide Wilson.”
“Yeah, looks like she gave up the name of her pimp.”
“She give out his phone number, too?”
“She did write one down. But it’s got one of those number symbols after it.”
“Must be his pager.”
“Just tryin’ to help you out, rookie.”
“Anyway, I’ll find out tonight.”
They watched the rest of Eve’s performance. The music programmer stuck with the Ohio Players and moved into “Far East Mississippi” and “Skin Tight.” Strange and Quinn ordered two more beers. Eve finished her shift and walked off through one of the doors behind the bar, accompanied by the stack-necked bouncer who had hard-eyed Quinn. A woman arrived, built similarly to Eve, and she began to dance in the same way Eve had danced, this time to a tune by the Gap Band. The woman’s behind rippled as if it were in a wind tunnel.
“This here must be strictly an ass joint,” said Quinn.
“And they asked me when I took you on, Will he make a good detective.”
“It’s like their signature dish.”
“Ledo’s Pizza got pizza. The Prime Rib’s got prime rib. Rick’s got ass.”
“You black guys do love the onion.”
“Was wonderin’ when you were gonna get to that.”
Soon Eve came out of the back room wearing a sheer top with no bra and matching shorts showing the lines of her thong. She was going around to the tables, shaking hands with the men, some of whom were slipping her money in appreciation of her performance. The stack-necked bouncer was never far from Eve. He had braided hair and a gold tooth. Quinn thought he looked like Warren Sapp, that football player. He was big as one.
“She’ll be here in a second, Terry. I’ll ask the questions, you don’t mind.”
“My case. Let me handle it, all right?”
Eve was a large woman, in proportion with her backside. Her nose was thick and wide, and her lips, painted a bright red, were prominent; her hands and feet had the size of a man’s. She had sprayed herself with some kind of sweet perfume, and it was strong on Strange and Quinn as she arrived at their table.
“Did you gentlemen like my performance?” she said, giving them a shy smile, her hand out.
“I did,” said Strange.
Quinn extended his hand, a twenty-dollar bill folded in it so that she could see the denomination. He pulled it back as she reached out for it.
“C’mon back when you have a minute,” said Quinn. “My friend and I want to talk to you.”
Eve kept her smile, but it twitched at one corner. Strange noticed her bad teeth, a common trait among hos.
“Management says I can’t sit down with the customers,” said Eve, “’less they buy me a cocktail.”
“Bet you like those fruity ones,” said Strange, “loaded up with all kinds of rums.”
“Mmmm,” said Eve, licking her lips clumsily.
“We’ll see you in a few,” said Quinn.
The bouncer gave him one long, meaningful look before he and Eve went off to the next table full of suckers.
“That drink’s gonna cost you, like, another seven,” said Strange.
“I know it.”
“Won’t even have no liquor in it.”
“Make sure you get a receipt. We’ll charge it to your girl Sue.”
Eve returned after a while and pulled a chair over from another table, sliding it in between Strange and Quinn. She carried a collins glass filled with pinkish liquid and held it up by way of salute to her new friends before taking a sip. The bouncer had a seat on a stool positioned a table away and stared at Quinn. Kool and the Gang’s “Soul Vibration” played loud on the sound system. Strange watched the dancers bring it down a notch to catch the groove of the song.
“Thanks for the drink,” said Eve. She wiped her mouth and placed the drink on the table. Her lipstick had made a kiss mark on the glass. “You two wouldn’t be police officers, would you?”
“We’re not with the police,” said Quinn, pushing the yellow flyer he had taken from his pack across the table. He dropped the twenty on top of the flyer, careful not to cover the photograph of Jennifer Marshall. “You recognize this girl?”
Eve’s eyes held their neutral vacancy. “No.”
“I said no. Was I talkin’ too soft for you?”
“I can hear you fine. I don’t believe you is what it is.”
Eve’s smile, like a death rictus, remained upon her face. “You’re cuttin’ me deep, white boy.”
Strange looked over at the bouncer, then around the room. He recognized one guy, an older cat with a cool-fish handshake he’d seen at church now and again. Anything went down, this cat would be no help at all.
Quinn leaned forward. “You never seen her, like at a bus station, nothin’ like that? How about over by P Street Beach?”
Eve’s smile faded, and with it any facade of love.
“Ever hear of a guy named Worldwide Wilson?” said Quinn.
Eve’s eyes were dead now, still on Quinn. She shook her head slowly.
“You steer girls over to Wilson, Eve. Isn’t that right?”
Eve reached for the twenty on the table. Quinn put a hand over her wrist and pushed his thumb in at her pressure point. He pressed just enough for her to feel it. But if she felt it, it didn’t show. In fact, the smile returned to her face.
“All right, Terry,” said Strange. “Let her go.”
The bouncer was still staring at Quinn but hadn’t moved an inch. Eve slowly pulled her hand free. Quinn let her do it.
“You know why you still conscious?” said Eve, her voice so soft it was barely audible above the sounds in the club. “’Cause you don’t mean a motherfuckin’ thing to nobody up in here.”
“I’m lookin’ for this girl,” said Quinn just as softly, tapping his finger on the flyer.
“Then look to the one who gave you my name.”
“Say it again?”
“Do I look like I hang on P Street to you?” Eve took the twenty off the table and slipped it into the waistband of her shorts. “White boy, you got played.”
Eve stood out of her chair, letting her eyes drift over Strange, then walked away.
“You done?” said Strange. “Or you want another beer?”
“I’m done,” said Quinn, looking past Strange into the room.
“We could buy the house a round. Sing some drinking songs with all your new friends, like they do in those Irish bars-”
As they moved toward the bar, Quinn’s and the bouncer’s eyes met.
“Check you later, slim,” said the bouncer, and Quinn slowed his step. It was something you said to a girl.
Strange tugged on Quinn’s T-shirt. At the stick, Strange settled the tab while Quinn kept his back at the bar, watching the patrons in the house, many of them now staring at him. Some were grinning. He felt the warmth of blood that had gone to his face. He wanted to fight someone. Maybe he wanted them all.
“We’re gone,” said Strange, handing the receipt to Quinn.
Vapor lights cast a bleached yellow on the lot outside the club. They walked the asphalt to their cars.
“That was good,” said Strange. “Subtle, like.”
Quinn kept looking back to the door of the club.
“Wanna go back in, huh?”
“Terry, one thing you got to learn to do is, don’t take all this bullshit too personal.”
“Guess I ought to be more detached, like you.”
“You need to manage some of that anger you got inside you, man.”
“Tomorrow’s Wednesday. We got practice in the evening, right Derek?”
“Six o’clock on the dot,” said Strange.
“I’ll see you then.”
Quinn drove his Chevelle out of the lot while Strange killed some time, fumbling with his car radio and such. When Quinn was out of sight, Strange locked up his car and walked back into Rick’s.
“GIRL,” said Strange, “you gonna bleed me dry.”
“House rules,” said Eve with a shrug. “You want me to sit down with you, you gotta buy me one of these drinks.”
“Tell the truth, though. There’s no liquor in that glass, right?”
“You know it ain’t nothin’ but sugar and juice.”
“Figured it was some kinda hustle,” said Strange.
They were seated at the far end of the bar, away from the sports junkies, near the service station. Eve’s bouncer was nearby, talking to one of the dancers, keeping one eye on the house, one on Eve.
“That your man?” said Strange.
“Yeah. You got to have one, and he’s as good as any I’ve had. Never has raised a hand to me once.”
Eve slid a cigarette from a pack the bartender had placed before her as she took her seat. Strange struck a match and gave her a light.
“Thank you, sugar.”
“Ain’t no thing.”
“Say your name again?”
She dragged on the smoke, then hit it again. Strange took a ten from his wallet and placed it on the bar between him and Eve. Eve’s head was moving to the Tower of Power coming from the house system as she slipped the ten into her shorts.
“‘Clever Girl,’” said Strange.
“I ain’t all that. Would I be here if I was?”
“I’m sayin’, that’s the name of this song. Lenny Williams up front. Ain’t no question, he was the best vocalist this group had, and they had a few.”
“Little before my time.”
“I know, darling.” Strange leaned in close to Eve. “Let me just go ahead and ask you straight up, you don’t mind. Do you know the girl in the flyer?”
Eve shook her head. “No.”
“I didn’t think you did.”
“I told your boy.”
“But you do know this cat Worldwide.”
“He was my pimp at one time.”
“I stopped trickin’ last year. I can make a better living doing this right here. Plus, I got this thing at Lord and Taylor’s, up in Chevy Chase? Givin’ out perfume samples, like that.”
“Always wondered where they found those pretty girls in places like that.”
“Thank you,” said Eve, lowering her eyes for a moment and then fixing them again on Strange.
“Sounds like you’re doin’ all right.”
“I’m makin’ it.”
“You just walked away from trickin’, huh?”
“Worldwide specializes in those young girls. It wasn’t like I went off to another pimp. That’s something he wouldn’t let happen, understand what I’m sayin’? What it was, he couldn’t use me no more. I got old, Strange. So I clean-breaked and came on over here.”
“You’re like, what, thirty? That ain’t old.”
Eve tapped ash off her smoke. “I’m twenty-nine. That’s old for World.”
“What about the one who gave Quinn your name? You know her?”
“Oh, yeah. Had to be this little white bitch, name of Stella.”
“She told him you steered girls over to Wilson.”
“I ain’t never done that. It’s what she does. Can’t sell her own ass; ain’t nobody even wants that pussy for free. Trick-ass bitch hustled your boy out of his money, bringin’ him my way. I knew straight off, he mentioned P Street, it was her. ’Cause that’s her corner, right? She gets next to those young white-girl runaways and puts them up with World. She was doin’ that shit when I was with him, and she still is, I guess. Thought she could make some quick change, givin’ up my name. That’s her, all the way.”
“Where’s Worldwide base his self?”
“Uh-uh.” Eve took a final drag off her cigarette and crushed it dead in the ashtray. “Look, I talked too much already. And I got to get myself back to work.”
“I need you, I can get up with you here, right?”
“Door’s open, long as you just wanna watch me dance. Far as this goes, though, we are done. You do come back, don’t be bringin’ your Caucasian friend with you, hear?”
“Boy’s got some anger management problems is what it is.”
“Needs to learn some manners, too.” Eve stood and straightened her outfit. “Listen, you do run into World-”
“I don’t know you no way. I never met you, and I don’t even know your name.”
Eve’s eyes softened. She looked younger then, and when she moved in and rested her hand on Strange’s shoulder, it felt good.
“Somethin’ else, too,” she said. “Don’t you even have a dream of fuckin’ with that man. This is not somethin’ you want to do.”
“I hear you, baby.”
Eve kissed him lightly on the cheek. “You smell kinda sweet for a man, y’know it?”
Strange said, “Take care of yourself, all right?”
She moved away and went through one of the doors behind the bar. Strange settled his tab and got his receipt. On his way out he stopped by the bouncer with the braided hair. He stood before him, looked him up and down, and smiled.
“Damn, boy,” said Strange, “you got some size on you, don’t you?”
“I go about two forty,” said the bouncer.
“Looks like most of it’s muscle, too. Can you move?”
“I’m quick for my size.”
“You a D.C. boy, right?”
“Played for who?”
“Came out of Ballou in ninety-two.”
“The Knights. No college?”
The bouncer spread his hands. “I ain’t had the grades.”
“Well, all that natural talent you got, you ought to be doin’ somethin’ ’stead of standing in this bar, breathing in all this smoke.”
“I heard that. But this here is what I got.”
“Listen,” said Strange, “thank you for handling that situation the way you did.”
“I don’t reach out for trouble. But I only give out one get-out-of-jail card per customer, see what I’m sayin’? You need to tell your boy, he comes back in here again, I will kick his motherfucking ass.”
Strange put a business card into the bouncer’s left hand, shook his right. “You ever need anything, the name’s Strange.”
Strange walked out, thinking on one of those golden rules his mother used to repeat, that one about the honey always gettin’ the flies. His mother, she was full of those corny old sayings. Him and his brother, when he was alive, used to joke about it with her all the time. She’d been gone awhile now, and more than anything, he missed hearing her voice. The longer he lived the more he realized, damn near everything she’d taught him, seemed like it was right.
QUINN showered at his apartment on Sligo Avenue, then walked up to town, passing the bookstore on Bonifant, stopping to check the lock on the front door before he went on his way. He drank two bottles of Bud at the Quarry House, seated next to a dwarfish regular who read paperback novels, spoke rarely, but was friendly when addressed. Quinn had gotten a taste at Rick’s and knew his evening would not be done without a couple more. These days, he almost always walked into bars by himself. He hadn’t had a girlfriend since things between him and Juana, a law student and waitress up at Rosita’s on Georgia Avenue, had fallen apart over a year ago. But he still frequented the local watering holes. He liked the atmosphere of bars, and he didn’t like to drink alone.
After his beers, Quinn walked up to Selim Avenue, trying but failing to not look in the window of Rosita’s, then crossed the pedestrian bridge spanning Georgia that led to the B &O train station alongside the Metro tracks. At this time of night the gate leading to the tunnel that ran beneath the tracks was locked, so he stayed on the east side. As he often did, he stood there on the platform, admiring the colored lights of the businesses and the pale yellow haloing the street lamps of downtown Silver Spring. A freight train approached, raising dust as it passed, and he closed his eyes to feel the stir of the wind. When the sound of the train faded he opened his eyes and went back in the direction of his place.
He came up here to the tracks nearly every night. The platform reminded him of a western set, and he liked the solitude, and the view. A construction crew had been working on the station, probably converting it into a museum or something, a thing to be looked at but not used, another change in the name of redevelopment and gentrification. Of course, he didn’t know for sure what they were doing to the station, but recent history convinced him that it was something he would not like. In the last year Quinn’s breakfast house, the Tastee Diner, had been moved to a location off Georgia, and he rarely ate there anymore as it was out of his foot range. Also, with its new faux-deco sign out front, it now looked liked the Disney version of a diner. He wondered when the small pleasure of his nightly walk would be taken from him, too.
BACK at his apartment, Quinn checked his messages and returned a call from Strange, who had phoned from Janine’s place. Strange told him what he had learned from Eve.
“Sounds like you ought to go back to that girl Stella,” said Strange.
“I will,” said Quinn. “Thanks.”
Quinn was a little jealous that Strange had been able to get what he could not, but he was cognizant of his own limitations, and grateful that Strange had made the extra effort on his behalf.
After hanging up with Strange, he sat on his couch, rubbing his hands together, looking around at the spartan decor of his apartment, which was no decor at all. He was high from the beers and a little reckless from the high, and he felt as if his night was not done. He dragged his knapsack over to the couch, found Stella’s phone number, and then saw Worldwide Wilson’s number on Jennifer Marshall’s sheet. He reached for his phone and dialed the number Jennifer had scribbled down.
It was a pager number, as he knew it would be. Quinn left his home phone number, waited for the tone that told him the number had been received, and cut the line.
He stared at the phone in his hand, looked around the room, stared at the phone some more, then dialed Stella’s cell. She answered on the third ring.
“Hellooo. Officer Quinn?”
“You psychic or something?”
“Caller ID, duh.”
“I ought to get one of those ‘number unknown’ things.”
“Bet you’re too cheap to pay for the service, Quinn.”
“It always comes back to money for you.”
“Why’d you do it, Stella?”
“You musta talked to Eve.”
“I had the pleasure.”
“She bugged on you, huh?”
“I guess I ought to ask you another way. Why’d you send me to her? You could’ve put me onto somebody who didn’t know anything at all.”
“That’s true. But I wanted you to come back to me. I wanted to see how bad you wanted Jennifer, baby doll. And I can see that you do. I mean, you didn’t come looking to kick my ass or nothin’ like that. You’re callin’ me like a gentleman and you don’t sound angry. Are you angry at me, Quinn?”
“No,” he said, but it was a lie. “Can you deliver Jennifer?”
“I’d deliver my mother for a price. Shit, I’d give you my mother for free, everything she done to me.”
“What’s the price?”
“Five hundred will get you your girl.”
“How you gonna do that, Stella?”
“I got somethin’ of hers. Somethin’ I know she wants.”
“You stole from her?”
“Oh, my bad.”
“You’re a piece of work.”
“Always good to have a little somethin’ someone wants, information or merchandise, you know what I’m sayin’? Like I told you, it’s rough out here.”
“What about Worldwide?”
Quinn heard the snap of a match and the burn of a cigarette.
“What about him?” said Stella.
“You’re working for him. I don’t think he’d take too kindly to you setting up one of his girls to get taken off the street.”
“Course not. Worldwide is a bad motherfucker, for real. But he ain’t never gonna know, green eyes, ’less you thinkin’ on tellin’ him. You don’t have to worry about me, ’cause I have done this before. Made some large money on it, too. Parents pay more than ex-cops, but I take whatever’s there.”
“Always playing the middle.”
“When I can.”
“I won’t worry about you, Stella. But I do want this girl. So I’ll get you the money, with one condition. That you’ll be right there with me when I make the snatch. Because I don’t trust you, understand? I won’t get burned by you again.”
“When can we set it up?”
“Soon as you want, lover.”
“I need to get my hands on the money and a van. How’s tomorrow night sound?”
“I’ll call you tomorrow, hear?”
Quinn hit “end.” He phoned Sue Tracy and got her on her cell.
“Sue, it’s Terry.” He cleared his throat. “Quinn.”
“Hey, Terry.” There was a rasp to her voice, and he heard a long exhale before she said, “What’s up?”
“Listen, I got a strong line on Jennifer Marshall. But I’m gonna need a half a yard to buy the last piece of the puzzle.”
“I can get it.”
“Good. I think I might be able to make a grab tomorrow night.”
“We can do that.”
“Well, one person generally can’t do this right, Terry. I’ll bring the van.”
“Okay, then. Okay.”
“Hold on a second.”
Quinn heard a rustling sound and waited for Tracy to get back on the line.
“Tell me where and when,” she said.
“You all right?”
“I’m in bed, Terry.”
“I had to find paper and pen. Go ahead.”
“I don’t know yet. What I mean is, I’ll let you know.”
“You been out tonight?”
“You sound like you been drinking a little.”
“Just a little.”
“I bet you drink alone.”
“I don’t like to,” said Quinn.
“Tell you what. We get this girl tomorrow, I’m gonna buy you a beer. You don’t mind sitting next to a woman when you drink, do you?”
Quinn swallowed. “No.”
“Good work, Quinn.”
Quinn sat there for a while thinking of the velvet sandpaper in Sue Tracy’s voice, the sound of her long exhale, the way his stomach had kind of flipped when she’d said “I’m in bed.” How “Good work, Quinn” had sounded like “Fuck me, Terry” to him. Well, he was just a man, as stupid as any other. He looked down, saw his hand resting on the crotch of his jeans, and had to grin. He was too tired to jerk off, so he went to bed.
STRANGE sat on the edge of the bed, Janine’s strong thighs over his. She moved slowly up and down on his manhood, gyrating on the upstroke, that thing she did that made him feel twenty-one all over again. One of his hands grasped her ass and the other was flat on the sheets, and he pushed off, burying himself all the way inside her.
“You going for my backbone, sugar?”
“A man can try.”
She gave him her hips. “Shit, yeah.”
“I am on the way.”
She kissed him deep, her eyes wide and alive. She kept them open when they kissed. He liked that.
Strange licked and sucked at one of her dark nipples, and Janine laughed low. Quiet Storm was coming from the clock radio by the bed, playing Dorothy Moore. Strange had turned it up before undressing her, so that Lionel, in the next room over, could not hear them making love.
He shot off and kept himself in motion. She was almost soundless when she came, just a short gasp. Strange liked that, too.
Later, he stood in his briefs by the bedroom window, looking through the blinds down to the street. Greco had nosed his way through the door and was sleeping on a throw rug, his muzzle resting between his paws.
“Come to bed, Derek.”
He turned around and admired Janine, her form all woman beneath the blanket on the bed.
“I’m just wondering what’s goin’ on out there. All those kids, still walking around.”
“You’re done working for today. Come to bed.”
He slid under the sheets and rested his thigh against hers.
“You better go to sleep,” said Janine. “You know how you get cranky when you don’t get enough.”
“Oh, I got enough.”
“Look, it’s just, at the end of the day, all these things go racing through my mind.”
“Thinkin’ on you, you want the truth. How I don’t tell you enough what a good job you do. And what you mean to me.”
Janine ran her fingers through the short wiry hairs on Strange’s chest. “Thank you, Derek.”
“I mean it.”
“Usually, when you start going that way with me, it means you need to unload something off your mind. So what is it?”
“Ain’t nothin’ like that,” said Strange.
“Is it Terry?”
“Well, he’s still a little rough around the edges. But he’s all right.”
“Is it the job you’re doing for George Hastings?”
“Uh-uh. I’m nearly done with that.”
“I’m almost done on my end with it, too,” said Janine. “Got one more thing to check up on. You didn’t find anything, did you?”
“No,” said Strange, and reached over to the nightstand and turned off the lamp.
He wasn’t sure why he had lied to her. So Calhoun Tucker was a player, so what? But something about snitching on a guy about that to a woman didn’t sit right with most men. It was a kind of betrayal, in an odd way. One betrayal too many in the day for Strange.
QUINN was disoriented from sleep when the phone rang by his bed. He reached over and picked up the receiver.
“You called?” The voice was smooth and baritone. There was music playing in the background against the sound of a car’s engine.
“Who is this?”
“Who’s this? You called me. But you, uh, declined to leave your name.”
Quinn got up on one elbow. “I’m looking for a girl.”
“You done called the right number then, slick. How’d you get it, by the way?”
“I’m looking for one girl in particular,” said Quinn. “Girl named Jennifer, I think.”
“Asked you how you got my number.”
“Why is that important?”
“Let’s just say I like to know if my marketing dollars are well spent. You know, like, do I re-up with the Yellow Pages or do I go back heavy on those full-page ads in the Washington Post?”
The man on the other end of the line laughed then. It was a cut-you-in-the-alley kind of laugh, and the sound of it made Quinn’s blood tick. His hand tightened on the receiver. He looked down at some CDs stacked carelessly on the floor. An old Steve Earle was atop the stack.
“A friend of mine, guy named Steve, recommended I call you. Said you could hook me up.”
“Oh, I can hook you up, all right. Your name is?”
“Okay, Earle. But I’m a little curious; it’s in my nature, if you don’t mind. White boy like you, usually when I get a request from one, it’s for some black pussy, understand what I’m sayin’? And Jennifer, it’s the same girl we both thinkin’ of, she’s white all the way.”
“That’s what I want. She’s young, too, isn’t she?”
“Oh, Jennifer’s young, all right. They call her Schoolgirl, matter of fact. She’ll be good to you, too. But I guess your boy Steve told you that.”
“Sure he did. Satisfied customer’s the very best form of advertising. Steve, he mention specifics?”
“Just that he had a good time. That she’ll do things.”
“Any goddamn thing you want. You can bring your friends and roll some videos, too. Have your own private record of the occasion. Fuck her mouth or her pussy. Ass-fuck her, you got a mind to. Course, you gonna pay for all that.”
“Look, I’m talkin’ about a private party. You deliver her and you name the price. I got money.”
“You’re gonna need it, Earle. ’Cause this is some fresh turnout here. And I can’t be givin’ pussy this new away.”
Quinn kicked off his top sheet, swung his legs over the bed, and sat up. He reached for the pencil and pad he kept on the nightstand. Maybe he could make this happen without Stella. He didn’t need her now that he had gotten through to Wilson.
“How do I hook it up?” said Quinn.
“Well, let’s see. Where’d your boy Steve have his party?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Oh, come on, Earle, you can tell me. See, I need to know, to satisfy that curiosity I was tellin’ you about. Steve must have bragged on it. Man don’t tell another man ass stories without goin’ into the details.”
“It was out on New York Avenue,” said Quinn, feeling the sweat break upon his forehead. “I think it was one of those motels they got out there on the way out of town.”
The man on the other end of the line laughed heartily. It ended with a chuckle, long and low.
“What’s so funny?” said Quinn.
“Just that, you know, you done gone and fucked up right there. You talked too much, see? ’Cause I don’t use those trick pads over on New York Avenue. Never have.”
“What difference does it make? I said I thought it was there-”
“You said it was. And I did like the way you said it, Earle. It was. So sure of yourself. So tough. So much like the rough and tough man you must be. Bet you got your little chest all puffed up, right about now. Got your fists balled up, too? So easy to be tough when you’re speaking on the phone. Isn’t it? Earle.”
His voice was singsong and mocking. Quinn unclenched his jaw and spoke through barely parted lips.
“My name’s Terry Quinn.”
“Oh, I got your phone number now, so it would have been easy to get your name right quick. But thanks for providin’ it for me; I’ll remember it for sure. What’re you, Vice, sumshit like that? You must be new, ’cause I got the patrol boys on my strip taken care of.”
“I’m not a cop.”
“Don’t matter to me what you are, anyway. You don’t mean nothin’ more to me than some dog shit on my shoe. Look here, I better be goin’. I’d put your girl on the line, but she’s suckin’ a dick right now, makin’ me some money.”
“So long, white boy. Maybe we’ll meet someday.”
“We will,” said Quinn. But the line was already dead as the words came from his mouth.
So now Wilson had his name and number. It would be easy for him to get Quinn’s address. In his mind, Quinn shrugged. When he was a cop, the threat that he’d be tracked down to his place of residence had been made many times. He’d lost count of those threats long ago.
Quinn turned off the nightstand lamp. He stood and went to the bedroom window. His hands were shaking at his sides. It wasn’t fear.
Tomorrow night the girl would be his.
ON Wednesday morning, Garfield Potter had Carlton Little and Charles White drop him at the Union Station parking garage, where he spotted a car he liked, a police-package, white-over-blue ’89 Plymouth Grand Fury with a 318 engine and a four-barrel carb. Potter used a bar to break into the vehicle and a long-handled flat-head to pop out the ignition. He hot-wired the Plymouth and rolled down to the exit. Potter wore a skully and shades so that the booth camera could record very little of his face. As he didn’t have a ticket, he paid the full-penalty parking fee and drove out of the garage.
Potter followed Little and White out to Prince George’s County, pulling up behind them on a gravel shoulder running alongside a football field in Largo. He waited for his boys to wipe the prints out of the interior and off the exterior handles of the beige Caprice, as he had instructed them to do, and when they joined him inside the Fury he turned the car back toward D.C.
Potter and Little both had priors: possession, intent to distribute, and aggravated-assault beefs. Also, there had been one sodomy-rape charge on Potter, dropped when the victim would not testify. Eventually, they knew, some judge would have to give them time. Like many of his peers, Potter often bragged on the fact that violent death or a jail cell awaited him. But he didn’t want to go down on something as mundane as grand theft. A charge like that was a bitch charge, and it bought you no respect inside the walls. So he was always careful to cover his tracks when he got rid of one of his stolen cars.
Old police cars, or those outfitted for police specifications, were the vehicle of choice for many young men in and around D.C. Potter heard you could buy them cheap off lots in Virginia, in places like Manassas and Nokesville, wherever that was. But he didn’t like to cross over into Virginia for any reason, and anyway, lately he hadn’t been buying shit. You could steal a car easily in the District, and if you rotated it out, say, once a week, you’d never get caught. Well, he hadn’t been caught at it yet.
Potter looked at it like this: What you had to do was, you had to target a car owned by a young brother who lived in the city or near the PG County line. Some young brothers got their shit stole, they didn’t even report it to the police, on account of they knew damn near nothing would come of it anyway, and there was also this unwritten thing about not talking with the MPD. Many of them didn’t carry insurance either, so there wasn’t no money reason to report it. Sure, the ones got their cars took kept their ears open and their eyes out for the thief, looking to get some street justice if they could. But so far, Potter, Little, and White had escaped that as well.
Potter floored the gas as he got on the entrance ramp to the Beltway.
“Shit moves,” said Potter.
“Better than that hooptie we done had, D,” said Little.
“Gonna buy us a Lex soon, though. I’m fixin’ to own me a nice whip.”
“When?” said Little.
Charles White sat in the backseat, letting the wind from the open window hit his face. He was listening to that song “Bounce with Me,” done by that singer they called Lil’ Bow Wow, who dressed like a gangster but wasn’t nothin’ much more than a kid. White was still up there from the hydro him and Carlton had smoked on the way out to Largo, and the song sounded good. He was into music; it was, like, his hobby. Sometimes he made tapes of himself over beats. Maybe someday he’d take some of the money they were making and go into a studio, lay somethin’ down for real. But he figured that was for other people to do, like Bow Wow, had someone showin’ him how to make it and all that. Someone to guide him, like.
In his true mind Charles White knew that he was stuck with what he had right here. The only family he had now, except for his grandmother, was the boys he’d come up with. Garfield and Carlton, before both of them turned cold and all the way hard, like they were now.
White’s hand instinctively dropped to his side, but there was nothing there. He still thought of Trooper all the time. He missed him. He wished Trooper were sitting warm beside him on the backseat.
Potter looked in the rearview at White, breathing through his mouth, looking out the window with the wind beatin’ on him, slumped in the backseat. Dumb-ass motherfucker, probably still stressin’ over that stupid dog. Potter thought of White as a dog, too, in a way, a thing that just kind of followed him and Carlton around.
He was stuck with White. White still acted and thought like a kid sometimes. He hadn’t changed much since the three of them had been tiny, growing up in the Waterfront Gardens, the Section Eight housing units down off M Street by the Southeast / Southwest line. Wasn’t no “waterfront” about it, though sometimes the seagulls did drop in from Buzzards Point and pick at the trash. Some government type actually did have the nerve to name that shit hole a Garden, too. One of those jokes you couldn’t even laugh at. Not that Potter was crying about it or nothin’ like that. If it wasn’t for what he didn’t have, and he never did have one good thing, he wouldn’t have the ambition and drive he had today.
He could have used a father, he supposed, someone to throw a football to or sumshit like that. His mother didn’t even have the strength to lift a ball, eighty-eight pounds of no-ass crackhead like she was, at the end.
He wasn’t gonna cry about that either. Family and all that bullshit, it meant nothing to him, and it didn’t get you anything when you counted the chips up at the end of the day. It was like them books his teachers was always tellin’ him to read before they gave up on his ass, back about the fifth grade. He couldn’t hardly read, and still he had a shoebox full of cash money in the closet at his place, clothes, cars, bitches, everything. So what was the point of books, or some piece of paper, said you went to school?
He had a good business going now. Him and Carlton, he guessed he had to call Charles a partner, too, they had some runners down on Georgia, below Harvard Street, and they sold the shit out of some dime bags of marijuana on that corner there. Marijuana, the good shit that was goin’ around, the stuff grown hydroponic, was the way to go. In D.C., didn’t matter whether you were in possession of a dime bag or ten pounds, it wasn’t nothin’ but a misdemeanor. You did go to court, most of the time it was no-papered, everyone in the life knew that. Black juries didn’t want to send a young black man into the deadly prison system for some innocent charge like holding a little marijuana. Innocent, shit, Potter had to laugh at that. Young brothers killed one another over chronic just as dead as they did over crack and heroin. The people in charge would change the laws, make them tougher again when they figured all this out, but until then, hydro was the game.
So Potter had this business and he liked to keep it small. He didn’t call him and his boys a “crew” or a “mob” or nothin’ like that. You got into turf beefs and eyeball beefs that way; shit just got too complex. Potter was basically into having fun: stealing cars, taking off dumb motherfuckers who could get took, robbing crap games, shit like that. But he never fucked with those he knew to be hooked into crews, or their kin. Never that he knew, anyway. Only fuck with the weak, those who had no strength in numbers, that was his plan. He figured he hadn’t made any big mistakes yet. He was still alive.
“Where we goin’?” said Little.
“Dime the rest of that key out and get it out to our troops,” said Potter. “Maybe tonight we’ll slide by Roosevelt, see if our boy Wilder is hangin’ with his nephew on that football field.”
