What It Was

By George Pelecanos Illustration by Jeffrey Smith

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Vaughn entered the offices of the Third District headquarters and went to his desk. He found a memo slip taped to his phone. A cross-dressing streetwalker named Martina Lewis had called and asked that he get back to him.

Vaughn’s supervisor, Lieutenant David Harp, tall, white, whippet thin, middle-aged and blue-eyed, with black slicked-back hair, came into the room and told Vaughn he wanted to see him in private.

“Right now,” said Harp.

Vaughn wiggled his eyebrows at his fellow detective Charles Davis before following Harp back to his office. The white shirts rarely bothered him, and when they did he didn’t let it get under his skin. He wasn’t bucking for promotion. He already had the job he wanted. The only way they could hurt him was to fire him, and they’d never do that. Vaughn’s closure rate was top-shelf.

Harp was already behind his desk when Vaughn walked into the office. Vaughn took the hot seat, a hard chair set in front of Harp’s desk. He removed his hat, held it in his lap and waited.

“Where you been, detective?”

“Working my case. The Odum homicide.” Odum had been 123 pounds of junkie, a former second-story man scraping by as a dish washer and heroin tester. He was one of many confidential informants that Vaughn kept and cultivated around the city. The ballistics report had determined that the slugs retrieved from Odum’s apartment came from a .22, a weapon favored by

assassins.

“The suspect is Robert Lee Jones, correct?”

Vaughn nodded. “Street name Red. We just need to put the bracelets on him. We’re close”

I’ve been tryin to get hold of you. You take your personal car today?”

“I’m more comfortable in my own vehicle, sir”

“It has a two-way in it, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, sir,” said Vaughn. “But sometimes I forget and leave it off.” Truth was, he didn’t like to be bothered with the constant crackle of the radio while he was doing his job. The talk over the police frequency almost never had a thing to do with him.

Harp drew a pencil from a leather cup and tapped it on his desk. “Your boy Red and his partner robbed Sylvester Ward in his own house. Happened early this morning. Y’know that?”

“First I heard of it,” said Vaughn. He was intrigued, but he tried not to let his emotions play out on his face.

“Know who Ward is?”

“That would be Two-Tone Ward. The numbers man. He controls the policy racket in the city”

“Correct. He reported the crime soon as it happened. But Ward didn’t call the MPD. He called his city councilman. And the mayor, for all I know. And then I got the calls. More than one. Matter of fact, these politicians have been up my ass all day. They want to know when we’re gonna get this joker off the street.”

I’m sorry about the trouble it caused you, sir. If you want me to explain the progress of my case to any of those gentlemen---“

Fuck them.”

“Yes, sir” Vaughn smiled, displayed his widely spaced, crooked teeth. The younger cops called him Hound Dog, claiming he looked like that big dog in the cartoons, the one with the scary choppers and the spiked collar. Vaughn preferred to think of himself as a less pretty Mitchum. Or Sinatra on the cover of that record No One Cares, seated at the bar in raincoat and fedora, staring into his rocks glass. Not too gone for 52 years old anyway. He smoothed out the brim of his hat. “It’s unusual for a guy like Ward to call the authorities, even after he’s been victimized. I mean, there’s a code.”

“They broke it. Red and his partner beat Ward like an animal before they left his house. From what I hear, Ward wasn’t even resisting.”

“Sounds like my man.”

“What’s this guy’s problem?”

“Red Jones isn’t looking forward to retirement or old age, lieutenant. He’s living for this summer. Today. People all over the city are talking about him. The notoriety pours gasoline on his fire. That’s what he wants. He’s building his own myth.”

Harp slipped the pencil back into his cup. He relaxed his shoulders and sat back in his chair. “bring the motherfucker in.”

“Bet on it,” said Vaughn.” “And keep your radio on, detective.”

Walking out of the offices, Vaughn put his hand in his pocket and touched a slip of paper. It was the messages from Martina Lewis.

Vaughn bought a ticket at the Lincoln box office and went through the lobby to the auditorium. The 5:30 show was about to begin. Buck and the Preacher had been held over, but first the projectionist was running a reel of trailers for the current features playing at the other District Theatres, a chain whose bookers programmed films for black audiences in black neighborhoods. Vaughn let his eyes adjust and watched the promo for The Legend of Nigger Charley, currently running down at the Booker T. How the West Was Rewritten, thought Vaughn as he spotted Martina in one of the middle rows and made his way to a seat beside him.

“Just got your message, baby,” said Vaughn, leaning close to Martina so he could keep his voice low and still be heard.

