Taylor slurped his. 'Coffee's fairly strong, isn't it? That's something to be thankful for. What's up, Alex?'
'You interested in another Pulitzer?' I asked him.
He pretended to think it over, but his eyes lit up. 'Well, I might be. You see, I need to balance the look of my mantelpiece. One of my dates told me that. Never did see the young woman again. She worked for Gingrich, as a matter of fact.'
For the next forty-five minutes or so, I told Zachary exactly what I thought was up. I told him about one hundred and fourteen unsolved murders in Southeast and parts of Northeast DC. I detailed the contrasting investigation of the cases of Frank Odenkirk and the German tourist in Georgetown, and the black teenagers Tori Glover and Marion Cardinal. I filled him in on the chief of detectives, his proclivities and his biases, at least my perception of them. I even admitted that I disliked Pittman intensely, and Zachary knows I'm not that way about too many folks who don't murder for a living.
He shook his head back and forth, back and forth, while I talked, and didn't stop when I was finished. 'It's not that I doubt any of what you're saying, but do you have any documentation?' he asked.
'You're such a stickler for details,' I said. 'Reporters are such wusses when you come right down to it.'
I reached down under my seat and lifted up two thick manila folders. His eyes brightened.
This should help with the story. Copies of sixty-seven of the unsolved homicide reports. Also a copy of the Glover and Cardinal investigation. Note the number of detectives assigned to each. Check the case hours logged.
You'll see a huge discrepancy. That's all I could get my hands on - but the other reports exist.'
'Why would this be happening, this malicious neglect?' he asked me.
I nodded at the wisdom of his question. 'I'll give you the most cynical reason,' I said. 'Some Metro cops like to refer to Southeast as "self-cleaning ovens". That sound like the beginnings of malicious neglect to you? Some victims in Southeast are called NHIs - that's No Humans Involved. The latter is a phrase used by Chief Pittman.'
Zachary quickly leafed through the reports. Then he shook my hand. I'm going home to my lonely abode, made bearable only by my single Pulitzer. I have all these fascinating police files on NHIs to read, then hopefully a chilling news expose to write. We'll see. As always, it's been a party, Alex. My best to Damon, Jannie, Nana Mama. I'd like to meet them one day. Put some faces with the names.'
'Come to the next Washington Boys' Choir performance.' I said. 'All our faces will be there. Damon is a chorister.'
Chapter Thirty-Eight I worked that night until eight thirty, and then I drove to Kinkead's in Foggy Bottom to meet up with Christine. Kinkead's is one of our favorite restaurants and also an excellent place to listen to jazz, and snuggle up to each other.
I sat at the bar and enjoyed the sounds of Hilton Felton and Ephrain Woolfolk until Christine arrived, coming from an event at school. She was right on time, though. She is punctual. Very considerate. Perfect in almost every way, at least in my eyes. Yes, I will be your wife.
'You hungry? Want to go to a table?' I asked, after we had hugged as if we'd been separated for many years and thousands of miles.
'Let's just sit here at the bar for a few minutes. You mind?' she asked. Her breath smelled lightly of spearmint. Her face was so soft and smooth that I had to lightly cup it in both my hands.
'Nothing I'd rather do in the whole wide world,' I said.
Christine ordered a Harvey's Bristol Cream and I had a mug of beer, and we talked as the music flowed over, around, and right through our bodies. It had been a long day, and I needed this.
I've been waiting for this all day long. I couldn't wait. Am I being too corny and romantic again?' I said, and grinned.
'Not for me. Never too corny, never too romantic. That won't happen, Alex.' Christine smiled. I loved to see her like this. Her eyes twinkled and danced. I sometimes get lost in her eyes, fall into the deep pools, all that good stuff that people yearn for but few seem to get nowadays, which is sad.
She stared back and my fingers lightly caressed her cheek. Then I held her under her chin. 'Stardust was playing. It's one of my favorite songs, even under ordinary circumstances. I wondered if Hilton and Ephrain were playing the tune for us, and when I looked at him, Hilton gave me a sly wink.
We moved closer together and danced in place. I could feel her heart beating; feel it right up against my chest. We must have stayed like that for ten or fifteen minutes. No one at the bar seemed to notice; no one bothered us -offered to refill our drinks, or escort us to our table. I guess they understood.
