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Right As Rain
A Derek Strange Novel
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Hell to Pay
A Preview of The Double
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WHAT Derek Strange was worried about, looking at Jimmy Simmons sitting there, spilling over a chair on the other side of his desk, was that Simmons was going to pick some of Strange's personal shit up off the desktop in front of him and start winging it across the room. Either that or get to bawling like a damn baby. Strange didn't know which thing he wanted to happen less. He had some items on that desk that meant a lot to him: gifts women had given him over the years, tokens of gratitude from clients, and a couple of Redskins souvenirs from back in the 1960s. But watching a man cry, that was one thing he could not take.
"Tell me again, Derek." Simmons's lip was trembling, and pools of tears were threatening to break from the corners of his bloodshot eyes. "Tell me again what that motherfucker looked like, man."
"It's all in the report," said Strange.
"I'm gonna kill him, see? And right after that, I'm gonna kill his ass again."
"You're talkin' no sense, Jimmy."
"Fifteen years of marriage and my woman's just now decided to go and start taking some other man's dick? You're gonna tell me now about sense? God damn!"
Jimmy Simmons struck his fist to the desktop, next to a plaster football player with a spring-mounted head. The player, a white dude originally whose face Janine's son, Lionel, had turned dark brown with paint, wore the old gold trousers and burgundy jersey from back in the day, and he carried a football cradled in one arm. The head jiggled, and the Redskins toy tilted on its base. Strange reached over, grabbed the player, and righted it before it could tip over.
"Take it easy. You break that, I can't even charge you for it, 'cause it's priceless, hear?"
"I'm sorry, Derek." A tear sprang loose from Simmons's right eye and ran down one of his plump cheeks. "Shit."
"Here you go, man." Strange ripped a Kleenex from the box atop his desk and handed it to Simmons, who dabbed tenderly at his cheek. It was a delicate gesture for a man whose last day under three hundred pounds was a faded memory.
"I need to know what the man looked like," said Simmons. "I need to know his name."
"It's all in the report," Strange repeated, pushing a manila envelope across the desk. "But you don't want to be doing nothin' about it, hear?"
Simmons opened the envelope and inched out its contents slowly and warily, the way a child approaches an open casket for the first time. Strange watched Simmons's eyes as they moved across the photographs and the written report.
It hadn't taken Strange all that long to get the goods on Denice Simmons. It was a tail-and-surveillance job, straight up, the simplest, dullest, and most common type of work he did. He had followed Denice to her boyfriend's place over in Springfield, Virginia, on two occasions and waited on the street until she came out and drove back into D.C. The third time Strange had tailed her, on a Sunday night when Jimmy Simmons was up in Atlantic City at an electronics show, he had waited the same way, but Denice did not emerge from the man's apartment. The lights went out in the third-story window where the man lived, and this was all Strange needed. He filled out the paperwork in the morning, picked up the photographs he had taken to a one-hour shop, and called Jimmy Simmons to his office the same day.
"How long?" said Simmons, not looking up from the documents.
"Three months, I'd say."
"How you know that?"
"Denice got no other kind of business being over in Virginia, does she?"
"She works in the District. She's got no friends over in Virginia—"
"Your own credit card bills, the ones you supplied? Denice has been charging gas at a station over there by the Franconia exit for three, three and a half months. The station's just a mile down the road from our boy's apartment."
"You think she'd be smarter than that." Simmons nearly grinned with affection. "She never does like to pay for her own gas. Always puts it on the card so I'll have to pay, come bill time. She's tight with her money, see. Funny for a woman to be that way. And though she knows I'll be stroking the checks, she always has to stop for the cheapest gas, even if it means driving out of her way. I bet if you checked, you'd see they were selling gas at that station dirt cheap."
"Dollar and a penny for regular," said Strange.
Simmons rose from his chair, his belly and face quivering as if his flesh were being blown by a sudden gust of wind. "Well, I'll see you, Derek. I'll take care of your services, soon as I see a bill."
"Janine will get it out to you straightaway."