“You still on that?”
“Told you I wouldn’t forget.”
They went back to their place, a row house they rented month-to-month on Warder Street in Park View, and dimed out the shit. They smoked a couple of Phillies while they worked. White went out for a bag of McDonald’s, and when he returned there were a couple of young local girls up in the crib who’d dropped by. The new Too Short was up loud, and everyone was on the get-high and drinking gin and grapefruit. This pretty young thing, Brianna, was with Little, and they were laughing and then just gone, up in Carlton’s room. Potter took the other one, couldn’t have been more than thirteen, away with him next, kind of pulling on the sleeve of her Tweety Bird shirt. To White she didn’t look like she wanted to go. A little while later White heard the bedsprings from back in Potter’s room against the crying of that girl. White turned up the stereo so he didn’t have to hear it, but he could still hear it deep in his head. So he went outside and sat on the stoop, where he rubbed at his temples and tried to remember if there had ever been a time in his life when he felt right.
POTTER and the rest drove down to Harvard Street and found his main boy, kid named Juwan, sitting on a trash can. Juwan was one of those, like Gary Coleman, had a man’s head on a boy’s body. They took Juwan back to where the fence ran along the McMillan Reservoir. Juwan, sitting next to White in the backseat, passed a large Ziplock bag full of money, which he had taken from his knapsack, up to Little. Little took the money out, separated some for Juwan, and filled the Ziplock with dimed-out bags of marijuana. Juwan slipped the package back into his knapsack.
“Everything all right, little man?” said Potter.
“It’s good, D. One thing, though. You know William, that boy got one leg shorter than the other? The po-lice took him in last night. William be like, thick and shit. I done told him, Don’t be carryin’ when you steerin’, you know what I’m sayin’? But he don’t listen. I know he’ll be out today, but-”
“Say what’s on your mind.”
“Was gonna ask you, I got this cousin, just moved up from Southeast? He was lookin’ to get put on, yo.”
“Put him on then, Jew. What I been tellin’ you, man? Someone don’t work out, go ahead and find someone else. Always gonna be kids out there wanna get in.”
They dropped Juwan back on Harvard and Georgia. Then Potter stopped at a market and bought a few forties of malt. They drove around some more, drinking the malt and getting smoked up. Little found a cassette tape, a Northeast Groovers PA mix that had been left in the glove box by the Plymouth’s owner, and he slipped it in the deck.
“Shits ain’t got no bass,” said White from the backseat.
Potter ignored White and turned up the volume. At a stoplight he stared down some young boy in a rice burner who he thought had been staring at him. The young boy looked away.
“Where we goin’?” said Little.
“Swing on up to Roosevelt,” said Potter.
“I don’t want to be drivin’ around all night lookin’ for some ghost.”
“You got somethin’ better to do?”
“Brianna,” said Little. “I might just meet her again tonight, she can get out her mother’s house. I tossed the shit out of that bitch today, boy.”
“She ain’t look too satisfied to me.”
“That’s too much girl for you, man.”
“Shit, she was singin’, ‘Say my name, say my name’ this afternoon. You saw her smilin’ when she walked out the crib. Not like that girl you was fuckin’, had tears on her face when she left.”
“I gave her the anaconda, she couldn’t help but cry. Anyway, your girl Brianna wasn’t smilin’, she was laughin’.”
“At that itty-bitty thing you got between your legs.”
“Shit, I’m thick as a can of tuna fish down there, man.”
Potter side-glanced Little. “Long as one, too.”
They drove up to Roosevelt High and parked on Iowa. Potter walked down the driveway entrance to the lot, where several cars were parked, and went to the fence bordering the stadium. Kids in football uniforms were doing calisthenics on the field. Their call-and-response chant echoed up to the parking lot.
“How y’all feel?”
Potter didn’t see Lorenze Wilder in the group of parents and relatives sitting in the stands. A bunch of men, looked like coaches, stood around on the field. One of them he recognized as the older dude with the gray in his natural, had been bold enough to study him and Little that time before. Potter spit on the ground and walked back to the car. He got behind the wheel of the Plymouth, his face gone hard.
They went back to their place. They got their heads up and drank some more and watched UPN and something on the WB. Little tried to sweet-talk Brianna out again, but her mother got on the telephone line and told him she was in for the night. Potter suggested they go out again, and Little agreed. White didn’t want to, but he got up off the couch. Potter slipped his.357 into his waistband and put a Hilfiger shirt on, tails out, over his sleeveless T. He fitted his skully back on his head. White slipped on a bright orange Nautica pullover, his favorite, and followed Potter and Little out to the street.
They drove around, up and down Georgia. They checked on the troops. Potter drank another forty, and his face got more humorless and he drove from a lower position in the seat. It had been a long day of getting high and doing nothing, and it felt late to White. Anyway, it was full dark. Potter rolled the Plymouth into the Park Morton complex, driving real slow. Some kids were out, sitting like they always did on the entrance wall.
“Lorenze Wilder’s sister live here,” said Potter.
Little said nothing. Like White, he was tired, and right about now would rather have been in front of the television, or in bed. He didn’t like being out with Garfield when he’d been drinkin’, had all that liquid courage inside him. Truth was, Little was kinda drunk, too.
Potter slowed the car. A lanky young man was walking across the narrow street, onto a plot of dirt that passed for a playground. He wore khaki pants, a pressed white T-shirt, and wheat-colored Timberland boots.
“Ask him he knows her,” said Potter.
“Yo,” said Little out the window. They were alongside the young man now. He was still walking, and the Plymouth was keeping pace.
“What?” said the young man, who looked at them briefly, for just the right amount of respect time, but kept his step.
“You know a woman name of Wilder lives here?” said Little. “Got a little boy, kid plays football, sumshit like that. I got this friend owes her money, he asked me to swing by and tell her he’d be payin’ it back to ’er next week.”
The young man looked at them again, scanned the front and backseat, his sight staying on the odd-looking young man in the bright orange pullover for what he feared might be a moment too long, then cut his eyes. “I ain’t know no one around here, no lie. I just moved up in here, like, last week.”
“Aiight,” said the young man, moving off into the playground, walking with his shoulders squared, his head up, turning a corner and disappearing into the night.
“Maybe I ought to talk to that boy my own self,” said Potter, the lids of his eyes heavy, half shut.
“He said he didn’t know, D,” said Little. “Let’s just let this shit rest for tonight.”
Potter kept the Plymouth cruising slow. He went around a kind of long bend that took him to the other side of the housing complex. They could see a group of people back in a stairwell lit pale yellow. Potter braked, steered the Plymouth up on the dirt, and cut the engine.
Potter said, “C’mon.”
They got out of the car and followed him across the dirt to the stairwell entrance. There were three men crouched down there and a pink-eyed woman leaning against a cinder-block wall. In one hand the woman held both a cigarette and a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. Smoke hung in the yellow light.
Older cats, all of ’em, thought Potter. Didn’t know nobody, didn’t have nobody gave a fuck about ’em.
The dice-playing men looked up briefly as Potter approached, Little and White behind him. The oldest of the players, vandyked, wearing a black shirt with thin white stripes and a black Kangol cap, eyed Potter up and down, then rolled dice against the wall. The dice came up sixes. There was some talk about the boxcar roll, and money changed hands. Money was spread out on the concrete.
“Y’all want in,” said the roller, staring down the lane to the wall, shaking the dice in his hand, “you’re gonna have to wait.”
Potter didn’t like that the man didn’t look him in the eye when he spoke.
“That your woman?” said Potter, staring at the lady leaning on the wall. She took his stare, even as Potter smiled and licked his lips.
The dice man didn’t answer. He made his roll.
“Asked you if that was your woman.”
“And I told you to wait,” said the man.
The other men laughed. One of them reached into his breast pocket and extracted a cigarette. None of them looked at Potter.
“Get up,” said Potter. “Stand your tired ass up and face me.”
The dice man sighed some, then stood up. He grunted and rubbed at one knee as he did. He was old. But he was bigger than Potter expected, both in the shoulders and in height. He had a half foot on Potter if he had an inch. Now his eyes were twinkling.
“You got somethin’ you want to say to me?”
Potter reached under his shirttail and drew the Colt. He held it at his hip, the muzzle on the midsection of the man. The man’s eyes were calm; they didn’t even flare.
“Give it up,” said Potter. “All the cash.”
“Shit,” said the man, drawing it out slow, and he smiled.
“I’m gonna take your money,” said Potter. “You want, I’ll dead you to your woman, too.”
“Son?” said the man. “I done had guns pointed at me, by real men, while I was layin’ in rice paddies and mud, for two solid years. And here I am standin’ before you. Do I look like I’m worried about that snub-nose you got in your hand?”
“This here?” Potter looked at the gun as if it had just showed up in his hand. “Old-time, I wasn’t gonna shoot you with it.”
Potter swung the barrel so quickly that it lost its shape in the light. He slashed it across the brow of the man, the blow knocking the cap off his head. The man’s hand went to his face, blood seeping through his fingers immediately, and he stumbled back against the wall. Potter flipped the gun in the air and caught it on the half turn, so that he held it now by the barrel. He moved forward, ignoring the other men who had stood suddenly and backed away, and smashed the butt into the man’s cheekbone. He hit him in the nose the same way, blood dotting the cinder blocks as the man’s head whipped to the side. Potter laughed against the woman’s screams. He reared back to beat the man again and felt someone grab his arm. Looking over his shoulder with wild eyes, he saw that it was Charles White who held him there.
“Man, get your got-damn hands off me, man!” yelled Potter.
“Let’s just take the money,” said Little, moving into the light. “You about to kill a motherfucker, boy.”
“Get the money, then,” said Potter. He smiled and spit on the man lying bloodied before him. “You ain’t standin’ now, are you, Old-time?” Potter barked a laugh and raised his voice in elation. “Can’t nobody in this city fuck with Garfield Potter?”
Little and White gathered the cash up off the concrete. They backed up into the grassy area, turned, and walked quickly to the car. No one followed them or shouted for help.
Little counted the cash as they drove out of the complex. White looked in the rearview. A grin had broken, and was frozen, on Garfield Potter’s face.
LAMAR Williams said good night to his mother, a thirty-two-year-old woman with the face and body of a forty-year-old, who was leaning against the stove in their galley-sized kitchen, smoking a cigarette.
“Where you been at, Mar?”
“Practice with Mr. Derek. I was watchin’ wrestlin’ with that kid Joe Wilder after that, over at his mother’s.”
“I’m gonna need you in tomorrow night. I got plans.”
Lamar went down a hall and pushed open the door to his baby sister’s room. She was lying atop her bed, stretched out in those pj’s of hers, the ones had little roses printed on them. On her feet were those furry gold slippers she wouldn’t take off, with Winnie the Pooh’s head on the front. What was she now, almost four? Lamar covered her with a sheet.
He went back to his room, turned on his radio, sat on the edge of his bed, and listened to DJ Flexx talkin’ to some young girl who’d called in with some shout-outs for her friends. Then Flexx played that new Wyclef Jean joint that Lamar liked, the one with Mary J., where they was talkin’ about “Someone please call 911.” That one was tight. It made him feel better, to hear that pretty song.
Lamar lay back on the bed. He could still feel his heart beating hard beneath his white T-shirt. He’d done right, not giving up anything to those boys who’d tried to sweat him from the open windows of that car, because whatever they wanted with Joe Wilder’s mother, it was no good. But it was hard to keep doing right. Hard to have to walk a certain way, talk a certain way, keep up that shell all the time out here, when sometimes all you wanted to do was be young and have fun. Relax.
Lamar was tired. He rested the palm of his hand over his eyes and tried to make himself breathe slow.
STRANGE spent Wednesday morning clearing off his desk, his noontime testifying for a Fifth Streeter down in District Court, and his afternoon finishing his background check on Calhoun Tucker. He hit a couple of bars on U Street and then drove over to a club on 12th, near the FBI building, where George Hastings had said that Tucker had done some promotions.
All he spoke to that day told him that Tucker was an upstanding young businessman, tough when he had to be but fair and with a good reputation. At the 12th Street club, the bartender, a pretty, dark-skinned woman setting up her station, said that Tucker was “a good guy,” adding that he did have “a problem with the ladies, though.”
“What kind of problem?” said Strange.
“Being a man, you probably won’t think of it as one.”
“Try me out.”
“Calhoun, he can’t just be satisfied with one woman. He’s a player, serial style. It’s cool for a young man to be that way, but he’s the type, he’s gonna be a player his whole life, you understand what I’m sayin’? After a while you gotta check yourself with that, ’cause you are bound to hurt people in the end.”
“Did he hurt you?”
The bartender stopped slicing limes, pointing her short knife at Strange. “It’s my business if he did.”
Strange placed his card on the bar. “You think of anything else you want to tell me about him, you let me know.”
Strange went back to his place, hit the heavy bag in his basement, showered, fed Greco, and got on the Internet, reading the comments on a stock chat room while he listened to the Duck, You Sucker sound track he had recently purchased as an import.
“See you later, good boy,” said Strange, patting Greco on the head before he headed out the door. “Gotta get over to Roosevelt.”
THEY ran the team hard that night, as their game was coming up and the night-before practice would be light. The kids looked good. They weren’t making many mistakes, and they had their wind. The Midgets were in numbers on one side of the field with Lydell Blue, Dennis Arrington, and Lamar Williams, and the Pee Wees occupied the other. Near dark, after the drills, Strange called the Pee Wees in and told them it was time to run some plays. Strange took the offense aside as Quinn gathered the defensive unit.
The offensive huddle broke and went to the line. Dante Morris took the snap from Prince on the second “go” and handed off to Rico, who hit the five-hole off a Joe Wilder block, broke free from a one-handed tackle attempt, and was finally taken down twenty yards down the field.
Quinn took the kid who had missed the tackle aside. “None of this one-handed-tackle stuff. You can’t just put your arm out and say, Please, God, let him fall down. It doesn’t work that way, you hear me?”
“Hit him in the stomach. Wrap him up and lock your hands.”
The kid nodded. Quinn tapped him on the helmet with his palm, and the kid trotted back to the defensive huddle.
Joe Wilder slowed down as he passed Strange on the way to the offensive huddle. “Forty-four Belly, Coach Derek?”
“Run it,” said Strange. “And nice block there, Joe.”
Wilder ran the play into Dante Morris, who called it on one. It was a goal-line play, a simple flanker run direct through the four-hole. Wilder executed it perfectly and took the ball into the end zone. He did the dirty bird for his teammates and jogged back to Strange, a spring in his step.
“I be doin’ that on FedEx Field someday, Coach Derek.”
“It’s I will be doing that,” said Strange, who then smiled, thinking, I believe you will.
After practice, Strange talked with Blue awhile, then caught Quinn getting into his Chevelle.
“Where you off to so fast, Terry?”
“Got plans tonight.”
“Thought you were gonna try and close that Jennifer Marshall thing tonight.”
“I am,” said Quinn. “I’ll let you know how it pans out.”
Prince, Lamar, and Joe Wilder were standing by Strange’s Brougham. He put his football file into the trunk, let them in the car, and drove off the school grounds.
Strange turned up Prince’s street, not far from the football field.
“There go my houth right there,” said Prince.
“I know it,” said Strange, stopping the car. “Get in their straight away, boy, don’t make no detours. Those boys on that corner over there, they try to crack on you, you ignore ’em, hear?”
Prince nodded and got out of the car. He went quickly up the steps to his place, where the light on the porch had been left on.
As they drove south on Georgia, Joe Wilder held two action figures in his hand. He was making collision sounds as he pushed their rubber heads together like warring rams.
“I thought those two was friends,” said Lamar, sitting beside Wilder.
“Uh-uh, man, Triple H be the Rock’s enemy. H is married to the commissioner’s daughter.” Joe Wilder looked up at Lamar. “Will you come inside and watch it with me tonight?”
“Okay,” said Lamar. “I’ll watch it with you some.”
After Strange dropped them off, he popped a tape into the dash, a Stevie Wonder mix Janine had made him. Kids sat on the wall and dead-eyed him as he passed through the exit to the housing complex, Stevie singing “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” from the deck. Strange couldn’t help thinking how beautiful the song was. Thinking, too, how for those who’d been born in the wrong place through no fault of their own, how sad that it was true.
SUE Tracy picked up Terry Quinn at his apartment somewhere past ten o’clock that night. She stood in the doorway of his place while he shook himself into a waist-length black leather jacket over a white T-shirt. As he did this he blocked her way, his body language telling her to come no further. She watched him fumble his badge case into one jacket pocket and his cell into the other. Clearly he was anxious to slip out before she had a chance to get a good look at his crib. But Tracy had taken in enough to know that there was nothing much to see.
They walked out of the squat, three-story brick building, toward an old gray Econoline van parked on Sligo Avenue.
“Hey, Mark,” said Terry to a mixed-race teenage boy standing with a group of boys his age outside a beer-and-cigarette market on the corner.
“Wha’sup,” said the boy, not really looking at Quinn, muttering the greeting in a grudging, dutiful way.
Tracy stopped to light a cigarette. She dropped the spent match to the ground and exhaled smoke out the side of her mouth. “Kid really likes you, Terry.”
“He does like me. It’s just, you know, the code. He can’t act like we’re friends when he’s hanging with his boys, you know what I’m sayin’? I have this gym set up in the basement of the building; I let some of these neighborhood guys work out with me, long as they show me and the equipment respect.”
They stood by the van, Tracy finishing her cigarette before getting in, Quinn letting her without comment.
“And you coach a football team, too.”
“I kinda help out, is all.”
“You’re not so tough, Terry.”
“It’s a way to kill time.”
“Sure.” Tracy ground out her cigarette. “Where to first?”
“We’ll pick up Stella. I got it all set up.”
The van dated back to the 1970s. It had front and rear bench seats and little else. The three-speed manual shift was a branch coming off the trunk of the steering wheel. A tape deck had been mounted where the AM radio had been, its faceplate loose, its wires exposed and swinging below the dash.
“I bet you only fly first class, too,” said Quinn.
“It was a donation,” said Tracy.
She wore a black nylon jacket over a black button-down blouse tucked into slate gray utilitarian slacks. She found a gray Scunci in her jacket pocket, put it in her mouth while she gathered her hair behind her, and formed a ponytail. The Scunci picked up the gray of the slacks. She pulled a pair of eyeglasses with black rectangular frames from the sun visor and slipped them on her face.
“This van? Bet there’s a bong around here somewhere, too, if you’re interested.”
“I was talking about your glasses.”
“They’ll keep us from getting killed. My night vision is for shit.”
They drove down into Northwest, cutting into Rock Creek Park at 16th and Sherrill and heading south. Tracy slipped a Mazzy Star compilation tape into the deck. Chicks and their chick music, thought Quinn, but this was guitar driven and pretty nice.
They didn’t talk much on the ride into town. It wasn’t uncomfortable. Quinn didn’t feel like he did around most women, like he had to explain who he was, why he’d chosen the path he’d taken, the one that had put him on the way to becoming a cop. The singer’s voice, breathy but unforced, was relaxing him, and arousing him, too. He looked over at Tracy, at the tendons in her neck, the elegant cut of her jaw as it neared her ear.
“What?” said Tracy.
“You’re staring at me again, Terry.”
“Sorry,” said Quinn. “I was just thinking.”
After a while they came up out of the park. Stella emerged from the shadows of a church at 23rd and P as they pulled the van along the curb.
“She looks fifteen.”
“Cobras live to be fifteen, too,” said Quinn.
“I’m making a point.”
“The back doors are open,” said Tracy. “Tell her to get in there.”
Quinn rolled down his window as Stella reached the van. She wore black leather pants and a white poplin shirt, with a black bag shaped like a football slung over her shoulder. Her eyeglasses sat crooked on her face.
“You like?” said Stella, looking down at her pants. Her eyes were magnified comically behind the lenses of her glasses. “I wore ’em for you, Officer Quinn. They’re pleather, but that’s okay. I get paid tonight, I’m gonna buy me a pair of leather ones on the for-real side.”
“You look nice,” said Quinn.
“What color should I get? The black or the brown?”
“The back door’s open. Let’s go.”
They drove east. Quinn introduced Stella to Sue Tracy. Stella was cool to her questions. She only became animated when responding to Quinn. Clearly she was eager for his attention. It was plain to Tracy that Stella had a crush on Quinn, or it was a daddy thing, but he was ignoring it. More likely, as with many men, the obvious had eluded him.
On 16th they saw some girls working the stroll, a stretch of sidewalk off the hotel strip south of Scott Circle.
“Around here?” said Tracy.
“Those aren’t World’s,” said Stella.
“Where, then?” said Quinn.
“Keep goin’,” said Stella. “He ain’t into that visiting-businessmen trade. They talk too much, take too much time. Worldwide’s girls walk between the circles. The Logan-and-Thomas action, y’know what I’m sayin’?”
Quinn knew. “That’s old-school turf. I remember that from when I was a teenager.”
Tracy shot him a look from across the seat.
“Strictly locals,” said Stella. “Husbands whose wives won’t blow ’em, birthday boys lookin’ to get their cherry broke, barracks boys, like that. World’s got some rooms nearby.”
“We’re gonna try and take her in Wilson’s trick-house?” said Quinn. “Why?”
“Because she don’t trust me,” said Stella. “She won’t meet me anywhere else.”
Tracy steered the van around Thomas Circle.
“North now,” said Stella, “and make a right off Fourteenth at the next block.”
The landscape changed from ghost town-downtown to living urban night as soon as they drove onto the north side of the circle. Small storefronts, occupying the first floors of structures built originally as residential row houses, low-rised the strip. The commercial picture was changing, new theater venues, cafés, and bars cropping up with regularity. In fact, it had been “changing” for many years. White gentrifiers tried to close down the family-run markets, utilizing obscure laws like the one forbidding beer and wine sales within a certain proximity to churches. The crusading gentrifiers cited the loiterers on the sidewalks, the kinds of unsavory clientele those types of businesses attracted. What they really wanted was for their underclass dark-skinned neighbors to go away. But they wouldn’t go away. The former Section Eights were up the street, and so were families who had lived here for generations. It was their neighborhood. It was a small detail that the gentrifiers never tried to understand.
There weren’t any hookers walking the 14th strip. But as they turned right and drove a block east, Quinn could see cars double-parked ahead wearing Maryland and Virginia plates, their flashers on, girls leaning into their driver’s-side windows.
“Pull over,” said Stella.
Tracy curbed the van and cut the engine. Quinn studied the street.
A half block up, a couple of working girls, one black and one white, were lighting smokes, standing on the sidewalk outside a row house. One of them, the young white girl with big hair, wearing white mid-thigh fishnets and garters below a tight white skirt, walked up the steps of the row house and through the front door. A portly black man in an ill-fitting suit got out of his car, a late-model Buick, and went into the same house shortly thereafter.
“These all Wilson’s?” said Quinn.
“Not all,” said Stella. “You got a few independents out here, out-of-pocket hos. Long as they don’t look him in the eye, disrespect him like that, then they gonna be all right. But those are World’s trick-pads over there. All his. He rents out the top two floors, got, like, six rooms.”
“What about the car action?”
“That’s okay for a quick suck. World gets money for the room, too, so he tells his ladies, Make sure you take ’em upstairs. Anyway, you don’t want to be fuckin’ a man in a car down here. Even the pocket cops, they see that, they got to take you in. This ain’t the Bronx.”
“That where you come from, Stella?” said Tracy.
“I’m from nowhere, lady.”
“We waitin’ on Jennifer?” said Quinn.
“You already saw her,” said Stella. “She was that white girl with the white stockings, went inside.”
“It didn’t look like her,” said Quinn.
“What, you think she’d still be wearing her yearbook clothes?” Stella laughed joylessly, an older woman’s laugh that chilled Quinn. “She ain’t no teenager now. She ain’t nothin’ but a ho.”
“We could have grabbed her off the street.”
“We got to do this my way. I told you I’d come along, but I don’t want nobody spottin’ me, hear?”
“I called Jennifer up. Soon after I met her, I boosted her Walkman and a few CDs she had. She never went anywhere without her sounds. I told her when I called her, I found her shit in some other girl’s bag and I was lookin’ to get it back to her.”
“Told her I’d meet her at eleven-thirty, up in three-C. That’s the third-floor room nearest the back of the house. There’s a fire escape there, goes down to the alley. The window leads out to the fire escape, one of those big windows, goes up and down-”
“A sash,” said Quinn.
“Whatever. World always tells the girls, leave that window open, hear, case you need to get out quick.”
Quinn checked his watch: close to eleven by his time.
“Think I’ll drop in on her a little early,” said Quinn.
“I’m coming with you,” said Tracy.
“Who’s gonna drive the van?” said Quinn, head-motioning over his shoulder. “Her?”
Tracy looked out her window for a moment, then at Quinn. She reached back and pulled her leather briefcase from under the back bench. Her hand went into the briefcase and came out with a pair of Motorola FRS radios. She handed one to Quinn.
“These come with a decoder ring, too?”
“Quit fuckin’ around, Terry. You keep the power on, hear? There’s a call alert; you’ll hear it if I’m tryin’ to get through to you.”
“All right.” Quinn turned the power on so that Tracy could see he had done it. He slipped the radio into his jacket.
“How long you gonna need in there?” said Tracy.
“Jennifer’s where Stella says she is, I’d say ten minutes tops.”
“I’m gonna take the van back in the alley, but I’m gonna give you five minutes before I roll. I don’t like alleys. I’ve seen too much shit go wrong in alleys, Terry-”
“So have I.”
“I don’t want to get jammed up in there.”
“All right. I’ll bring the girl down the fire escape. See you in ten, right?”
Quinn got out of the van and crossed the street. Go-go music came loudly from the open windows of one of the double-parked cars. The girl outside the row house, black girl with red lipstick and a rouged face, her ass cheeks showing beneath her skirt, looked him over and smiled as he approached.
“You datin’ tonight, sugar?”
“I’m taken, baby. My girl’s waitin’ on me inside.”
Her eyes went dead immediately, and Quinn walked on. He took the row house steps and opened the front door, stepping into a narrow foyer. The door closed softly behind him. He looked up a flight of stairs to the second floor. The foyer smelled of cigarettes, marijuana, and disinfectant. He could hear voices above. Footsteps, too.
Quinn’s blood was up. It was a high for him, to be back in the middle of it again. And to be in this place. It reminded him of his own first time with a prostitute, fifteen years earlier, in a house very much like this one, just a few blocks away from where he now stood.
He took the two-way radio out of his pocket and turned the power button off. He didn’t need any gadgets. He didn’t need any “call alerts” or anything else to distract him while he was looking for the girl.
Quinn started up the stairs.
WORLDWIDE Wilson cruised down 14th in his ’92 400SE, midnight blue over palomino leather, the music down low. He had that Isley Brothers slo-jam compilation, Beautiful Ballads, on the stereo, Ronald singing all sweet, talkin’ about, “Make me say it again, girl,” coaxin’ that man in the boat to show himself and drown.
Wilson had the seat back all the way. Still, even with that, his knees were high, straddling the wheel. He switched lanes, cutting the wheel quick to avoid hitting the dumb-ass in front of him who was making a sudden left without using the turn signal God gave him. As he swerved, the little tree deodorizer he had hung on the rearview swung back and forth.
He had recently had the steering wheel covered in fur, but the Arab he’d given the job to up at the detail shop, he’d fucked it all up. Put some cheap shit on there, so that the hairs were always coming off in his hands and flyin’ around the car. Someone didn’t know better, they’d think he owned a cat, some bullshit like that. Teach him to give his business to an Iraqi. And he should’ve known not to trust a man had a girl’s name: Leslie.
Wilson’s given name was Fred. Frederick, Freddie, he didn’t like it any way you put it, what with the kids always callin’ him Fred Flintstone and shit when he was a kid. Till he got the reputation, he would fuck them up good they said it again. Worldwide, that was more like it. He’d given himself that name after he returned from Germany, where he’d served in the army back in the late seventies. He’d put together his first little stable over there. Light-skinned girl with Asian eyes, and couple of blond bitches, too. German girls could lay a stamp on a black man, didn’t even think twice about his color. Another thing he liked about being overseas.
Wilson punched numbers into the grid of the inverted phone he’d installed in the Mercedes. He liked the way the numbers lit the cabin up green at night. This was one pretty car, real classy, not a ride with too much flash, like those wanna-be pimps, just comin’ up, were driving around. The fur steering wheel, that was the only thing he’d added. Oh, yeah, there was a working television and VCR in the backseat, and those stainless steel DNA exhaust pipes he’d recently put on. And the phone. And the Y2K custom wheels he had on this motherfucker. Those rims set the whole joint off right.
Wilson got through on the line and lifted the phone out of its cradle.
“What’s goin’ on, baby?”
“I’m comin’ in.”
Wilson turned off 14th. He went slowly down the block, checking out the action. Wasn’t much. He passed a shitty old van and a couple other hoopties parked on the street, and went around a double-parked Chevy Lumina, where one of his women stood leaning in the driver’s window. That particular girl, she talked too much, and when she did talk she had nothin’ to say. One of those special-ed bitches, wore his shit out. Time he got that mouth of hers straightened around.
He pulled up in front of his row house, where Carola, another of his girls, his best producer but getting to be on the old side, stood. Wilson hit a button and let the window drop. Carola came over and leaned on the door.
“Where Jennifer at?”
“Schoolgirl’s inside. Trickin’ some old Al Roker-lookin’ sucker.”
“I don’t know. Some white boy just went in. I axed him for a date, but he said he already had a girl. Thing is, I didn’t see him follow no one in.”
“Didn’t look to be.”
“He wasn’t wearin’ no sign if he is.”
“Okay. Why you standin’ around, though?”
“Told you there wasn’t nothin’ goin’ on.”
“Well, get out there and make somethin’ go on. Get on back to the tracks and get a date.”
“I’m tired, too. Tired of you talkin’ about bein’ tired and not earnin’ shit. Now go on out there and market that pussy, girl.”
“My feet hurt, World.”
“C’mere.” Carola leaned forward to let Wilson stroke her cheek. “You my bottom baby. You know this, right?”
“I know it, World.”
Wilson’s eyes dimmed. “Then don’t make me get out this car and take a hand to your motherfuckin’ ass.”
Carola stood straight and backed up a step. “I’m goin’.”
“Good, baby.” Wilson smiled, showing a row of gold caps. “I’ll give you a foot massage later on, hear?”
But Carola was already off, walking down the block, Wilson thinking, Glad I got me that degree in pimpology. All you had to do was use a little psychiatry on these bitches, worked every time.
He cut the engine on the Mercedes and untangled his frame from the car. Big man like he was, it was a struggle to get out of these foreign rides. But his time in Berlin had given him a permanent love for German automobiles, and, though they were more roomy, he never had liked the way Cadillacs and Lincolns drove.
He stood beside his car, smoothed out the leather on his coat, and adjusted his hat. Before he closed the door of the Mercedes, he put one foot up on the rocker panel, then the other, and buffed the vamps of his alligator shoes with the palm of his hand. What was the point of spending five hundred dollars on a pair of gators if they didn’t have a nice shine? He closed the door and stood straight.
Now he’d have to see what Carola was talkin’ about. See what some white boy was doin’ wandering around in his house without a woman he’d paid to fuck.
“OH, shit,” said Stella, leaning forward, blinking hard behind her glasses. “There go World.”
“That’s his ride right there, the blue Mercedes. He’s talkin’ to Carola, up in the window there.”
Sue Tracy watched the girl step away from the tricked-out car and walk off down the block. Then she watched Worldwide Wilson get out of his car. He wore a full-length leather coat with tooled-out skin, and a hat with a matching tooled band. Wilson stood tall, a good six three, his shoulders filling out the soft cut of the coat. He had the walk of a big cat.
Tracy keyed the mic on the radio in her hand. There was no response.
