The Night Gardener

1985

ONE

THE CRIME SCENE was in the low 30s around E, on the edge of Fort Dupont Park, in a neighborhood known as Greenway, in the 6th District section of Southeast D.C. A girl of fourteen lay in the grass on the side of a community vegetable garden that was blind to the residents whose yards backed up to the nearby woods. There were colorful beads in her braided hair. She appeared to have died from a single gunshot wound to the head. A middle-aged homicide police was down on one knee beside her, staring at her as if he were waiting for her to awake. His name was T. C. Cook. He was a sergeant with twenty-four years on the force, and he was thinking.

His thoughts were not optimistic. There was no visible blood on or around the girl, with the exception of the entrance and exit wounds, now congealed. No blood at all on her shirt, jeans, or sneakers, all of which looked to be brand-new. Cook surmised that she had been undressed and re-dressed after her murder, and her body had been moved and dumped here. He had a sick feeling in his gut and also, he realized with some degree of guilt, a quickening in his pulse that suggested, if not excitement, then engagement. An ID on the body would con- firm it, but Cook suspected that this one was like the others. She was one of them.

The Mobile Crime Lab had arrived. The techs were going through the motions, but there was a kind of listlessness in their movements and a general air of defeat. The transportation of a body away from the murder site meant that there would be few forensic clues. Also, it had rained. When this happened, it was said by some techs that the killer was laughing.

On the edge of the crime scene were a meat wagon and several patrol cars and uniformed officers who had responded to the call for assistance. There were a couple dozen spectators as well. Yellow tape had been strung, and the uniforms were now charged with keeping the spectators and the media back and away from the homicide cops and lab techs doing their jobs. Superintendent of Detectives Michael Messina and Homicide Captain Arnold Bellows had ducked the tape and were talking to each other, leaving Sergeant Cook alone. The public-relations officer, a moley Italian American who appeared frequently on TV, fed the usual to a reporter from Channel 4, a man with suspicious hair whose gimmick was a clipped delivery and dramatic pauses between sentences.

Two of the uniformed officers stood by their cruiser. Their names were Gus Ramone and Dan Holiday. Ramone was of medium height and build. Holiday was taller and blade thin. Both were college dropouts, single, in their early twenties, and white. Both were in their second year on the force, past their rookie status but not seasoned. They had already acquired a distrust of officers above the rank of sergeant but were not yet cynical about the job.

"Look at 'em," said Holiday, nodding his sharp chin in the direction of Superintendent Messina and Captain Bellows. "They're not even talking to T.C."

"They're just letting him do his thing," said Ramone. "The white shirts are afraid of him, is what it is."

T. C. Cook was an average-sized black man in a tan raincoat with a zip-in lining, worn over a houndstooth sport jacket. His dress Stetson, light brown with a chocolate band holding a small multicolored feather, was cocked just so, covering a bald head sided by clown patches of black hair flecked with gray. He had a bulbous nose and a thick brown mustache. His mouth rarely turned up in a smile, but his eyes sometimes shone brightly with amusement.

"The Mission Man," said Holiday. "The brass don't like him, but they sure don't fuck with him. Guy's got a ninety percent closure rate; he can do what he wants."

That's Holiday all over, thought Ramone. Get results, and all will be forgiven. Produce, and do whatever the fuck you want. Ramone had his own rules: follow the playbook, stay safe, put in your twenty-five and move on. He was not enamored of Cook or any of the other mavericks, cowboys, and assorted living legends on the force. Romanticizing the work could not elevate it to something it was not. This was a job, not a calling. Holiday, on the other hand, was living a dream, had lead in his pencil, and was jacked up big on the Twenty-third Psalm.

Holiday had started on foot patrol in the H Street corridor of Northeast, a white man solo in a black section of town. He had cut it fine and already had a rep. Holiday remembered the names of folks he had met only one time, complimented the young women and the grandmothers alike, could talk Interhigh sports, the Redskins, and the Bullets with guys sitting on their front porches and those hanging outside the liquor stores, could even shoot the shit with the young ones he knew were headed for the hard side. Citizens, criminal and straight, sensed that Holiday was a joker and a fuckup, and still they liked him. His enthusiasm and natural fit for the job would probably get him further in the MPD than Ramone would go. That is, if that little man with the pitchfork, sitting on Holiday's shoulder, didn't ruin him first.