'I really like Kinkead's.' Christine whispered. 'But you know what? I'd rather be home with you tonight. Some place a little more private. I'll make you eggs, whatever you'd like. Is that all right? Do you mind?' 'No, I don't mind at all. That's a perfect idea. Lets go.' I paid our bar bill, made my regrets about the dinner reservation. Then we went to Christine's. 'We'll start with dessert.' she said and smiled wickedly.
I liked that about her too.
Chapter Thirty-Nine I had been waiting a long time to be in love again, but this was worth it and then some. I grabbed hold of Christine as soon as we were inside her house. My hands began to trace her waist, her hips; they played over her breasts, her shoulders, then touched the delicate bones of her face. We liked to do this slowly, no need to rush. I kissed her lips, then gently scratched her back and shoulders. I pulled her closer, closer.
'You have the gentlest touch,' she whispered against my cheek. 'I could do this all night. Be just like this. You want some wine? Anything? I'll give you anything I have.'
'I love you,' I told her, still lightly scratching her lower back. 'We will do this forever. I have no doubt of it.'
'I love you so much.' she whispered, then I heard her breath softly catch. 'So please, try to be careful, Alex. At work.'
'Okay, I will. But not tonight,' I said.
Christine smiled. 'Not tonight. Tonight you can live dangerously. We both will. You are handsome, and debonair for a policeman.'
'Or even for an international jewel thief.'
I swept her up and carried her down the hallway to the bedroom. 'Mmm. Strong, too.' she said. She flicked on a hall lamp as we passed. It was just enough light to see where we were going.
'How about a trip somewhere?' I said. 'I need to get away.'
'That sounds good. Yes - before school starts. Anywhere. Take me away from all this.'
Her room smelled of fresh flowers. There were pink and red roses on the nightstand. She has a passion for flowers and gardening.
'You planned this all along, didn't you?' I said. 'You did. This is entrapment. You sly girl.'
'I was thinking about it all day.' she confessed and sighed contentedly. 'I thought about being with you all day, in my office, in the hallways, the schoolyard, and then in my car on the way to the restaurant. I've been having erotic day-dreams about you all day.'
'I hope I can live up to them.'
'You will. No doubt about it.'
I took off her black silk blouse in one sweeping motion. I put my mouth to a breast, pulling at it through her demi bra. She was wearing a brushed leather skirt and I didn't take it off, just slowly pushed it up. I knelt and kissed her ankles, the tops of her feet, then slowly came up her long legs. She massaged my neck, my back and shoulders.
'You are dangerous tonight,' she said. 'That's a good thing.'
'Mmm, please. Heal me all over, Doctor.'
She bit down hard into my shoulder, then even harder into the side of my neck. We were both breathing fast. She moved against me then opened her legs for me. I moved inside her. She felt incredibly warm. The bed-springs began to sing and the headboard rocked into the wall.
She pushed her hair to one side, behind an ear. I love the way she does that.
'You feel so good Oh, Alex, don't stop, don't stop, don't stop,' she whispered.
I did as I was told and I loved every moment, every movement we made together, and I even wondered for a second if we had made a baby.
Chapter Forty Much later that night we rustled up some eggs with Vidalia onions and cheddar and mozzarella cheeses, opened a nice bottle of Pinot Noir. Then I started a fire, in August, with the air-conditioner turned up high.
We sat in front of the fire, laughed and talked, and planned a quick trip away from Washington. We settled on Bermuda, and Christine asked if we could bring Nana and the kids. I felt as if my life were changing fast, going to a new good place. If only I could get lucky and catch the Weasel somehow. That could be the perfect ending to my career with the Metro police.
I went home to Fifth Street late, got in just before three. I didn't want Damon and Jannie to wake in the morning and not find me there. I was up by eight o'clock the next morning, bounding downstairs to the delectable smells of fresh coffee and Nana's world-famous sticky buns.
The terrible twosome were just about ready to dash off to the Sojourner Truth School where they were taking advanced classes in the morning. They looked like a pair of shiny angels. I didn't get to feel this good very often, so I was going all the way with it.
'How was your date last night, Daddy?' Jannie said, making her biggest goo-goo eyes at me.
'Who said I had a date?' I made room for her on my knee. She ate a bite of the humongous sweet bun Nana had set on my plate.
'Let's just say a little birdie told me,' she chirped.