"Right. And thanks for the good work."
"Always hate it when it turns out like this, Jimmy."
Simmons placed a big hat with a red feather in its band on his big head. "You're just doing your job."
Strange sat in his office, waiting to hear Simmons go out the door. It would take a few minutes, as long as it took Simmons to flirt with Janine and for Janine to get rid of him. Strange heard the door close. He got out from behind his desk and put himself into a midlength black leather jacket lined with quilt and a thin layer of down. He took a PayDay bar, which Janine had bought for him, off the desk and slipped it into a pocket of the jacket.
Out in the reception area of the office, Strange stopped at Janine Baker's desk. Behind her, a computer terminal showed one of the Internet's many sites that specialized in personal searches. Janine's brightly colored outfit was set off against her dark, rich skin. Her red lipstick picked up the red of the dress. She was a pretty, middle-aged woman, liquid eyed, firm breasted, wide of hip, and lean legged.
"That was quick," he said.
"He wasn't his usual playful self. He said I was looking lovely today—"
Janine blushed. "But he didn't go beyond that. Didn't seem like his heart was all that in it."
"I just gave him the bad news about his wife. She was getting a little somethin'-somethin' on the side with this young auto parts clerk, sells batteries over at the Pep Boys in northern Virginia."
"How'd they meet? He see her stalled out on the side of the road or something?"
"Yeah, he's one of those good Samaritans you hear about."
"Pulled over to give her a jump, huh."
"This the same guy she was shackin' up with two years ago?"
"Different guy. Different still than the guy she was running with three years before that."
"What's he gonna do?"
"He went through the motions with me, telling me what he was going to do to that guy. But all's he'll do is, he'll make Denice suffer a little bit. Not with his hands, nothin' like that. Jimmy wouldn't touch Denice in that way. No, they'll be doing some kind of I'm Sorry ceremony for the next few days, and then he'll forgive her, until the next one comes along."
"Why's he stay with her?"
"He loves her. And I think she loves him, too. So I guess there's no chance for you and Big Jimmy. I don't think he'll be leaving any time soon."
"Oh, I can wait."
Strange grinned. "Give him a chance to fill out a little bit, huh?"
"He fills out any more, we'll have to put one of those garage doors on the front of this place just to let him in."
"He fills out any more, Fat Albert, Roseanne, Liz Taylor, and Sinbad gonna get together and start telling Jimmy Simmons weight jokes."
"He fills out any more—"
"Hold up, Janine. You know what we're doing right here?"
"It's called 'doing the dozens.' "
"Uh-huh. White man on NPR yesterday, was talking about this book he wrote about African American culture? Said that doing the dozens was this thing we been doin' for generations. Called it the precursor of rap music."
"They got a name for it, for real? And here I thought we were just cracking on Jimmy."
"I'm not lying." Strange buttoned his coat. "Get that bill out to Simmons, will you?"
"I handed it to him as he was going out the door."
"You're always on it. I don't know why I feel the need to remind you." Strange nodded to one of two empty desks on either side of the room. "Where's Ron at?"
"Trying to locate that debtor, the hustler took that woman off for two thousand dollars."
"Old lady lives down off Princeton?"
"Uh-huh. Where you headed?"
"Off to see Chris Wilson's mom."
Strange walked toward the front door, his broad, muscled shoulders moving beneath the black leather, gray salted into his hair and closely cropped beard.
He turned as his hand touched the doorknob." You want something else?" He had felt Janine's eyes on his back.
"You need me, or if Ron needs me, I'll be wearin' my beeper."
Strange stepped out onto 9th Street, a short commercial strip between Upshur and Kansas, one spit away from Georgia Avenue. He smiled, thinking of Janine. He had met her the first time at a club ten years earlier, and he had started hitting it then because both of them wanted him to, and because it was there for him to take.
