Least Wanted — Chapter 13

Sam McRae Mystery #2

CHAPTER 13

I knocked on a few more doors. Either no one was home or they weren’t answering. I considered what Duvall had said about the barriers to finding information in this neighborhood. He’d given me Little D’s number. I could probably afford to use him. William Jackson had agreed to pay me a healthy retainer plus expenses to defend his niece. Even so, I wasn’t going to fork over money to have someone else do what I could manage on my own — at least, not yet. And, bad as this area was, how much worse could it be than Bed-Stuy in the ’70s?

Rochelle Watson lived on the other side of Iverson Mall, in a crosshatched network of streets near Marlow Heights Park. Another inside-the-Beltway enclave of old brick houses with big trees. The area wasn’t much different than working-class neighborhoods in other parts of the county. Apart from low-end retail stores on the nearby highway, the prevalence of rust-bucket cars and the worn-around-the-edges look of some residences, you’d never know you were in the ’hood.

As I made my way up the walk, I had the familiar feeling of eyes focused on me. Eyes behind window shades and curtains. Two elderly women in porch rockers had stared as my car cruised by. I peered down the street, to see if they were still watching me. They’d probably gone inside to talk about me. Sure, and the CIA and the FBI were probably monitoring me through field glasses. My paranoia was becoming ridiculous.

The woman who answered my knock looked like she’d just rolled out of bed. And it was almost three o’clock. She could have worked — or possibly, played — nights. She had short, blunt-cut, black hair around a thin face with a sallow complexion. After establishing that she was Tanya Watson, Rochelle’s mother, I introduced myself and asked for Rochelle. She took my card and blinked at it.

“Rochelle ain’t here,” she said, sounding listless.

“Tina Jackson says she was here with your daughter the night Shanae died. Can you verify that?”

“Shanae!” She snorted. “She lucky she lived as long as she did.”

“She could rub a person the wrong way,” I said, in a shameless bid to ingratiate myself.

“Heifer ain’t gonna rub nobody anyway no more.” Her eyelids drooped, as if she were fighting to stay awake. The cause was probably more than sleep deprivation. Tanya had the look of a heroin addict in mid-buzz. Her long-sleeved shirt probably hid track marks.

“Last Wednesday night. Do you remember if Tina was here with Rochelle and some friends?” I wondered what her memory would be worth.

I heard a toilet flush and an older woman, rounder than Tanya, came creaking down the stairs. She walked up behind Tanya and peered over her shoulder, making Tanya appear two-headed.

“My niece ain’t feeling right,” the older woman said. “Could this wait?”

“It okay, Aunt Louise,” Tanya said, pronouncing it “ahnt” in that way that always sounds like an affectation to me. “I’ll talk to her now.” She widened her eyes, as if forcing them open.

Aunt Louise noticed the card Tanya held and snatched it from her. Looking it over, she said, “Well, if you gonna talk, why’on’t you invite this lady inside?”
It felt like déjà vu. Gawks from the neighbors, followed by the once-over at the door, then an invitation inside. I began to regret my decision when I got a good look at the place.

Tanya didn’t share Mrs. Mallory’s neat-as-a-pin housekeeping ways. The women led me down a short hallway, its walls smudged with fingerprints and mysterious brown stains, to a living room crammed with furniture. Along one wall, a green velveteen sofa was wedged up against a blue loveseat, leaving barely enough space for a recliner upholstered in a variation of brown plastic. The Salvation Army rejects faced a large-screen plasma TV. Probably being paid for on the forever-and-a-day installment plan with no payments due the first year. Either that or the TV was so hot, you’d get third-degree burns if you touched it. Roaches scampered up the walls and made drunken circles near the ceiling. I glanced down and caught a few lumbering across the burnt orange carpet.

“Would you like something to drink? Coffee? Water?” Aunt Louise asked in a good-hostess tone.

“No, thanks. I’ll keep this short,” I promised. Real short. I perched on the edge of the brown recliner, poised to stomp any roaches that trespassed near me. “I had asked about last Wednesday. Were Tina and Rochelle here?”

“Yeah, they were. I saw them come in,” Tanya said.

“What time was that?”

“Lemmee think. I think it was before dinner . . . .” Tanya’s eyelids drooped again and she doubled over at the waist, nodding toward her lap. I looked at her aunt, who shook her head. She got up, grabbed Tanya’s shoulders and maneuvered her into a reclining position on the sofa. Tanya offered no resistance. I rose to help and was rebuffed. Leaving Tanya to her narcotic dreams, Louise motioned for me to follow her into the kitchen. The dingy yellow appliances matched the curtains.

