'Now that s better. Seems like old times.' I exclaimed.
'You're such a shameless charmer sometimes.' Nana said and laughed out loud. 'Ever since you were a little boy like Damon. You certainly can be one when you want to.'
'You helped make me what I am, old woman.' I confided to her.
'Proud of it, too. And I'm so proud of Damon.'
We arrived at the Sojourner Truth School and went directly to the small auditorium in back. I wondered if Christine might be there, but she wasn't anywhere to be seen. Then I wondered if she already knew Damon had made the Boys' Choir, if he had told her first. I kind of liked the thought that he might have told her. I wanted them to be close. I knew that Damon and Jannie needed a mother, not just a father and great-grandmother.
'Were're not too good yet.' Damon informed me, before he left to join the other boys. His face clearly showed the fear and anxiety of possibly being embarrassed. This is just our second practice, Mr. Dayne says we're horrid as a tubful of castor oil. He's tough as nails, Dad. He makes you stand for an hour straight without moving.'
'Mr. Dayne's tougher than you, Daddy, tougher than Ms. Johnson,' Jannie said, and grinned wickedly. Tough as nails.'
I had heard that Nathaniel Dayne was a demanding maestro, the Great Dayne, but that his choirs were among the finest in the country and most of the boys seemed to profit immensely from the dedicated training and discipline. He was already organizing the boys up on the stage. He was a very broad man of below-average height. I guessed he carried about two hundred fifty pounds on his five-foot-seven-inch frame. He wore a black suit with a black shirt buttoned at the collar, no tie. He started the boys off with a few playful verses of Three Blind Mice' that didn't sound half-bad.
'I'm really happy for Damon. He looks so proud up there.' I whispered to Nana and Jannie. 'He is a handsome devil, too.'
'Mr. Dayne is starting a girls' choir in the fall,' Jannie loud-whispered in my ear.'You watch. I mean, you listen. I'll make it.'
'Go for it, girl.' Nana said, and gave Jannie a hug. She is very good at encouraging others.
Dayne suddenly called out loudly, 'Ugh. I hear a swoop, I don't want any swoops here, gentlemen. I want clean diction and pure pitch. I want silver and silk. I do not want swoops.'
Out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly saw Christine in the hallway. She was watching Dayne and the boys, but then she looked my way. Her face was principal-serious for just a moment. Then she smiled and winked.
I walked over to see her. Be still my heart.
'That s my boy.' I said with mock proudness as I came up to her. She was dressed in a soft gray pantsuit with a coral-pink blouse. God, I loved seeing her now, being with her, hanging out, doing nothing, the works.
Christine smiled. Actually, she laughed a little at me. 'He does everything so damn well.' She didn't hold back, no matter what. 'I was hoping you might be here, Alex,' she whispered. 'I was just this very minute missing you like crazy. You know that feeling?'
'Yes, that feeling and I are well acquainted.'
We held hands as the choir practiced Bach's 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring'. Everything felt so right, and it was hard to get used to.
'Sometimes... I still have this dream about George being shot and dying,'she said as we were standing there. Christine's husband had been murdered in her home, and she had seen him die. It was one of the big reasons she was hesitant about being with me: the fear that I might die in the line of duty; also the fear that I could bring terror and violence into the house.
'I remember everything about the afternoon I heard Maria was shot. It eases with time, but it never goes away.'
Christine knew that. She had figured out the answers to most of her questions, but she liked to talk things through. We were both that way.
'And yet I continue to work here in Southeast. I come to the inner city every day. I could choose a nice school in Maryland or Virginia.'
I nodded. 'Yes, Christine, you do choose to work here.'
'And so do you.'
'And so do I.'
She held my hand a little tighter. 'I guess we were made for each other,' she said. 'Why fight it?'
Chapter Thirty-Three Early the next morning I was back in the write-up room at the Seventh District Station working on the John Doe homicide. I was the first one in there.
Apparently, no one had noticed Frank Odenkirk as he was leaving the airport. His clothing still hadn't been recovered. The ME reported that he had definitely been sodomized after he'd been killed. As I had suspected, there was no semen. The killer had used a condom. Just as with the Jane Does.