Ramone and Holiday had gone through the academy together, but they weren't friends. They weren't even partners. They were sharing a car because there had been a shortage of cruisers in the lot behind the 6D station. Six hours into a fourto- midnight, and Ramone was already tired of Holiday's voice. Some cops liked the company, and the backup, even if it was less than stellar. Ramone preferred to ride alone.

"I tell you about this girl I been seein?" said Holiday. "Yeah," said Ramone. Not yeah with a question mark on the end of it, but yeah with a period, as in, end of discussion. "She's a Redskinette," said Holiday. "One of those cheerleaders they got at RFK."

"I know what they are." "I tell you about her?" "I think you did." "You oughtta see her ass, Giuseppe."

Ramone's mother, when she was angry or sentimental, was the only one who ever called him by his given name. That is, until Holiday had seen Ramone's driver's license. Holiday also occasionally called him "the Ramone," after having had a look at Ramone's record collection on the single occasion Ramone had let him into his apartment. That had been a mistake.

"Nice ones, too," said Holiday, doing the arthritic thing with his hands."She got those big pink, whaddaya call 'em, aureoles."

Holiday turned, his face catching the strobe of the cruiser light bars still activated at the scene. He was smiling his large row of straight white teeth, his ice blue eyes catching the flash. The ID bar on his chest read "D. Holiday," so naturally and instantly he had caught the nickname "Doc" within the department. Coincidentally, he was as angular and bone skinny as the tubercular gunman. Some of the older cops claimed he looked like a young Dan Duryea.

"You told me," said Ramone for the third time. "Okay. But listen to this. Last week, I'm out with her in a bar. The Constable, down on Eighth ... "

"I know the place." Ramone had gone to the Constable many times, pre-cop, in that year when he thought of himself as In Between. You could score coke from the bartender there, watch the band, Tiny Desk Unit or the Insect Surfers or whoever, in that back room, or sit under the stars on the patio they had out back, drink beers and catch cigarettes behind the shake, and talk to the girls, back when they were all wearing the heavy mascara and the fishnets. This was after his fourth, and last, semester at Maryland, when he'd taken that criminology class and thought, I don't need any more of this deskand- blackboard bullshit; I can do this thing right now. But then just wandering for a while before he signed up, hitting the bars, smoking weed, and doing a little blow, chasing those girls with the fishnets. It had felt to him then like he was stumbling. Tonight, wearing the blue, the badge and gun, standing next to a guy he would have ridiculed a few years back, now his contemporary, it felt like he had been free.

"... and she drops a bomb on me. Tells me she likes me and all that bulljive, but she's dating one of the Redskins, too." "Joe Jacoby?" said Ramone, side-glancing Holiday. "Nah, not that beast."

"So who?" "A receiver. And not Donnie Warren, if you catch my drift."

"You're saying she's dating a black receiver." "One of 'em," said Holiday. "And you know they like white girls."

"Who doesn't," said Ramone.

Over the crackle of the radios coming from the cars they heard Cook telling one of the men in his squad to keep the Channel 4 reporter, who was attempting to move under the tape, away from the deceased. "Punk motherfucker," said Cook, saying it loud, making sure the reporter could hear. "He's the one got that witness killed down in Congress Park. Goes on the air and talks about how a young lady's about to give testimony... "

"I had a problem with what she told me, I gotta be honest," said Holiday, watching Cook but going ahead with his story.

"'Cause he's black." "I can't lie. It was hard for me to forget him and her after that. When I was in the rack with her, is what I'm talkin about." "You felt, what, inadequate or somethin?"

"Come on. Pro football player, a brother ... " Holiday held his palm out a foot from his groin."Guy' s gotta be like this." "It's an NFL requirement."

"Huh?" "They check their teeth, too."