Louise lowered herself into a chair next to a speckled Formica-topped table. I took the seat near hers, averting my eyes from the roach convention on the counter and checking my immediate surroundings for strays.

“I’ve begged her to join a program,” Louise said, “but will she? No. She keep shooting up that junk. All I can do is come by when I can and make sure she and the kids are okay.”

You could report her to social services, I thought, but kept quiet. Louise might have viewed it as a betrayal, rather than a way to help Tanya. Besides, if Aunt Louise wasn’t volunteering to raise the kids, who would? And who knows if they would be better off in the system than under the care of their own mother? From my brief observation, it appeared that Tanya was managing with her aunt’s help.

Managing? My inner devil’s advocate piped up. You call that managing when your own daughter is in a girl gang? But I could see the other side too. How is taking her away from her mother going to change that?

I squelched these thoughts and continued questioning the aunt.

“Were you here last Wednesday?” I asked. “Can you tell me if Tina was here with Rochelle and some other girls?”

“I was here, but I didn’t get here ’til late. I come over and had to call 911.”

“Tanya OD’ed?”

“No. She didn’t take her insulin. She was fallin’ out, like she was high, but it was cause o’ not taking her meds. So I call 911 and went with her to the hospital.”

I wondered if that was true or just a story for the medics. “What time was this? Did you see any of the girls?”

She shook her head. “I guess it was a bit after nine. And I didn’t see no girls. If they was here, they was downstairs in Rochelle’s room. But there’s no way to know for sure.”

“Why’s that?”

“Even if they came home before dinner, whenever that was, if they was downstairs, they coulda left any time through the basement door.”

Damn. Scratch one alibi.

ϕϕϕ

The sun was low in the sky when I left Tanya Watson’s place. There was a chill and the acrid smell of burning firewood in the air. I started up the Mustang and sat shivering while the car warmed up. I should have brought a coat. Autumn, with its warm days and cool nights, always threw me off.

What now? It was too late to knock on more doors. Too late to visit people, too late to be in this neighborhood. Shit, my childhood neighborhood was worse than this. I looked around. In the gloom, the houses looked depressingly old. The big old trees seemed to harbor shadow and menace. I thought about Bed-Stuy again and wondered how I’d survived my nine years there.

I got to the office at six. Sheila, the receptionist for Kressler and Associates, the accounting firm where I sublet space, was packing it in for the day.

“You got a visitor,” she growled. In her seventies, Sheila wore her gray hair in an efficient bun. She seemed to be growing increasingly terse with age. As if talking too much would squander whatever breath was left in her body.

“A walk-in? Haven’t had one of those in a while.”

“This guy said it was about a case you’re working on.” She squinted and lowered her voice. “He’s a big, tall black man. Sound familiar?”

“I’m not sure.” I thought of William Jackson. I wondered if he’d come by to make an in-person pitch toward his cause for becoming Tina’s guardian. “Would you say he’s in his late thirties or early forties?”

“More like mid-to-late twenties, if you ask me, but black people fool me on their ages all the time.” She paused and added, “Oh, ex-cuse me. Make that African-American people.” She rolled her electric blue eyes. “As if you ever heard one black person refer to themselves as such.”

I laughed. “Thanks for letting me know.”

“So . . . you want me to stick around?”

I know her question was well-intended, but it grated. Was she asking because it was a man? Or because he was black? “No, no. Go on home.”

“Okay,” she said in her four-pack-a-day contralto and grabbed her purse. “G’night.”

I wished her good night and tromped up the steps. My office door was open. I prefer it that way during business hours. I didn’t want clients to feel they had to wait for me in the public area downstairs. Nothing had ever been stolen, so it worked out fine. I’d lock my office before leaving for the night, a mere after-hours formality — one more barrier beyond the front door for a would-be burglar.

I stepped into the office and understood Sheila’s concern. A huge man sat hunched in my guest chair, dwarfing it. When he saw me, he unfolded himself and got up. He towered over me. Solidly built, his body was supported by tree trunks for legs. I wondered if he’d been a linebacker in a former life. He grinned as if he was pleased with himself; not in a threatening or condescending way. Damned if he didn’t have freckles sprinkled across his coppery face.

“Sam McRae.” His voice rumbled in the subwoofer range and he extended a hand, which enveloped mine like a catcher’s mitt. “I’m Darius Wilson,” he said. “But you can call me Little D. I think you’ll want to hear what I have to say.”

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Debbi Mack

Debbi Mack

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New York Times bestselling author of eight novels, including the Sam McRae Mystery series. Screenwriter, podcaster, and blogger. My website: www.debbimack.com.