'Uh-huh. Little birdie makes good sticky buns,' I said. 'My date was pretty good. How was yours? You had a date, right? Didn't sit home alone, did you?'
'Your date was pretty good? You came home with the milkman.' Jannie laughed out loud. Damon was giggling, too. She can get us all going when she wants to; she's been that way since she was a baby.
'Jannie Cross.' Nana said, but she let it go. There was no use trying to make Jannie act like a typical seven-year-old at this point. She was too bright, too outspoken, too full of life and fun. Besides, we have a philosophy as a family: he or she who laughs, lasts.
'How come you two don't live together first?' Jannie asked. That's what they all do in the movies and on TV.'
I found myself grinning and starting to frown at the same time. 'Don't get me going on the silly stuff they do on TV and in the movies, little girl. They always get it wrong. Christine and I are going to get married soon, and then we'll all live together.'
'You sure you asked her?' they all exclaimed.
'And she said yes?'
'Why do you all look so surprised? Of course she said yes. Who could resist being a part of this family?'
'Hooray!' Jannie whooped loudly. I could tell she meant it from the bottom of her little heart.
'Hooray!' echoed Nana. 'Thank God. Oh, thank God.'
'I agree.' Damon piped in. 'It's time that we had a more normal life around here.'
Everybody was congratulating me for several minutes until Jannie finally said, 'I have to go to school now, Pa-pa. I wouldn't want to disappoint Ms. Johnson by being late, now would I? 'Here's your morning newspaper.'
Jannie handed me the Washington Post and my heart jumped a little in my chest. This was a good day indeed. I saw Zachary Taylor's story in the bottom right of the front page. It wasn't the banner headline it deserved to be, but he'd gotten the story on page one.
Potential scandal over unsolved murders in Southeast DC. Possible racial bias seen in police activity.
'Potential scandal indeed,' Nana said, and squeegeed her lower face. 'Genocide always is, isn't it?'
Chapter Forty-One I entered the station house around nine and Chief Pittman's assistant-lackey came scurrying up to me. Old Fred Cook had been a bad detective once, and now was an equally bad and devious administrator, but Fred was as smooth a buttkisser as could be found in the department or anywhere else in Washington.
'The chief of detectives wants to see you in his office, post-haste. It's important.' Fred told me. 'Better move it.'
I nodded at him and tried to keep my good mood intact. 'Of course it is, he's the chief of detectives. You have any helpful hints for me, Fred? You happen to know what this is about, what I should expect?'
'It's a big deal,' said Cook, unhelpful and happy about it. 'That's about all I can tell you, Alex.'
He walked away, leaving me hanging. I could feel the bile rising in my throat. My good mood had already deserted me.
I walked down the creaking hardwood floors of the hallway to the Jefe's office. I had no idea what to expect; but I sure wasn't prepared for what I found.
I immediately thought about what Damon had said that morning: It's time that we had a more normal life around here.
Sampson was seated inside the chief's office. Rakeem Powell and Jerome Thurman were both in there, too.
'Come in, Dr. Cross.' Chief Pittman beckoned with an outstretched hand. 'Please come in. We've been waiting for you to arrive.'
'What is this?' I said, pulling up a chair next to Sampson's, whispering in his ear.
'Don't know yet, but it's not too good,' he said. The Jefe hasn't said one word to us. Looks like the canary who ate the cat, though.'
Pittman came around in front of his desk and leaned his ample buttocks back against it. He seemed particularly full of himself, and shit, this morning. His mousy gray hair was plastered back and looked like a helmet on his bullet head.
'I can tell you what you want to know, Detective Cross.' he said. 'In fact, I didn't want to tell these other detectives until you got here. As of this morning, Detectives Sampson, Thurman, and Powell have been suspended from active duty. They have been working on cases outside the auspices of this department. Evidence is still being gathered about the full extent of these activities; and also, if any other detectives were involved.'
I started to speak up, but Sampson grabbed my arm -hard. 'Be cool, Alex.'
Pittman looked at the three of them. 'Detectives Sampson, Thurman, Powell, you can go. Your union representative has been informed of the situation. You have questions, or issues with my decision, inform your representative.'
Sampson's mouth was set hard. He didn't say a word to the Jefe, though. He got up and left the office. Thurman and Powell trailed close behind him. Neither of them spoke to Pittman either. The three of them were hardworking, dedicated detectives, and I couldn't stand to watch this happen.