“You weren’t followed or nothin, were you?” Martina was wearing a dress, heels and red lipstick.

“No. This about Red Jones? ’Cause I already know about the Sylvester Ward robbery.”

“That’s not why I called you.”

“I gotta find Red. Get me his location and I’ll make it worth your while.”

“Money,” said Martina huskily, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Cash ain’t gonna do nothing for me, unless you got a lot of it.”

“Tell me what’s going on.”

In the light coming from the screen, Martina’s features were angular, masculine and troubled.

“Tell me,” said Vaughn.

“Hitter name of Clarence Bowman came into the diner earlier today. Was talkin to Gina Marie.”

“I know Gina.”

“Many do. Bowman had Gina Marie call some woman up on the phone and ask her when her man was gonna be home tonight. I had the impression that Bowman was about to put work in. The contractor had to be his runnin boy, Red.”

What man?”

“A prosecutor. Cotch-somethin.”

“Cochnar?”

“That’s what it was.”

“Cochnar’s building the case on Red.” Vaughn wrapped a hand around Martina’s forearm, hard as wood. “What’s Bowman look like?”

“Tall, dark and cut. Like that actor, used to be an athlete.”

Vaughn looked at the screen, saw Fred Williamson and said, “Him?”

“Nah, one of them Olympic dudes.”

“I gotta get out of here.”

“Wait a minute, Vaughn.”

“We’ll settle up later.”

“It’s not about that,” said Martina, looking at him straight on. “I’m scared.”

“Keep it together,” said Vaughn. “I’ll work it out. You’ll be fine.”

Vaughn rose abruptly and rushed up the auditorium aisle. Martina’s head jerked birdlike around the house. He was trying to see if anyone had been watching or listening to their conversation. Half believing that they had not been observed, Martina slouched in his seat and got low.

Coco Watkins, Red Jones and Alfonzo Jefferson sat on comfortable furniture around a cable-spool table set up in the living room of Jefferson’s bungalow in Burrville. They were drinking beer from clear longnecked bottles and passing around a fat joint of herb.

Though the three of them had been raised in different quadrants of the city, they shared similar backgrounds. Jones had grown up in one of D.C.’s infamous alley dwellings, way below the poverty line. No father in his life, ever, with hustlers in and out the spot, taking the place of one. A mother who worked domestic when she could. Half brothers and sisters he barely knew or kept track of. Twenty- five dollars a month rent, and his mother could rarely come up with it. All of them hungry, all the time. Being poor in that extreme way, Jones felt that nothing after could cut too deep. Take what you want, take no man’s shit. No police can intimidate you, no sentence will enslave you, no cell can contain your mind. Five hundred push-ups a day in lockup, the same regimen on the outside. Legend was, an ambitious young dude had tried to shank him in jail and the blade had broken off in Red’s chest. It wasn’t a legend. Homemade shiv, but still.

Jefferson had copped an OZ of premium Lumbo with his cut of the money they’d taken off Sylvester Ward. “Walk From Regio’s,” an instrumental from the Shaft soundtrack, was coming from the stereo, and Jefferson was moving his head to its bass, key and woodwind vamp.

“This is bad right here,” said Jefferson, his woven hat cocked on his head, his eyes close to bleeding. “You know Isaac’s in town tonight.”

“We got plans,” said Coco, eyeing Jefferson with annoyance. Jefferson, small and spidery, looked like a man-child. His voice was husky, and he was quick.

“I know,” said Jefferson, and he smiled with sympathy at Jones. “Donny and Roberta. Sounds like a real house party. You can’t dance to that shit, though. It’s got no backbeat.”

Jones hit the joint, hit it again and handed it to Jefferson. When Jones spoke, smoke came with his words. “What’d your woman say, exactly?

“Monique? Said Vaughn came by, lookin for my Buick. Registration and title’s got her name on it.”

“Ward snitched us out to the law. I can’t believe it.”

“Ain’t no honor out here anymore.” Jefferson inspected the burning herb wrapped loosely in Top papers and drew on it deep.

“Where your deuce at now?” said Jones.

“Parked in my yard, out back. Can’t nobody see it from the street.”

“If they walked into the alley they could.”

Jefferson put his hand on the worn .38 that lay on the cable-spool table. Official Police was stamped on its barrel, and he liked that. He touched its grip, wrapped in black electrical tape. “If someone walks into that alley and they look at my shit? It’s on. At that point, don’t nothin matter anyway.”

“How close you think Hound Dog is?”

Jefferson shrugged. “Man said our names to Monique.”

“Dude stays on it,” said Jones with admiration. He was not concerned. In fact, his blood ticked pleasantly. “I wouldn’t go out, I was you.”