The police commissioner was involved in the Odenkirk case, and was putting added pressure on the department. It was making everyone angry and a little crazy. Chief Pittman was riding his detectives hard, and the only case he seemed interested in was the Odenkirk killing, especially since a suspect in the German tourist murder had been arrested.
At around eleven that morning, Rakeem Powell stopped by my desk. He bent low and whispered, 'Might have something interesting, Alex. Downstairs in the jail, if you've got a minute. Could be a first break on those two murdered girls in Shaw.'
The jail was down a set of steep concrete stairs, just past a tight warren of small interrogation rooms, a holding room and a booking room. All over the ceiling and walls, prisoners had scratched their street names or used black ink from fingerprinting to write the names. This was incredibly dumb of them, since it gave us their street names for our files.
It's purposely kept dark down in the jail. Each cell is six by five feet, with a metal bed and a combination water fountain/toilet. Sneakers had been tossed in the hallways outside several of the cells. It's what experienced prisoners do who don't want to take the laces out of their sneakers. Laces aren't allowed in the jail for safety reasons.
A small-time drug runner and petty thief named Alfred 'Sneak' Streek was seated like the Fresh Prince of DC in one of the holding cells. The street punk looked up at me as I entered his cell. A slicky-sick smirk crossed his face.
Sneak was sporting wraparound sunglasses, dusty dreadlocks, a bright-green and yellow crocheted hat. His white T-shirt had a drawing of Haile Selassie's face and read: HEAD HUNTER. RASTAFARIAN.
'You from the DA's office? I don't think so. No dealee, no talkee, my man,' he said to me. 'So get lost.'
Rakeem ignored him as he talked to me. 'Sneak claims to have some useful information about the Glover and Cardinal homicides. He would like us to extend him some courtesy in return for what he claims to know. He's jammed up on a charge that he may have broken into an apartment in Shaw. He was caught coming out of a bedroom window with a Sony TV in his arms. Imagine that. Not very Sneaky of him.'
'I didn't rob no ticky-tacky apartment. I don't even watch TV, my man. And I don't see no assistant district attorney present with the au-tho-rity to make a deal.'
'Take off your sunglasses,' I said to him.
He ignored me, so I took them off for him. As one well-known street saying goes 'His eyes were like tombstones.' I could tell at a glance that Sneak wasn't just running drugs anymore; he was using.
I stood across from Sneak in the jail cell and stared him down. He was probably in his early twenties, angry, cynical, lost in space and time. 'If you didn't rob the apartment, then why would you be interested in seeing a lawyer from the district attorney's office? That doesn't make too much sense to me, Alfred. Now here's what I'll do for you and it's a one-time offer, so listen carefully. If I walk out of here, I don't come back.'
Sneak half-listened to what I was saying.
'If you give us information that directly helps solve the murders of those two young girls, then we will help you on the robbery charges. I'll go to the mat myself. If you don't give up the information then I'm going to leave you in here with Detective Powell and Detective Thurman. You won't get this generous, one-time offer again. Thats another promise, and as these detectives know, I always keep my word.'
Sneak still didn't say anything. A glaze was coming over his eyes. He tried to stare me down, but I'm usually better at it than the average TV booster.
I finally shrugged a look at Rakeem Powell and Jerome Thurman.' Okay, fine. Gentlemen, we need to know what he knows about those murdered girls in Shaw. He gets nothing from us when you're finished with him. It's possible that he's involved with the homicides himself. He could even be our killer, and we need to solve this thing fast. You treat him that way until we know differently.'
I started to get up, when suddenly Sneak spoke.
'Back Door Man. He hang at Downing Park. He, Back Door, maybe see who done those girls. That's how he say it at the park. Say he saw the killer. So how you gonna help me?'
I walked out of the cell. 'I told you the deal, Alfred. We solve the case, your information helps, I'll help you.'
Chapter Thirty-Four Maybe we were close to something. Two Metro cruisers and two unmarked sedans pulled up to the fenced-in entrance of tiny Downing playground in Shaw. Rakeem Powell and Sampson went with me to visit with Joe 'Back Door' Booker, a well-known neighborhood menace.