Wilson walked up the row house steps. He pulled on the front door and moved fluidly through the space. The door closed behind him, and he disappeared into the house.
She tried the radio again and tossed it on the seat beside her.
“What?” said Stella.
Tracy didn’t answer. She ignitioned the van and slammed the tree up into first. She drove to the corner and cut a hard left.
QUINN’S hand came off the shaky wooden banister as he stepped up onto the second-floor landing. The banister continued down a straight, narrow hall. The doors to the rooms, all closed and topped with frosted-glass transoms, were situated opposite the banister. Television cable ran from one room to the other in the hall, going transom to transom. Quinn heard no activity on the second floor. He took the hall to the next set of stairs.
Sounds from above grew louder as he ascended the stairs. It was the sound of furniture moving on a hard floor. Talk from a radio and the human bass of a man’s voice and the unformed voice of a young girl.
Up on the landing, Quinn checked the sash window at the back of the house. It was open a crack, and he lifted it further and looked down through the mesh of the fire escape to the alley below. The alley was unlit, unblocked, and looked to be passable by car.
Quinn went to the first door, marked 3C in tacked-on letters broken off in spots. From behind the door came the talk radio and the man-girl sounds and the sound of bedsprings. The knob in his hand turned freely, and Quinn pushed on the door and walked inside.
A fat middle-aged black guy was on top of Jennifer Marshall on the bed. His fat ass and his fat sides jiggled as he pumped at her, and Quinn was on him just as he turned his head. He pulled him back by the shoulders and then pushed him roughly against the wall that abutted the bed. The man’s head, bald on top and patched with black sides, made a hollow sound as it hit the wall.
Quinn speed-scanned the room: high ceilings and chipped plaster walls. A bed and a nightstand that held a lamp and a radio, with a bathroom coming off the room. Clothing lay in a pile beside the bed.
Jennifer had removed her skirt and panties only. She sat up against the headboard, her legs still spread. Her sex was pink and sparsely tufted with reddish brown hair. Quinn looked away.
“Get your clothes on,” said Quinn to the man, “and get your ass out of here, now.”
The man, naked except for a pair of brown socks, didn’t move. His face was still, and his swollen penis, sheathed in a condom, was frozen in place.
“I told you to get going.”
“What the fuck’s goin’ on?” said Jennifer.
Quinn picked up Jennifer’s skirt and panties and tossed them before her on the bed. “Put ’em on.” And to the man he said, “Move.”
The man began to dress. Jennifer slipped on her panties and got off the bed, her skirt in her hands. She was thin of wrist, with skinny legs. Up close the heavy makeup could not conceal her age. She looked like a child who had gotten into her mother’s things.
“Hurry up,” said Quinn.
“Who are you?” said Jennifer.
“I’m an investigator,” said Quinn. “D.C.”
The door opened. Worldwide Wilson stepped into the room.
“An investigator, huh?” Wilson’s gold-capped smile spread wide. “You won’t mind then, motherfucker, if I have a look at your badge.”
SUE Tracy pulled the van alongside the back of the building. Eyes glowed beneath a Dumpster, frozen in the fan of the headlights. As Tracy cut the engine and the headlights the alley went black. She let herself adjust to the sudden change of light. Lines of architecture began to take shape. A rat, then another, scampered across the alley in front of the van.
Residual light bled out from the curtained windows of a sleeper porch on the second floor and a window topping the fire escape on the third.
“That’s it, right?”
Stella managed to get her head close to Tracy’s window and look up. “I guess it is.”
Tracy took a wad of cash from her briefcase and stuffed it into the pocket of her slacks. “Wait here.”
“You’re not gonna leave me, are you?”
“I’ll be right back,” said Tracy.
“Don’t leave me here in the dark,” said Stella.
“You jet, you don’t get your money. Just remember that.”
Tracy stepped out of the van and carefully pushed on the driver’s-side door. It closed with a soft click.
WILSON reached behind him, not turning his head, and closed the bedroom door. It barely made it to the frame. The man on the bed averted his eyes. He struggled from the sitting position to put on his pants. Some change slipped from the trouser pockets and dropped to the sheets. Quinn kept his posture straight and his eyes on Wilson’s.
“I didn’t do nothin’, World,” said Jennifer.
Wilson took a few steps into the room, one hand in his leather, stopping several feet shy of Quinn. He looked down on Quinn and he looked him over and smiled.
“So what you doin’ in here, man?”
Quinn didn’t answer.
“You ain’t datin’,” said Wilson, his voice smooth and baritone.
Quinn said nothing.
“What’sa matter, white boy? Ain’t you got no tongue?”
“I came for the girl,” said Quinn.
“You must be…” Wilson snapped the fingers of his free hand. “Terry Quinn. Am I right?”
Quinn nodded slowly.
The room was suddenly small. There was no window, and Quinn knew he’d never make it to the door. Wilson was a big man, but his fluid movement suggested he would be unencumbered by his size. The only way to bring him down, Quinn reasoned, was to hit him low and wrap him up. It was what he always told the kids. Quinn edged one foot forward and put some weight on that leg’s knee.
“Now you gettin’ ready to rush me, little man? That’s what you fixin’ to do?”
Wilson produced a switchblade knife from his coat pocket. Four inches of stainless blade flicked open, the pearl handle resting loosely in Wilson’s hand.
“Picked this up over in Italy,” said Wilson. “They make the prettiest sticks.”
The man on the bed clumsily drew on his shirt. Jennifer began to step into her skirt.
Wilson’s eyes flared. “You scared, Terry?”
Again, Quinn did not reply.
“Terry. That’s a girl’s name, ain’t it?” Wilson laughed and stepped forward. “Don’t matter much to me, Terry. I need to, I cut a bitch up just as good as a man.”
The door was kicked open. Sue Tracy kicked it again on the backswing as she walked into the room. One arm was extended and holding a snub-nosed.38 Special. The other hand held her license case, flapped open.
“Fuck is that toy shit?” said Wilson.
“I’m an investigator,” said Tracy.
“Aw,” said Wilson, “now y’all are gonna play like you police, huh?”
“Shut up,” said Tracy, the muzzle of the revolver pointed at Wilson’s face. “Drop that knife.”
Even as the words were coming from her mouth, Wilson was tossing the knife to the floor. He was still smiling, though, his eyes lit with amusement, going from Tracy back to Quinn.
“Get outta here,” said Tracy to the fat man. She had a surge of adrenaline then, and she shouted, “Get the fuck back to your wife and kids!”
The man picked what was left of his clothing up off the floor and quickly left the room.
Wilson chuckled. “Damn, baby. You are like… you are like a man, you know it?” He head-motioned in the direction of Quinn. “You got a lot more man to you than this itty-bitty motherfucker right here, I can tell you that.”
Tracy saw Quinn’s face flush. “Terry, get her out of here. I’m right behind you, hear?”
Quinn stood frozen for a moment, his eyes dry and hot.
“Take her!” said Tracy, still holding the gun on Wilson.
“Cavalry gonna hold the Indians back while the women and children leave the fort,” said Wilson.
Jennifer Marshall finished fastening her skirt. Quinn reached over and took her firmly by the elbow. She was shaking beneath his touch.
“I didn’t do nothin’, World.”
Wilson didn’t even look at the girl. He was smiling at Quinn, who was moving Jennifer out of the room, going around Tracy, careful not to impede the sight line of her gun.
“Next time, Theresa,” said Wilson.
Tracy heard their footsteps out in the hall. She heard them going out the open window. The sound of their bodies knocking the window frame faded. She kept her gun arm straight.
“You got a name, too?” said Wilson.
Tracy waited. She could hear them on the fire escape and soon that sound faded, too. Then there was the man talking from the radio and Wilson’s stare and smile.
Wilson studied her shape. “Look here, I didn’t mean nothin’, callin’ you a man like I did. Blind man can see you’re all woman. I mean, you got some fine titties on you, baby. Can tell by the up-curve, even through that shirt. I bet they stand up real nice when you unfasten that brassiere. Do me a favor, turn around and let me get a look at that pretty ass.”
Tracy felt a drop of sweat slide down her forehead. It snaked off her brow and stung at her eyes.
“You got a nice pussy, too?”
Tracy snicked back the hammer on the.38.
“Go on, now,” Wilson said softly. “I ain’t gonna follow you or nothin’ like that. I don’t care to hurt a woman ’less she makes me. You ain’t gonna make me, are you, darlin’?”
She backed out of the room. She backed down the hall and backed through the open window. She quickly looked down at the idling van in the alley as she got onto the fire escape, but she kept her eyes on the third floor and her gun pointed at the window all the way as she backed herself down the iron stairs.
QUINN drove out of the city, keeping to the speed limit and stopping for yellow lights. He had thanked Tracy when she got in the van, but they had barely spoken since. She knew that he was grateful for what she’d done. She also knew what kind of man Quinn was, and that he had been shamed.
Jennifer and Stella argued loudly, sitting beside each other on the back bench, for most of the way out of D.C. But as they crossed the line their voices grew quieter, and their conversation softened further still as Quinn took the ramp onto the Beltway. By the time Quinn was on 270 North, he looked in the rearview mirror and watched them embrace. For the first time since the row house snatch, Quinn loosened his grip on the wheel.
Tracy lit a cigarette and dropped the match out the window. “You all right?”
“Can I have my radio back?”
Quinn took it from his jacket and handed it over. “This thing works for shit, y’know it?”
“Next time turn it on.” Tracy moved her hand to the tray and tapped ash off her cigarette. “You don’t have a problem with what happened back there, do you?”
“No problem,” lied Quinn. “I’d be a class-A jerk if I did. I mean, you saved my ass.”
Tracy grinned. “And the rest of you, too.”
“That was pretty smooth, you bustin’ in like that. And you didn’t even tell me you were carrying a gun.”
“My father gave it to me a long time ago. He bought it hot downtown. It’s an old MPD sidearm, before they went to the Glocks.”
“It’s, uh, illegal to have one of those in the District. You know it?”
“Yeah, you could get in a world of trouble, you get caught with it on your person. You could lose your license.”
“It’s better than the alternative.”
“Just letting you know, is all.”
“I wouldn’t walk into a situation like that without it.”
“You tellin’ me you don’t own one?”
“I do own one. I’m just surprised that you do, that’s all.”
“I wanted to kill him, Terry. I mean, I was close. It scared me a little, back there. Even more than he did, you know? You ever get a feeling like that?”
“All the time,” said Quinn.
In fact, Quinn was visualizing the room in the row house and Worldwide Wilson now.
“Anyway,” said Tracy, “nice work. You found her quick. Even the hero stuff you pulled back there. Good, solid work.”
“Hero? Christ, what about you?”
Tracy smiled crookedly. “What?”
Quinn looked her over. “Bad-ass.”
Tracy pointed to the detention center across the highway that had become visible on their left. Quinn put the van into the right lane and took the next exit.
He parked in the lot of Seven Locks station. In the backseat, the two girls talked quietly. Stella was reaching into her football-sized handbag, pulling out a Walkman and then several CDs.
“I’m gonna be a while,” said Tracy. “I don’t have to, but I think I ought to wait for her mother and father to get here while the cops process the paperwork. I like to talk to the parents when I can.”
“No problem. You still want to grab a beer?”
“Bars’ll be closed by the time we’re done here. Thought I’d go snag a six while you’re inside.”
“Make it a twelve-pack.”
“I’ll be out here waiting,” said Quinn.
Jennifer climbed out of the back of the van. Tracy tossed her pack of cigarettes back to Stella. Jennifer did not speak to Quinn as she passed by his window and went with Tracy up the sidewalk to the station. Tracy kept her hand on Jennifer’s elbow all the way.
“Think we can find a beer store out here in Potomac?”
“I want one,” said Stella.
“Forget it,” said Quinn.
It took a while to locate a deli. When they returned to the lot Quinn cracked open a can of beer and took a long swig. Stella sat beside him and smoked one of Tracy’s cigarettes. She had Quinn half turn the ignition key so that she could get some power to the van, and she pushed the Mazzy Star tape back into the deck.
“This is old,” she said, “but it still sounds pretty cool.”
“Yeah, it’s nice.”
“Bet it’s your partner’s tape.”
“That’s right.” Quinn closed his eyes as he drank off some of his beer. It was cold and good.
“You’re more like the Springsteen type.”
“Uh-huh.” He looked at the brick building lit by spots, remembering back to that time in high school when he’d spent a night out here in one of the cells. A D &D charge at a house party that had gone on way too long. He’d beaten up the host’s father. Quinn wondered if the kid ever got over seeing his father on the ground, getting punched out by a seventeen-year-old boy. And all because the old man had looked at Quinn the wrong way and smiled.
“Hey, you listenin’?”
“My father likes Springsteen. The old Springsteen, he says, which means, like, the stuff that’s one hundred years old. Not that I’m comparing you to my father. You’re younger than him, for one.” Stella dragged on her cigarette. “My father was ‘weak and ineffectual.’ That’s what the shrink my parents took me to said. This shrink, he wasn’t supposed to say stuff like that to me, I know. But I was suckin’ his little dick right there in his office, so he said all kinds of stuff.”
“I don’t want to hear about it,” said Quinn.
“He said that I ‘gravitated toward strong men’ ’cause my father was weak. What do you think of that?”
“It’s why I hooked up with World, I guess. Couldn’t find a much stronger man than him. He turned me out quick, too.” Stella double-dragged on her smoke and pitched it out the window. “But I couldn’t produce for him. Nobody wanted to pay for this stuff, not that I blame them. I’m not much of a woman, am I, Terry? Do you think I am?”
“You’re fine,” said Quinn.
“Yeah, I’m a beauty, all right. Anyway, that’s how I got into the recruitment biz for World.”
“I do like strong men, Terry. The shrink was right about that.”
She slid over on the seat so that she was close to him. Quinn could feel her warm breath on his face.
“That’s not a good idea,” he said.
“Don’t worry, green eyes, I’m not gonna hurt you. I was just lookin’ for a little love. A hug, is all.” She moved back against the passenger-side door, her face colored by the vapor lights of the lot. Quinn could see that her eyes had teared up behind the lenses of her glasses.
“I’m sorry, Stella.”
“Ain’t no big thing,” she said, a catch in her voice. She turned her face away from him and stared out the window.
They sat awhile longer, watching the uniformed cops moving in and out of the station. A minivan pulled into the lot. A man and a woman got out of it and hurried inside. Stella laughed joylessly, watching them.
“I love happy endings,” said Stella. The hard shell had returned to her face.
“You don’t have to go back to working for Wilson. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I know. Damn right, I am somebody, and all that.”
“I’m serious. And we both know it’s not safe. One of these days he’s gonna find out you been playin’ him for the middle.”
“You didn’t give me up to him back there, did you? You didn’t say my name or nothin’ like that.”
“Course not. There wasn’t nothin’ in it for you.”
“That’s not the only reason people do or don’t do what they do,” said Quinn.
“Yeah, okay, whatever.” Stella lit another cigarette. “Just so I get paid.”
A half hour later Tracy emerged from the station. Stella climbed into the back and Tracy took the shotgun seat.
“Everything go okay?” said Quinn.
“The parents have her,” said Tracy. “They’re taking her home. I can’t tell you if it’s going to stick.”
She drank a beer and Quinn drank another as they drove back into D.C. Quinn parked the van on 23rd, alongside the church.
Tracy gave Stella five hundred-dollar bills, along with her card.
“It was a pleasure doin’ business with y’all,” said Stella. “You want your smokes back?”
“Keep ’em,” said Tracy. “I got another pack. And, Stella, you need to talk, anything like that-”
“I know, I know, I got your number right here.”
“Stay low for a few days,” said Quinn.
Stella leaned forward from the backseat and kissed Quinn behind the ear. Then she was out of the van’s back door and walking across the church grounds. They watched her move through the inky shadows.
“Where do you suppose she’s going?” said Quinn.
“Don’t think about it.”
“I shouldn’t even care, right? I mean, she’s steering girls over to Wilson so he can turn them out.”
“Stella’s a victim, too. Try to think of it like that. And remember, we got Jennifer off the street.”
“So how come I feel like we didn’t accomplish shit?”
“You can’t save them all in one night,” said Tracy. “C’mon, let’s go.”
Quinn looked back to the church grounds. Stella was gone, swallowed up by the night. Quinn put the van in gear, rolled to the corner, hooked a left, and headed uptown.
SUE Tracy invited herself into Quinn’s apartment. He was relieved that she took the initiative but not surprised. He snapped on a lamp in the living room, gathering up newspapers and socks as he moved about the place, and told her to have a seat.
Quinn went into the kitchen to put the beer in the refrigerator, opened two, and brought them back out to the living room along with an ashtray. Tracy was on her cell, talking to her partner, telling her what had gone down. Karen, it went fine, and Karen this and Karen that. He heard Tracy say where she was, then listen to something her partner said. Tracy laughed, saying something Quinn couldn’t make out, before she ended the call.
Tracy lit a smoke and tossed a match in the ashtray. “Thanks. You don’t mind if I smoke in here, do you?”
“Nah, it’s fine.”
Quinn was by his modest CD collection, trying to figure out what to put on the carousel. It struck him, looking to find something that would be appropriate, that most of the music he owned was on the aggressive side. He hadn’t really noticed it before. He settled on a Shane MacGowan solo record, the one with “Haunted” on it, his duet with Sinéad. Good drinking music, and sexy, too, like a scar on the lip of a nice-looking girl.
Quinn had a seat on the couch next to Tracy. She had taken off her Skechers and tucked her feet under her thighs.
“To good work,” she said, and tapped her green can against his. They drank off some of their beer.
“What were you laughing about on the phone there. Me?”
“Well, yeah. Karen bet me I was gonna spend the night here. I took the bet.”
“I told her I’d pay up the next time I saw her.”
Tracy stamped out her smoke and pulled the Scunci off her ponytail. She shook her head and let her hair fall naturally past her shoulders. Some strays fell across her face.
“Do I have anything to say about it?” said Quinn.
“Both times we’ve been together, you’ve been staring at me like you were from hunger. And Terry, I’m not as obvious as you are, but I’ve been looking at you the same way.”
“Christ, you got some balls on you.”
“It’s not like I make a habit of this.” She unfolded her legs and swung them down to the hardwood floor. “But, you know, when it’s so obvious like it is right here, I mean, why dance around it?”
“You talked me into it.”
Tracy leaned into Quinn. He brushed hair away from her face and she kissed him on the mouth. Their tongues touched and he bit softly on her lower lip as she pulled away.
“Let’s have another beer,” said Tracy. “Relax a little, talk. Listen to some music. Okay?”
“You’re in charge.”
“No, it’s cool.” Quinn breathed out slow. “Relax. That sounds nice.”
They drank their beers and Quinn went off for two more. Tracy was lighting a cigarette when he returned. He sat close to her on the couch. Quinn had downed three beers and was working on his fourth. His buzz was on, but he was still amped from the grab.
“Thought you were gonna relax.”
“You got your fist balled up there.”
“So I do.”
“Forget about what happened tonight with Wilson, Terry. He pushed my buttons, too. But he’s history and we got the job done. That’s the only thing that matters now, right?”
Quinn nodded. He was thinking about Wilson. Sitting here drinking a cold beer with a fine-looking woman he liked, ready to go to bed with her, and not able to stop thinking of the man who had punked him out.
“What makes you think I had Wilson on my mind?”
“I asked around about you, talked to a couple of guys Karen knew in the MPD.”
“Yeah? What’d they say?”
“Well, everyone’s got a different opinion on what happened the night you shot that cop.”
“That black cop, you mean. Why didn’t you just ask Derek? He did his own independent investigation into the whole deal.”
“That how you two hooked up?”
“The department said you were right on the shooting.”
“It’s more complicated than that. You know what I’m sayin’; you were a cop yourself. But a whole lot of cops I come across, they’re not too willing to forget about it. Some guys still think that shooting was a race thing. By extension, that I’m some kind of racist.”
“Sue, I’m not gonna sit here and tell you that I have no prejudice. For a white guy to say he sees a black man and doesn’t make some kind of assumptions, it’s bullshit, and it’s a lie. And the same thing goes in reverse. Let’s just say I’m no more a racist than any other man, okay? And let’s leave it at that.”
“You know, even the ones who had that opinion of you, they also admitted that you were well-liked, and a good cop. You did have a reputation for violence, though. Not bully violence, exactly. More like, if anyone pushed you, you weren’t willing to let it lie.”
Quinn drank deeply of his beer and stared at the can. “You always background check the guys you’re interested in?”
“I haven’t been interested in anyone in a long time.” Tracy took a drag off her smoke and ashed the tray. “Now you. Ask me anything you want.”
“Okay. First day I met you, I had the impression you had some daddy issues.”
“You’re wrong,” said Tracy, shaking her head. “Not like you mean. I loved my father and he loved me. I never felt I had to prove anything to him. He was always proud of me. I know ’cause he told me. He even told me the last time I saw him, in his bed at the hospice.”
“Was he a cop?”
“No. He did come from a family of them, but it wasn’t something he wanted for himself. He was a career barman at the Mayflower Hotel, downtown.”
“They’re all, like, Asian guys behind the bar down there.”
“That’s now. Frank Tracy was all Irish. Irish Catholic. Just like you, Quinn.”
“Not quite. The Tracy part of me is. My mother was Scandinavian, where I got the name Susan and my blond hair.”
“You’re a natural blonde?”
“Don’t be rude.”
“I was just wondering.”
Tracy smiled. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
“You are something,” said Quinn.
They undressed each other back in his room, standing face to face before the bed. She helped him off with his T-shirt and then slipped out of her slacks, leaving on her black lace panties. They were cut high, and her thigh muscles were ripped up to the fabric. He unbuttoned her shirt and peeled it back off her strong shoulders. She wore a black brassiere that fastened in the front. He unfastened it and let it drop to the floor. He pinched one of her pink nipples and flicked his tongue around it.
“These are nice,” said Quinn.
“I’ve been told.”
He swallowed. “I mean it, baby.”
“They hold my bra up,” said Tracy.
Quinn chuckled and kissed her lips. He got down to his knees and drew her panties down and kissed her sex. He blew on her pubis and kissed her there and split her with his tongue. Her fingers dug into his shoulder until it hurt. He sucked her flesh into his mouth and tasted her silk and she came standing there.
They moved to the bed and fucked on the edge of it, Quinn on top. His orgasm was like a punch in the heart. They talked for a while and took a shower and fucked again. Quinn lay beside Tracy and they looked at each other for a long time without speaking. He watched her eyelids slowly drop. In sleep she had a small smile.
Quinn got out of bed and walked to the window. It was late, nearly four. The street was still. A cop car from the station up the street blew down Sligo Avenue and was gone. He wondered if the guy was on a call, or if he was just driving fast, looking for the next piece of action. He wondered if he was that kind of cop, the kind Quinn had been.
It had happened fast with Tracy. He knew it would when he’d met her the first time, in the coffee shop. It had been simple, as simple as her uttering those few words. Irish Catholic. Just like you, Quinn. Nothing much needed to be said between them after that, as all was understood. There was her father, as much a part of her as the blood in her veins, and now him, equally familiar. He wondered, as he often did, if it wasn’t more natural for people to stick with their own kind. Well, anyway, it was easier. Of this he was sure.
Tracy had been a cop, too, just like him. With her, he didn’t have to pretend that he didn’t care about the action, that he didn’t crave it all the time. There wouldn’t be any of that bullshit fronting, the mask he’d felt he had to wear when he was with other women. In that way, they were good for each other. She took him for who he was.
Quinn stood there looking out the window to the darkened street, picturing Wilson in that trick-house, seeing that gold-capped smile and hearing his smooth baritone and trying to forget. Trying to figure out where he was headed with this problem of his. Trying to figure out, himself, who he was. Who he was and where it would take him in the end.
ON Saturday morning the team gathered at Roosevelt High School for a roster check. Strange and Blue wanted to be sure the kids were outfitted with the proper pads and mouthpieces, so that there would be no surprises before game time or injuries on the field of play. When they were done checking on those details, the kids got into the cars of the coaches and the usual group of parents and guardians and drove across town and over the river to the state of Virginia, where the Petworth Panthers’ first game was to be played.
Their destination was a huge park and sports complex in Springfield that held tennis and basketball courts, picnic areas, and several soccer and football fields. A creek ran through the woods bordering the property. Complexes like this one were typical and numerous in the suburbs, especially farther out, where there was land and money. The kids from the Panthers had rarely seen playing fields as carefully tended as these, or sports parks situated in such lush surroundings.
“Dag, boy,” said Joe Wilder, his eyes wide, “this joint is tight; check out those lights they got!”
“Look at thoth uniforms,” said Prince, pointing to a team warming up on a perfect green field, with big blue star decals on their helmets. “They look just like the Cowboys!”
The kids were on a path between the road and the field, alongside a split-rail fence. Strange, Blue, Lionel Baker, Lamar Williams, Dennis Arrington, and Quinn were walking among them. Rico, the cocky running back, was telling the quarterback, Dante Morris, what he was going to do to the opposing team’s line, and Morris was nodding, not really listening to Rico but keeping quietly to himself. Later, just before the first whistle, Morris would say a silent prayer.
There were several teams on and around the two main fields. Many had their own cheerleading squads and booster clubs. A game was ending on one of the fields. As the Panthers went through an open chain-link gate, they passed a group of boys in clean red-and-white uniforms, decked out in high-tech equipment, their gleaming helmets held at their sides.
“Y’all the Cardinals?” said Joe Wilder.
“Yeah,” said one of the boys, mousse in his studiously disheveled hair, looking down on Wilder and looking him over.
“We’re playin’ y’all,” said Wilder.
“In those uniforms?” said the kid, and the Cardinal next to him, pug nosed and with an expensive haircut like his friend, laughed.
“What, did you find those in the trash or somethin’?” said pug nose.
Wilder looked over at Dante Morris, who shook his head, Wilder taking it to mean, correctly, that Morris was telling him to keep his mouth shut. Rico took a step toward the two Cardinals, but Morris pulled on his sleeve and held him back.
Strange, who had heard the exchange and seen this kind of thing before, said, “C’mon, boys, you follow me.”
The Cardinals were a team of white kids and the Panthers were all black. But it wasn’t a white-black thing. It was a money-no money thing, a way for those who had it to show superiority over those who did not. Plain old insecurity, as old as time itself.
Blue checked in the team rosters to a guy in a Redskins cap whom he knew to be the point man for the league, then met Arrington, Lionel, and the Midgets for their pregame warm-ups. Strange and Quinn led the Pee Wees under the shade of a stand of oaks beside the main stadium and had them form a circle. Strange told Joe Wilder and Dante Morris, the designated captains, to lead the team in calisthenics. Lamar Williams stood by and made sure that they kept the circle tight.
“How y’all feel?”
“How y’all feel?”
Strange watched the Cardinals warming up down on the edge of the field. He watched their coach, a fat white man in Bike shorts, yelling out the calisthenics count to his team. Strange remembered this guy from a scrimmage late in the summer, a heart attack waiting to happen, and how he coached his kids to be intimidating and mean.
“You hear what went down back there?” said Quinn.
“I heard it,” said Strange.
“I hope we beat the shit out of these guys, Derek, I swear to God.”
There was only so much money in the program. The kids had to come up with fifty dollars to play for the squad, and some of them hadn’t even been able to raise that. Dennis Arrington, who was flush from his job in the computer industry, had donated a couple of thousand dollars to the team. Strange, Blue, and Quinn had come up with a grand between them. It bought good pads and replacement helmets and mouthguards, but it didn’t buy new jerseys and pants. The Panthers’ green uniforms were faded, mismatched, and frayed. The number decals on their scarred helmets rarely matched the numbers on their jerseys.
“It’s not the attitude we’re trying to convey to the boys,” said Quinn, “but I can’t help feeling that way, even though I know it’s wrong.”
“It ain’t wrong,” said Strange. “But we got what we got. Game time comes, it’s not the uniforms gonna decide the contest. It’s the heart in these kids gonna tell the tale.”
Strange called them in. They gathered around him and Quinn. Quinn talked about defense and making the big plays. Strange gave them instructions on the general offensive game plan and a few words of inspiration.
“Protect your brother,” said Strange when he was done, trying to meet eyes with most of the boys kneeling before him. “Protect your brother.”
The boys formed a tight group and put their hands in the center.
“Petworth Panthers!” they shouted, and ran down to the field.
Both teams were rusty at the start of the opening quarter. Morris fumbled an errant Prince snap in the first set of downs but fell on the ball and recovered. They went three-and-out and punted. On first down the Cardinal halfback was taken down behind the line of scrimmage, and on second down he was stripped of the ball. A Panther named Noah picked up the ball off its bounce and ran ten yards before he was dropped. It was the gasoline on the fire the Panthers needed, a wake-up call that would carry them the rest of the game.
The offensive line began to make their blocks and open the holes. Rico hit those holes, and the chains began to move as the team marched down the field. The Cardinals’ coach called a time-out and yelled at his defensive line. Strange could see the veins on the man’s neck standing out from across the field.
“No heart,” said Strange.
“Their hearts are pumpin’ Kool-Aid,” said Blue.
The line tightened its play and stopped a thirty-five-run call on the next play. Strange had Joe Wilder run in the next play to Morris, a triple-right. Morris lobbed a pass in the direction of the three receivers – halfback, end, and flanker – who had lined up on the right and gone out to the flats. Rico caught it and took it in, freed by a Joe Wilder block on the Cardinals’ corner.
Strange stuck with the running game but took it to the outside. The Cardinals’ left side was weak and seemed to be growing weaker the more the coach screamed at his players. At flanker, Wilder was taking out the defensive man assigned to him, pushing him inside, allowing Rico to turn the corner and just blow and go.
By halftime, the Cardinals were totally demoralized and the Panthers were firing on all cylinders. Barring an act of God, the game was theirs, Strange knew.
The second half went the same way. Strange played the bench and rested his first-stringers. The Cardinals managed a score against the Panthers’ scrubs, causing an anemic eruption from the cheerleaders on the other side of the field. But the drive was just a spark, and even their coach, who threw his hat down in disgust when his team turned the ball over on their next possession, knew they were done. The Panthers moved the ball into Cardinal territory easily and were threatening again with a minute left to play.
Strange brought Joe Wilder out of the game and rested his hand on his shoulder. “Next play, I want you to tell Dante to down the ball. Just let the clock run out, hear?”
“Let me take it in, Coach,” said Wilder. He was smiling at Strange, his eyes eager and bright. “Forty-four Belly, that’s my play.”
“We won, Joe. We don’t need to be rubbin’ it in their faces.”
“C’mon, Coach Derek. I ain’t touched the ball all day. I know I can run it in!”
Strange squeezed Wilder’s shoulder. “I know you can, too, son. You got real fire in you, Joe. But we don’t do like that out here. Those boys been beat good today. I don’t like to put the boot to someone’s face when they’re down, and I don’t want you doin’ it either. That’s not the kind of man I want you to be.”
“Okay, then,” said Wilder, the disappointment plain on his face.
“Go on, boy. Run the play in to Dante like I told you.”
The game ended the way Strange had instructed. At the whistle, the players gathered on the sideline. Wilder got a hug from Quinn and a slap on the helmet from Strange.
“Line up,” said Strange. “Now, when you go to shake their hands, I don’t want to hear a thing except ‘Good game.’ No trash-talking, you understand? You said all you needed to on the field. After what you did out there, don’t shame yourselves now, hear?”
The Panthers met the Cardinals in the center of the field, touched hands as they went down the line. The Panthers said ‘Good game’ to each player they passed, and the Cardinals mumbled the same words in reply. Dante Morris stared into the eyes of the pug-nosed boy who had cracked on their uniforms, but Morris didn’t say a word, and the boy quickly looked away. At the end of the line the Cardinals’ coach shook Strange’s hand and congratulated him through teeth nearly clenched.