"I'm sayin, I'm just an average guy. Down there, I mean. Don't get me wrong; it's Kielbasa Street when the blood gets to it, but when it's just layin there-"

"What's your point?" "Knowin this girl was hanging off the end of this guy's dick, it just ruined her for me, I guess." "So you what, let her go?"

"Not with that ass of hers, I wasn't gonna let her go. No, sir." A woman had wandered under the tape while they were talking, and as she approached the body of the girl and got a look at it, she vomited voluminously into the grass. Sergeant Cook removed his hat, ran a finger along the brim, and breathed deeply. He replaced the Stetson on his head, adjusted it, and allowed his eyes to search the perimeter of the scene. He turned to the man beside him, a white detective named Chip Rogers, and pointed to Ramone and Holiday.

"Tell those white boys to do their jobs," said Cook.

"People regurgitatin, fucking up my crime scene ... If they can't keep these folks back, find some men who will. I'm not playin."

Ramone and Holiday immediately went to the yellow tape, turned their backs to it, and affected a pose of authority. Holiday spread his feet and looped his fingers through his utility belt, unfazed by Cook's words. Ramone' s jaw tightened as he felt a twinge of anger at being called a white boy by the homicide cop. He had heard it occasionally growing up outside D.C. and many times while playing baseball and basketball in the city proper. He didn't like it. He knew it was meant to cut him and he was expected to take it, and that made it burn even more.

"How about you?" said Holiday. "How 'bout me what?" said Ramone. "You been gettin any hay for your donkey?"

Ramone did not answer. He had his eye on one woman in particular, a cop, God help him. But he had learned not to let Holiday into his personal world.

"C'mon, brother," said Holiday. "I showed you mine, now you show me yours. You got someone in your gun sights?" "Your baby sister," said Ramone.

Holiday's mouth fell open and his eyes flared. "My sister died of leukemia when she was eleven years old, you piece a shit."

Ramone looked away. For a while there was only the squawk and hiss of the police radios and the low conversations of the spectators in the crowd. Then Holiday cackled and slapped Ramone on the back.

"I'm kiddin you, Giuseppe. Oh, Christ, but I had your ass." The description of the victim had been matched to a list of missing teenagers in the area. A half hour later, a man was brought to the scene to identify her. As he looked at the body, a father's anguished howl filled the night.

The victim's name was Eve Drake. In the past year, two other black teenagers, both living in the poorer sections of town, had been murdered and dumped in similar fashion in community gardens, both discovered shortly after sunrise. Shot in the head, both had traces of semen in their rectums. Their names were Otto Williams and Ava Simmons. Like Otto and Ava, Drake's first name, Eve, was spelled the same way backward as it was forward. The press had made the connection and dubbed the events the Palindrome Murders. Within the department, some police had begun to refer to the perpetrator as the Night Gardener.

ACROSS TOWN, AT THE same time the father cried out over his daughter's body, young Washingtonians were in their homes, tuning in to Miami Vice, doing lines of coke as they watched the exploits of two hip undercover cops and their quest to take down the kingpins of the drug trade. Others read bestselling novels by Tom Clancy, John Jakes, Stephen King, and Peter Straub, or sat in bars and talked about the fading play-off prospects of the Jay Schroeder-led Washington Redskins. Others watched rented VCR tapes of Beverly Hills Cop and Code of Silence, the top picks that week at Erol's Video Club, or barely sweated to Jane Fonda's Workout, or went out and caught the new Michael J. Fox at the Circle Avalon or Caligula at the Georgetown. Mr. Mister and Midge Ure were in town, playing the clubs.

As these movers of the Reagan generation entertained themselves west of Rock Creek Park and in the suburbs, detectives and techs worked at a crime scene at 33rd and E, in the neighborhood of Greenway, in Southeast D.C. They could not know that this would be the last victim of the Palindrome Killer. For now, there was only a dead teenager, one of three unsolved, and someone out there, somewhere, doing the murders.

On a cool rainy night in December 1985, two young uniformed police and a middle-aged homicide detective were on the scene.

Copyright © 2007 by George P. Pelecanos

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George Pelecanos