Janine had a son, Lionel, from a previous marriage, and this scared him. Hell, everything about commitment scared him, but being a father to a young man in this world, it scared him more than anything else. Despite his fears, their time together had seemed good for both Strange and Janine, and he had stayed with it, knowing that when it's good it's rare, and unless there's a strong and immediate reason, you should never give it up. The affair went on steadily for several months.
When he lost his office manager, he naturally thought of Janine, as she was out of work, bright, and a born organizer. They agreed that they would break off the relationship when she started working for him, and soon thereafter she went and got serious with another man. This was fine with him, a relief, as it had let him out the back door quietly, the way he always liked to go. That man exited Janine's life shortly thereafter.
Strange and Janine had recently started things up once again. Their relationship wasn't exclusive, at least not for Strange. And the fact that he was her boss didn't bother either of them, in the ethical sense. Their lovemaking simply filled a need, and Strange had grown attached to the boy as well. Friends warned him about shitting on the dining room table, but he was genuinely fond of the woman, and she did make his nature rise after all the years. He liked to play with her, too, let her know that he knew that she was still interested. It kept things lively in the deadening routine of their day-to-day.
Strange stood out on the sidewalk for a moment and glanced up at the yellow sign over the door: "Strange Investigations," the letters in half of both words enlarged inside the magnifying-glass illustration drawn across the lightbox. He loved that logo. It always made him feel something close to good when he looked up at that sign and saw his name.
He had built this business by himself and done something positive in the place where he'd come up. The kids in the neighborhood, they saw a black man turn the key on the front door every morning, and maybe it registered, put something in the back of their minds whether they realized it or not. He'd kept the business going for twenty-five years now, and the bumps in the road had been just that. The business was who he was. All of him, and all his.
STRANGE sat low behind the wheel of his white-over-black '89 Caprice, listening to a Blackbyrds tape coming from the box as he cruised south on Georgia Avenue. Next to him on the bench was a mini Maglite, a Rand McNally street atlas, and a Leatherman tool-in-one in a sheath that he often wore looped through his belt on the side of his hip. He wore a Buck knife the same way, all the time when he was on a job. A set of 10 × 50 binoculars, a cell phone, a voice-activated tape recorder, and extra batteries for his flashlights and camera were in the glove box, secured with a double lock. In the trunk of the car was a file carton containing data on his live cases. Also in the trunk was a steel Craftsman toolbox housing a heavy Maglite, a Canon AE-1 with a 500-millimeter lens, a pair of Russian-made NVD goggles, a 100-foot steel Craftsman tape measure, a roll of duct tape, and various Craftsman tools useful for engine and tire repair. When he could, Strange always bought Craftsman—the tools were guaranteed for life, and he tended to be hard on his equipment.
He drove through Petworth. In the Park View neighborhood he cut east on Irving, took Michigan Avenue past Children's Hospital and into Northeast, past Catholic U and down into Brookland.
Strange parked in front of Leona Wilson's modest brick home at 12th and Lawrence. He kept the motor running, waiting for the flute solo on "Walking in Rhythm" to end, though he could listen to it anytime. He'd come here because he'd promised Leona Wilson that he would, but he wasn't in any hurry to make this call.
Strange saw the curtain move in the bay window of Leona's house. He cut the engine, got out of his car, locked it down, and walked up the concrete path to Leona's front door. The door was already opening as he approached.
"Mrs. Wilson," he said, extending his hand.
WILL you help me?"
They sat beside each other in the living room on a slipcovered sofa, a soft, crackling sound coming from the fireplace. Strange drank coffee from a mug; Leona Wilson sipped tea with honey and lemon.
She was younger than he was by a few years but looked older by ten. He remembered seeing her in church before the death of her son, and her appearance since had changed radically. She carried too little weight on her tall, large-boned frame, and a bag of light brown flesh hung pendulous beneath her chin. Leona wore a maroon shirt-and-slacks arrangement and scuffed, low-heeled pumps on her feet. The outfit's presentation was rushed and sloppy. Her shirt's top button had been lost, and a brooch held it together across a flat chest terraced with bones. Her hair had gone gray, and she wore it carelessly uncombed. Grief had stolen her vanity.