“All right,” said Quinn, as the team returned and took a knee before him. “I liked the way you guys played today. A lot of heart. Just remember, it’s not always going to be this easy. We’re going to be playing teams who have better athletes and are better coached. And you need to be ready. Ready in your minds, which means you keep your heads in the books during the day. And ready physically as well. That means we’re going to continue to practice as hard as we ever have. We want the championship this year, right?”
“I didn’t hear you.”
“What time is practice Monday night?” said Strange.
“Six o’clock on the dot, be there, don’t miss it!”
“I’m proud of you boys,” said Strange.
LATER that afternoon, Quinn sat behind the counter of Silver Spring Books reading The Pistoleer, a novel by James Carlos Blake. His coworker, Lewis, was back in the military history room, straightening the shelves. A homeless intellectual whom everyone in the area called Moonman was sitting on the floor in the sci-fi room, reading a paperback edition of K. W. Jeter’s The Glass Hammer. A customer browsed the mystery stacks nearby.
Quinn had put Johnny Winter And on the turntable, and the molten blues-metal classic was playing at a low volume throughout the store. Syreeta, the owner of the business, who was rarely on site, had instructed the employees to play the used vinyl in stock to advertise the merchandise. This disc, with its faded black-and-white cover portraits, had recently been inventoried as part of a large purchase, a carton of seventies albums.
Quinn cherished these quiet afternoons in the shop.
The mystery customer, a thin man in his early forties, brought a paperback to the register and placed it on the glass counter. It was Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man No. 89, one of the mass-market publications Avon had done with the cool cover art depicting a montage of the book’s elements; this one displayed a snub-nosed.38, spilled-out shells, and an overturned shot glass.
“You ever read his westerns?” said Quinn. “They’re the best, in my opinion.”
“I go for the crime stuff set in Detroit. There’s a lot of different Leonard camps and they’ve all got opinions.” The customer nodded to one of the speakers mounted up on the wall. “Haven’t heard this for a while.”
“It just came in. The vinyl’s in good shape, if you want it.”
“I own it, but I haven’t pulled it out of the shelf for a long time. That’s Rick Derringer on second lead.”
“Yeah, you’re too young. Him and Johnny, the two of them were just on fire on this session. One of those lightning-in-a-bottle things. Listen to ‘Prodigal Son,’ the cut leads off side two.”
“I will.” Quinn gave the man his change and a receipt. “Thanks a lot. And take it easy, hear?”
Quinn figured this guy had a wife, kids, a good job. You’d pass him on the street and think he was your average square. But one thing you learned working here was that just about everyone had something worthwhile to say if you took the time to listen. Everyone was more interesting when you got to know them a little than they initially appeared to be. That was the other thing he liked about working in a place like this. The conversations you got into and the people you met. Of course, he had met plenty of people on a daily basis in his former profession. But it almost always started from an adversarial place when you met them as a cop.
Quinn read some more of his novel. A little while later, Quinn watched Sue Tracy cross Bonifant Street on foot. She was wearing her post-punk utilitarian gear and had a day pack slung over her shoulder. Quinn’s heart actually skipped, watching her walk. He was imagining her naked atop his sheets.
The small bell over the door rang as she walked in. Quinn let his feet drop off the counter, but he didn’t get up out of his seat.
“New in town?”
“I missed you.”
“I’ve been missing you, too.”
“Got on the Metro and walked up from the station. Can you get away?”
“I can probably sneak out, sure.”
“It’s a beautiful day.”
“I’ve got my car here. We can, I don’t know, go for a ride.”
Tracy looked down at the book in Quinn’s hand. “What’s that, a western?”
“Yeah, sort of.”
“What’s with you and your partner? Strange went on about some scene from The Magnificent Seven.”
“That would be the one with Coburn shooting the rider instead of the horse.”
“He does go back to that one a lot.”
Lewis came forward from the back of the shop. His black hair was long, greasy, and tangled, and his thick glasses had surgical tape holding one stem to the frame. Yellow perspiration marks stained the armpits of his white shirt.
“Lewis, meet my friend, Sue Tracy.”
“My pleasure,” said Lewis. Tracy and Lewis shook hands.
“I’m gonna punch out for the day, Lewis. That okay by you?”
Lewis blinked hard behind the lenses of his glasses. “Fine.”
Quinn gathered his things, marking the Leonard paperback off in the store’s inventory notebook before he came around the counter.
“This Johnny Winter?” said Tracy.
“How’d you know that?”
“Older brothers. I had one played this till the grooves wore out on the vinyl.”
“That’s Rick Derringer on second lead right here.”
“You’re too young.”
They left the shop and walked up Bonifant.
“Lewis gonna be all right back there, all by himself?” said Tracy.
“He’s the best employee Syreeta’s got. A little lonely, though. Any suggestions?”
Tracy laced her fingers through Quinn’s. “I’m spoken for.”
“Maybe your partner, then.”
“He’s not Karen’s type.”
“What type is that?”
“The type who runs a comb through his hair every so often. The type who showers.”
“Picky,” said Quinn.
They stopped at his car, parked in the bank lot.
“Sweet,” said Tracy. Quinn had recently waxed the body, scrubbed the Cragar mags with Wheel-Brite and wet-blacked the rubber. The Chevelle’s clean lines gleamed in the sun.
“You like, huh?”
Tracy nodded. “You got the Flowmasters on there, huh?”
“I bought it like that off the lot.”
“What’s under the hood, a three ninety-six?”
“Now you’re making me nervous.”
“My older brothers.”
“C’mon, get in.”
She got into the passenger side. Quinn saw her admiring the shifter, a four-speed Hurst.
“You want to drive?”
“I knew there was something else I liked about you. Aside from you being a natural blonde, I mean.”
“What can I say? I like fast cars.”
“Bad-ass,” said Quinn.
Tracy drove down into Rock Creek Park. They parked near a bridle trail on the west side of the creek and took the path up a rise and all the way to the old mill. On the walk back they sat on some boulders in the middle of the creek. Quinn took his shirt off, and Tracy removed her socks and shoes. She let her feet dangle in the cool water. They talked about their pasts and kissed in the sun.
Late in the afternoon they went back to Quinn’s apartment and made love. They showered and re-dressed and had dinner at Vicino’s, a small Italian restaurant Quinn liked up on Sligo Avenue. Quinn had the calimari over linguini, and Tracy had the seafood platter, and they washed it down with a carafe of the house red. They stopped for another bottle of red on the way back to Quinn’s place and drank it while listening to music and making out on his couch. They fucked like teenagers in his room, and afterward they lay in bed, Tracy smoking and talking, Quinn listening with a natural smile on his face.
The day had been a good one. The kids had won their game, and in his mind Quinn could still see the look of pride on their faces as they had run off the field. Then Sue Tracy had surprised him and stopped by the shop.
Quinn looked at his hands and saw that they were totally relaxed on the sheets. He hadn’t been thinking of the streets or if anyone had looked at him the wrong way or anything else but Sue, his girlfriend, lying beside him. He hadn’t felt this comfortable with a woman for some time.
STRANGE dropped off Prince, Lamar, and Joe Wilder, then dropped Lionel at Janine’s house uptown.
“You comin’ for dinner tonight?” said Lionel, before getting out of the car.
“I haven’t spoken to your mother about it,” said Strange.
“My mom wants you to come over, I know. Saw her marinating some kind of roast this morning before you picked me up.”
“Maybe I’ll see you, then.”
“Whateva,” said Lionel, turning and going up the sidewalk toward his house.
Strange watched the boy and his loping walk.
Boy’s still got that way of stepping. Had that walk since I been knowing him, back when he wasn’t nothing much more than a kid. Thinks he’s a man, but he’s still a boy inside.
He grinned without thinking, watching him, and waited until Lionel got inside the house before driving away.
Strange picked up the Calhoun Tucker photos from the Safeway over on Piney Branch. Safeway was cheap and they did a good-enough job on the processing. It took a little longer when you used them, but he wasn’t in any hurry on this particular job.
Back in his office, he inspected the photographs. The woman in the doorway, Tucker’s somethin’ on the side, was plain as day in the shot, letting him into her crib. Janine had gotten her name from the crisscross program, based on her street address. It was in the file he was building on Tucker, the one he was preparing for his friend George Hastings. Strange found the file and slipped the photographs inside it. He was just about done with the background check. He’d need to report on all this to George. Soon, thought Strange, I will do this soon. He wondered what was stopping him from getting George on the phone right now. Strange turned this over in his mind as he locked the file cabinet, then his office door.
Walking through the outer office, he noticed his reflection in the mirror nailed to the post, and stopped to study himself. Damn if his natural wasn’t nearly all gray. The years just… they just went. Strange was bone tired and hungry. He thought about having a nice meal, maybe some Chinese. And a hot shower, too; that would do him right.
AT dinner that night, Strange sat at the head of Janine’s table, as he always did, in the one chair that had arms on it. It had been her father’s chair. Lionel sat to his left and Janine to his right. Greco played with a rubber ball, his eyes moving to the dinner table occasionally but keeping control of himself, staying there on his belly, lying on the floor at Strange’s feet.
Janine had Talking Book on the stereo, playing softly. She did love her Stevie, in particular the breakout stuff that he’d done for Motown in the early seventies.
“Where you off to tonight?” said Strange, eyeballing Lionel, clean in his Nautica pullover and pressed khakis.
“Takin’ a girl to a movie.”
“What, you gonna walk her there?”
“Gonna pull her in a ricksha.”
“Don’t be playin’,” said Strange. “I’m just asking you a question.”
“He’s taking my car, Derek.”
“Yeah, okay. But listen, don’t be firin’ up any of that funk in your mother’s car, hear?”
“You mean, like, herb?”
“You know what I mean. You get yourself a police record, how you gonna get to be that big-time lawyer you always talking about becoming?”
Lionel put his fork down on his plate. “Look, how you gonna just suppose that I’m gonna be out there smokin’ some hydro tonight? I mean, it’s not like you’re my father, Mr. Derek. It’s not like you’re here all the time, like you know me all that well.”
“I know I’m not your father. Didn’t say I was. It’s just-”
“I wasn’t even thinkin’ about smokin’ that stuff tonight, you want the truth. This girl I’m seein’, she’s special to me, understand, and I wouldn’t do nothin’, anything, that I thought would get her in any kind of trouble with the law. So, all due respect, you can’t be comin’ up in here, part-time, lookin’ to guide me, when you don’t even know me all that well, for real.”
Strange said nothing.
Lionel looked at his mother. “Can I be excused, Mom? I need to pick up my girl.”
“Go ahead, Lye. My car keys are on my dresser.”
Lionel left the room and went up the hall stairs.
“I guess I messed that up pretty bad.”
“It is hard to know what to say,” said Janine. “Most of the time, I’m just winging it myself.”
“I do feel like a father to that boy.”
“But you’re not,” said Janine, her eyes falling away from his. “So maybe you ought to go a little easier on him, all right?”
Janine got up out of her seat and picked up Lionel’s plate off the table. She head-motioned to Greco, whose eyes were on her now and pleading. “C’mon, boy. Let’s see if you can’t finish some of this roast.”
Greco’s feet sought purchase on the hardwood floor as he scrabbled toward the kitchen, his nub of a tail twitching furiously. Strange got up and went to the foyer, meeting Lionel, who was bounding down the stairs.
“Hey, buddy,” said Strange.
“You got money in your pocket?”
“I’m flush,” said Lionel.
“You don’t have to say nothin’, Mr. Derek.”
“Yeah, I do. Don’t want to give you the impression that I’m just assuming you’re always out there looking to get into trouble, doing somethin’ wrong. Because I do think that you’re a fine young man. I appreciate you helping out with the team like you do, and the way you help your mother around here, too.”
“I know you do.”
“I guess what I’m trying to tell you is, I’m proud of you. I give you advice you don’t need, I guess, because I care about you, see? I’m looking to play some kind of role in your life, but I’m not quite sure what that is yet, understand?”
They stood there in the foyer looking at each other. Lionel put his hands in his pockets and took them out again and shuffled his feet.
“Anything else?” said Lionel. “’Cause I gotta bounce.”
“That’s it, I guess.”
Strange shook Lionel’s hand and then hugged him clumsily. Lionel left the house, looking over his shoulder at Strange one time before continuing on down the sidewalk. Strange watched him through the window and made sure he got safely into Janine’s car.
“How’d that go?” said Janine, standing behind him with a cold bottle of beer in one hand and two glasses in the other.
“Uh, all right, I guess.”
“C’mon back out to the living room, then, and put your feet up.”
Strange followed her out of the foyer, through a hall. He watched her strong walk and the back of her head of hair. He could see she’d been to the beauty salon that day, and he hadn’t even complimented her on it. He thought of how much he did love her, and the boy. And he thought of the stranger who had jacked his dick off on a massage table just a few hours earlier in the day.
“Goddamn you, Derek,” he said under his breath.
Janine looked over her shoulder. “You all right?”
“I’m fine, baby,” said Strange.
He wished that it were so.
GARFIELD Potter, Carlton Little, and Charles White spent most of Monday driving around Petworth, Park View, and the northern tip of Shaw, checking on their troops, looking for girls to talk to, drinking some, and staying high. Early in the evening they were back in their row house, hanging out in the living room, where the smoke of a blunt Little had recently fired up hung heavy in the air.
Potter had been trying to get up with a girl all afternoon, but he hadn’t been able to connect. He paced the room as Little and White sat on the couch playing Madden 2000 while an Outkast cut on PGC came loud from the box. White saw the shadow that had settled on Potter’s face, the look he got when the girl thing hadn’t gone his way. Truth was, most girls were afraid to be with Garfield Potter, something that had never crossed his mind.
Potter was working on his third forty of malt. He’d been drinking them down since early in the day.
“Y’all gonna play that kid shit all night?” said Potter.
“It’s the new one they got,” said Little.
“I ain’t give a good fuck about no cartoon football game,” said Potter. “Let’s go up to that field and see some real football.”
“I feel like smokin’ someone,” said Potter. He rubbed his hands together as he walked back and forth in the room. “Lorenze Wilder is gonna be got.”
“Ah, shit, D,” said Little. “Let me and Coon just finish this one game.”
Potter went over to the PlayStation base unit and hit the power button. The game stopped and the screen went over to the cable broadcast. Potter stood in front of the couch and stared at his childhood friends. Little started to say something but thought better of it, looking into Potter’s flat eyes.
“You want to go,” said Little, “we’ll go.”
Potter nodded. “Bring your strap.”
Charles White didn’t protest. He hoped they would not find this Lorenze Wilder up at the football field. He told himself that they would not. After all, they had gone back to the practice field a couple of times, and except for the first go-round when Wilder had been there, there hadn’t been nothin’ over there but a few parents, coaches, and some kids.
They met a few minutes later at the front door of the house, Potter wearing his skully. Both he and Little had dressed in dark, loose clothing. White had slipped on his favorite shirt, the bright orange Nautica pullover in that soft fleece, the one felt good against his skin.
“Take that shit off,” said Potter, looking at White’s shirt. “Like you wearin’ a sign says, Look at me.”
“Why you buggin’?” said White.
“’Cause I don’t want no one to remember us later on,” said Potter, talking carefully as he would to a child. “Could you be more stupid than you is?”
LORENZE Wilder stood by the stadium seats, leaning on the chain-link fence, watching the kids practicing while his hand dipped into a bag of french fries doused in ketchup. He shoved a handful of fries into his mouth and licked ketchup off his fingers. He hadn’t thought to get some napkins from the Chinese chicken house he’d stopped into up on the strip. Cheap-ass slope who owned the shop, he was probably hiding the napkins in the back anyhow.
Wilder nodded to one of the parents of the kids who was seated nearby. Man barely gave him the time of day, just a kind of chill-over with his eyes. One of those bourgeois brothers, Wilder guessed, thought he was somethin’ with his low-grade government job. Maybe he didn’t like Wilder’s T-shirt, had a big picture of a marijuana leaf on the front. Didn’t like him wearing it in front of all these kids. Well, fuck him, too.
The coaches were working these boys tonight. That whiteboy coach they had, he had set up three of those orange cones road crews used in the center of the field. The kids were running to the cones, and the white boy had the pigskin, and he was shouting “Right” or “Left,” and the kid would cut that way without looking over his shoulder and get the pass from that coach. The pass would always be there, on the money. Wilder had to admit, the white boy had an arm on him, but he should’ve thrown it much harder, taught those boys what it was like to feel the sting of a bullet-ball. That’s what Wilder would do if he was the coach. He wouldn’t mind getting out there himself, show them all how it was done.
The one named Strange was out there, talking to another coach, a brother with a gray mustache who looked even older than him. Wilder didn’t care much for this Strange, who he could tell didn’t want him hangin’ around his little nephew, Joe. First time they’d met, Strange had given him one of those chill-looks, too.
Now the kids were being told to come in and take a knee. It had gotten near to dark, and Lorenze Wilder guessed the practice was coming to an end. Wilder had brought his car with him tonight. He wasn’t gonna let Strange talk him out of spending time with his nephew. Joe was his own kin, after all. And Lorenze Wilder needed to speak to him about something important. He’d been looking to get up with the little man on it for a long time.
CHARLES White sat in the backseat of the Plymouth and watched Garfield Potter return from the fence bordering Roosevelt’s stadium. In the passenger seat, Carlton Little ate a Quarter Pounder, his eyes closed as he chewed. He had made them stop at the McDonald’s near Howard before doubling back up here to the high school. Little always got hungry behind the herb.
Potter crossed the lot slow, putting a down-dip to his walk, a kind of stretched-back grin spreading on his face. The things that made Potter smile were not the things that made other people smile, and White felt a tightening in his chest.
Potter leaned into Charles White’s open window.
“You drivin’, Coon. Get out and take the wheel. Roll over to Iowa and park on the street. We’ll wait there for him to pull out.”
“Wilder’s here?” said Little, looking up from his meal.
“Yeah,” said Potter. “And we gonna dead this motherfucker tonight.”
STRANGE gave his usual closing talk to the Midgets and Pee Wees, and answered their questions patiently. Then he asked them for the starting time of the next practice, on Wednesday night.
“Six o’clock on the dot, be there, don’t miss it!”
“See you then,” said Strange. “Those of you on your bikes, get home now. If you’re waitin’ on a ride from one of the coaches or parents, you wait over there by the stands, or at the parking lot if you know the car.”
Strange looked over to the stands, saw the parents and guardians grouped together, waiting for their kids and for those who were not theirs but who depended on them for a lift home. He noticed Joe Wilder’s no-account uncle standing apart from the rest, leaning on the fence, a brown bag of trash at his feet. He probably just dropped it there, thought Strange. Wouldn’t think to move a few feet and throw it in a can.
Prince and Joe Wilder were walking together toward the stands.
“Prince! Joe! Y’all wait for me, hear?”
Joe Wilder turned his head, made a small wave back to Strange, and kept walking. Strange could see the boy’s eyes blink under his helmet as he took out his mouthguard and fitted it in the helmet’s cage. He was holding one of those wrestling figures of his tight in his hand.
If Lionel or Lamar were there, he’d tell them to go ahead and get up with the boys, make sure they waited up by his car. But Lamar was baby-sitting his little sister, and Lionel had stayed home to catch up on his schoolwork.
“Derek,” said Lydell Blue, coming up beside him and startling him with his voice. “Can I talk to you a minute? Need some advice on what to do with my offensive line. I mean, they did nothin’ on Saturday. You and Terry been handlin’ yours pretty well.”
“I can’t talk long,” said Strange.
“This won’t take but a minute,” said Blue.
Some of the boys had stayed on the field and were throwing long passes, tackling one another, clowning around. Strange glanced over at Arrington and Quinn, who were gathering up the equipment on the far sideline.
“All right,” said Strange, “but let’s make it quick. I gotta get these boys back in their homes.”
JOE Wilder saw his uncle Lorenze standing by the fence as he neared the stands. Joe’s mom was mad at his uncle or something, and Joe hadn’t seen him around the apartment for quite some time.
“Little man,” said Lorenze.
“Hey, Uncle Lo,” said Joe with a smile.
“How you been doin’? You lookin’ strong out there, Hoss.”
“I been doin’ all right.”
“I got my car. C’mon, boy, I’ll drive you home tonight.”
“Thanks, but I was gonna ride with Coach Derek.”
“You like ice cream, don’t ya?”
“Well, c’mon, then. We’ll grab a cone or a cup or somethin’, and then I’ll run you home.”
“I like ithe cream,” said Prince.
“Sorry, youngun,” said Lorenze. “Only got enough to spring for me and my man here. Next time, okay?”
Joe Wilder looked back at Coach Strange, who was still on the field, talking with Coach Blue. His uncle seemed pretty nice. He wouldn’t let anything happen to him or nothin’ like that. And an ice cream sounded good.
“Tell Coach Derek I got a ride home with my uncle,” said Joe to Prince. “All right?”
“I’ll tell him,” said Prince.
Prince had a seat on the lowest aluminum bench in the stands and waited for Strange to finish what he was doing. Joe and his uncle climbed the concrete steps to the parking lot. The shadows of dusk faded as full dark fell upon the school grounds.
“THERE we go,” said Potter, looking through the windshield of the Plymouth from the passenger side. “There goes Wilder right there.”
Lorenze Wilder was letting a uniformed boy into the passenger side of his car. As he went around to the driver’s side, he looked around the parking lot, studying the cars.
Potter chuckled under his breath, then took a deep swig from a forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor. He slid the bottle back down between his legs.
“He got some kid with him,” said White. “That’s his nephew, right?”
“Whateva,” said Potter.
“Yo, turn that shit up, D,” said Little from the backseat. He was busy rolling a fat number, his hands deep in a Baggie of herb.
Potter turned up the volume on the radio.
“That’s my boy DJ Flexx right there,” said Little. “They moved him into Tigger’s spot.”
“Put this shits in gear, Coon,” said Potter. “They’re pullin’ out.”
“We gonna do this thing with that kid in the car?” said White.
“Just stay on Wilder. He probably gonna be droppin’ that boy off at his mother’s, sumshit like that.”
“We don’t need to be messin’ with no kids, Gar.”
“Go on, man,” said Potter, chinning in the direction of the royal blue Oldsmobile leaving the parking lot. “Try not to lose him, neither.”
LORENZE Wilder’s car was a 1984 Olds Regency, a V8 with blue velour interior, white vinyl roof, and wire wheel covers. The windows were tinted dark all the way around. It reminded Wilder of one of those Miami cars, the kind those big-time drug dealers had down there, or a limousine. You could see out, but no one could see inside, and for him it was the one feature of the car that had closed the deal. He had bought it off a lot in Northwest for eighteen hundred dollars and financed it at an interest rate of 24 percent. He had missed the last three payments and had recently changed his phone number again to duck the creditors who had begun to call.
Lorenze saw Joe running his hand along the fabric of the seat as they drove south on Georgia Avenue.
“You can get your own car like this someday, you work hard like your uncle.” In fact, Lorenze Wilder hadn’t had a job in years.
“It’s nice,” said Joe.
“That’s like, velvet right there. Bet your father got a nice car, too.”
Joe Wilder shrugged and looked over at his uncle. “I ain’t never met my father, so I don’t know what he drives.”
“Mama says that my father’s just… She say he’s gone.”
Of course, Lorenze knew all about the family history. It was this very thing Lorenze and his sister had argued about, that had set her shit off. She didn’t want the boy to know about his father, that was her business. But here it was now, affecting him, Lorenze. Standing in his way. All he wanted was a little somethin’, a way in. Lorenze tried not to think on it too hard, ’cause it only made him angry.
He glanced over at his nephew. Joe Wilder’s helmet was next to him on the bench seat. He held an action figure in his hand, some guy in tights. Sunglasses had been painted on the man’s rubber face.
Lorenze let his breath out slow. He hadn’t been around kids too much himself. But as kids went, his nephew seemed all right. Lorenze made himself smile and tried to put a tone of interest in his voice.
“Who’s that, Joe?”
“That’s that Puerto Rican boy, right?”
“I don’t know what he is, but he’s bad. I got a whole rack of wrestlers like this at home.”
“Bet you ain’t got no good ice cream at your mama’s place.”
“Sometimes we do.”
“What kind of ice cream you like?”
“Chocolate and vanilla. Like, when they mix ’em up.”
“I think I know where this one place is.” They were south of Howard University now, and Lorenze turned the wheel and went east on Rhode Island Avenue. “Let’s see if it’s open, okay?”
Had Wilder bothered to look in his rearview, he would have seen a white Plymouth following him from four or five car lengths back.
“HE ain’t droppin’ that kid off,” said White.
“Just keep on doin’ what you’re doin’,” said Potter.
Carlton Little passed the fat bone over the front seat to Potter. Potter took it and hit it deep. He kept the smoke in his lungs for as long as he could stand it. He exhaled and killed the forty of malt and dropped the bottle at his feet. The music from the radio was loud in the car.
In the Edgewood Terrace area of Northeast, still on Rhode Island, Potter saw the blue Olds slow down up ahead. It turned into a parking lot where a white building stood, fronted with glass and screens.
“Keep drivin’ by it,” said Potter.
As they passed the building, Potter saw that it was a take-out ice-cream joint, had a sign out front looked like a kid had drawn it. Next to it was a 7-Eleven with plywood over its windows and red condemnation notices stuck on the boards.
“Drive around the block, Coon.”
White made a left at the next intersection, and the next one after that. Potter reached into his waistband and drew the.357 Colt that he had there. He broke the cylinder and checked the load. He jerked his wrist to snap the cylinder shut, as he had seen it done in the movies, but it did not connect, and he used his free hand to finish the job. He tightened his fingers on the revolver’s rubber grip.
“Get your shit ready, Dirty,” said Potter.
“I’m tryin’ to,” said Little, with a nervous giggle. He had his 9mm automatic out from under the front seat. He had released the magazine and was now trying to slide it back in. Little had gotten this Glock 17, the current sidearm of the MPD, from a boy he knew who owed him money, a drug debt erased. But Little hadn’t practiced with it much.
“Boy,” he said, “I am fucked up.” The magazine found its home with a soft click.
White brought the car back out to Rhode Island, about fifty yards south of the ice-cream place.
“Park it here and let it run,” said Potter.
As they pulled along the curb, Potter watched Lorenze Wilder and his nephew up at the screen window of the joint, the place where you ordered and paid. Wasn’t but one other car in the lot, a shitty Nissan. Well, it was September. The nights had cooled some.
“What’re we gonna do?” said White.
“Wait,” said Potter.
The person worked in the ice-cream place, had a paper hat on his head, Potter could see it from back on the street, was taking his time. Potter looked around the block. He didn’t see anyone outside the few residences that were situated around the commercial strip, but there could have been some people looking out at them from behind curtains and shit, you never knew. Later on, they might remember their car.
“Take it around the block again, Coon,” said Potter. “I don’t like us just sittin’ here like this.”
Potter pulled the trans down into drive and rolled out into the street. As they neared the ice-cream shop, Potter saw Wilder and his nephew walk toward the Olds. Then he saw the kid hand Wilder his cone and head back toward the shop. The kid was going around the side, where they had hung some swinging signs over a couple of doors.
“Keep goin’!” shouted Potter, and then he barked a laugh. “Oh, shit, that boy’s goin’ to the bathroom! Hit this motherfucker, man, go around the block quick. Just drive straight into that ice-cream lot when you get back onto Rhode Island, hear?”
White’s foot depressed the gas. He fishtailed the car as he made the left turn, and the tires squealed as he made the next one.
“You ready, Dirty?” said Potter.
“I guess I am,” said Little, his voice cracking some on the reply. He bunched up the McDonald’s trash by his side and flung it to the other side of the car. He thumbed off the Glock’s safety and racked the slide.
“Motherfucker thinks he gonna rise up and take me for bad,” said Potter. “He’s gonna find out somethin’ now.”
White made the next turn, and Rhode Island Avenue came up ahead. His hands were shaking. He gripped the wheel tightly to make the shaking stop.
JOE Wilder went around to the side of the building. He had to pee, and his uncle had told him they had a bathroom there. His uncle said to go now so he could enjoy his ice cream without squirming around in the car. But when Joe got to where the men’s room was, he saw that someone had put one of those heavy chains and a big padlock through the handle of the door.
He could hold it for a while. And the thought of that ice cream, the soft chocolate-and-vanilla mix, made him forget he had to go. He went back to the car and got inside.
“That was quick,” said Lorenze, handing Joe his cone.
“It’s all locked up,” said Joe. “But it’s all right.” He licked at the ice cream and caught some that had melted down on the cone.
“Yeah, it’s tight.” Joe smiled. His tongue showed a mixture of white and brown.
“Listen, Joe… you need to get up with your moms about your father and all that.”
“What about him?”
“Well, he ain’t exactly gone, like gone gone, know what I’m sayin’?”
“You really ought to meet your father, son. I mean, every boy should be in contact with his pops.”
Joe Wilder bit off the crest of the mound of ice cream sitting atop the cone.
“When you do meet him,” said Lorenze, “what I want you to do for me is, I want you to tell him how nice I been to you. Like what we did right here tonight.”
“But my moms says he’s gone.”
“Listen to me, boy,” said Lorenze. “When you do talk to him, wheneva you do, I want you to tell him that Uncle Lo wants to be put on. Hear?”
Joe Wilder shrugged and smiled. “Okay.”
Lorenze looked up at a tire sound and saw a white police-looking car pull very quickly into the lot. The car stopped in front of his Olds. Well, it wasn’t no police. The car was too old, a fucked-up Plymouth, and anyway, it looked like a bunch of young boys just driving around. Dumb ones, too, if they thought he was gonna let them block his way when there were plenty of other spaces in the lot.
Both passenger-side doors opened on the car, and two of the young men jumped out, one coming around the hood and the other around the tail of the Plymouth. Lorenze’s eyes widened as he recognized Garfield Potter at the same time that Potter and a boy with cornrows showed their guns and raised them, stepping with purpose toward the Olds.
“Hey,” said Joe Wilder, “Uncle Lo.”
Lorenze Wilder heard popping sounds and saw fire spit from the muzzles of the guns. He dropped his ice cream and threw his body across the bench to try to cover his nephew just as the windshield spidered and then imploded. He felt the awful stings and was twisted and thrown back violently and thought of God and his sister and Please don’t take the boy, God in that last long moment before his brain matter, blood, and life blew out across the interior of the car.
FRIENDS, relatives, police, and print and broadcast media heavily attended Joe Wilder’s showing at a funeral parlor near the old Posin’s Deli on Georgia Avenue. At one point, traffic had been rerouted on the strip to accommodate the influx of cars. Except for a few acquaintances and a couple of black plainclothes homicide men assigned to the case, few came to pay their respects to Lorenze Wilder on the other side of town.
The boy and his uncle were buried the next day in Glenwood Cemetery in Northeast, not far from where they had been murdered.
Because of the numbing consistency of the murder rate, and because lower-class black life held little value in the media’s eyes, the violent deaths of young black men and women in the District of Columbia had not been deemed particularly newsworthy for the past fifteen years. Murders of young blacks rarely made the leadoff in the TV news and were routinely buried inside the Metro section of the Washington Post, the details consisting of a paragraph or two at best, the victims often unidentified, the follow-up nil.
Suburban liberals plastered Free Tibet stickers on the bumpers of their cars, seemingly unconcerned that just a few short miles from the White House, American children were enslaved in nightmare neighborhoods, living amid gunfire and drugs and attending dilapidated public schools. The nation was outraged at high school shootings in white neighborhoods, but young black men and women were murdered without fanfare in the nation’s capital every single day.
The shooting death of Joe Wilder, though, was different. Like a few high-profile cases over the years, it involved the death of an innocent child. For a few days after the homicide, the Wilder murder was the lead story on the local television news and made top-of-the-fold Metro as well. Even national politicians jumped into the fray, denouncing the culture of violence in the inner cities. As the witness at the ice-cream shop had mentioned the loud rap music coming from the open windows of the shooters’ car, these same politicians had gone on to condemn those twin chestnuts, hip-hop and Hollywood. At no time did these bought-and-sold politicians mention the conditions that created that culture, or the handguns, as easily available as a carton of milk, that had killed the boy.