I knew Back Door by sight and spotted him right away. He was short, no more than five-seven, goateed, and so good with a basketball that he sometimes played in work boots, just to show off. He had on dusty orange construction boots today. Also a faded black nylon jacket and black nylon pants that accordioned at the ankles.
A full-court basketball game was in progress, a fast, high-level game, somewhere between college and pro in terms of athletic ability. The court couldn't have been more basic - black macadam, faded white lines, metal backboards and rims with chain nets.
Players from two or three other teams sat around waiting their turn to play winners. Nylon shorts and pants and the Nike swoosh were everywhere. The court was surrounded by four walls of heavy wire fencing and was known as the 'cage'. Everybody looked up as we arrived, Booker included.
'We got next!' Sampson called out.
The players on and off the court exchanged looks and a couple of them grinned at Sampson's one-liner. They knew who we were. The steady thump, thump, thump on the game ball hadn't stopped.
Back Door was on the court. It wasn't unusual for his team to hold winners for an entire afternoon. He had been in and out of reformatories and prisons since he was fourteen, but he could play ball. He was taunting another player who was on the court in gray suit pants, high-tops, a bare chest, 'You suck,' said Back Door. Take those church pants off. I play you in baseball, tennis, bowling, any game - you suck. Stop suckin'.'
Rakeem Powell blew the silver referee's whistle he always carries. Rakeem works as a soccer ref in his spare time. The whistle is unorthodox, but it gets attention in noisy places. The game stopped.
The three of us walked up to Booker, who was standing near the foul circle at one basket. Sampson and I towered over him. But so did most of the players. It didn't matter, he was still the best ballplayer out there. He could probably beat Sampson and me if we played him two on one.
'Awhh, leave the brother alone. He didn't do nothin,' one of the other, taller men complained in a deep voice. He had prison-style tattoos all over his back and arms. 'He was here playin' ball, man.'
'Door been here all day,' said somebody else. 'Door been here for days. Hasn't lost a game in days!'
Several of the young men laughed at the playground humor. Sampson turned to the biggest man on the court. 'Shut the hell up. Stop dribbling that rock, too. Two young sisters been murdered. That's why we're here. This is no game with us.'
The dribbler shut up and picked up the game ball. The yard became strangely quiet. We could hear a jump rope striking the sidewalk in a fast rhythm. Three little girls playing just outside the cage were saying, 'Little Miss Pinky dressed in blue, died last night at half past two.' It was a jump-rope rhyme, sadly true around here.
I put my arm around Booker's shoulder and walked him away from his friends.
Sampson continued to do the talking. 'Booker, this is going to be so fast and easy you and your friends will be laughing your asses off about it before we're back in our cars.'
'Yeah, uh-huh,' said Joseph Booker, trying to be cool in the extreme heat of Sampson's and my glare.
'I'm serious as a heart attack, little man. You saw something that can help us with the murder of Tori Glover and Marion Cardinal. Simple as that. You talk and we walk right back out of here.'
Booker glared up at Sampson as if he were staring down the sun. 'I didn't see shit. Like Luki say, I been here for days. I never lose to these sorry chumps.'
I held up my hand, palm out, inches from his squashed moonpie face.
'I'm on a stopwatch here, Booker, so please don't interrupt my flow. I promise you, two minutes and we're out of here. Now here's what's in it for you. One, we go away and you gentlemen finish your game. Two, Detectives Powell and Sampson will owe you one. Three, a hundred dollars now for your time and trouble. The clock is ticking,' I said. 'Tick, tick, tick. Easy money.'
He finally nodded and held out his hand.
'I seen those two girls get picked up. Around two, three in the mornin' on E Street. I didn't see no driver, nobody's face or nothin'. Too dark, man. But he was driving a cab. Look like purple-and-blue gypsy. Some-thin' like that. Girls get into the back of the cab, drive off.'
'Is that it?' I asked him. 'I don't want to have to come back here later. Break up your game again.'
Booker considered what I'd said, then spoke again. 'Cab driver a white man. Seen his arm stickin' out the side window. Ain't no white boys drivin' the night shift in Shaw, least none I seen.'
