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What It Was
  • January 22, 2012 : 20:01
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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.”

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read more: entertainment, fiction, issue january 2012

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