Strange was thinking of these things as he pulled his Brougham into Glenwood Cemetery, coming to a stop behind a long row of cars that stretched far back from Joe Wilder’s grave site. Lydell Blue was beside him on the bench. Lamar Williams and Lionel Baker sat quietly in the back of the Cadillac.
Strange looked in his rearview. Dennis Arrington was pulling up behind him in his Infiniti. He had brought along Quinn and three of the boys from the team: Prince, Rico, and Dante Morris. Some of Joe’s other teammates had attended the church service, a ceremony complete with tears-to-the-eyes gospel singing, in the Baptist church where Joe and his mother had attended services.
Strange looked out at the automobiles, and the people getting out of them and crossing the lawn. Joe Wilder’s mother, Sandra Wilder, was stooped in the middle of a group of mourners who were helping her along to the grave site. She had just gotten out of an expensive German car. Lorenze’s casket and Joe’s, half the size of his uncle’s, were up on platforms under a three-sided green tent beside two open graves.
Most of the cars parked along the curb and up on the grass had been waxed and detailed out of respect. There was a van in the mix that Strange knew to be a police van, its occupants taking photographs of the funeral’s attendees. This was fairly routine in killings believed to be of the serial variety, as serial killers often showed up at the wakes and funerals of their victims.
Strange knew, and the police knew, that the killers would not show up here today. He was fairly certain what this had been about. This wasn’t a serial killing. It was a gang killing, or turf beef, or eyeball beef, or a death collect on a drug debt. The target was Lorenze Wilder; his nephew Joe just happened to have been in the car. A simple, everyday thing.
Again, Strange studied the cars. Many of them were not just clean. Many of them were drug cars. High-priced imports tricked out in expensive customized options. The men getting out of them were very young and flashily dressed. Strange didn’t even have to turn it over in his mind. It wasn’t black-on-black racism. He had lived in the city his whole life. It was real.
“You thinking what I’m thinking?” said Blue.
“All kinds of young drug boys here,” said Strange. “Question is, why?”
“Joe wasn’t even close to being in the life. I know his mother, and she’s straight.”
“You see that car she got out of?”
Strange had seen it. It was a three-series BMW, late model, the middle of the line.
“I saw it.”
“She’s got, what, a thirty-five-thousand-dollar car and she’s living in government-assisted housing?”
“Could be a friend’s car,” said Strange.
“Something to think about. But this ain’t the time or the place.”
They got out of the car. Lamar and Lionel joined Quinn, Arrington, and the boys from the team. They walked as a group to the gravesite. Strange and Blue walked behind.
“You okay?” said Blue.
“Yeah,” said Strange. But to Blue’s eyes his friend looked blown apart, both depleted and seething inside.
“I’m on midnights tonight,” said Blue. “Was gonna take a car out. Was wonderin’ if you wanted to do a ride-along.”
“I do,” said Strange.
“Just thought I’d see what’s out there.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Meet me at the station at around eleven-thirty. You’re gonna need to sign some papers.”
“Right,” said Strange.
Dennis Arrington had asked the group to form a circle. He took the hand of Quinn, who was standing beside him, and the rest of the boys joined hands until the unbroken circle went back to Arrington. They all bowed their heads, and the young deacon led Quinn and the boys in a quiet prayer. Nearby, Strange and Blue also lowered their heads and prayed.
When Strange was done he looked over to the grave site and saw Joe’s mother, Sandra, talking to a young man with closely cropped hair, immaculately dressed in a three-button suit. The young man looked over at Strange as Sandra Wilder talked. He kept his eyes on Strange and said something to the well-dressed young man beside him. His friend nodded. These two young men, Strange decided, were also in the life.
“Let’s go, Derek,” said Blue. “Looks like they’re about ready to say the final words.”
Blue and Strange walked to the site. Fifteen minutes later, Joe Wilder, eight years old, was lowered into his grave.
STRANGE woke from a nap at about ten o’clock that night, showered and changed, fed Greco, and locked the house. He had called Janine before he left, telling her that he would be out most of the night and would probably not be back in the office until the following afternoon. He had not spent the night at Janine’s place that week.
Strange drove north toward the Fourth District station house at Georgia, between Quackenbos and Peabody. Lydell Blue had already filled him in on the developments of the Wilder case. In the three days that had elapsed since the murders, much had been learned.
The ice-cream shop, called Ulmer’s, carried two employees in the fall and winter seasons, a young Salvadoran named Diego Juarez and the owner, Ed Ulmer, African American and fifty-nine years old. On the night of the shooting, Juarez was on the clock. His car, a black Nissan Sentra, was the only one in the lot when Lorenze Wilder pulled in and parked his Olds. After serving Wilder and his nephew, Juarez noticed that the boy tried to use the bathroom around the side of the building but quickly returned to the Oldsmobile. Ulmer had padlocked the bathroom doors after several incidents of vandalism.
Shortly after the boy got into the Olds, joining the older man, a white Plymouth, stripped down like an old police vehicle, came into the parking lot at a high rate of speed. Driven by a young black man with “a long nose, like a beak,” the Plymouth stopped in front of the Olds, blocking its forward path. Juarez stated that the “rap music” coming from the open windows of the car was quite loud. Very quickly, two young black men got out of the car, one from the passenger seat and one from the backseat, drew handguns, and began firing into the windshield of the Olds.
Diego Juarez mentally recorded the sequence of letters and numbers on the D.C. license plate of the Plymouth before retreating into the back of the shop. At this point, he phoned the police and then locked himself in the employee bathroom until he heard the squad cars arrive, five minutes later. He had nothing to write with in the bathroom, and in his nervous excitement he had forgotten one of the license plate’s two letters and most of its numerals. When he came out of the bathroom, he could recall none of the numerals. By then, of course, the shooters were gone.
One of the shooters, apparently, had vomited a mixture of alcohol and hamburger meat on the asphalt of the parking lot before he’d gotten back into the Plymouth.
Both victims had been shot several times. Lorenze Wilder had been shot in the back as well as the face and neck, indicating that he had initially tried to protect the boy. This was before the force of the bullets had spun him around. Joe Wilder had taken five bullets, one in the groin area, two in the stomach and chest, and two in the face and head. Both victims, lying in melted ice cream and blood, were dead when the police arrived. A rubber action figure, also covered in blood, was found near the boy’s hand. A football helmet with a mouthguard wedged in its cage was found at his feet.
Ten 9mm casings were found in the lot consistent with those that would be ejected from an automatic weapon. Their ejection pattern suggested that they came from the gun of the shooter on the right, described by Juarez as the one with “the braids in his hair.” There were no casings found from the gun of the second shooter. Either he had picked them up, highly unlikely, or they had remained in the chambers of his gun. If the latter was the case, the weapon he used was a revolver. Indeed, the slugs that had done the most damage to the bodies would later be identified as hollow-points fired from a.357.
Juarez described the second shooter as “a tall and skinny black” with light skin and a skully. Juarez said that the shooter was smiling as he fired his weapon, and it was this smile that had persuaded him, Juarez, to retreat into the back of the shop. He had since worked extensively with police artists to come up with drawings that would closely resemble his brief recollection of the faces on the young men he had seen.
There were no other witnesses to the shooting, and none of the occupants of the nearby residences claimed to have seen a thing.
The white Plymouth was found the next morning on a rural stretch of road bordering a forest in Prince George’s County. The car had been doused in gasoline and burned. The smoke rising above the trees had been seen by a resident of a community situated on the other side of the woods, which had prompted him to call the police. The first letter of the license plate matched the letter recalled by Juarez. This was the shooters’ car. The arson job had been thorough, obliterating any evidence save for some clothing fibers; the automobile had been wiped clean of prints.
The Plymouth was registered to a Maurice Willis of the 4800 block of Kane Place in the Deanwood section of Northeast. Squad cars and homicide detectives were dispatched to his address, where Willis was taken in without resistance for questioning. The Plymouth belonged to Willis. It had been stolen from the Union Station parking lot while he was attending a movie at the AMC. He had not reported the theft, he explained candidly, because he had been driving the car without insurance. Based on his recollection of the movie he had seen and his certainty of its time, the detectives were able to pinpoint a two-hour window for the theft.
By the end of this next day, the surveillance tapes from the pay booth at the parking garage had produced a photographic record of the one who had stolen the Plymouth. The image was of a light-skinned young black man wearing a sheer black skullcap and shades. On top of these visual obstacles, the suspect had deliberately kept his face partially turned away from the camera while he paid the parking fee. The camera evidence wouldn’t find them the shooter, but it would be useful in court.
Detectives continued to canvass the neighborhood where the shooting had occurred. They posted sketches of the suspects and kept the sketches on hand when interviewing potential wits. They interviewed friends and relatives of Lorenze and Joe Wilder extensively, focusing on the acquaintances of the uncle. Most important, the police department had issued a ten-thousand-dollar reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the shooters. This was the most important element and effort of the investigation. In the end, Strange knew, it would be a snitch who would give them the identity of the killers.
They’re doing a good job. A damn good job so far. They’re doing everything they can.
Strange pulled into the parking lot behind the Fourth District station, found a spot, and cut the engine on his car.
STRANGE went around to the front of the station house, named in honor of Charles T. Gibson, the uniformed officer slain outside the Ibex Club a few years earlier. He went directly to the front desk in the unadorned, flourescent-lit lobby. The police officer on desk duty, a woman he did not recognize, phoned Lieutenant Blue in his second-floor office while Strange signed two release forms for insurance purposes. These were required of all citizens requesting ride-alongs.
Blue appeared in uniform. He and Strange went back through the locker room and down a flight of stairs to the rear entrance. Blue told a sergeant, out in the lot catching a cigarette, that he was taking the Crown Victoria parked leftmost in a row of squad cars facing the building. He mentioned the car’s number, displayed on its side and rear, to the sergeant as well.
Blue got behind the wheel of the Crown Vic, and Strange sat beside him. They drove out onto Georgia at just past midnight and headed south.
The Fourth District, known as 4-D, ran north-south from the District line down to Harvard Street, and was bordered by Rock Creek on the west and North Capitol Street on the east. It included neighborhoods of the wealthy and those of the extreme lower class. With a high rate of sexual assault, auto theft, and homicide, 4-D had become one of the most troubled districts in the city. Chief Ramsey had been considering an eighth police district to break up the Fourth, probably in the form of a substation near 11th and Harvard. It had gotten that bad.
The crime rate in the city, despite the propaganda issued to the media about “New Day D.C.,” was rising once again. In the first six months of the new century, homicides were up 33 percent; rapes had increased by over 200 percent. In ’97, detectives had been transferred and reassigned citywide after an independent investigation had reported substandard performance. Anyone who knew anything about police work knew that results came from a network of informants and neighborhood contacts, and confidences, built up over time. The reassignment had destroyed that system. The result was that the current homicide closure rate was at an all-time low. Two out of three murders in the District of Columbia went unsolved – a closure rate of 31 percent.
The streets were fairly quiet. The temperature had dropped to sweater weather, and it was a work night, and kids had school the next day. But still, kids were out. They were out on the commercial strip and back on the corners of the residential streets, sitting on top of trash cans and mailboxes. A curfew law came and went in D.C., but even when it was in effect it was rarely enforced. No one was interested in locking up a minor who had stayed out too late. Police felt, rightly so, that it wasn’t their job to raise other people’s kids.
“Anything new since the funeral?” said Strange.
“Nothing on the forensic side,” said Blue. “The detectives are doing some serious recanvassing of the neighborhood over there around Rhode Island. And they’re heavily interrogating Lorenze Wilder’s associates and friends.”
“He have any?”
“He had a few. The plainclothes guys at Lorenze’s wake got some information until they got made. And they do have the sign-in book from the funeral home, has the names and addresses of those who bothered to use it.”
“Anything yet from those interrogations?”
“Lorenze was one of those fringe guys. Didn’t work for the most part, least not in payroll jobs. Even his friends admit he was no-account. But none of ’em say he was a target. He wasn’t mixed up in no big-time crews or anything like that. That’s what they’re telling our people, anyway.”
“I’d like to get a list of his friends,” said Strange.
“You know I can’t do that, Derek.”
Blue had said it. He had to say it, Strange knew. And Strange let it lie.
They drove back into the neighborhoods between Georgia and 16th. Blue stopped to check on a drunken Hispanic man who was standing in the middle of Kenyon Street, his face covered in alcohol sweat. He said he had “lost his house.” Blue talked to him carefully and helped him find it. At 15th and Columbia he slowed the patrol car and rolled down his window. A man sat on the stoop of a row house, watching a young boy dribble a basketball on the sidewalk.
“He’s out kinda late, isn’t he?” said Blue.
The man smiled. “Aw, he’s just hyped. You know kids.”
“I hear you,” said Blue, smiling back. “But you need to get him inside.”
“Aiight then,” said the man.
Blue drove away. Strange noted how relaxed he was behind the wheel. Blue had always liked working midnights. He said that the danger in these hours was greater, but the respect between the citizens and cops actually increased between midnight and dawn. The squares had all gone home and were sleeping, leaving an uneasy alliance for those who remained.
Blue took a call on a domestic disturbance at 13th and Randolph. He asked the woman if she wanted the husband, whom she had accused of striking her, to spend the night in jail. She said she didn’t want that, and this call, like most domestics the police answered, ended in peace.
“How’s Terry doing?” said Blue, as he cruised east toward the Old Soldiers’ Home.
“He’s been quiet,” said Strange. “Got a new girlfriend, I think, and he’s been spending time with her. It’s been good for him to be with a woman this week.”
“And you and Janine?”
“Good woman. That son of hers is a fine young man, too.”
“I know it,” said Strange.
“Lionel gonna be at the game on Saturday?”
“I guess he is.” Strange hadn’t thought much on the game.
“You know we got to play it.”
“Think we ought to have a short practice tomorrow night. Talk to the kids.”
“That’s what we ought to do.”
“They need to pick themselves up, right about now,” said Blue. “They’re gonna see a lot of death in their young lives. I want them to remember Joe, but I don’t want this to paralyze them. You agree?”
“Yes,” said Strange.
Blue looked over at his friend. They had hugged and patted each other’s backs when they’d first seen each other after Joe Wilder’s murder. The both of them felt extreme guilt, Blue for tying Strange up after practice, and Strange for letting Joe out of his sight. But they had been tight since childhood, and this was not something that needed to be apologized for or discussed. Blue was dealing with it in his own way, but he wasn’t sure about how deeply it had burrowed into Strange.
“I’m okay, Lydell. Just don’t want to talk about it much right now, all right?”
Blue turned up Warder Street in Park View. They passed a group of row houses, all dark. Inside one of them, Garfield Potter, Carlton Little, and Charles White slept.
BLUE drove around the Fourth. They bought coffee at the all-night Wings n Things at Kennedy Street and Georgia, and drove around some more. They stopped to tell some kids to get off the streets, and answered a domestic. Blue answered another domestic on 2nd but was called suddenly to a disturbance a block away.
A fight had broken out in a bar on Kennedy at closing time, and it had spilled onto the street. Several squad cars were already on the scene. Officers were holding back the brawlers and trying to quiet some of the neighbors and passersby who had been incited by the police presence. The patrolmen carried batons. A guy shouted “cracker motherfucker” and “white motherfucker” repeatedly at the white policeman who had cuffed him. The policeman’s partner, a black officer, was called a “house nigger” by the same man. Blue got out of the car and crossed the street. Strange stepped out and leaned against the Crown Vic.
Down the street was the Three-Star Diner, Billy Georgelakos’s place. Strange’s father had worked there as a grill man for most of his career. A riot gate covered the front of the diner. Nearby, concertina wire topped the fence surrounding the parking lot of a church.
Blue returned to the Crown Vic with sweat beading his forehead. Most of the bystanders on Kennedy had disappeared. Whatever this had been, it was over without major incident. It would go unreported to the majority of the city’s citizens, safely asleep at home in their beds.
Strange asked Blue to make a pass through Park Morton, where Joe Wilder had lived, and Blue agreed. In the complex, few people were out. A boy sat on a swing in the playground of the dark courtyard, smoking a cigarette. Dice players and dope smokers moved about the stairwells of the apartments.
“We put flyers with the artist’s renderings of the suspects in the mailboxes here,” said Blue. “Gonna post them around the neighborhood as well.”
“Most of the time we don’t get much cooperation up in here. Drug dealers get chased by the police, they find a lot of open doors, places to hide, in this complex.”
“What I hear.”
“They even got community guns buried around here somewhere. We know all about it, but it’s tough to fight.”
“You sayin’ you think no one will come forward?”
“I’m hoping this case here is gonna be different. We’re mistrusted here, maybe even hated. I got to believe, though, anyone with a heart is gonna want to help us find the people who would kill an innocent kid.”
On the drive out, Blue went by the brick pillars and wall that were the unofficial gateway to the housing complex. Two children, girls wearing cartoon-character jackets, sat atop the wall. The girls, no older than eleven or twelve, cold-eyed the occupants of the squad car as they passed.
“Where are the parents?” whispered Strange.
ON Saturday morning, the Petworth Panthers defeated a Lamond-Riggs team on the field of LaSalle Elementary by a score of twenty to seven. Joe Wilder had not been mentioned by name in the pregame talk, but Dennis Arrington had led a prayer for their “fallen brother.” The boys went to one knee and bowed their heads without the usual chatter and horseplay. From the first whistle, their play on the field was relentless. The parents and guardians in attendance stood unusually quiet on the sidelines during the game.
Afterward, as they were gathering up the equipment, Quinn put his hand on Strange’s shoulder.
“You feel like gettin’ a beer later this afternoon?”
“I gotta drop these kids off.”
“And I’ve got to work a few hours up at the store. Why don’t you meet me up at Renzo’s, say, four o’clock? You know where that is, right?”
“Used to be Tradesman’s Tavern, up on Sligo Avenue, right?”
“I’ll see you there.”
Lamar Williams, Prince, and Lionel Baker were waiting by Strange’s Cadillac, parked on Nicholson. Lydell Blue’s Park Avenue was curbed behind it. Strange told the boys to get in his Brougham as he saw Blue, holding a manila folder, approaching him from behind.
“Derek,” said Blue, holding out the folder. “Thought you might want this Migdets roster back for your master file.”
Strange took it and opened his trunk. He started to slip the folder into his file box as Blue began to walk away. Strange saw some notation written in pencil on the Pee Wees folder. He pulled it and studied his own writing, the description of a car and a series of letters and numbers, on the outside of the folder. He thought back to the evening he had written the information down.
“Lydell!” he said.
Blue walked back to Strange, still standing by his open trunk. Strange took the papers out of the Pee Wee folder and handed the folder to Blue, pointing at the notation.
“Probably nothin’,” said Strange, “but you ought to run this plate here through the system.”
Blue eyed the folder. “Why?”
“Not too far back, a week or so, I noticed some hard-looking boys up in the Roosevelt lot one night when we had practice. Thinking back on it, it was a night that Lorenze Wilder was down on the field, waitin’ on Joe. I wrote down the plate number and car description out of habit. The car was a Caprice. I guessed on the year, but I do know it was close to the model year of the one I own. I put down it was beige, too.”
Strange flashed on the image of the boys. One of them wore his hair in close cornrows, like those on one of the shooters the ice-cream employee had described. But that meant nothing in itself, like noting he wore Timberlands or loose-fitting jeans; a whole lot of young boys around town kept their hair the same way.
“A beige Caprice. Why you got ‘beige-brown’ on here, then?”
“Had one of those vinyl roofs, a shade darker than the body color.”
“Okay. I’ll get it into the system right away.”
“Like I say, probably nothin’. But let me know it if turns up aces.”
Strange watched Blue go back to his car. He took the papers from the Pee Wee folder and decided to put them together with the Midget papers in the folder Blue had just given him. He opened the folder. Inside was a mimeographed list of Lorenze Wilder’s friends and acquaintances, along with notations describing interview details, taken from the official investigation.
Strange turned his head. Blue had ignitioned his Buick and was pulling off the curb. Strange nodded in his direction, but Blue would not look his way. Strange put the papers together, slipped the folder into his file box, and closed the lid of his trunk.
STRANGE drove Lionel to his mother’s house on Quintana. As Lionel was getting out of the car, he asked Strange if he was coming over for dinner that night. Strange replied that he didn’t think so, but to tell his mother he’d “get up with her later on.” Lionel looked back once at Strange as he went up the walk to his house. Strange drove away.
Prince was the next to be dropped. He had been quiet during the game and had not spoken at all on the ride. The boys who were always cracking on him were on their usual corner, across from his house. Prince asked Strange if he would mind walking along with him to his door. At the door, Strange patted Prince’s shoulder.
“You played a good game today, son.”
“Thanks, Coach Derek.”
“See you at practice, hear? Now go on inside.”
Lamar Williams rode shotgun for the trip down to Park Morton. He stared out the window, listening to that old-school music Mr. Derek liked to play, not really paying attention to the words or the melody. It was always that blue-sky stuff about love and picking yourself up, how the future was gonna be brighter, brother this and brother that. Lamar wondered if everyone had been more together back then, in the seventies or whenever it was. If those brothers weren’t killin’ each other every day, like they were now. If they were killin’ on kids “back in the day.” Anyway, that kind of music, it sure didn’t speak to the world Lamar was living in right now.
“You thinkin’ of Joe?” said Strange.
“It’s okay. I was, too.”
Lamar shifted in his seat. “That boy was just good. I never thought he’d die. You’d think he’d be the last one living in my complex who’d go out like that.”
“Just because he was a good boy? You know better than that. I’ve told you before, you always got to be aware of what’s going on around you, living where you do.”
“I know. But I don’t mean that, see? Word was, Joe was protected. Even the ones liked to step to everybody, they kept their hands off that boy. I mean, he was a tough little kid and all. But the word was out; everybody knew not to fuck with Joe.”
Strange started to correct Lamar from using the curse word, but he let it pass. “Why you think that was?”
“No idea. Was like, people got the idea in their heads he was connected to someone you didn’t want to cross. It was just one of those things got around, and you knew.”
“I saw some fellas at his funeral,” said Strange, “had to be drug boys.”
“I saw ’em, too,” said Lamar.
“Any idea why they were paying their respects?”
“Was his mother involved with those people?”
“Not so I knew.”
“What about that car she came in?”
“Everybody drivin’ a nice car these days, seems like. Don’t make you in the game.”
“True. But you never saw her hangin’ with people you thought were in the life?”
“No. There was these young boys, was lookin’ for her one night. They rolled up on me when I was walkin’ through the complex. Said they owed her money. I didn’t tell ’em where she lived, though. They didn’t look right.”
Strange looked over at Lamar. “How did they look?”
“I don’t recall, you want the truth. Don’t mind tellin’ you, Mr. Derek, I was scared.”
“Did one of them have cornrows?”
“I don’t remember. Look, I didn’t even want to meet their eyes, much less study on ’em. I only remember this one boy in the backseat, ’cause he was, like, goofy lookin’. Had a nose on him like one of those anteaters and shit.”
“What about their car?”
“It was white,” said Lamar. “Square, old. That’s all that registered in my mind. That’s all I know.”
“You did right not to meet their eyes, Lamar. You did good.”
“Yeah.” Lamar snorted cynically. “It’s all good. Good to be livin’ in a place where you can’t even be lookin’ at anyone long for fear you’re gonna get downed.”
Strange pulled into Park Morton and went slowly down its narrow road.
“You got be positive, Lamar. You got to focus on doing the things that will get you to a better place.”
Lamar looked Strange over. His lip twitched before he spoke. “How I’m gonna do that, huh? I can’t read all that good, and I’m barely gonna graduate high school. I got no kinda grades to get me into any kind of college. Only job I ever had was dustin’ your office and taking out your trash.”
“There’s plenty of things you can do. There’s night school and there’s trade school… whole lotta things you can do, hear?”
“Yessir,” said Lamar, his voice devoid of enthusiasm. He pointed to the road going alongside the playground in the courtyard. “You can drop me right here.”
Strange stopped the car. “Listen, you been good to me, Lamar. Conscientious and efficient, and I’m not gonna forget it. I’ll help you in any way I can. I’m not going to give up on you, young man, you hear me?”
Lamar nodded. “I’m just all messed up over Joe right now, I guess. I miss that boy.”
“I miss him, too,” said Strange.
He watched Lamar cross the courtyard, pushing on a rusted swing as he walked past the set. Strange thought about the description that Lamar had just given him: the white car, and the kid with the long nose. Juarez, the ice-cream-parlor employee, had described the Plymouth’s driver as having a nose “like a beak.”
Strange had the strong suspicion that this was not a coincidence. He knew he should phone Lydell Blue right now and give him the information he had just received. But he had already decided to keep Lamar’s story to himself.
Strange was not proud of his decision, but he had to be honest with himself now. He was hoping to find the murderers of Joe Wilder before they were picked up by the police. He knew that if these little pieces were coming to him, a private cop, it would not be long before the police, fully mobilized, would have suspects in custody. He was wondering how much time he had before they took the killers in. Wondering, too, what he would do to them if he found them first.
STRANGE hit the heavy bag in his basement, showered and dressed, fed Greco, and locked down his row house. He drove uptown toward the District line. In his rearview he thought he saw a red car, vaguely familiar, staying with him but keeping back a full block at all times. The next time he checked on the car, up around Morris Miller’s liquor store, it was gone, and Strange relaxed in his seat.
The events of the past week had elevated his sense of street paranoia. People living in certain sections of the city, Strange knew, felt the fear of walking under this kind of emotional sword every day. But he didn’t like to succumb to it himself.
Strange parked on Sligo Avenue. As he was crossing the street, the beeper on his hip sounded, and he checked the numbered readout: Janine. He clipped the beeper back onto his belt.
Strange walked into Renzo’s, an unbeautiful neighborhood beer garden in downtown Silver Spring. Renzo’s housed a straight-line bar, stools along a mirrored wall, a pool table, and keno monitors. Bars like this one were common in Baltimore, Philly, and Pittsburgh, but rare around D.C. Quinn sat on a bar stool, reading a paperback and nursing a bottle of Bud in the low light. A heavyset guy in a flannel shirt, a guy in camouflage pants, and several keno players, huffing cigarettes, sat with him along the stick. The bartender was a woman, nearly featureless in the low light, wearing a Nighthawks T-shirt and jeans. Smoke hung heavy in the air.
Strange got up on a stool next to Quinn. He ordered a Heineken from the tender.
“From a bottle,” said Strange. “And I don’t need a glass.”
“This is you,” said Quinn, producing a record album he had propped up at his feet.
Strange took it and studied the cover. He smiled at the photograph of Al Green decked out in a white suit, white turtleneck, and white stacks, sitting in a white cane chair against a white background. A green hanging plant and a green potted plant, along with the singer’s rich chocolate skin, gave the cover its color. It looked like Al was wearing dark green socks, too, though some argued that the socks were black.
“I’m Still in Love With You.”
“You don’t have to say it,” said Quinn. “It’s understood.”
“Al freaks called this ‘The White Album,’” said Strange, ignoring Quinn. “Has ‘Simply Beautiful’ on it, too.”
“You don’t have it, do you? I thought it might be one of those you lost in that house flood you had.”
“I did lose the vinyl, you’re right. I own the CD, but the CD’s got no bottom.”
“Funny thing is, it came in with this carton of seventies rock, a lot of hard blues-metal and also weird stuff some pot smoker had to be listening to. I found Al Green filed alphabetically, after Gentle Giant and Gong.”
“Herb smokers used to listen to Al, too. People used to listen to all sorts of music then, wasn’t no barriers set up like it is now. Young man like you, you missed it. Was a real good time.”
“I think you might have mentioned that to me before. Anyway, I’m glad you like it.”
“Thank you, buddy.”
“It’s all right.”
Strange and Quinn tapped bottles. Strange then filled Quinn in on the ongoing investigation. He told him about the Caprice in the parking lot and the white car and its occupants that had rolled up on Lamar Williams. He told him about Lydell Blue’s list.
“You get up with Joe’s mother,” said Quinn, “she might be able to narrow down the number of names for us.”
“I called Sandra a couple of times and left messages,” said Strange. “She hasn’t got back to me yet.”
They discussed the case further. Strange drank two beers to Quinn’s one. Quinn watched Strange close his eyes as he took a deep pull from the bottle.
“Janine’s been trying to get up with you,” said Quinn.
“She called me at the bookstore, said she’s been beeping you. Something about finding the last piece of the puzzle on Calhoun Tucker.”
Strange drank off some of his beer. “I’ll have to see what that’s about.”
“What’s goin’ on between you two?”
“Why, she say somethin’ was?”
“Only that you’ve been avoiding her this week. Outside of work stuff, she hasn’t been able to get through to you at all.”
“I’m not sure I’m right for her right now, you want the truth. Her or Lionel. When I get like this… Ah, forget it.” Strange signaled the bartender.
“You’re not done with that one yet,” said Quinn, nodding to the bottle in front of Strange.
“I will be soon. But thanks for pointing it out.” Strange’s elbow slipped off the bar. “At least you’re doin’ all right with Sue. Seems like a good woman. Looks good, too.”
“Yeah, she’s cool. I’m lucky I found her. But Derek, I’m talkin’ about you.”
“Look, man, everything’s been boiling up inside me, with Joe’s death and all. I know I haven’t been dealing with it right.”
“Nobody knows how to deal with it. When a kid dies like that, you look around you and the things you thought were in order, your beliefs, God, whatever… nothing makes sense. I’ve been fucked up about it myself. We all have.”
Strange didn’t say anything for a while. And then he said, “I should’ve let him run that play.”
“Forty-four Belly. He wanted to run it in at the end of the game. Boy never did get to run that touchdown play, the whole time he played for us. He would’ve scored that day, too, ’cause he had the fire. Can you imagine how happy that would’ve made him, Terry?”
Strange’s eyes had filled. A tear threatened to break loose. Quinn handed him a bar napkin. Strange used it to wipe his face.
Quinn noticed that the guy in the flannel shirt was staring at Strange.
“You want somethin’?” said Quinn.
“No,” said the guy, who quickly looked away.
“I didn’t think you did,” said Quinn.
“Settle down, Terry. I’d be starin’, too. Grown man, actin’ like a baby.” Strange balled up the napkin and dropped it in an ashtray. “Anyway. It’s all water passed now, isn’t it?”
“You did right,” said Quinn, “telling Joe not to run up that score. You were teaching him the right thing.”
“I don’t know about that. I don’t know. I thought he had a whole lifetime of touchdown runs ahead of him. Out here, though, every day could be, like, a last chance. Not just for the kids. For you and me, too.”
“You can’t think like that.”
“But I do. And it’s selfish of me, man, I know. Plain selfish.”
Strange stared at his fingers peeling the label of the bottle of beer. “These feelings I been having. About my own mortality, man. Selfish of me to be thinkin’ on it, when a boy died before he even got started and I been fortunate enough to live as long as I have.”
“Men are always thinking about their mortality,” said Quinn. He sipped his beer and placed the bottle softly on the bar. “Shit, man, death and sex, we think about it all the time. It’s why we do all the stupid things we do.”
“You’re right. Every time I start thinkin’ on my age, or that I’m bound to die, I start thinking about getting some strange. Makes me want to run away from Janine and Lionel and any kind of responsibility. It’s always been like that with me. Like having a different woman’s gonna put off death, if only for a little while.”
“You need to be runnin’ to those people, Derek. The ones who love you, man. Not to those girls down at those massage parlors-”
“Aw, here we go.”
“Just because they don’t walk the street doesn’t make ’em any different than streetwalkers. Those girls ain’t nothin’ but hookers, man.”