You about to go out.”

“I gotta take care of Long Nose.”

And we got a date,” said Coco.

“You know where Roland at?” said Jefferson.

“Soul House,” said Jones. “According to you.”

“If he’s out the hospital, that’s where he’ll be.”

“So you gonna stay in,” said Jones pointedly. “Right?”

“Monique comin over here,” said Jefferson with an idiotic grin. “Conjugal visit.”

“What if she gets followed?”

“I ain’t stupid,” said Jefferson, smiling stupidly, his eyes gone. “Neither is ’Nique. She’s not goin any goddamn where unless it’s clear.”

They smoked the joint down to a roach and finished their beers. Jones got up quickly from his chair. His new Rolex had slid up his forearm, and he shook it to rest on his wrist.

“Let’s go, girl,” he said, standing tall. He was dressed for the night in rust-colored bells, three-inch stacks and a print rayon shirt opened to show the top of his laddered stomach. Coco, similarly fly and regal, came and stood beside him.

“You gonna take my short?” said Jefferson.

“That Buick’s on fire,” said Jones. “We’ll be good in Coco’s ride.”

Jefferson liked that jam “No Name Bar,” the one with all the horns, on another side of Isaac’s double-record set. As Jones and Coco left the house, he found the slab of wax he was looking for and put it on.

Roland Williams sat on a stool at the stainless steel bar of Soul House, his regular place on 14th. There were few patrons here, but this was not unusual. It was a dark, bare-wall space that served more men than women and hardly ever did so in great numbers. It was not frequented by the hip crowd but rather by city dwellers who liked their alcohol and conversation drama free. The jukebox played cuts by the likes of Big Maybelle, Carl “Soul Dog” Marshall, Johnny Adams and other artists whose sound had that below-the-Mason-Dixon-Line vibe.

Soul House was not to be confused with the House of Soul carryout on the 2500 block of the same street, but often it was, so many simply called this spot the House. Williams thought of it as his night residence. Right now, a beautiful, bitter Ollie & the Nightingales song, “Just a Little Overcome,” was playing, and Tommy Tate’s vocals were powering through the room.

Williams was drinking Johnnie Walker Red, rocks. At the moment he was alone.

He was feeling poorly, but he was not low. In the hospital he had been given methadone, and he left with a prescription, but methadone was not heroin or even morphine, which is to say that it did not give him the same kind of rush. It would have to do until he could put some coin together and cop, go back to his life as he had known it, and his habit. Course, he didn’t think of his drug use as an addiction, as he had always had it under control. Far as his vocation went, he had lied to detective Hound Dog about putting his old self behind him, but that’s what you did when you talked to the police, you lied and denied. He had a good business going; he wasn’t going to drop it and move on. Move on to what? Williams was of the older school of heroin dealer who worked peacefully out of his house. He copped ounces, called jumbos, at 116th and Eighth, up in Harlem. He bought from minor leaguers, black dudes who had scored from Italian button men who were low on the food chain themselves and connected to the Family. The run to Little Baltimore was Williams’s pleasure; he liked to go “up top” to the big city, do his thing, eat in one of those nice checkerboard-tablecloth restaurants they had, take his time, drive home slow.

What he wanted behind him was the violence and the hurt. He shouldn’t have lipped off to Red Jones. He knew that mistake was on him, and the bullet that had passed through him was a hot warning that could have been fatal, a lesson he’d needed to learn. Wasn’t his fault that the white man from up north had put the hurting on him in his hospital bed, but that awful pain was a memory now too. The Italians would go back to New Jersey or wherever they were from, and Red, well, he would soon be in lockup or shot dead in the street, because that was how it always ended for men like him, wasn’t any third choice. And he, Roland Williams, could reestablish his business and rediscover his peace.

“Another one,” said Williams to the bar-tender, a man named Gerard who had wide shoulders and a mustache so thin it was barely holding on to his face.

“On me,” said Gerard, pulling the red-labeled bottle off the middle of the shelf and free-pouring into a fresh glass he’d filled with ice.

Williams was now known as the man who’d been shot by Jones and lived to walk back into the spot. “Long Nose caught some lead from Red Fury,” he’d heard one dude say with admiration, and for once Williams didn’t mind the sound of his nickname. That kind of notoriety was worth a drink on the house. He sure wasn’t going to turn it down.Gerard served it and took the empty off the bar. A woman named Othella walked behind Williams and brushed his back with her hand as she passed. She wore tight slacks the color of vanilla ice cream and an electric-blue blouse.