I nodded, waited a bit, then I smiled at the other players, 'Gentlemen, as you were. Play ball.' Thump, thump, thump. Swish. Booker could really play ball CHAPTER Thirty-Five The new pieces of information gave us something to run with. We'd done an incredible amount of thankless street work and something had finally paid off. We had the color of the gypsy cab that had picked up the girls around the time of the murders. The fact that the driver was white was the best lead we had so far.
Sampson and I drove to my house, rather than back to the station. It would be easier to work on the new leads from Fifth Street. It took me about five minutes to come up with more information from a contact at the Taxi Commission. No fleets operating in DC currently had purple-and-blue cabs. That probably meant the car was an illegal gypsy, as Booker had said. I learned that a company called Vanity Cabs had once used purple-and-blue cars, but Vanity had been out of business since '95. The Taxi Commission rep said that half a dozen or so of the old cars might still be on the street. Originally, the fleet had been fifteen cars, which wasn't that many, even if all of them were still around, which was highly doubtful.
Sampson called all the cab companies that regularly did business in Southeast, especially around Shaw. According to their records, there were only three white drivers who had been working that night.
We were working in the kitchen. Sampson was on the phone and I was using the computer. Nana had fixed fresh coffee and also set out fruit and half a pecan pie.
Rakeem Powell called the house at around 4:15. I picked up. 'Alex, Pittman's watchdog is sniffing around here something fierce. Fred Cook wants to know what you and Sampson are working on this afternoon. Jerome told him the Odenkirk murder.'
I nodded and said, 'If the murders in Southeast are connected in any way, That's the truth.'
'One more thing,' Rakeem said, before he let me go. 'I checked with Motor Vehicles. Might be something good for us. A purple gypsy got a summons for running a stop sign around one in the morning over in Eckington, near the university, Second Street. Maybe that's where our boy lives.'
I clapped my hands and congratulated Rakeem. Our long hours working the Jane Doe cases were finally beginning to pay off.
Maybe we were about to catch the Weasel.
Chapter Thirty-Six He had been much more careful lately. The visit to Washington by George Bayer, Famine, had been a warning, a shot over his head, and Shafer had taken it seriously. The other players could be as dangerous as he was. It was they who had taught him how to kill, not the other way round. Famine, Conqueror, and War were not to be underestimated, especially if he wanted to win the game.
The day after Famine's visit, the others had informed him that Bayer had come to Washington, that he was being watched. He supposed that was his second warning. His activity had frightened them and now they were retaliating. It was all part of the game.
After work that night, he headed to the hideaway in Eckington. He spotted what looked like a half-dozen or so policemen canvassing the street.
He immediately suspected the other Horsemen. They had turned him in, after all. Or were they playing a mind game with him? What were the cops doing here?
He parked the Jaguar several blocks away, then headed toward the hideaway and garage on foot. He had to check this out. He had on a pin-striped suit, city shirt, and tie. He knew he looked respectable enough. He carried a leather briefcase, and definitely looked like a businessman coming home late.
Two African-American policemen were doing door-to-door questioning on Uhland Terrace. This wasn't good - the police were less than five blocks from the hideaway.
Why were they here? His brain was reeling, adrenaline rushing through his nervous system like a flash flood. Maybe this had nothing to do with him, but he couldn't be too careful. He definitely suspected the other players, especially George Bayer. But why? Was this the way they planned to end the game, by bringing him down?
When the two policemen up ahead disappeared down a side street off Uhland, Shafer decided to stop at one of the brownstones where they'd been asking questions. It was a small risk, but he needed to know what was happening. A couple of old men were seated on the stoop. An ancient radio played an Orioles baseball game.
They ask you about some kind of trouble in the neighborhood?' Shafer asked the men in as casual a tone as he could manage. They stopped me up the block.'
One of the men just stared at him, terminally pissed off, but the other one nodded and spoke up. 'Sure did, mister. Lookin' for a cab, purple-and-blue gypsy. Connected to some killings, they say. Though I don't recall seeing any purple ones lately. Used to be a cab company called Vanity. You remember, Earl? They had the purple people-eaters.'