“I’m serious. Look, I’ve been with whores. So I’m not looking down on you for this. Just about every man I know has been with ’em, even if it was just a rite-of-passage thing. But what I’ve been seeing lately-”
“Your girl Sue got you converted, huh? Now you got religion and seen the light.”
“No, not me. But it’s wrong.”
“Terry, these ladies I see, they got to make a living same as anyone else.”
“You think that’s what they want to be doing with their lives? Putting their hands on a man’s dick they got no feelings for? Letting a stranger touch their privates? Shit, Derek, these Asian girls in those places, they’ve been brought over here and forced into that life to pay off some kind of a debt. It’s like slavery.”
“Nah, man, don’t even go there. White man starts talkin’ about, It’s like slavery, I do not want to hear it.”
“Ignore it if you want to,” said Quinn. “But that’s exactly what it’s like.”
“I got to relieve myself, man,” said Strange. “Where’s the bathroom at in this place?”
Quinn drank the rest of his beer while Strange went to the men’s room. When Strange returned, Quinn noticed that he had washed his face. Strange did not get back on his stool. He placed one hand on the bar for support.
“Well, I better get on out of here.”
“Yeah, I need to also. I’m seeing Sue tonight.”
Strange withdrew his wallet from his back pocket. Quinn put his hand on Strange’s forearm.
“I got it.”
“Thanks, buddy.” Strange picked up his album and put it under his arm. “And thanks again for this.”
“Monday morning, I plan on getting started on that list Lydell slipped our way. You with me?”
“You know it. Derek-”
Strange nodded. He shook Quinn’s hand and pushed away from the bar, unsteady on his feet. Quinn watched him go.
STRANGE stopped by Morris Miller’s and bought a six. He opened one as he hit Alaska Avenue and drank it while driving south on 16th. Dusk had come. He didn’t know where he was headed. He kept driving and found himself on Mount Pleasant Street. He parked and went into the Raven, a quiet old bar he liked, not too different from Renzo’s, to get himself off the road. There, seated in a booth against the wall, he drank another beer.
When he came out he was half drunk, and the sky was dark. He said “hola” to a Latino he passed on the sidewalk and the man just laughed. Strange’s beeper sounded. He scanned the readout and looked for a pay phone. He had brought his cell with him, but he didn’t know where it was. Maybe in the car. He didn’t care to use it anyhow. He knew of a pay phone up near Sportsman’s Liquors, run by the Vondas brothers. He liked those guys, liked to talk with them about sports. But their store would be closed this time of night.
Strange walked in that direction, found the phone, and dropped a quarter and a dime in the slot. He waited for an answer as men stood on the sidewalk around him talking and laughing and drinking from cans inside paper bags.
“Janine. Derek here.”
“Where are you?”
“Calling from the street. Somewhere down here… Mount Pleasant.”
“I been trying to get up with you.”
“All right, then, here I am. What’ve you got?”
“You sound drunk, Derek.”
“I had one or two. What’ve you got?”
“Calhoun Tucker. You know how I been trying to finish out checking on his employment record? I finally got the word on that job he had with Strong Services, down in Portsmouth? They were no longer operating, so I was having trouble pinpointing the nature of the business-”
“C’mon, Janine, get to it.”
There was a silence on the other end of the line. Strange knew he had been short with her. He knew she was losing patience with him, rightfully so. Still, he kept on.
“Janine, just tell me what you found.”
“Strong Services was an investigative agency. They specialized in rooting out employee theft. He worked undercover in clubs, trying to find employees who were stealing from the registers, like that. Which is how he moved on into the promotion business, I would guess. But my point is, at one time, Tucker was a private cop. He might have done other forms of investigation as well.”
“I get it. So now that completes his background check. Anything else?”
There was another block of silence. “No, that’s it.”
“Am I going to see you tonight, Derek?”
“I don’t think so, baby. It’d be better for both of us if I was alone tonight, I think. Tell Lionel… Janine?”
Somewhere in there Strange thought he’d heard a click. Now there was a dial tone. The line was dead.
Strange stood on the sidewalk, the sounds of cars braking and honking and Spanish voices around him. He hung the receiver back in its cradle. He walked back down toward the Raven and tried to remember where he had parked his car.
STRANGE parked in the alley behind the Chinese place on I Street and got out of his Caddy. The heroin addict who hustled the alley, a longtime junkie named Sam, stepped out of the shadows and approached Strange.
“All right, then,” said Sam.
“All right. Keep an eye on it. I’ll get you on the way out.”
Sam nodded. Strange went in the back door, through the hall and the beaded curtains, and had a seat at a deuce. He ordered Singapore-style noodles and a Tsingtao from the mama-san who ran the place, and when she served his beer she pointed to a young woman who was standing back behind the register and said, “You like?”
Strange said, “Yes.”
HE walked out into the alley. He had showered and he had come, but he was not refreshed or invigorated. He was drunk and confused, angry at himself and sad.
A cherry red Audi S4 was parked behind his Cadillac. A man stood beside the Audi, his arms folded, his eyes hard on Strange. Strange recognized him as Calhoun Tucker. He was taller, more handsome, and younger looking up close than he had appeared to be through Strange’s binoculars and the lens of his AE-1.
“Where’s Sam at?” said Strange.
“You mean the old man? He took a stroll. I doubled what you were payin’ him to look after your car.”
“Money always cures loyalty.”
“Especially to someone got a jones. One thing I learned in the investigation business early on.”
Tucker unfolded his arms and walked slowly toward Strange. He stopped a few feet away.
Strange kept his posture and held his ground. “How’d you get onto me?”
“You talked to a girl down in a club on Twelfth.”
“Right. You left her your card. She was mad at me the day she spoke to you. She ain’t mad at me no more.”
The alley was quiet. A street lamp hummed nearby.
“You’ve been easy to tail, Strange. Especially easy to follow today. All that drinkin’ you been doing.”
“What do you want?”
“You got a nice business. Nice woman, too. And that boy she’s got, he seems clean-cut, doesn’t look like no knucklehead. Living up there on Quintana. You spend the night there once in a while, don’t you?”
“You’ve been tailing me awhile.”
“Yeah. Let me ask you somethin’: Does your woman know you get your pleasure down here with these hos like you do?”
Strange narrowed his eyes. “I asked you what you wanted.”
“All right, then, I’ll get to it. Won’t take up much of your time. Just wanted to tell you one thing.”
Tucker looked around the alley. When he looked back at Strange, his eyes had softened.
“I love Alisha Hastings. I love her deep.”
“I don’t blame you. She’s a fine young lady. From a real good family, too. You got yourself a piece of gold right there. Somethin’ you should’ve thought of when you were runnin’ around on her.”
“I think of her all the time. And I plan to be good to her. To take care of her on the financial tip and be there for her emotionally, too. This is the woman who is gonna be the mother of my children, Strange.”
“You got a funny way of preparin’ for it.”
“Look at yourself, man. Is it you who should be judging me?”
Strange said nothing.
“I’m a young man,” said Tucker. “I am young and I have not taken that vow yet and until I do I am gonna freak. Because I am only gonna be this young and this free one time. But, you got to understand, that ceremony is gonna mean somethin’ to me. I saw a bond between my mother and my father that couldn’t be broken, and it set an example for me. For my brothers and sisters, too. I know what it means. But for now, I’m just out here having fun.”
“George Hastings is a friend of mine.”
“Then be a friend to him. I’m lookin’ you in the eye and telling you, there is nobody out here who is going to love and respect his daughter, for life, like I know I am going to do.”
“I can only report your history and what I’ve seen.”
“You’re not listening to me, Strange. Hear me and think about what I’m telling you. I love that girl. I love her fierce enough to make me do something I don’t care to do. You want to take me down, fine. But you’re gonna go right down with me.”
“You threatenin’ me?”
“Just telling you how it’s gonna be.”
Strange looked down at his feet. He rubbed his face and again met Tucker’s eyes. “Whatever I’m gonna do with regards to you, young man, I am going to do. You standing there talking bold, it’s not gonna influence me either way.”
“Course not.” Tucker looked Strange over. “You got principles.”
“You don’t know me that well to be talking to me that way.”
“But I do know your kind.”
“Now wait a minute-”
“Let me put it another way, then. This is all about what kind of husband I’m gonna be to Alisha, right? Well, I can promise you this: I ain’t gonna end up like you, Strange. Sneakin’ around down here in your middle age, paying to have some girl you don’t even know jack your dick. Out here tellin’ on others when you got a fucked-up life your own self. So do whatever you think is right. I’ve said what I came to say. You want to listen, it’s up to you.”
Tucker walked back to his car, got behind the wheel, and lit the ignition. Strange watched the Audi back out of the alley. Then it was just Strange, standing on the stones under the humming street lamp, alone with his shame.
JANINE Baker came down the stairs and unlocked the front door of her house at a little past one in the morning. She had been lying awake in bed and had recognized the engine on Strange’s Cadillac as he had cruised slowly down her block.
He was out there on the stoop, one step down from the doorway. She looked down on him, rumpled and glassy-eyed, as she stood in the frame.
“Come on in. It’s cool out there.”
“I don’t think I should,” said Strange. “I just came by to apologize for being so short with you on the phone.”
Janine pulled the lapels of her robe together against the chill. Behind her, Strange could see Lionel coming down the staircase. He stopped a few steps up.
“Tell him to go back to bed,” said Strange softly. “I don’t want him seeing me like this.”
Janine looked over her shoulder and directed her son to return to his room. Strange waited for Lionel to go back up the stairs.
“I’m all turned around,” said Strange.
“And you’re trying to say what?”
“I just don’t feel… I don’t feel like I’m right for you now. I know I’m not right for the boy.”
“You’re looking to give up on us, is that it?”
“I don’t know.”
“I haven’t given up on you.”
“I know it.”
“Even while I knew how you been cheatin’ on me these past couple years.”
Strange looked up at her. “It’s not what you think.”
“Tell me what it is, then. Don’t you think I been knowin’ about your, your problem for a while now? I might be forgiving, but I am human, and I still have my senses. Smelling sweet like lilacs or somethin’ every time you come back from seeing her. Smelling like perfume, and you, a man who doesn’t even wear aftershave.”
“Don’t baby me. Derek, I can smell it on you now.”
Her voice was almost gentle. It cut him, Janine being so steady with him, so strong. He wanted her to raise her voice, let it out. But he could see she wasn’t going to do that. It made him admire her even more.
Strange shifted his feet. “I never loved another woman the whole time I been lovin’ you.”
“That supposed to mean something to me? Should I feel better because you only been, what, cattin’ around with hos?”
“What about respectin’ me? What about respecting yourself?”
Strange cut his eyes. “When my mother was dying, that whole time… that was when I started. I couldn’t face it, Janine. Not just her passing, but lookin’ at my own death, too. Seeing that my turn was coming up, not too far behind.”
“And now Joe Wilder’s been killed,” said Janine, completing his thought. “Derek, don’t go dishonoring that little boy’s memory by connecting the one thing to the other. All these bad things out here ought to lead you to the ones who love you. In the face of all that, family and your faith in the Lord, it’s what keeps you strong.”
“I guess I’m weak, then.”
“Yes, Derek, you are weak. Like so many men who are really just boys on the inside. Selfish, and so afraid to die.”
Strange spread his hands. “I love you, Janine. Know this.”
Janine leaned forward and kissed him on the mouth. It was a soft kiss, not held long. As she pulled back, Strange knew that the feel of her lips on his would haunt him forever.
“I won’t share you anymore,” said Janine. “I am not going to share you with anyone else. So you need to think about your future. How you want to spend it, and who you want to spend it with.”
Strange nodded slowly. He turned and walked down the sidewalk to his car. Janine closed the door and locked it, and went into the hallway and leaned her back against the plaster wall. Here she was out of sight of Lionel and Strange. For a very short while, and quietly, she allowed herself to cry.
TERRY Quinn sat naked in a cushioned armchair set by the window. His bedroom was dark, and outside the window the streets were dark and still. He stared out the window at nothing, his fist resting on his chin. He heard a rustling sound as Sue Tracy moved under the sheets and blanket. Her nude form was a lush outline as she brought herself to a sitting position in his bed.
“What’s wrong, Terry? Can’t you sleep?”
“I’m thinking about Derek,” said Quinn. “I’m worried about my friend.”
THE next morning, Strange willed himself out of bed and down to the kitchen, where he brewed a cup of coffee and slipped the sports page out of the Sunday Post. He drank the coffee black while reading Michael Wilbon’s latest column on Iverson and a story on the upcoming ’Skins / Ravens contest, set for that afternoon. Strange then drove with Greco up to Military and Oregon, where he hung a left into Rock Creek Park. He and many others ran their dogs in a field there by a large parking lot.
Greco ran the high grass field with a young Doberman named Miata, a black-and-tan beauty whose primary markings were a brown muzzle, chest, and forelegs. Generally, Greco preferred the company of humans and chose his few canine playmates carefully. But he took to this one quickly, finding Miata to be an energetic and able-bodied friend. The dog’s owner, Deen Kogan, was an attractive woman with whom Strange found it very easy to talk. In another life, he might have asked her out for a scotch, maybe a bite to eat. But she wasn’t Janine.
Back on Buchanan, Strange showered and dressed in one of the two suits he owned. He emptied a full can of Alpo into Greco’s dish and headed up to the New Bethel Church of Christ, on Georgia and Piney Branch. Driving north, he realized that he was being followed by a black Mercedes C-Class, a fine factory automobile cheapened in this case by the custom addition of a spoiler and over-elaborate rims. Up around Fort Stevens he circled the block, came back out on Georgia, and looked in his rearview: The Mercedes was still behind him. After his encounter with Calhoun Tucker, he could no longer blame his feeling of dread on paranoia. This was real.
Strange took a seat in a pew far back in the church, coming in at the tail end of the service. He could see Janine and Lionel in their usual place, a few rows up ahead. Strange prayed hard for them and for himself, and closed his eyes tightly when he prayed for Joe Wilder. He believed, he had to believe, that the spirit of that beautiful boy had gone on to a better place. He told himself that the corpse lying in the ground in that small box wasn’t Joe, but was just a shell. He felt his emotions well up, more from anger than from sadness, as he prayed.
Outside the church Strange shook hands with the parishioners he knew, and with a few he was meeting for the first time. He felt a hand drop onto his shoulder and he turned. It was George Hastings, his daughter by his side.
“George,” said Strange. “Alisha. Sweetheart, you look lovely today.”
“Thank you, Mr. Derek.”
“Honey,” said Hastings, “give me a moment alone with Derek here, will you?”
Alisha gave Strange a beautiful smile and found a friend to talk to nearby.
“Haven’t heard from you in a while,” said Hastings.
“Been meaning to get up with you, George,” said Strange.
“You could stop by for the game. You got plans for the day?”
“No, I… All right. Maybe I’ll drop by later on.”
Hastings shook Strange’s hand and held the grip. “My sympathies on that boy from your team.”
Strange nodded. He had no idea what he would say to his friend when they next met.
Strange caught up with Janine and Lionel as they walked to her car and asked them if they’d like to have breakfast with him at the diner. It was their Sunday morning ritual. But Janine said she had a busy afternoon planned and that she ought to get a jump on it. Lionel did not protest. Strange told him he’d pick him up for practice Monday night. Lionel only nodded, double-taking Strange with what Strange took to be a look of confusion before dropping into the passenger side of Janine’s car. Strange hated himself then for what he knew he was: another man who was about to drift out of this boy’s life. He wondered what Janine had told Lionel, and what he would tell Lionel himself if he had the chance.
On the way over to the Three-Star Diner, going east on Kennedy, Strange noticed the Mercedes, once again, in his rearview. The tricked-out car was only two lengths back. They’re not even worried about being burned, thought Strange, and for one young moment he considered taking a sudden turn and punching the gas. He could lose them easily; he’d come up around here, and no one knew these streets and alleys like he did. But he let them follow him, all the way down to First, where he parked his Caddy in a space along the curb. The Mercedes pulled up behind him.
Strange locked his Brougham and walked toward the Mercedes, memorizing the car’s license plate and confirming the model as he approached. Strange reached the car as the driver’s-side window slid down. Behind the wheel was a handsome, typically unfriendly looking young man with close-cropped hair. His suit and the knot of his tie were immaculate. Strange recognized him as one of the men who had attended Joe Wilder’s funeral. He had been talking to Joe’s mother, Sandra Wilder, by the grave.
In the passenger bucket was a man of the same age, same unsmiling expression, more flashily dressed. He sat low, with one arm leaning on the sill of his window, talking on his cell.
“What can I do for you fellas?” said Strange.
“A man needs to speak with you,” said the driver.
Strange knew the name. The city knew Granville Oliver’s name. But with Strange it was more; he had a history with Oliver’s bloodline.
“And you are?”
Wood’s partner lowered the cell and looked across the buckets at Strange. “Granville wants to see you now.”
Strange did not acknowledge this one or give him any kind of eye contact at all. He glanced over his shoulder through the plate glass fronting the diner. He could see Billy Georgelakos coming around the counter, his girth pushing against his stained apron, holding the pine baton that Strange knew had been hollowed out and filled with lead. Strange shook his head slightly at Billy, who stopped his forward path at once. Strange returned his gaze to the driver, Phillip Wood.
“Tell you what,” said Strange. “I’m gonna go on in there and eat my breakfast. When I come out, y’all are still out here? We can talk.”
Strange gave them his back, left the idling Mercedes curbside, and walked into the Three-Star. The sound of gospel music, coming from the house radio, hit him like cool water as he entered the diner.
“Everything all right, Derek?” said Georgelakos, now behind the counter again.
“I think so.”
“Thanks, friend,” said Strange.
STRANGE ate a feta-cheese-and-onion omelette sprinkled with Texas Pete hot sauce, and a half-smoke side, and washed it down with a couple of cups of coffee. Some after-church types were at the counter and some sat in the old red-cushioned booths. The diner was white tiles and white walls, kept clean by Billy and his longtime employee, Etta.
Billy Georgelakos, his bald head sided by patches of gray, ambled down the rubber mat that ran behind the counter and leaned his forearms on the Formica top.
“Where’s Janine and the boy?”
“Busy,” said Strange, sopping up the juice left on the plate with a triangle of white toast.
“Uh,” grunted Georgelakos. His great eagle nose twitched. His glance moved through the window to the street, then back to Strange. “What about it? They’re waiting for you, right?”
“I told them to wait,” said Strange. He closed his eyes as he swallowed the last of his breakfast. “Billy, you can’t get a better egg and half-smoke combination in all of D.C. than you can right here.”
“The omelette was my father’s recipe, you know that. But your father taught us all how to grill a half-smoke.”
“However it happened, it’s beautiful music, that’s for damn sure.”
“You sure you gonna be all right?”
“Pretty sure. Lemme see your pen.”
Georgelakos drew his Bic from where it rested atop his ear. Strange wrote something down on a clean napkin he pulled from a dispenser.
“In case I’m wrong,” said Strange, “here’s the license plate number of their car. It’s a C two thirty, a two thousand model, in case it comes up.”
Georgelakos took the napkin, folded it, and slipped it under his apron. Strange left money on the counter and shook Georgelakos’s hand.
On the way out, Strange stopped by the photograph of his father, Darius Strange, wearing his chef ’s hat and standing next to Billy’s father, Mike Georgelakos, in the early 1960s. The photograph was framed and mounted by the front door. He stared at it for a few moments, as he always did, before reaching for the handle of the door.
“Adio, Derek,” said Georgelakos.
“Yasou, Vasili,” said Strange.
OUT on the street, Strange stood before the open window of the Mercedes.
“Get in,” said Phillip Wood.
“Where we goin’?”
“You’ll find out, chief,” said Wood’s partner.
Strange looked at Wood only. “Where?”
“Out Central Avenue. Largo area.”
“I’ll follow you out,” said Strange, and when Wood didn’t answer, Strange said, “Young man, it’s the only way I’ll go.”
Wood’s partner laughed, and Wood stared at Strange some more in that hard way that was not working on Strange at all.
“Follow us, then,” said Wood.
Strange went to his car.
STRANGE followed the Mercedes east to North Capitol, then south, then east again on H to Benning Road. Farther along they found Central Avenue and took it out of the city and into Maryland.
As he drove, Strange mentally recounted what he knew of Granville Oliver.
Oliver, now in his early thirties, had come up fatherless in the Stanton Terrace Dwellings of Anacostia, in Southeast D.C. His mother was welfare dependent and a shooter of heroin and cocaine. When he was eight years old, Granville had learned how to tie his mother off and inject her with coke, a needed jolt when her heroin nods took her down to dangerously low levels. He was taught this by one of her interchangeable male friends, hustlers and junkheads themselves, always hanging around the house. One of these men taught him how to go with his hands. Another taught him how to load and fire a gun. At the time, Granville was nine years old.
Granville had an older brother, two cousins, and one uncle who were in the game. Cocaine at first, and then crack when it hit town around the summer of ’86. The brother was executed in a turf dispute involving drugs. The cousins were doing time in Ohio and Illinois prisons, dispersed there after the phase-out of Lorton. Granville’s mother died when he was in his early teens, an overdose long overdue. It was the uncle, Bennett Oliver, who eventually took Granville under his wing.
Granville dropped out of Ballou High School in the tenth grade. By then he was living in a row house with friends in Congress Heights, south of Saint Elizabeth’s. He had been a member of the notorious Kieron Black Gang in the Heights, but it was small change, a you-kill-one-of-us-and-we-kill-one-of-you thing, and he wanted out. So Granville went to his uncle, who took him on.
From the start it was apparent that Granville had a good head for numbers. After he had proven himself on the front lines – he was allegedly the triggerman in four murders by the time he was seventeen years old – he quickly moved into operations and helped grow the business. Through ruthless extermination of the competition, and Granville’s brains, the Oliver Mob soon became the largest crack and heroin distribution machine in the southeast quadrant of the city.
The center of the operation was a small rec center anchoring a rocky baseball field and rimless basketball court on the grounds of an elementary school in the Heights. There Bennett and Granville got to know the kids from the surrounding neighborhoods of Wilburn Mews, Washington Highlands, Walter E. Washington Estates, Valley Green, Barnaby Terrace, and Congress Park.
For many of the area’s youths, the Olivers, especially the young and handsome Granville, were now the most respected men in Southeast. The police were the enemy, that was a given, and working men and women were squares. The Olivers had the clothes, the cars, and the women, and the stature of men who had returned from war. They gave money to the community, participated in fund-raisers at local churches, sponsored basketball squads that played police teams, and passed out Christmas presents in December to children in the Frederick Douglass and Stanton Terrace Dwellings. They were the heroes, and the folk heroes, of the area. Many kids growing up there didn’t dream of becoming doctors or lawyers or even professional athletes. Their simple ambition was to join the Mob, to be “put on.” Working out of the rec center, the elder Oliver had the opportunity to observe the talent and nurture it as well.
Granville and Bennett’s hands no longer touched drugs. In the tradition of these businesses, the youngest shouldered the most risk and thereby earned the chance of graduating to the next level. The Olivers rarely killed using their own hands. When they did, they didn’t hold the weapon until the moment of execution. The gun was carried by an underling; the squire, in effect, handed it to the knight at the knight’s command.
So the Olivers were smart, and it seemed to the newspaper-reading public and to some of the police that they would never be stopped. There were possibilities: tax evasion was one, as were wires and bugs planted to record their conversations. The more likely scenario was that they would be ratted out by snitches: guys who needed to plead out or guys who had previously been raped in jail and would do anything to avoid being punked out again. The Olivers knew, like all drug kingpins knew, that they would go down eventually. And snitches would be the means by which they would fall.
In August of 1999, one week before he was scheduled to go on trial for racketeering after a wire recorded him discussing a major buy, Bennett Oliver was found murdered behind the wheel of his car, a new-style Jag with titanium wheels, idling a block from the rec center. Two bullets had entered his brain, one had blown out an eye, and a fourth had bored a tunnel clean through his neck. The Jag was still idling when the police rolled up on the scene. There were no bullet holes in the palms of the hands, no defensive marks at all, indicating that Bennett knew and maybe even trusted his attacker and had been surprised by his own murder. The word on the street was that Bennett’s nephew Granville, expecting his uncle to roll over and implicate him on the stand, had pulled the trigger or had ordered it pulled.
Granville Oliver had kept a relatively low profile since the murder of Bennett. Though he was still very much in the business, his name, and the name of his operation, had not appeared recently in the news. He had moved to a new home outside the city, in Largo, where he was said to be recording an album in a studio he had built in the basement of the house.
Strange steered his Cadillac off the main highway. He supposed that he was headed toward Granville Oliver’s house now.
He parked behind the Mercedes in a circular drive in front of a large brick colonial. Another brand-new Mercedes, less adorned than the one Phillip Wood drove, was parked there, facing out.
The house was on a street with two similar houses, one of which appeared to be unoccupied. It wasn’t a neighborhood, exactly, certainly not one of those gated communities favored by the new African American wealth of Prince George’s County. Maybe Granville wanted the privacy. More likely, those kinds of people had moved behind the gates to get away from the Granville Olivers of the world. There were unofficial covenants protecting them; real estate agents working certain neighborhoods knew to discourage sales to his kind.
Wood’s partner remained in the car. Strange followed Wood to the front door. He noticed an open garage, totally empty, attached to the side of the house. Beside the garage, a boy no older than twelve raked leaves.
They walked into a large foyer in which a split staircase led to the upper floor. Two hallways on either side of the staircases reached a state-of-the-art kitchen opening to a large area holding cushiony couches, a wide-screen television, and stereo equipment. They went through this area, past a dining room introduced by French doors, and into another sort of foyer that led to an open door. Wood was talking on his cell all the way. He made a gesture to Strange and stepped aside so that Strange could go, alone, through the doorway.
The room was a kind of library, with framed photographs on the walls and books shelved around a huge cherry-wood desk, and it smelled of expensive cologne. Granville Oliver sat behind the desk. He was a large man with light brown eyes, nearly golden, and handsome in an open-neck shirt under a dark suit. Strange recognized him by sight.
“Go ahead and close that door,” said Oliver.
Strange closed it and walked across the room.
Oliver stood, sized Strange up, leaned forward, and shook his hand. Strange had a seat in a comfortable chair that had been placed before the desk.
“This about Joe Wilder?” said Strange.
“That’s right,” said Oliver. “I want you to find the ones who killed my son.”
“YOU’RE Joe’s father?”
“He never mentioned it.”
Granville Oliver spread his hands. “He didn’t know.”
The Motorola StarTAC on Oliver’s desk chirped. Oliver picked up the cell, flipped it open, and put it to his ear. Strange listened to “uh-huh” and “yeah” over and over again. He was too wired to sit in the chair and digest what had been revealed. He got up out of the chair and walked around the room.
The wall cases were filled with books. Judging by the tears on the corners of the frayed jackets and the cracks in the spines of the paperbacks, the books had been read. Except for a few classic works of fiction by writers like Ellison, Himes, and Wright, most of Oliver’s collection consisted of nonfiction. The subjects dealt with black nationalism, black separatism, and black empowerment. All were penned by black authors.
The photographs on the walls were of Oliver with local sports celebrities and politicians. One showed him with his arm slung over the shoulder of D.C.’s former mayor. There was a rumor, unsubstantiated, that Oliver had periodically supplied the mayor with both women and drugs. Another photo had Oliver standing on an outdoor court, presenting a trophy to a basketball team wearing black shirts with red print across the chests. The shirts read, “Dare to Stay Off Drugs.”
The cell phone made a sound again as Oliver ended his call.
“You sponsor a team?” said Strange.
“Gotta give back to the community,” said Oliver, with no apparent irony.
Strange could only stare at him. Oliver nodded in the direction of his cell phone, which he had placed on a green blotter. “I had to take that, but it’s turned off now. We can talk.”
Strange sat back down in his chair.
“So what do you think?” said Oliver, waving his hand around the room, the gesture meant to include the entire house, his land, all his possessions. “Not bad for a Southeast boy, right?”
“It is something.”
“Check this out.” Oliver shook a black-and-white photograph out of a manila envelope and slid it across the desk to Strange. It was a head shot of a scowling Oliver wearing a skully and chains, his arms crossed across his chest, a Glock in one hand and a.45 in the other.
Strange dropped the photograph back on the desk.
“That’s my new promo shot,” said Oliver, “for this record I just made. I brought this boy down from New York, used to run the mixin’ board up there for some of the top acts. This boy put some beats behind me, made my flow tight. I got a studio right here in my basement, man. All new equipment, all of it the best. I mean, I got everything.”
“It does make an impression,” said Strange. “But I hope you’ll understand if I don’t seem too impressed.”
“So now you gonna tell me, It’s not what you have, it’s how you got it, right?”
“Somethin’ like that. All these pretty things you own around here? There’s blood on ’em, Granville.”
Oliver’s eyes flared, but his voice remained steady. “That’s right. I took it, Mr. Strange. Wasn’t no one gonna give me nothin’, so I just went out and grabbed it. White man gonna try to keep a black man down from birth. But Bobo, he couldn’t do it to this black man.”
“Okay, then. In your mind, you’ve done all right.”
Oliver blinked his eyes hard. “I have. Despite the fact that I got born into that camp of genocide they used to call the ghetto. Poverty is violence, Mr. Strange, you’ve heard that, right?”
“And it begets violence. Poor black kids see the same television commercials white boys and white girls see out in the suburbs. They’re showed, all their young lives, all the things they should be striving to acquire. But how they gonna get these things, huh?”
Strange didn’t reply.
Oliver leaned forward. “Look, I got a good head for numbers, and I know how to manage people. I’ve always had that talent. Young boys wanted to follow me around the neighborhood when I wasn’t no more than a kid. But do you think anyone in my school ever said to me, Take this book home and read it? Keep reading and get yourself into a college, you can run your own company someday? Maybe they knew, black man ain’t never gonna run nothin’ in this country ’less he takes it and runs with it his own self. Which is what I been doin’ my whole adult life.
“So poor kids with nothin’ are gonna want things. They start by gettin’ into their own kind of enterprise, ’cause they figure out early there ain’t no other way to get it. And these enterprises are competitive, like any business. Once you start gettin’ these things, see, you’re gonna make sure you keep what you got, ’cause you can’t never go back and live the way you were livin’ before. And now Bobo gonna act surprised when the neighborhoods he done herded us into start runnin’ with blood.”
“You don’t have to lecture me about being black in this country, Granville. I been around long enough to remember injustices you haven’t even dreamed of.”
“So you agree.”
“For the most part, yes. But it doesn’t explain the fact that a lot of kids who grew up in the same kinds of places you did, the same way you did, with no kind of guidance, got out. Got through school, went on and got good jobs, careers, are raising kids of their own now who are gonna have a better chance than they ever did. And they’re doin’ it straight. By hanging with it, by being there for their children. Despite all the roadblocks you talked about.”
“Didn’t work out that way for me,” said Oliver with a shrug. “But it sure did work out. So I hope you’ll understand me if I’m not too ashamed.”
“That what you tell that young boy you got working for you, the one I saw outside?”
“Don’t worry about that boy. That boy is gonna do just fine.”
Strange leaned back in his chair. “Say why you called me out here.”
“I told you.”
“Okay. You claim Joe was yours.”
Oliver nodded. “He was one of my beef babies, from back when the shit was wild. When I was out there getting into a lot of, just, battles and mad shit like that. Used to crib up with different girls I knew from around the way, just to go underground, keep myself safe until the drama cooled down. In those two or three years, I must have fathered three babies like that.”
And you think that makes you a man.
“But you were never there for Joe,” said Strange.
“His mother, Sandra, wanted it like that. She didn’t want him to know about me. Didn’t want him lookin’ up to someone like me, Mr. Strange. It speaks to what you were just lecturin’ me on just now. She wanted the boy to grow up with some kind of chance.”
God bless her, thought Strange.
“You gave her money?”