“Hey, Roland,” she said in a singsong way.

“Where you off to, girl?”

Othella stopped and pointed a red-nailed finger at the heavy man seated on a stool by the front door. “Gotta tell Antoine somethin.”

“Is Antoine your George?”

“No!”

“Then come on back and sit when you’re done.”

“In a minute,” she said.

Roland Williams, relaxed in his surroundings and happy to be home, had a taste of scotch. He closed his eyes and let the liquor make love to his head.Clarence Bowman parked his Cougar at 13th and Otis Street Northeast, near Fort Bunker Hill Park. Gathering his guns, he slipped the .38 in the side pocket of his black sport jacket and wedged the .22 under the rear waistband of his slacks. He then walked south, toward Newton.

The neighborhood of Brookland held a mixture of blacks and whites, working-and middle-class, employed at the nearby Catholic University, at the post office, in the service industry or in civil service positions downtown. Bowman, a black man in clean, understated clothing, did not stand out.

On Newton he approached the Cochnar residence, a Dutch Colonial with wood siding set on a rise. Rick Cochnar’s green Maverick was parked out front. The young prosecutor was home.Bowman looked around. Dusk had come and gone, and night had fallen on the street.

It would have been better to have caught Cochnar arriving. Bowman could have walked right up to the Ford and ended the man before he got out the driver’s seat. But coming up on him like that was a hard thing to time, and it wasn’t safe or smart to hang out on a residential block for too long, even if Bowman did blend in.

He’d have to do it a different way. Go up to the house, get in and get it done quick. Better yet, coax the man outside. Most likely, Cochnar’s wife was in that house too. That was a problem for Bowman. He wasn’t one of those robot killers, what they called ice men. He took out the target, not the loved ones. He’d never finished a woman or a kid. He went to church on Sundays, sometimes. There was work he wouldn’t do.

Bowman went up the concrete steps that led to the Cochnar residence. Now he was on the high ground and could see inside the house. Its well-lit interior and his location gave him a prime view. On the first floor, a blonde lady with a good figure was walking around a room that had a set of furniture and shelves holding books. The window he was looking through was a sash and it was wide open; he could hear a television set playing in there, too. Bowman recognized the music, the theme from that squares’ program played in repeats on Channel 5. The Lawrence Welch Show, something like that.

Standing there, Bowman wondered, why would a young lady like her be watching that bullshit? And if she was watching, why was the volume up so loud? Maybe the bitch was deaf. But if she was deaf, why have the sound on at all?

The tip of a gun barrel pressed behind his ear.

“Hey, shitbird,” said a voice. “I’m a police officer. You do anything else besides raise your hands, I’ll squeeze one off in your head. I won’t even think about it. And I’ll sleep good tonight.”Bowman raised his hands.

“Anne!” The man holding the gun on him shouted toward the house and soon a bright light illuminated the porch. The woman Bowman had seen in the living room came outside, followed by a male cop in uniform. A badge was clipped to the woman’s trousers, and there was a revolver in her hand. Her police sidearm was pointed at his midsection as she descended the porch steps.

“We got him,” said Officer Anne Honn. She and the uniform covered Bowman with their weapons.

“Keep your hands up,” said Vaughn, holstering his .38. “Don’t twitch.” Vaughn found Bowman’s guns and inspected them in the light. “Shaved numbers. The DA’s gonna like that.”

“Lawyer,” said Bowman.

“You’re gonna need one, Hoss,” said Vaughn. “Put your hands behind your back.”

Bowman thought on who had set him up as he felt the bracelets lock onto his wrists. Couldn’t be that punch Gina Marie, ’cause she wouldn’t sign her own death certificate like that. It had to be that man-ho, called hisself Martina, who had been sitting beside Gina in the diner. Bowman needed to get a message to Red.

“Let’s go,” said Vaughn. With the uniformed officer beside him, Vaughn grabbed Bowman roughly by the arm and led him to a squad car that was parked around the corner in the alley. Officer Honn placed Bowman’s guns in an evidence bag and went back into the house to talk to Cochnar and his wife, safely stashed in their second-story bedroom.

“You must be Vaughn,” said Bowman, getting a look at the big dog-toothed white man for the first time.

Detective Vaughn.” He studied Bowman’s face. “Damn, you do look like that actor, used to be a big-time athlete.… Woody Strode, right?”

It’s Rafer Johnson, thought Bowman. But he didn’t bother to correct the man. He wouldn’t know the difference anyhow.Coco Watkins pulled the Fury over to the curb in front of the Soul House on 14th.