I wondered why the Jefe had spared me so far. I also wondered why Shawn Moore wasn't there. The cynical answer was that Pittman wanted to set us against one another, to make us believe that Shawn had spoken against us.
Pittman reached across his desk and picked up a folded copy of the Washington Post. 'You happen to see this article today? Bottom right?'
He pushed the newspaper toward me. I had to catch the paper to keep it from falling to the floor.
'Scandal over unsolved murders in Southeast,' I said. 'Yes, I did. I read it at home.'
'I'll bet you did. Mr. Taylor, of the Post, quotes unidentified sources in the police department. You have anything to do with the article?' Pittman asked and stared hard at me.
'Why would I talk to the Washington Post?' I asked a question in answer to his. 'I told you about the problem in Southeast. I think a repeat killer may be working there. Why go any farther with it than that? Suspending those detectives sure won't help solve the problem. Especially if this sicko is approaching rage, which I believe he is.'
'I don't buy this serial-killer story. I don't see any pattern that's consistent. No one else does but you.' Pittman shook his head and frowned. He was hot, angry, trying to control himself.
He reached out his hand toward me again. His fingers were like uncooked sausages. He lowered his voice almost to a whisper. 'I'd like to fuck you over good, and I will. But for now, it wouldn't be expedient to pull you off the Odenkirk homicide. It wouldn't look good, and I suspect it would end up in the Post, too. I look forward to your daily reports on the so-called John Doe case. You know, it is time you got some of those unsolved murders off the books. You'll report directly to me on this. I'm going to be all over you, Cross. Any questions?'
I quickly left Chief Pittman's office. Before I hit him.
Chapter Forty-Two Sampson, Thurman, and Rakeem Powell had already left the building by the time I got out of the Jefe's office. I felt as if I could easily go postal. I nearly walked back inside Pittman's office and wiped up the floor with him.
I went to my desk and thought about what to do next, tried to calm myself down before I did anything rash and stupid. I thought about my responsibilities to the people in Southeast and that helped me. Still, I almost went back after Pittman.
I called Christine and let out some steam. Then, spur of the moment, I asked if she could get away for our long weekend, possibly starting on Thursday night. Christine said that she could go. I went and filled out a vacation form and left it on Fred Cook's desk. It was the last thing he and Pittman would expect from me. But I'd already decided the best thing would be to get away from here, cool down, then decide on a plan to move forward.
As I headed out of the building, another detective stopped me. They're over at Hart's bar,' he said. 'Sampson said to tell you they reserved a seat for you.'
Hart's is a very seedy, very popular gin mill on Second Street. It isn't a cops' bar, which is why some of us like it. It was eleven in the morning and the bar room was already crowded, lively, even friendly.
'Here he is!' Jerome Thurman saluted me with a half-full beer mug as I walked inside. Half-a-dozen other detectives and friends were there, too. The word had gotten around fast about the suspensions.
There was a whole lot of laughter and shouting going on. 'It's a bachelor's party!' Sampson said, and grinned. 'Got you, sugar. With a little help from Nana. You should see the look on your face!'
For the next hour and a half, friends kept arriving at Hart's. By noon the bar was full, and then the regular customers started arriving for their lunch-hour nips. The owner, Mike Hart, was in his glory. I hadn't really thought about a bachelor's party, but now that I was in the middle of one, I was glad it happened. A lot of men still guard their emotions and feelings, but not so much at a bachelor's party, at least not at a good one thrown by the people closest to you.
This was a good one. The suspensions that were handed down earlier that morning were mostly forgotten for a few hours. I was congratulated and hugged more times than I could count, and even kissed once or twice.
Everybody was calling me 'sugar', following Sampson's lead. The 'love' word was used, and overused. I was roasted and toasted in sentimental speeches that seemed hilarious at the time. Just about everybody had too much to drink.
By four in the afternoon, Sampson and I were steadying each other, making our way into the blinding daylight on Second Street. Mike Hart himself had called us a cab.
For a brief, dear moment, I was reminded of the purple-and-blue gypsy cab we were looking for - but then the thought evaporated into the nearly white sunlight.
'Sugar,' Sampson whispered against my skull as we were climbing into our cab. 'I love you more than life itself. It's true. I love your kids, love your Nana, love your wife-to-be, the lovely Christine. Take us home,' he said to the driver. 'Alex is getting married.'