“She wouldn’t take much. Didn’t want me anywhere near the boy; no presents at birthday time, nothin’ like that. She did take a whip I gave her, though. Told her I didn’t want no son of mine ridin’ around in that broken-down hooptie she was drivin’. A nice BMW. She couldn’t turn that down.”
“I saw it,” said Strange. “Why did you pick me?”
“Sandra says you all right. You been havin’ that business down in Petworth for years, and you got a good reputation behind it. And she says you always were good to the little man.” Oliver smiled. “Boy could play some football, couldn’t he?”
“He had a heart,” said Strange, speaking softly. “You missed out on the most beautiful thing that ever could’ve happened to your life, Granville. You missed.”
“Maybe. But now I want you to help me make it right.”
“Why? Okay, so you fathered Joe. But you never were any kind of father to him for real.”
“True. But some people know he was mine. Man in my position, he can’t just let this kind of thing go. Everyone needs to know that the ones who took my kin will be got. You lose respect in this business I’m in, there ain’t nothin’ left.”
“The police are close,” said Strange. “I’d say they’re gonna find the shooters in a few days. They’ve got likenesses and they’re putting them around the neighborhoods. This isn’t your normal street beef where everybody keeps their mouths shut. The police aren’t the enemy in a case like this. A child was murdered. Someone’s gonna come forward soon and talk.”
“I want you to find them first.”
“And do what?”
“Gimme some names.”
“I’ve been working on it,” said Strange. “I’m planning on talking to Lorenze Wilder’s friends.”
“You got a list?”
“Somethin’ like that.”
“Sandra will help you narrow it down.”
“I’ve tried to talk to her. She didn’t seem to want to.”
“She’ll talk to you now. I just got off the phone with her before you showed. She’s waitin’ on you to come by when we get done here.”
There was a knock on the door. Oliver raised his voice and said, “Come in.”
Phillip Wood appeared as the door swung open but stood back behind the frame. “You got an appointment in fifteen.”
“We’ll be done by then,” said Oliver.
Wood nodded and pulled the door shut.
“There’s an example of what I was talkin’ about right there,” said Oliver to Strange. “That boy, Phil Wood? Boy can’t even read. But he’s drivin’ a Mercedes. He’s wearin’ twelve-hundred-dollar suits with designer tags. Young man is gainfully employed, Mr. Strange, ’stead of lyin’ around in his own pee, which is where he was headed if I hadn’t put him on.”
“Where you think he’s headed now?”
“True. We all know what waits for us. But we can’t be thinkin’ on tomorrow all that much, can we? The thing you got to do is enjoy the ride.”
“It’s all good, right?”
“No, not all. Take Phil, for example. I’m gettin’ near to the point, I got to be making a decision on his future. Phil Wood’s taken a fall two times. The Feds know this, and they’re lookin’ to see him stumble, ’cause the third fall is gonna be long time. And Phil can’t do no long time. He’s weak that way. I know it, and he knows it, too.”
“You’re afraid he’s gonna roll over on you.”
“He will. Fond as I am of that young man, he will. Gonna be one of those ‘You too, Brutus’ motherfuckers in the end. My very own Judas, gonna sell out Granville Oliver for his thirty pieces.”
“You comparing yourself to the Lord?”
“Matter of fact, the first example was out of Julius Caesar. I read a lot, case you haven’t noticed. But, nah, it’s just… You know what I’m sayin’. I got a decision to make. Just tellin’ you, you know, this ain’t all fun and games.”
Strange looked at his watch.
“Yeah, okay,” said Oliver. “So, we got ourselves a deal, right?”
“No,” said Strange.
“I don’t think I’ll be working for you.”
“You got a problem with my kind.”
“Forget about me, then. Think about the boy.”
“Don’t you want to see justice done?”
“I told you, the police will have this wrapped up quick.”
“We ain’t talkin’ about the same thing.”
“The cycle never ends, does it?”
“Oh, it’ll end, you do what I ask you to do. That’s my point. There ain’t no death penalty in the District of Columbia, Mr. Strange. You want to see those shooters go to prison, get warm meals, get to sleep real comfortable, maybe walk out in twenty, twenty-five? You think my son’s ever gonna get to walk out his grave? Gimme some names, like I said. I’ll make sure justice gets served.”
“You can’t trade a bad life for a good.”
“Something someone told me a long time ago.”
“I’m givin’ you straight talk,” said Oliver, “and you’re over there talkin’ proverbs and shit. Talkin’ about cycles.”
Strange looked into Oliver’s eyes. “I knew your father.”
“Say it again.”
“They always say that D.C.’s a small town. Well, it’s true. I knew your father, over thirty years ago.”
“You got one up on me, then, chief. ’Cause I never did get to meet the man. He died in sixty-eight, during the riots. Right around the time I was born.”
“He had light eyes, just like you.”
Oliver cocked his head. “Y’all were tight?”
“He knew my brother,” said Strange. “My brother passed about the same time as your father.”
“Cycles,” said Strange, leaving it at that.
Strange got up out of his chair. Granville Oliver handed him a business card. It was for his record company, GO Entertainment. Under the logo, Oliver’s cell number was printed.
“You call me,” said Oliver, “you find anything out. And somethin’ else: Sandra says you got a white boy, helps you coach that football team. Says he works with you, too. Well, I don’t want him workin’ on none of this, hear?”
Strange slipped the business card into his suit pocket.
“My sympathies on the death of your uncle,” said Strange.
“Yeah,” said Oliver. “That was a real tragedy right there.”
Strange walked out of the house. He nodded to the boy raking leaves and received only a scowl. Phillip Wood and partner were leaning against their Mercedes in the circular drive. Strange passed them without a word, got into his Cadillac, and drove back into D.C.
THE Park Morton complex looked different during the day. There were children using the playground equipment, and mothers, aunts, and grandmothers watching over them. A group of girls was doing double Dutch by the entrance, and the ones sitting on the brick wall nearby were actually smiling. Strange knew that Sundays were quiet time, even in the worst neighborhoods, and the fact that the sun was full in a clear blue sky, its rays highlighting the turning leaves, added to the illusion of peace. Also, most all the men around town, even the bad ones, were indoors watching the Redskins game.
Strange had been listening to it on the radio, the pregame and then the play-by-play, Sonny, Sam, and Frank on WJFK. The Ravens were in the house at FedEx, and the contest had just gotten under way.
Strange got the list Lydell Blue had given him out of his trunk and locked down the Brougham. He walked across the brown grass of the courtyard to the stairwell leading to Sandra Wilder’s apartment. He noticed flyers with the likenesses of the shooters taped on the stairwell wall.
Strange knocked on the door of the Wilder residence. He waited patiently for a while and did not knock again. Then the door opened and Sandra Wilder stood in its frame. She gave Strange warm eyes.
“Derek.” She reached out and touched his arm. “Come on in.”
They settled in a kind of living room the size of a den, at the end of a hall broken by an open entrance to a galley-style kitchen. The couch Strange sat on was marked with food stains and its piping was torn away from the fabric. A television sat on a stand past the rectangular table set before the couch; it was on and showing the game at a very low volume. On the wall behind the set were photographs torn from magazines and newspapers, taped crookedly, of Keyshawn Johnson and Randy Moss, along with a close-up of Deion wearing a do-rag. Tellingly, a poster of Darrell Green at the ready was the largest and most prominently displayed. It would be like Joe to honor the tireless workhorse above the flash. Strange could see him sitting on this couch, eating a snack or a microwaved dinner prepared by his mom, watching the game on a Sunday afternoon. He guessed that that was how the stains had gotten on the couch.
Strange drank a glass of instant iced tea, quietly watching the ’Skins move the ball upfield. Sandra sat beside him, leaning forward and making marks on the list Strange had given her, which she had placed on the table. Her lips moved as she read the names.
Though Sandra Wilder was in her mid-twenties, she appeared at first glance to be ten years older. She was heavy in the hips and waist, and her movements were labored. She had big brown eyes, freckles, a full mouth, and straight teeth. She was pretty when she smiled. Strange guessed she had given birth to Joe when she was about sixteen.
Today Sandra wore a pair of jeans with an untucked T-shirt showing a computer-generated photograph of a grinning Joe. The words “We will not forget you” were printed beneath his image. Entrepreneurs offered T-shirts like this at the wakes and funerals of young people citywide, usually in the form of bulk sales to the grieving families. It had become a cottage industry in D.C.
“Here you go,” said Sandra, handing Strange the sheet of paper. “Why are those Social Security numbers next to the names?”
“My friend hooked me up. I’ll be using those numbers in my computer to get addresses, job histories, like that.”
“I circled the ones still come to mind.”
Strange studied the list. Sandra had highlighted three names: Walter Lee, Edward Diggs, and Sequan Hawkins.
“These your brother’s closest friends?”
“The ones I recall. The ones who used to be around our house most when we were coming up.”
“Were they still tight with Lorenze?”
“I have no idea. I didn’t have much contact with my brother these past few years. But you say these names came off the funeral home list, that book you sign when you pay your respects? So I figure, at least they’re still around. Far as where they live or how to get in touch with ’em, I don’t have a clue.”
“I can find them,” said Strange. “You don’t have to worry about that.”
“My mother would know. She had this address book, she used to keep all our friends’ names in it, ’cause me and Lorenze, when we were young? We were, like, always slipping out, and she had to have a way of finding us. ’Specially Lorenze; that boy was buck wild, you couldn’t keep him in the house at all.”
“Can I speak to your mother?”
Strange turned on the couch so that he was facing her. “Where’d y’all come up, Sandra?”
“Manor Park, over there around North Dakota Avenue. South of Coolidge?”
“I know it,” said Strange, something catching his eye over Sandra’s shoulder. On an end table abutting the couch sat a framed photograph of Joe in his uniform, his face shiny with sweat, a football cradled against his chest.
“Anything else?” said Sandra.
“You say you were out of contact with your brother. Why was that, you don’t mind my askin’?”
“Lorenze was no-account. I loved him, but that’s what he was. He wanted some of that bling-bling, but he couldn’t even do that right, for real. He was always calling me, trying to get me to hook him up with Granville. Tellin’ me he wanted Granville to put him on. But when Joe got born, I didn’t want to have anything to do with Granville anymore. I didn’t want Joe to know about him at all. Lorenze wouldn’t leave it alone, so I broke things off with my own blood. You know I took a car from Granville, and I am not proud of that, but I swear to you, that’s all I had to do with that man.”
“You don’t need to apologize for anything.”
“But I do want you to know. I’ve been straight all the way. I been having the same job for years now and I’m never late on my bills… It’s been hard, Derek, but I have been straight.”
“I know you have,” said Strange. “Did Lorenze have enemies you knew of?”
“It’s like I told the police. He didn’t go lookin’ for trouble. But it found him sure enough. It was his way. He just didn’t take anything serious. Couldn’t hold a job, and still, he always felt free to put out his hand. Never did take care of his debts. Never did. Laughed it off most of the time. He thought it was all a joke, but the ones he was laughin’ at, they didn’t see it that way. To them, Lorenze was tryin’ to take them for bad.”
“You think that’s why he was killed?”
Strange folded the list and slipped it into the inside pocket of his suit coat. He took one of Sandra Wilder’s hands. It felt clammy and limp in his.
“Listen,” said Strange. “You did right by keeping your son away from Oliver, and away from your brother, too. And don’t you ever think that you could have prevented what happened. Because you did right, and you did good. That boy was as special as they come, Sandra. And it’s because of you.”
A smile broke upon her face. The smile was perfect, and her hair was beauty-shop done and in place, and her makeup was perfectly applied. Cosmetically, Sandra Wilder was completely intact. But Strange could see that her eyes were jittery and too bright, and her mouth twitched at the corners as he tried to hold the smile.
Strange put his arms around her and drew her toward him. She fell into his embrace without resistance, Strange catching the foulness of her breath. It was quiet in the room except for the faint voice of the announcer calling the game. After a while he felt Sandra’s shoulders shaking beneath him and her hot tears where she had buried her face in his neck. He held her like that until she was cried out, and he left her there when he knew that there was nothing left.
THE ’Skins / Ravens game was tied up three to three, a pair of field goals the only score, as Strange drove north. A pass interference call against Washington put the Ravens on the Redskins’ one yard line with ten seconds to go in the half. From the radio, Sonny Jurgensen and Sam Huff discussed the most likely call for the next play. It would certainly be a run, Jamal Lewis up the middle. If he was stopped, there would still be time on the clock for a field goal to put the Ravens ahead before the end of the first half.
Strange pulled his Cadillac to the curb and let the motor run. He clockwised the volume dial.
“Come on,” said Strange. “Hold ’em.”
Ravens quarterback Tony Banks did not hand the ball off to Lewis. He attempted a pass into the flat of the end zone to Shannon Sharpe, who was in the company of two burgundy jerseys. It was a bad play to call – if Banks were to throw it at all he should have thrown it away. Redskin linebacker Kevin Mitchell picked off the pass.
Strange’s holler was one of disbelief. The roar of FedEx and the laughter of Sonny and Sam were in the car as Strange pulled down on the tree and continued uptown.
“DEREK, come on in,” said George Hastings. “You see that last play?”
“I been listenin’ to it on the radio,” said Strange.
They walked through the hall of Hastings’s brick tudor in Shepherd Park. Hastings wore a Redskins cap, but he was otherwise cleanly dressed in an expensive sweater and slacks. His house was just as clean.
“You believe that call Billick made?” said Hastings, looking over his shoulder as he led Strange into his den. “You got Jamal Lewis, a tough young back, on the one yard line, and all you got to do is give it to him and let him run it up the gut, and you call a pass? ”
“Tony Banks ain’t exactly one of your top-tier NFL quarterbacks either.”
“Not yet, anyway.”
“Should have pitched it out of the end zone when he saw the coverage. That was his inexperience showing right there.”
Hastings pointed to one of two big loungers in the den. A large-screen Sony was set in a wall unit in the room; the second half was under way. “Sit down, Derek. Can I get you something? I might have a cold beer myself.”
“Nothin’ with alcohol in it for me, not today. A Co-Cola if you got it, George.”
Hastings returned with the drinks and had a seat. Both teams went scoreless in the third.
“Our defensive linemen got fire in their eyes today,” said Strange.
“Yeah, this is one of those classic defensive battles we got goin’ right here,” said Hastings.
“They’ve stopped Stephen Davis, and we got hardly any receivers left except Albert Connell. Fryar’s out.”
“Your boy Westbrook is gone for the season, too. Again.”
“And I thought it was gonna be his year, too,” said Strange sadly. “Next year, maybe.”
At the start of the fourth quarter, Stephen Davis left the field with a pinched nerve in his shoulder. Skip Hicks replaced him for three downs at tailback and then Davis came back in. On second and seven, the teams lined up on the Baltimore thirty-three, with the Ravens showing blitz. Davis took the handoff from Brad Johnson and hit a hole provided by tackle Chris Samuels and fullback Larry Centers. Davis was off with only safety Rod Woodson between him and the goal line. Davis stiff-armed Woodson, dropped him to the turf, and sailed into the end zone.
Strange and Hastings were on their feet with instant high fives.
“Just like Riggo,” said Strange.
“Thought you said they were stoppin’ Davis.”
“You can’t stop that boy for long.”
George looked at his friend. “Good to see you smiling, man.”
“Was I?” said Strange. “Damn. Guess it’s been a while since I have.”
They watched the rest of the game, knowing the contest was over with the Davis touchdown. The ’Skins had broken Baltimore’s back with that one play. When the whistle sounded, Hastings hit the mute button on the remote and sat back in his lounger.
“All right, man,” said Hastings. “Gimme the bad news.”
“Well, I don’t think you can call it bad,” said Strange. “Your future son-in-law is clean.”
“Don’t look so disappointed.”
“What about all that Calhoun Enterprises jive?”
Strange spread his hands. “Can’t fault a man just ’cause he picks a bad name for his business. Far as his work ethic goes, and his reputation, the man is golden. He comes from a solid family who gave him a good example, by all accounts. I got no reason to think he won’t be anything but a good provider for your daughter.”
“I been knowin’ you too long, Derek, and you know I can read your face. There’s somethin’ else, so why don’t you say it?”
“Well, Calhoun Tucker likes the ladies.”
“Course he does. What, you think some faggot’s gonna be fallin’ in love with my girl?”
“I don’t mean that. I mean, he’s got an eye for ’em.”
“Say what you’re gettin’ at, man.”
Strange looked down at his hands. He had been rubbing them together and he made himself stop.
“I don’t know what I’m getting at exactly, George. I guess… I was wondering, not to get into your business, understand, but I was wondering how it was between you and Linda. The whole time you were married, I mean. Did you ever, you know, stumble? Did you ever find yourself steppin’ out on her or anything like that?”
“Never,” said Hastings. “You know me better than that, Derek.”
“But I remember how you were, back when the two of us were out there. When we were single and coming up, I mean. You had a lot of girlfriends, George. Wasn’t like you ever just stuck to one.”
“Until I met Linda.”
“Right. But you and her were together for like, two years before you put the ring on her finger. How was it for you and other women in that time?”
“Well, naturally, you know, I continued to see other girls while I was dating Linda. I never did consider that to be any kind of sin. But once I made a pledge to her and the Lord in the church, though, that was it. I looked hard at plenty of women, but as far as lyin’ down with someone other than my wife, after I was married? It was never an option for me again.”
“So you don’t see nothin’ wrong with cattin’ around up to the wedding day.”
“Young man’s only gonna be young once. You tellin’ me Calhoun Tucker’s a player?”
If he were to bring it up, now would be the time. But he had been leaning one way already, and this conversation with George had made up his mind. Strange shook his head.
“I guess I strayed off the topic some. To tell you the truth, I was askin’ about it because… because I been having some problems with Janine. I been stumblin’ like that with regards to her, George. Not just once or twice, understand, but as a matter of habit. It came to a head between us last night.”
“Sounds like you need to make some decisions. But you know, Derek, everybody’s got to make those kinds of choices their own selves.”
“I hear you.”
“Anything else about Tucker?”
“Just this: I talked to some people who know him, here in D.C. They told me, to a one, how much he goes on about Alisha all the time, how deep he loves her. Sounds like he’s sincere to me.”
“Who wouldn’t love that girl?”
“True. But I thought you might like to know. Far as what kind of husband he’s gonna be, only thing I can say is, neither one of us is gonna know that until time tells us. Right?”
“Yeah, you’re right. I guess I been wantin’ to find something wrong with that young man. It’s like you told me back in your office: Maybe the only thing wrong with him is that he’s getting ready to take away my little girl.”
“Maybe. Wouldn’t anybody blame you for feeling that way, though. The thing is, you just got to support her decision now and see what happens. Don’t you agree?”
Hastings reached over and shook Strange’s hand.
“Thank you, Derek.”
“I’ll have a written report for you next week.”
“Send a bill along with it.”
“You know I will.”
Hastings removed his Redskins cap and rubbed the top of his head. “Any progress on finding that boy’s killers?”
“It won’t be long,” said Strange. “One way or another, they’ll be got.”
STRANGE walked out the front door of the Hastings residence. Calhoun Tucker’s Audi was parked behind Strange’s Cadillac. Tucker, all Abercrombie & Fitch, leaned against the car. Alisha Hastings was with him, her eyes alight as she followed his every word, both of them beside the waxed Audi parked beneath the fiery colors of an oak. The tableau was like some advertisement for beauty and youth.
“Come here, Mr. Derek,” said Alisha. “I want you to meet someone.”
Strange crossed the lawn and went to the couple. He kept his eyes on Tucker’s as Alisha introduced them to each other. They shook hands.
“I bet you and my daddy were in there watching the game,” said Alisha. “I can’t understand how you two could stay inside and watch television on a beautiful day like this.”
“It’s always a beautiful day when the Redskins win,” said Strange.
“Y’all catching up on old times in there?” said Tucker.
“Just being a friend to my old buddy George.”
“Been meaning to get by and congratulate him on the engagement of his lovely daughter here. Congratulations to the both of you as well.”
Tucker’s eyes softened. “Thank you, Mr. Strange.”
“Make it Derek.”
They shook again. Strange tightened his grip on Tucker’s hand.
“Good to meet you, young man.”
“You don’t have to worry,” said Tucker, moving in close to Strange’s face.
“See that I don’t,” said Strange, his voice very low. He released Tucker’s hand.
Strange kissed Alisha, hugged her and held her tightly. He kissed her again and walked toward his car.
“What was that about?” said Alisha. “I couldn’t hear what you two were saying, but it looked intense. You two don’t know each other, do you?”
“No. It was nothing. Just, you know, pissin’-contest stuff between men.”
“I’m kiddin’ you. He seems like a good guy. He coming to the wedding?”
“Looking forward to seeing him again is all.”
Tucker flexed his right hand to alleviate the pain. He watched Strange drive away, orange and red leaves rising from the street in the Caddy’s wake.
STRANGE stopped by the house to pick up Greco and a couple of CDs, then drove down to his place of business. In his office, he slipped The Sons of Katie Elder sound track into his CPU as he settled into his chair. The message light blinked beside his phone.
Lydell Blue had called to tell him that the beige Caprice had been found in an impound lot in Prince George’s County. The Chevy was determined to have been a stolen vehicle, wiped down of prints. Clothing fibers, orange threads of a fleece material, found in the Chevy matched those found in the Plymouth driven by the shooters.
Strange was certain now that the boys he had seen in the Caprice idling in Roosevelt’s parking lot were the killers of Lorenze and Joe Wilder. He had caught a look at the driver and especially the boy with the braids, and their faces loosely matched those of the artist’s renderings posted around town.
He knew this. But he didn’t phone Lydell Blue back to tell him what he knew.
Strange got into Westlaw and fed the names Walter Lee, Edward Diggs, and Sequan Hawkins, along with their Social Security numbers, into the program. It took a couple of hours to find what it would have taken Janine a half hour to find. Despite his rudimentary knowledge of the programs, Strange was still old world, and much better at his job when out on the street. He also tended to seek out distractions when he should have been working nonstop behind his desk. In those two hours he played with Greco, thought of Janine, and ate a PayDay bar she had left for him on his mouse pad. But finally he got the information he needed.
Using PeopleFinder and the reverse directory, he had secured the current addresses and phone numbers of the men. Also the names and addresses of their current neighbors. The Social Security numbers had given him their past and present employment data.
Strange phoned Quinn and got him on the third ring.
“Terry, it’s Derek. You see the game?”
“I saw some of it.”
“Some of it. Your girlfriend over there, man?”
“Yes, Sue’s here.”
“Been there all day, huh? Y’all even get a look at the sunshine today, man?”
“Derek, what’s on your mind?”
“Wanted to make sure you were gonna be ready to go in the morning.”
“Told you I would be.”
“Meet me down at Buchanan at nine, then. We’ll roll out together in my car.”
“Bring your gun.”
CARLTON Little swallowed the last of his Big Mac and used his sleeve to wipe secret sauce off his face, where it had gathered like glue on the side of his mouth. He had another Mac in the bag on the table in front of him and he wanted to kill it right now. The grease stain on the bottom of the bag, just lookin’ at it made him hungry.
He was hungry all the time. Not hungry for real like he had been when he was a kid, but hungry just the same. Loved to eat anything you could take out of somebody’s hand from a drive-through window. Taco Bell, Popeyes, and the king of it all, Mac-Donald’s. Little knew guys who had trouble with their movements, but not him. All the food he ate, the kind came in damp cartons and grease-stained bags? Damn if he didn’t take three or four shits a day.
He supposed his love for food had somethin’ to do with the fact that he didn’t have any when he was a boy. His aunt, who he stayed with, she sold their food stamps most of the time to pay for her crack habit. She had food in there from time to time, but the men she was hangin’ with, who were pipeheads, too, and always leaving a slug’s trail around the house, ate it or stole it themselves. There was cereal sometimes, but the milk went fast, and he couldn’t fuck with eatin’ no dry cereal. Before he grew some, when he weighed, like, sixty pounds, Carlton used to hide the milk outside his bedroom window, on this ledge that was there, so it wouldn’t get used up. In wintertime the milk froze and in summer it went sour, so you couldn’t do it all the time. But it was a good trick that worked half the year. This teacher taught him how to do that after he collapsed one time at school ’cause he was so weak. Weak from not eating. Not that he was cryin’ about it or nothin’ like that. He had money now, and he wasn’t weak anymore.
Man on the TV said that one third of the kids in D.C. lived below the poverty level, the same way he had. Well, fuck those kids. Nobody ever gave him nothin’, and he made out all right. They’d have to figure a road out their own selves. If they were to ask him, he’d say that there was one thing he knew for sure about this life out here. You acted the punk, you were through. You wanted to make it, you had to be hard.
Little laid himself down on the couch.
Potter sat low in one of those reclining rocking chairs he loved. Potter had bought two of them at Marlo’s, along with the couch Little lay on now, filled out the no-payment-till-whenever paperwork and had them delivered the next day. That was a year ago, and Potter had still not made a payment and never would. No Payments Till Forever, that’s the way the sign read to him. Potter had given the African or whatever he was a different billing address than the delivery address, and the dude hadn’t even noticed. Stupid-ass foreigners they hired out there, workin’ those sucker jobs.
“You gonna eat that?” said Potter, one hand pointed lazily at the paper bag holding the last Mac.
“I was thinkin’ on eatin’ it right now,” said Little.
“I wouldn’t even be feedin’ that shits to a dog.”
“You gonna throw it up out in the street, like you did the other day?”
“I ain’t ashamed. Made me sick to see what happened to that kid.”
“Well, he shouldn’t’ve been in that car.”
“Yeah, but those bullets you used done fucked him up for real.”
“Oh, it was just mines now.”
“It was those hollow points out of that three-five-seven you was holdin’, did all that damage.”
“Couldn’t handle lookin at it, huh?”
“Shit was just nasty is all.”
“Yeah, well, you keep eatin’ that MacDonald’s, gonna make you worse than sick. Gonna kill you young.”
“I be dyin’ young anyway.”
They had been in the living room all day. Charles White had gotten into his Toyota at lunchtime and brought them back a big carton of Popeyes and biscuits for the Redskins game, and they had gotten high and eaten the chicken, and then they had watched the four o’clock game and told White they were hungry and to go out again. White had returned with a bag of McDonald’s for Little and some Taco Supremes from the Bell for Potter, because Potter didn’t eat McDonald’s food.
Now the eight o’clock game was coming on ESPN, and the sound was off on the television because neither Potter nor Little could stand to hear Joe Theismann, the color man for the Sunday night games, speak. They put on music during the games, but the Wu-Tang Clan CD they had been listening to had ended. For the first time that day, it was quiet in the room.
Potter and Little had been keeping a very low profile since the murders. They sent White out for all their food and beer. He was scared, they could tell it from his face and the way his voice kinda shook these past few days. But they knew him to be weak, knew that he would do as they asked.
Juwan, their main boy down in the open-air market, had been delivering the daily take to their place on Warder. Their dealer in Columbia Heights had agreed to drop off the product, as needed, at the house. They had burned the Plymouth and abandoned it, and dropped the guns off the rail of the 11th Street bridge into the Anacostia River. Far as evidence went, Potter reasoned, their asses were covered good.
Since the shooting, Potter had gone out twice. Once to buy a couple of straps from this boy he knew who arranged straw purchases out of that gun store, where you could pay junkies and their kind to buy weapons real easy, over in Forestville. The other time he went out was to buy a car, a piece of garbage sitting up on that lot on Blair Road in Takoma, across from a gas station and next to a caterer. Place where all the cars had $461 scrawled in soap on the windshields, all the same price, looked like a kid had written it. Potter bought something, he didn’t even bother to look at it close, and paid cash. The salesman tellin’ him how to get plates, get insurance, get it inspected, all that, Potter not even listening because he knew he wouldn’t have the car long enough to worry about it anyway. Insurance, what the fuck was that? Shit.
So they were keeping low. Their pictures, drawings made to look like them, anyhow, were posted all around the neighborhood. Potter figured, who that could connect the pictures to their names was gonna rat them out? Wasn’t anyone that stupid, even if the reward money was printed right there on the drawings, because that person had to know that if they did this, if they snitched on them, they would die. It was a good idea to stay indoors for a while, but Potter wasn’t worried in a serious way, and if Little was worried he didn’t act it. It was Charles White who was the loose end.
“Where Charles at?” said Potter.
“Up in his room,” said Little. “Why?”
“You and me need to talk.”
“Go put some music on the box. I don’t want him to hear us.”
“He can’t hear us. You know that boy’s up in his bed with his headphones on, listening to his beats.”
Potter fired a Bic up in front of the Phillie in his hand and gave the cigar some draw. He held the draw in and passed the blunt over to Little.
Little hit the hydro and exhaled slowly. He blew a ring of gray smoke into the room. “So talk.”
Carlton Little knew what was about to come from Potter’s mouth. He expected it, and didn’t like it, but he would go along with it, because he knew Potter was right. Though Little fully expected to die on the street or in prison, it didn’t mean he was in any hurry. He wasn’t exactly afraid to die. He had convinced himself that he was not. But he did want to live as long as he could. His friend Charles White was fixin’ to cut his life short, one way or another. Charles had to go.
“We got a problem with Charles,” said Potter. “Boy gets picked up for somethin’, he is gonna roll on us. Or maybe his conscience is gonna send him to the po-lice before that. You know this, right?”
“I do.” Little sat up on the couch and rubbed at his face. “Shame, too. I mean, me and Coon, all of us, D, we go back.”
“I’ll take care of it, Dirty.”
“Wish you would.”
“You know, Charles is like that dog of his,” said Potter. “Good to hang around with, wags his tail when you be walkin’ into a room and shit. But like that dog, he’s a cur. And a cur needs to be put down.”
“When?” said Little.
“I was thinkin’, later tonight, after we watch this game, get our heads up some? We take Charles out for a ride.”
CHARLES White had been lying in bed, listening to a Roc-a-Fella compilation through the headphones of his Aiwa, when the cups on the phones started to hurt him some. His ears got sore when he kept the phones on too long, and he had been having them on his head most of the day. He took the headphones off and moved onto his side, staring out the window at the night out behind the house. Wasn’t nothin’ but dark and an alley back there. He looked at it a little while, then got off the bed and walked out to the bathroom in the hall.
White could hear them playing the first Wu-Tang, the one that mattered, down in the living room. It was that last track the Clan had, “Tearz,” before that spoken thing they did to close the set. This was the bomb, the kind of classic shit he wanted to record his own self when he got the chance. But of course, he knew deep down he would never get the chance.
White figured he better go downstairs and see what Dirty and Garfield was up to. See if they wanted him to run out for some burgers or malt or sumshit like that. But first he needed to get those dirt tracks off his face. He had been crying a little while ago, back in his room. Some of it had been over what they’d done to that kid, but most of it had been just cryin’ for himself.
He bent over the bathroom sink, washed his face, toweled off the water, and checked himself in the mirror. He must have lost weight or something, what with the way he’d been stressin’ since they’d killed that boy. His nose looked bigger than usual, his cheeks on either side of it nothin’ but some flabby skin hanging on to bone. But you couldn’t tell he’d been crying, now that he’d cleaned up. He looked all right.
White went along a hall, hearing their voices below and smelling the smoke of the cheeva they were hittin’ drifting up the stairs. It was strange for things to be so quiet in this house. He heard Dirty say, “So talk,” and then Garfield say, “We got a problem with Charles.”
White’s heart had kicked up and his fingers were shaking some as he went down the stairs halfway. There was a wall there that blocked a view from the living room, and carpet on the steps to muffle the sound of his descent.
He listened to their conversation. He heard his friend Carlton say “When?” and Garfield, quick and cold in his reply, answered, “Later tonight.” He said something else about watching the game and getting high, and then he said, “We take Charles out for a ride.”
You ain’t takin’ me a motherfuckin’ place, thought White as he backed himself slowly up the stairs.
CHARLES locked his bedroom door. They came up and asked why he’d locked himself in, he’d deal with it then.