'That was some years ago,' the other man said, nodding. They went belly up.'
'I guess they were Metro police. Never showed me any ID, though,' Shafer said, and shrugged. He was being careful to speak with an American accent, which he was good at imitating.
'Detectives Cross and Sampson.' The more talkative of the two men volunteered their names. 'Detective Cross showed me his badge. It was the real deal.'
'Oh, I'm sure it was,' Shafer said, and saluted the two old men. "Good to see the police in the neighborhood, actually.'
'You got that right.'
'Have a nice night.'
'Yeah, you too.'
Shafer circled back to his car, and drove to the embassy. He went straight to his office, where he felt safe and protected. He calmed himself, then turned on his computer and did a thorough search on DC detectives named Cross and Sampson. He found more than he hoped for, especially on Detective Cross.
He thought about how the new developments might change the game. Then he sent out a message to the Horsemen. He told them about Cross and Sampson -that the detectives had decided to 'play the game'. So, naturally, he had plans for them too.
Chapter Thirty-Seven Zachary Scott Taylor was a thorough, analytical, and very hard-nosed reporter on the Washington Post. I respected the hell out of him. His relentless cynicism and skepticism were a little too much for me to take on a daily basis; otherwise we might have been even closer friends. But we had a good relationship and I trusted him more than I did most journalists.
I met him that night at the Irish Times, on F Street, near Union Station. The restaurant-bar is in an anachronistic stand-alone brick building surrounded by modern office structures. Zachary called it 'a dumpy little toilet of a bar, a perfect place for us to meet'.
In the time-honored tradition of Washington, I have occasionally been one of his trusted sources, and I was about to tell the reporter something important. I hoped he would agree, and that he could convince his editors at the Post about the story.
'How're Master Damon and Ms. Jannie?' Zachary asked as he sat across from me in a darkened comer under an old photo of a stern-looking man in a black top hat. Zachary is tall, gaunt and thin; he resembles the man in the old photo a little bit. Zachary always talks too fast - with the words running into one another -How'reMasterDamonandMsJannie? There was just a hint of Virginia softening his accent.
The waitress eventually came over to our table. He ordered black coffee and I had the same.
'Two coffees?' she asked, to make sure she'd heard us right.
'Two of your very finest coffees,' Zachary said.
'This isn't Starbucks, y'know.' she said.
I smiled at the waitress's joke, then at what Zachary had said - his first words to me. I'd probably mentioned my kids' names to him once, but he had an encyclopedic memory for all kinds of disparate information.
'You should go get yourself a couple of kids, Zachary,' I told him, smiling broadly.
He glanced up at an ancient whirring ceiling fan that looked as if it might suddenly spin out of the ceiling, it seemed a nice metaphor for modern life in America, an aging infrastructure threatening to spin out of control.
'Don't have a wife yet, Alex. Still looking for the right woman,' said Zachary.
'Well, okay then, get yourself a wife first, then get a couple of kids. Might take the edge off your neuroses.'
The waitress placed steaming cups of black coffee in front of us. 'Will that be all?' she said. She shook her head, then left us.
'Maybe I don't want the edge taken off my rather stunning neurotic behavior. Maybe I believe that's what makes me such a damn fine reporter, and that without it my work would be pedestrian shit, and then I'd be nothing in the eyes of Don Graham and company.'
I sipped the day-or-two-old coffee. 'Except that if you had a couple of kids, you could never be nothing.'
Zachary squinted one eye shut and smacked the left side of his lips. He was a very animated thinker.
'Except if the kids didn't love, or even like me very much.'
'And you don't consider yourself lovable? But actually you are, Zachary. Trust me. You're just fine. Your kids would adore the hell out of you and you would adore them. You'd have a mutual adoration society.'
He finally laughed and clapped his hands loudly. We usually laugh a good bit when we're together.
'So will you marry me and have my children?' He grinned at me over the top of his steaming cup. This is a pick-up joint, after all. Singles from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Government Printing Office come here, hoping to bed a staffer from Kennedy's or Glenn's.'
'Actually, it's the best offer I've had all day. Who called this meeting anyway? Why are we here at this dive, drinking really bad coffee?'