'And he's the best man.' I said to the driver, who smiled.
'Yes, I am,' said Sampson. 'the very best.'
Chapter Forty-Three On Thursday night, Shafer played The Four Horsemen again. He was locked inside his study, but through the early part of the night he could hear the sounds of his family throughout the house. He felt intensely isolated; he was nervous, jittery, and angry for no apparent reason.
While he waited to log on with the other players, he found himself thinking back to the wild car ride through Washington. He relived a particular feeling over and over: the imagined moment of sudden impact with an unmovable object. He saw it as blinding light, and physical objects, and himself, shattering like glass and then becoming part of the universe again. Even the pain he would feel would be part of the reassembling of matter into other fascinating forms and shapes.
I am suicidal, he finally thought. It's just a matter of time. I really am Death.
When it was exactly nine o'clock, he began to type in a message on his computer. The Horsemen were online, waiting for his response to the visit and warning by George Bayer. He didn't want to disappoint them. What they had done had made him more enthusiastic about playing the game. He wrote:
STRANGELY, DEATH WASNT SURPRISED WHEN FAMINE APPEARED IN WASHINGTON. OF COURSE HE HAD EVERY RIGHT TO COME. JUST AS DEATH COULD GO TO DORKING, OR SINGAPORE, OR MANILA, OR KINGSTON, AND PERHAPS DEATH WILL PAY ONE OF YOU A VISIT SOON.'
THAT'S THE BEAUTY OF THE GAME WE PLAY - ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN.
ULTIMATELY, THE ISSUE IS TRUST, ISNT IT? DO I TRUST THAT YOU WILL ALLOW ME TO CONTINUE TO PLAY THE FANTASY GAME AS I WISH? AFTER ALL, THAT IS WHAT MAKES THE GAME DISTINCTIVE AND ALLURING, THE FREEDOM WE EXPERIENCE.
THAT IS THE GAME NOW, ISN'T IT? WE HAVE EVOLVED INTO SOMETHING NEW. WE HAVE RAISED THE TABLE STAKES. SO LETS HAVE SOME REAL EXCITEMENT, FELLOW HORSEMEN. I HAVE A FEW IDEAS TO TRY OUT ON YOU. EVERYTHING IS IN THE SPIRIT OF THE GAME. NO UNNECESSARY RISKS WILL BE TAKEN.
LET'S PLAY THE GAME AS IF OUR LIVES DEPENDED ON IT.
PERHAPS MINE ALREADY DOES?
AS I TOLDYOU - WE HAVE TWO NEW PLAYERS. THEY ARE WASHINGTON DETECTIVES NAMED ALEX CROSS AND JOHN SAMPSON. WORTHY OPPONENTS. I'M WATCHING THEM, BUT I CANT HELP WONDERING WHETHER SOON THEY'LL BE WATCHING ME.
LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT A FANTASY SCENARIO THAT I'VE CREATED TO WELCOME THEM TO OUR GAME. I'M SENDING PICTURES NOW - DETECTIVES CROSS AND SAMPSON.
Chapter Forty-Four It took us a day to get organized for our trip, but everybody seemed to enjoy the spontaneity, and also the special treat that we would all be together on a vacation for the first time. And so, Damon, Jannie, Nana, Christine, and I left DC in the afternoon and arrived in high spirits at Bermuda International Airport late on Thursday evening, the twenty-fifth of August.
I definitely wanted to be out of Washington for a few days. The Mr. Smith murder case had been followed too quickly by the Jane Doe investigation. I needed a rest. I had a friend who was part owner of a hotel in Bermuda, and it wasn't a particularly long airplane ride. It was perfect for us.
One scene from the airport will always stick in my mind - Christine singing 'Ja-da, ja-da' with Jannie stuck at her side. I couldn't help thinking that they looked like mother and daughter and that touched me deeply. They were so affectionate and playful, so natural. It was a mind-photo for me to have and to hold. One of those moments that I knew I'd never forget, even as I watched the two of them dancing and singing as if they'd known each other forever.
We were blessed with extraordinarily good weather for our holiday. It was sunny and blue-skied every day, morning until nightfall, when the sky turned a magical combination of reds, oranges, and purples. The days belonged to all of us, but especially the kids. We went swimming and snorkeling at Elbow Beach and Horseshoe Bay, and then raced mopeds along the picturesque Middle and Harbor Roads.