He got into his Timbies and laced them tight. He found an old Adidas athletic bag, the size of a small duffel, in his closet. He stuffed it with underwear and a few pairs of jeans and some shirts, and one leather jacket, but he left most of the cold-weather stuff on the hangers because he had already decided that he was headed south. He had grabbed his toothbrush and shaving shit from the vanity over the sink on the way to his room, and he dropped it all in. There was still some room in the bag. He put his Aiwa in along with all the CDs, the newer joints, he could fit. He found some older stuff he still listened to, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted and Doggystyle, and jammed those in there, too.
White went to his bedroom mirror, where he had taped a photograph of his mother to the glass. In the original shot, some Jheri-curled sucker, all teeth and sweat, lookin’ like he walked off the Street Songs cover, had his arm around White’s mom. White had scissored the man off the picture so that now you could only see the hustler’s hand. His mother was smiling in the photo, had a low-cut dress on, red, you could see her titties half hangin’ out, but that was all right. At least she looked happy. Not like she looked when they’d cuffed her right at the apartment for robbery, the last of her offenses in a long line of them, and taken her off to that women’s prison in West Virginia. Last time White had seen her, ten years back, before he went to live with his grandmother. Granmoms had been okay to him, but she wasn’t his moms. He had no idea who his father was.
White carefully took the photograph down and slipped it into his wallet, along with eighteen hundred dollars in cash he found where he’d hidden it, under some T-shirts in the bottom of his dresser.
He opened the window by his bed and dropped the Adidas bag into the darkness. He heard it hit the alley and he closed the window tight.
White slipped himself into his bright orange Nautica pullover, swept the keys to his Toyota off his scarred dresser, and walked out of his room. He walked quickly, so he wouldn’t have much time to think on what he was about to do. Wasn’t like he could just drop himself out that bedroom window and ghost. He needed to talk to those two, act like everything was chilly. He needed to do this and be gone.
And now he was going down the stairs. And now he was down the stairs and into the living room, and he was twirling his car keys on his finger, wondering why he was doing that, tipping them off so soon that he was headed out the door.
“Where you off to, Coon?” said Little, lying on the couch. He said it casual, like he was still White’s friend. White could see in Carlton’s eyes that he was higher than a motherfucker, too.
“I’m hungry. You hungry, right?”
“I still got me a Mac.”
“I was gonna roll on up to the Wings n Things, man.” His voice shook some and he closed his eyes, then forced them open quick.
“Bring me some malt back,” said Potter.
“You got money?” said White.
He moved to the lounger where Potter sat.
Be hard, Charles. Give ’em somethin’ bold to remember you by. Let ’em know you all there.
White opened his hand in front of Potter’s face. Potter slapped the hand away. “Man, get that shit out my face! Bring me some Olde English back, hear? Two forties of that shits.”
“And some wings,” said Little.
Potter and Little laughed, and White laughed, too.
“Aiight, then,” said White. He headed for the door.
“Coon,” said Potter, and White turned.
“What I tell you about wearin’ that orange shirt out, man? You want people to be noticin’ you? Is that it?”
“Cold out, D. Shit keeps me warm.”
“Damn, boy, you about the thickest motherfucker… Look, you ain’t gonna be long, right?”
“Nah, I’ll be back in like, an hour, sumshit like that.”
“’Cause I thought we’d all roll out together for a while, later on.”
White nodded, went out the door, and closed it behind him. He walked down to the corner and when he was out of window-sight he ran around to the alley. He found his Adidas bag there and ran with it back to the street, where he walked to his Toyota parked along the curb. His heart was fluttering like a speed bag as he put his key to the driver’s-side door.
White tossed the Adidas bag in the backseat, got into the front, and turned the ignition. He put the stick into first and heard the tires squealing as he pushed on the gas and let off the clutch. First time this old shit box had ever caught rubber. White didn’t look in the rearview. As he neared Georgia Avenue he began to laugh.
WHITE stopped at a market on Georgia, one of those fake 7-Elevens, places those Ethiopians named Seven-One or Seven-Twelve, for a big cup of coffee to go. A 4-D cop was parked in the lot, but that meant nothing in this neighborhood, ’less you were out here committing some obvious mayhem. Shoot, someone was smoking cheeva in a nearby car, you could smell it in the lot, and the cop was just sitting there behind the wheel, smellin’ it too, most likely, sipping from a large cup. Why would that cop care to stress his self, make an arrest, when the courts would just kick that smoker right back out on the street?
White went into the store. He bought his coffee and a couple of Slim Jims, some potato chips, and a U.S. road map, folded up wrong like someone had been using it without paying, which was in a slot next to the gun magazines they sold in that joint. White went back out to the lot, the map in one hand, the other stuff in a brown paper bag.
There was this boy standing near his Toyota, and when White came out the boy kind of backed away. He was wearing a white T-shirt and khakis, and White had the real feeling he knew this boy or he’d seen him before.
White wasn’t a fighter and he wasn’t brave, but when it looked like someone was fuckin’ with your whip out here, ordinarily you had to say something. You couldn’t let it pass, because then you were weak. Just a comment like, “You got some business lurkin’ around my shit?” or somethin’ like that. But White didn’t need no drama tonight, what with the police right there, and he let it pass.
As he pulled out of the lot and back onto Georgia, he noticed that boy, standing on the corner, staring at him and his car. But White wasn’t gonna worry about it now. He was gone.
WHITE got over to 14th Street and headed south. He took the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River and into Virginia, where he followed 395 to 95 South. Soon he was out of anything that looked like the city and seeing signs for places like Lorton, which of course he had heard of, and Dale City, which he had not. Down around Fredericksburg, just an hour into his journey, he saw a Confederate flag sticker on the back window of a pickup truck and knew he was already very far away, maybe a whole world away, from D.C.
The coffee had done its job. He was wired and bright with thoughts of the future. He was sorry that the little boy had been killed, but he was convinced that he couldn’t have stopped it, and he knew for certain that he couldn’t change what had happened now.
This was his plan: He had a cousin in Louisiana, a nephew of his mother’s who had come up and stayed with his grandmother a couple of summers back. That summer, White and this boy, Damien Rollins, had got kind of tight. Damien worked in a big diner down there on the interstate, outside New Orleans, and told White that he would hook Charles up if he ever came down south. He said that the man who owned the diner paid cash, under the table. Charles had the idea that this would allow him to work there without incident, under an assumed name, in case anyone was still lookin’ for him up in D.C.
White had an address on his cousin, and he had held on to it. About halfway down, he’d give him a call and tell him he was on his way. He had money in his pocket, so he’d also tell cuz that he’d be stayin’ with him and help out with half the rent. He’d get that job at the diner and he’d hold it. He wouldn’t get into any kind of bad shit down there and he’d stay away from those who looked wrong.
Maybe he’d make manager someday at that job.
WALTER Lee worked for a big-box electronics retailer up by Westfield Shopping Center, the fancy new name for the mall that everyone in the area still called Wheaton Plaza, a few miles north of the Silver Spring business district. Lee wrote up answering machines, mini-tape recorders, cordless phones, and portable stereos at a computer station after the customers had basically picked the units out themselves. The human resources department gave him the title of sales counselor, but there were few professional salesmen left in the business, and Walter Lee was a clerk.
Strange and Quinn entered the store late in the morning. There was a sea of maroon shirts in the place and few customers at this hour. Most of the employees looked like African Americans, African immigrants, and Indians of some variety, with some Hispanics thrown into the mix to cater to the Spanish-speaking clientele. Strange found himself wondering if the manager of the store was white.
No one approached them or asked if they needed help. In fact, several of the sales counselors had scattered when the two of them had walked through the doors. Strange went up to a tall young African and asked him if he could point out Walter Lee. Strange already knew that Lee was on the schedule; he’d phoned the store on the ride out to Wheaton.
Walter Lee stood by the rack of boom boxes, fiddling with a radio dial, as Strange and Quinn approached. Lee looked up and saw a strong middle-aged man in a black leather jacket, a beeper and a Buck knife and a cell on his belt line, with a younger white dude, also in a leather, had a cocky walk, coming toward him. Lee saw two cops.
“How you doin’ today?” said Strange.
“Good. What can I get for you gentlemen?”
Quinn got too close to Lee, crowding him, like he used to do when he wore the uniform. Strange did the same to Lee on his opposite side and flipped open the leather case he drew from his jacket. He let Lee look at the badge and license and closed the case before he had looked at them too long.
“Investigators, D.C.,” said Strange. “This here’s my partner, Terry Quinn.”
“What y’all want?”
“’Bout a minute of your time,” said Strange. “A few questions about Lorenze Wilder.”
“I already talked to the police.” Lee looked around the sales floor. He was in his early thirties and carried too much weight for his age. He wore a fade haircut that looked fine on Patrick Ewing but on Lee just looked tired. “This ain’t too cool, you know.”
“We won’t be long,” said Strange. “You were at the wake for Lorenze, right?”
“Y’all were tight?”
“I already told the police-”
“Tell us,” said Strange.
“Tell us again,” said Quinn, his tone softer than his partner’s.
Lee looked over Strange’s shoulder, then breathed out slow. “We hadn’t been tight for, like, ten, fifteen. We ran together in high school, that was about it.”
“Yeah. I came out in eighty-six. Lorenze, I don’t think he finished up.”
“Lorenze have many enemies when you two were hangin’ together back then?”
“Back then? I guess he did. He had this way about him, right? But if you’re askin’ me, Did he have enemies lately, or, Do I know who killed him? The answer is, I don’t know.”
“Y’all didn’t swing in the same circles,” said Strange.
“Like I said: not for a long time.”
“You use drugs, Walter?”
Lee’s eyes, directly on Strange, narrowed, and he lowered his voice. “This ain’t right. You know this ain’t right. Comin’ up in here to a black man’s workplace and tryin’ to sweat him.”
“If you do drugs,” said Strange, plowing ahead, “and if you cop from the same people, then maybe you know who Lorenze owed. ’Cause it could’ve been a drug debt got him doomed.”
“Look. I haven’t been usin’ any kind of drugs for a long time. Back in the eighties, yeah, I had a little problem with powder. Lotta people did. But I found my way out of it, see-”
“Let’s get back to Lorenze.”
“No, you’re gonna let me finish. I found my way out of it. This isn’t the only job I have. I got a night job, too. I been holdin’ two jobs down now for the last ten years, and all the time doin’ it straight. Takin’ care of my little girl, raising her right.”
“All right,” said Strange. “You’re so far away from all that, why’d you go to Lorenze’s wake, then?”
“Because I’m a Christian. I went to say a prayer for my old friend. To pay my respects. Even you can understand that, right?”
“Did Lorenze still hang with some of the old crowd that you know?”
Lee relaxed his shoulders. It seemed he’d given up on reaching Strange’s human side and now he just wanted this done. “Most of them grew up and moved on. A couple of them passed.”
“Sequan Hawkins? Ed Diggs?”
“I haven’t seen Sequan, so I don’t know. Digger Dog? He’s still around.”
“That’s Diggs’s street name?”
Lee nodded. “I saw him at the funeral home. He’s still livin’ over there with his grandmother. He looks older, but the same, you know? He always was Lorenze’s main boy.”
“Thanks for your time,” said Quinn.
“That it?” said Lee, his eyes still locked on Strange.
“That’ll do it,” said Strange. “We need you, I expect we can find you here.”
Strange and Quinn walked toward the entrance to the store. They passed a white guy in a maroon shirt, small, with a belly and patches of hair framing a bald top, trying to calm an angry customer. The manager, thought Strange.
Out in the lot, Quinn glanced over at Strange on the way to the car. “You were kinda rough on him, weren’t you?”
Strange stared straight ahead. “We got no time to be nice.”
They drove out toward Potomac in Strange’s white Caprice. Strange made a cell call to see if Sequan Hawkins was at his job. Then he phoned the office and got Janine. Quinn sipped coffee from a go-cup and listened to their short, businesslike conversation. Strange made another call, left a message on the machine at Lamar Williams’s apartment, and left Lamar the number to his cell.
“What’s going on?” said Quinn.
“Lamar’s been trying to get up with me. Janine said he told her it was important.”
“He’s got his classes right now. I’ll get him later.”
“Any idea what he wants?”
“These boys rolled up on him a while back in Park Morton, lookin’ for Joe’s mother? Pretty sure it’s the same hard cases I saw up at Roosevelt one night at practice. They were huntin’ Lorenze, I’m certain of it now. Bet you they ain’t nothin’ but neighborhood boys, too. Maybe Lamar found out something more.”
“If they’re stupid enough to stay in the neighborhood, it won’t be long until someone turns them in.”
“You’re right. If it doesn’t happen today, it’ll happen tomorrow, if you know what I mean. The police are gonna get those boys soon enough.”
“What if we find them first?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet, Terry. To tell you the truth, right now I’m just goin’ on blind rage.”
Strange kept the needle above eighty on the Beltway. Quinn didn’t comment on the speed. He blew the steam off his coffee and took a long pull from the cup.
“You and Janine got some problems, huh?” said Quinn.
“Guess you heard that in my tone.”
“You two gonna make it?”
“Haven’t figured that one out yet, either,” said Strange. “Anyway, it’s not up to me.”
Strange parked the Caprice in the lot of Montgomery Mall, near an upscale retailer that anchored the shopping center. In contrast to Westfield, the parking lot here was clean, and the multiethnic people walking from their luxury cars and SUVs to the mall might as well have had dollar signs stamped right on their foreheads.
Strange and Quinn went up to the second floor of the department store. The sound of piano met them as they reached the top of the stairs. A man in a tuxedo played the keys of a Steinway set near the escalators adjacent to a menswear section and a large layout of men’s shoes. Middle-aged white men wearing pressed jeans and sweaters strolled the aisles. Strange wondered what they were doing here on a Monday, why they weren’t at work. Living off the interest, he reckoned.
They walked along the display tables of shoes. Several well-dressed salesmen eyed them as they passed.
“You need any kicks?” said Strange.
“I got a wide foot,” said Quinn, “and it’s hard to fit. There’s this salesman, though, at Mean Feets, down in Georgetown? Says he can fit me. Dude named Antoine.”
“Skinny cat, right? Always standin’ outside in the doorway there, hittin’ a cigarette.”
“I know him. They call him Spiderman.”
“You know everyone in town?”
“Not yet,” said Strange. “But it’s a long life.”
To the side of the shoe department was a shoe-shine stand, where a kneeling man in suspenders was buffing the cap-toes of a suited white man sitting in a chair above him, up on a kind of elevated platform.
Strange and Quinn waited in an alcove-type area beside the stand. They could hear the white man talking to the shoe-shine man about the Redskins/Ravens game, praising only the black players. They could hear the white man ending his sentences with “man” and they could hear him dropping his g’s, talking in a way that he thought would endear him to the black man kneeling at his feet. Talking in a way he would never talk at work and in a way he would forbid his children from talking at the dinner table at home. Strange looked over at Quinn, and Quinn looked away.
Soon the white man left, and they went out to the stand, where the shoe shiner was straightening the tools of his trade.
“Sequan Hawkins?” said Strange, getting a short nod in return. “I’m Derek Strange, and this is Terry Quinn, my partner. We phoned you a little while ago.”
Hawkins rubbed his hands clean with a rag that smelled of nail polish remover. He was a handsome, well-built man with a light sheen to his close-cropped hair and a careful hint of a mustache.
“Come on around here,” said Hawkins, indicating with his chin the alcove where they had stood.
They went back to the alcove and Strange said, “This is about Lorenze Wilder, like I explained.”
“Let me see some identification, you don’t mind,” said Hawkins.
Strange flipped open his leather case and produced his badge and license. Hawkins’s mouth turned up on the right, a lopsided grin.
“You two are, like, cops.”
“Investigators, D.C.,” said Strange. “We knew the young man who was murdered alongside Lorenze.”
“My sympathies,” said Hawkins, the grin disappearing at the mention of the boy. “I got two of my own.”
“You went to the funeral home for Lorenze’s wake,” said Quinn.
“You were friends with him?”
“A long time ago.”
“What made y’all stop being friends?” said Strange.
“Geography,” said Hawkins. “Ambition.”
“I haven’t lived anywhere near the old neighborhood for the past ten years.”
“Don’t get back there much, huh?”
“Oh, I do. I drive over to the house I grew up in, like, once a month. Park outside of it at night sometimes and look through the windows. They got a new family in there now.”
“Why would you do that?”
“To look at the ghosts.”
Strange didn’t feel the need to comment. He often went by his mother’s house at night, parked on the street, and did the same thing. He didn’t consider Hawkins’s actions to be odd at all.
“You ever run into Lorenze Wilder on those trips?” said Quinn.
“Sure, I saw him now and again. He was still living in his mother’s house; I guess it was paid for with life insurance after her death. He never did get a steady job I knew of. He was one of those… I don’t like to speak ill of the dead. But it was plain Lorenze was never gonna make it.”
“How about Ed Diggs?” said Strange.
“I saw him around the way, too. He was living with his grandmother last time I ran into him. Ed was the same way.”
“Any other reason why you might have gone back?”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re looking for someone who might have wanted to hunt down Lorenze,” said Strange. “Maybe for a drug debt or somethin’ like that.”
“I wouldn’t know about that.”
“So, you’d go back to the neighborhood once a month for what, exactly?” said Quinn. “Couldn’t be to just park outside your house.”
“I went back to remember, Mr…”
“I’d see some of those guys still in the neighborhood, the ones who were already at that dead end, who weren’t even lookin’ to get through it anymore, and it just served to remind me.”
“Of why I’m down on my knees here every day. See, I don’t just work here. I own this concession. I got four of these around the Beltway and a couple downtown.”
“You must be doin’ all right,” said Strange.
“Got a house on a couple acres out in Damascus, a wife I love, and a couple of beautiful kids. There’s a Harley in my garage and a Porsche Boxster, too. It’s not the Carrera, but I’m workin’ on that. So yeah, I’ve done all right.”
“You read about the murders,” said Strange, “and you knew Lorenze. Any ideas?”
“I think you’re talkin’ to the wrong man. You want to know if Lorenze died because of a street beef, you need to be talking to Ed. They were still as tight as any two men could be, way I understand it. But Ed’s not the type to talk to the police, or even to someone got a toy badge, tryin’ to look like they’re police.”
“Okay,” said Strange.
“Couldn’t resist,” said Hawkins. “You need to be flashing that license quick, so no one can look at it too close.”
“Normally I do. Get back to Diggs.”
“All I’m saying is, if there’s any information to be got, Ed’s the one to talk to. But you’re gonna have to be creative.” Hawkins looked them both over. “Y’all got a couple of pairs of shoulders on you. Use ’em.”
“You say he still stays with his grandmother?”
“Far as I know.”
Strange shook Hawkins’s hand. “Thanks for your time.”
Crossing the lot to the Caprice, Quinn said, “Just goes to show you, you can’t judge a man by his appearance.”
“You tellin’ me that?”
“Oh, so now you’re gonna tell me you didn’t look at that guy and think, Shoe-shine Boy.”
“Didn’t see the word ‘boy’ flashin’ through my head at any time, if that’s what you mean.”
“You know what I’m sayin’. Man shines shoes for a living and he’s got a Porsche in his garage.”
“It’s not a Carrera, though.”
“He’s workin’ on that,” said Quinn.
Strange removed his keys from his pocket and tossed them to Quinn. “You drive. I need to make some calls.”
Quinn hit the Beltway and headed back toward the city. Strange phoned Lamar, got no answer, and left another message. He found the number for Ed Diggs on his list and phoned the house. Quinn heard him talking to a woman on the other end of the line; he could tell it was an older woman from the patient tone of Strange’s voice.
“Any luck?” said Quinn, as Strange hit “end.”
“His grandmother says he’s on his way out the door. I figure he’s still home, still wearin’ his pajamas, and now she’s gonna tell him to get his shit together and get himself out the house.” Strange looked at the needle on the speedometer. “You can get there quicker, we might still catch him in.”
“I’m already doin’ seventy-five. Wouldn’t want us to get pulled over. You might go showing that toy badge of yours to a real police officer, get us into a world of hurt.”
“Funny. C’mon, Terry, speed it up. Car’s got a three-fifty square block under the hood, and you’re drivin’ it like a Geo and shit.”
“You want me to drive it like a race car, I will.”
“Pin it,” said Strange.
LUCILLE Carter lived on a number street off North Dakota Avenue in Manor Park, in a detached bungalow fronted by a series of small roller-coaster hills that stopped at a stone retaining wall before they reached the sidewalk. There were plenty of cars parked along the curb on this workday. This, along with the condition of the raked lawns and the updated paint on the modest houses, indicated to Strange that the residents were mainly retirees holding on to their properties and sheltering their extended families.
Strange and Quinn went up the concrete steps to the porch of Lucille Carter’s house. Strange knocked on the front door, and it soon opened. Carter, short, bespectacled, narrow in the hips, and not yet completely gray, stood in the frame. She knew who they were. Her eyes were unsmiling and her body language told them that she wasn’t about to let them in. As agreed, Quinn stepped back and let Strange take the lead.
“Derek Strange. This is my partner Terry Quinn.” Strange opened his badge case and closed it just as quickly. “Like I explained to you on the phone, we’re investigating the Lorenze Wilder homicide. We need to speak with your grandson Edward.”
“He already talked to the police.”
“I told you we needed to speak with him again.”
“And I told you, Mr. Strange, that he was on his way out. As I am about to be, shortly.”
“Any idea where we can catch up with him?”
“He went out to his job-”
“He doesn’t have a job, Miss Carter.”
“He went out to his job search. If you had let me finish-”
“All due respect, I don’t have the time or the inclination to let you finish. You told Edward that we were on our way over here, and now he’s gone. So let me make this easy for you and tell you how it’s gonna be. Me and my partner here are gonna be back in an hour with a subpoena. Edward’s not in, we’ll come back the hour after that. Same thing the hour after that. We have to, we’ll be here on the hour around the clock. Now, what do you suppose your good neighbors gonna think of that?”
“This is harassment.”
“Would you like me to call your supervisors?”
“I can’t stop you.” Strange looked at his watch. “We’ll see you in about sixty minutes, then. Thank you for your time.”
They heard the door close behind them as they were walking down the steps.
“That was nice,” said Quinn. “The Gray Panthers are gonna give you their humanitarian award for that one.”
“You want to find a man in this city, shake down his grandmother,” said Strange. “Black man like Diggs always gonna respect the matriarch who treated him right. Plus, she’s stronger than he is, and the last thing he’s gonna want is to incur her wrath.”
“That cop knowledge?”
Strange shook his head. “My mother always said it. ‘Kick the bush and the quail comes flyin’ out.’”
“So Diggs flies out of the bush. Then what? I mean, the cops have already talked to this guy.”
“They didn’t know how close he was to Lorenze. And they didn’t talk to him the way I’m gonna talk to him.”
“Okay, what now?”
“Let’s get my car out of view so we can regroup.”
Strange pulled the Caprice around the corner and parked it a block south of the Carter residence and out of its sight lines. He phoned Lamar’s apartment and this time he got him on the line. Strange made a writing sign in the air and snapped his fingers. Quinn handed him a pen. Strange wrote down a series of numbers, asked Lamar some questions, nodded as he listened to the answers, and said, “Good work, son,” before ending the call.
“What?” said Quinn.
“Lamar saw one of those boys last night, one of the three who rolled up on him at Park Morton.” Strange was punching numbers into the grid of his cell as he talked. “Said this boy was wearing the same bright shirt he had on when he saw him the first time.”
“Lotta bright shirts out here.”
“His face was hard to forget, had a nose like an anteater.”
“Boy had a duffel bag in his backseat and a road map in his hand when Lamar saw him coming out the market, over there near the Black Hole. Looked to Lamar like he was runnin’.”
“Lamar got the license number off this boy’s Toyota, too.” Strange gave him the hold-up sign with his hand as his call connected. “Janine. Derek here. I need you to run a plate for me quick. You get an address on the owner of the car, I’m gonna need a phone number from the reverse directory, too.” Strange gave her the information and nodded as if Janine were in the room. “I’ll be waiting. Right.”
Strange hit “end.” “Janine will get it quick. She sends a Christmas card every year to this guy she’s been knowin’, over at the DMV? One of those little things she does, small gestures of kindness. Gets results.”
“She is good.”
“The best.” Strange pointed his chin up the block. “You want the alley or the front of the house?”
“Where’s your gun at, case I need it?”
“Right here, under the seat.”
“Is it loaded?”
“You got your cell?”
“In my pocket.”
“Keep it live.” Strange kept the pen Quinn had given him and slipped a notepad into his jacket. “The old lady will be going out, I expect. Either he’s in there or she’s gonna find him and tell him to get back to the house and take his medicine. But I don’t trust him to do what she says. If you get sight of him, you call me.”
“What if you see him first?”
“I’ll do the same.”
STRANGE positioned himself a half block east of the Carter home, his 10×50 binos around his neck.
Quinn walked down the alley, found the Carter bungalow, and quickly opened the link gate at the end of the weedy concrete path to the back porch of the house. Then he walked back and stood three houses away on the stones of the alley. A pit bull in a cage barked at him from a neighboring yard. No one came out to see what the barking was about, and no curtains moved from the back windows of the houses.
Quinn paced the alley for an hour. Then his phone chirped. He flipped it open.
“The old lady just left. She’s drivin’ off in her Ford right now.”
“Okay,” said Quinn.
Another thirty minutes passed. Then a sad sack of a man in oversize jeans and a T-shirt came out from the back of the Carter house. He stepped down off the peeling wood porch and reached into his jeans for a pack of cigarettes. He shook one out from a hole cut in the bottom of the pack and lit it with a match he tore from a book.
Quinn stepped back behind a tall lilac bush that still had leaves. He phoned Strange and kept his voice low.
“Derek, he’s out in the yard. How do you want to play it?”
“Hard,” said Strange. “Strong-arm him into the house and keep that back door unlocked. How much time you figure before he goes back inside?”
“However long it takes to smoke a cigarette.”
“Right,” said Strange.
Strange ran to the Caprice. He dropped his binoculars to the floor. He found Quinn’s automatic, a black Colt.45 with a checkered grip and a five-inch barrel, underneath the seat. He released the magazine and checked the load: a full seven shots. It had been a long time since Strange had had the weight of a gun in his hand. He felt that he needed one today.
EDWARD Diggs took a last drag of his Kool, then a real last drag that burned his throat, and crushed the butt under his shoe. He picked up the butt and tossed it over the fence, into the yard of a neighbor who was also a smoker. Diggs’s grandmother wouldn’t let him smoke in the house, and she didn’t like to see any evidence of it in her backyard. Mad as she had been this morning, he wasn’t gonna do anything to get her back up more than it already was.
But fuck that shit if she thought he was gonna talk any more to the police. Let them deliver that subpoena. He had told them he didn’t know shit about what had happened to Lorenze and that kid, and he didn’t have to go on repeating it if he didn’t want to. Far as telling them the truth, he had decided from the get-go to keep his mouth shut. Lorenze was his main boy, he loved him like a brother and all that, but all the talking in the world wasn’t gonna bring Lorenze back. Diggs felt that the police wouldn’t waste their time protecting a guy like him. All he wanted now was to live.
He turned and went back up the walkway, cracked and overgrown with clover and weeds. He thought he heard something behind him, but it couldn’t be, it was just his own footsteps and that cur, wouldn’t stop barking across the way.
His right hand was grabbed from behind and then bent at the wrist. A bolt of electric pain shot up to his neck, and the shock of it nearly dropped him to his knees. But the man behind him held him up.
“Let’s go, Ed.” A white man’s voice, the one saying the words pushing him along the walkway to the back porch. “Inside.”
“Fuck is this shit? You’re hurtin’ me!”
“Investigator, D.C. Move it.”
“I’m ’onna get your badge number, man.”
“This is assault right here!”
“Not yet,” said Quinn. “Open that door, let’s go.”
Diggs did it and Quinn released him as they stepped inside. They were in a clean kitchen that held a small table and chairs. On the table was a coffee cup and the sports page of the Washington Post. A set of knives sat on the Formica counter, sheathed in a rubber stand. Diggs stood by the table, trying to give Quinn a hard glare. Quinn looked Diggs over carefully, thinking of the knives, deciding that Diggs would never make a play.
“Sit down,” said Quinn, pointing to one of the chairs. Diggs pulled one away from the table and sat in it. He mumbled to himself as he stared at the linoleum floor.
Quinn moved to the rear window and looked through it. Strange was coming through the open gate and moving quickly up the walkway. His shirttails were out over his jeans. Then Strange was opening the door and he was in the kitchen and closing the door behind him. He walked toward Ed Diggs. Diggs stood from his chair.
“Meet Ed Diggs,” said Quinn.
“Ed,” said Strange, and as Strange reached him he threw a deep right into Diggs’s mouth and knocked him back over the chair. Diggs slid on the linoleum and stopped sliding when the back of his head hit the kitchen cabinet beneath the sink. Strange yanked him up by his T-shirt, kept his left hand bunched on the T, and hit him with a short, sharp right to the same spot. Diggs’s neck snapped back and his eyes fluttered. His eyes came back, and he stared up at Strange as blood flowed over his lower lip and dripped onto his shirt. Strange released him and Diggs dropped to the floor. Diggs staggered back up to his feet.
“We tell you to stand?” Quinn righted the chair. “Sit your ass down.”
Strange pulled a chair over so it faced the one Diggs had been sitting on. He and Quinn listened to Diggs mumble and moan, and they waited for him to slouch across the room. Strange had split Diggs’s lip wide, and blood came freely now from the cut.
Diggs sat down dead eyed, his shoulders slouched. Strange reached under his shirt and pulled the.45.
“Nah,” said Diggs in the voice of a boy. “Uh-uh, man, nah, uh-uh.”
“Who killed Lorenze?” said Strange.
“I don’t know who did that.” His diction was sloppy and wet.
“Somebody was huntin’ him. Was it a drug debt?”
“I don’t know.”
Strange racked the receiver on the Colt.
“Why you want to do that, brother? I told you I don’t know.”
Strange got up out of his chair and with his free hand flat-palmed Diggs’s chest. Diggs and the chair toppled back to the floor. Diggs grunted, and Strange crouched over him and forced the barrel of the.45 into his mouth.
“You know,” said Strange. He withdrew the barrel, touched it gently to the corner of Diggs’s right eye, and then pressed it there with force.
“They’ll kill me,” said Diggs.
“Look at me, Ed. I’m gonna kill you right now, I swear to God.”
“Derek,” said Quinn. It wasn’t part of the act. Strange’s eyes had long since veered from the script.
“Look at me, Ed.”
Diggs did look. His lip quivered and he closed his eyes. When he opened them again a tear sprung loose and ran fast down his cheek.
“Lorenze,” said Diggs, “he owed money to this boy for some hydro he copped. I was there when Lorenze bought it. He was gonna pay this boy in his own time… Wasn’t nothin’ but a hunrid dollars. Boy stepped to me at a dogfight back by Ogelthorpe; I could tell he was serious. I mean, that boy had nothin’ in his eyes.”
“What’d this boy look like?”
“Tall and slim, light skinned, had this crazy smile.”
“He had partners, right?”
“The ones he came with to the fight. Boy with cornrows and show muscles. ’Nother kid, one with the dog, boy had this funny-lookin’ nose and shit.”
“The main one, he say his name?”
“You know where he stays at?”
“He said he was up on Warder Street, near Roosevelt.”
“What else you know?”
“Nothin’ else.” Diggs blinked hard. “You just doomed me, man. Don’t you care nothin’ about that?”
Strange slipped the Colt back under his shirt as he stood.
“Don’t speak of this,” said Strange. “Tell your grandmother you got jumped out on the street. Tell her you fell down and bounced a few times or anything you want. But don’t tell her it was us came back. It’s over for you, hear? You’ll be fine.”