Red Jones said, “Leave it run.” He pulled his guns from under the seat and chambered rounds into both of them. Pushed his hips forward as he fitted the Colts in the dip of his bells.Coco threw the shifter into park. The 440 rumbled and sputtered through dual pipes. Coco looked to the sidewalk, where a man with a gray beard sat on a folding chair. In his hand was a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag.

“There goes witness one,” said Coco. “You ’bout to kill him, too?”

“Old-time don’t bother me.”

“Be better if we waited for Williams to go somewhere alone.”

“Better for who?”

“You. Your future.”

“I’m already wanted for murder.”

I’m not.”

“You know how the lawyers do. They only gonna charge me for one. The one they got the best chance of taking to conviction.”

“So you gonna give ’em a choice.”

“What, you scared?”

“Concerned for you don’t make me scared.”

Jones looked over at his woman, her hair touching the headliner of the Plymouth, her red lipstick, her violet eye shadow, the nice outfit she had on. Coco always looked good when she stepped out the door. She was a stallion.

“I’m goin in there,” said Jones. “You can leave me here if you want to. I’ll understand. And I’ll be all right.”

“You think I’d leave you?” Her eyes had grown heavy. She brushed tears away with her thumbs, carefully, so as not to disturb her makeup.

Jones could see that he’d cut her. He leaned across the seats and kissed her on the mouth. “You’re my bottom, girl.”

Jones got out of the Plymouth and closed its passenger door behind him. He adjusted the grips of the .45s so that they pointed inward; now he could draw the way he had so many times before in the mirror. Brazenly, he tucked the tails of his rayon shirt behind the grips so all could now see his intent.

The man sitting on the folding chair was bold behind his drink and did not take his eyes off Jones as the tall man took long strides over the sidewalk. Jones pushed on the front door of Soul House and stepped inside.

The doorman, a fat man named Antoine, took in Jones, strapped with double auto- matics, standing in the entrance area, surveying the space. Antoine had crossed paths with Jones once before.

“You can’t bring that iron in here,” said Antoine weakly and then thought better of his tone. “Sayin you shouldn’t.”

Jones didn’t reply. Instead, he scanned the low-lit room. He focused on the back of a man seated at the bar. The man turned his head to talk to the girl beside him, revealing his fucked-up beak.

The jukebox was playing an old song, a soul thing by some blue-gum singer from out the South. Jones did not hear it. The song in his head was new, like one of those soundtrack songs they played in the movies he’d seen at the Republic, the Langston, the Senator and the Booker T. The song in his head had one of those scratchy guitar riffs, wacka-wacka-wacka-wack, and a female vocal, the girl speaking, not singing, almost with a breathy kind of whisper. And now Red Jones was in the movie, crossing the bar- room floor, people murmuring, moving out his way. Nearing Williams, he stopped and stood behind him. Jones could hear music and the lyrics, which went, “Red Fury, he’s the man/Try and stop him if you can,” and Jones cross-drew his guns. He said, “Long Nose,” and as Roland Williams swiveled his bar stool around, a look of sad resignation came upon his face, and Jones fired both of his .45s. The Colts jumped in his hands and the girl beside Williams screamed as gun- shots thundered in the room and the blood of Williams speckled her. Williams, leaded multiple times, toppled off his stool and fell, dead as JFK, to the floor.

Jones’s ears were ringing some. A few patrons had backed off into the shadows and some were outright cowering, their arms wrapped around themselves, their chins tucked into their chests. Othella, the girl next to Williams, was frozen where she sat, her vanilla-colored slacks darkened at the crotch with urine. Gerard the bartender had raised his hands without being asked to, and they were shaking. Jones, guns still in hand, turned around and walked away. Antoine the doorman was no longer at his post, and Gerard watched Jones through the gun smoke as he pushed on the door and left the bar.

Out on 14th Street, Jones got into the passenger seat of the Fury.

“Everything all right?” said Coco. “Straight,” said Jones. His eyes were bright as he looked at his woman. “I wrote a song about me while I was in there. Call it my ‘Ballad of Red.’ ”

“For real.”

“Need to work on it some. But, yeah.”

Coco pulled off the curb and drove north. The juicer sitting outside Soul House watched the red Plymouth cruise away. The big-haired lady behind the wheel had left no rubber on the road. Didn’t seem to him like she was in any kind of hurry at all.

That night, for days to come and into the years, the man in the folding chair and the patrons and employees of the bar would talk about the event that had just gone down. The details would change, the roles of the witnesses would get inflated and the story would grow to legend fueled by drama, exaggeration and outright fabrication.

Red Jones had earned his myth.


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