Strange placed his mug on the low glass table before him. "I don't know that I can help you, ma'am. The police investigation was as thorough as they come. After all, this was a high-profile case."
"Christopher was good." Leona Wilson spoke slowly, deliberately. She pronounced her r's as ah-rahs. She had been an elementary teacher in the District public school system for thirty years. Strange knew that she had taught grammar and pronunciation the way she had learned it, the way he had learned it, too, growing up in D.C.
"I'm sure he was," said Strange.
"The papers said he had a history of brutality. They implied that he was holding a gun on that white man for no good reason when the other police officers came upon them. But I don't believe it. Christopher was strong when he had to be, but he was never brutal."
"I have an old friend in the department, Mrs. Wilson. He tells me that Chris was a solid cop and a fine young man."
"Do you know that memorial downtown, in Northwest? The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial?"
"I know it, yes."
"There are almost fifteen thousand names etched on that wall, the police officers in this country who have been killed in the line of duty since they've been keeping records. And do you know that the department has denied my request to have Chris's name put on that wall? Do you know that, Mr. Strange?"
"I'm aware of it, yes."
"The only thing I have now is my son's memory. I want other people to remember him for the way he was, too. The way he really was. Because I know my son. And Christopher was good."
"I have no reason to doubt what you say."
"So you'll help me." She learned forward. He could smell her breath, and it was foul.
"It's not what I do. I do background checks. I uncover insurance fraud. I confirm or disprove infidelity. I interview witnesses in civil cases for attorneys, and I get paid to be a witness in court. I locate debtors, and I have a younger operative who occasionally skip-traces. Once in a while I'll locate a missing child, or find the biological parent of an adopted child. What I don't do is solve murder cases or disprove cases that have already been made by the police. I'm not in that business. Except for the police, nobody's in that business, you want to know the plain truth."
"The white policeman who killed my son. Did anyone think to bring up his record the way they brought up my son's record?"
"Well, if I recall… I mean, if you remember, there was quite a bit written about that police officer. How he hadn't qualified on the shooting range for over two years, despite the fact that they require those cops to qualify every six months. How he was brought onto the force during that hiring binge in the late eighties, with all those other unqualified applicants. How he had a brutality-complaint sheet of his own. No disrespect intended, but I think they left few stones unturned with regard to that young man's past."
"In the end they blamed it on his gun."
"They did talk about the negatives of that particular weapon, yes—the Glock has a light trigger pull and no external safety."
"I want you to go deeper. Find out more about the policeman who shot my son. I'm convinced that he is the key."
"Christopher was proud to be a police officer; he would have died without question… he did die, without question, in the line of duty. But the papers made it out to seem as if he was somehow at fault. That he was holding his gun on an innocent man, that he failed to identify himself as a police officer when that white policeman came up on him. They mentioned the alcohol in his blood.… Christopher was not a drunk, Mr. Strange."
Nor an angel, thought Strange. He'd never known any cop, any man in fact, to be as pure as she was making him out to be.
"Yes, ma'am," said Strange.
He watched Leona Wilson's hand shake with the first stages of Parkinson's as she raised her teacup to her lips. He thought of his mother in the home, and he rose from the couch.
Strange walked to the fireplace, where a slowly strobing light shone behind plastic logs, the phony fire cracking rhythmically. An electric cord ran from beneath the logs to an outlet in the wall.
He looked at the photographs framed on the mantel. He saw Leona as a young woman and the boy Christopher standing under her touch, and another photograph of Leona and her husband, whom Strange knew to be deceased. There were a few more photographs of Christopher, in a cap and gown, and in uniform, and kneeling on a football field with his teammates, the Gonzaga scoreboard in the background, Christopher's gaze hard, his eyes unsmiling and staring directly into the camera's lens. A high school boy already wearing the face of a cop.
There was one photo of a girl in her early teens, its color paled out from age. Strange knew that Chris Wilson had had a sister. He had seen her on the TV news, a pretty, bone-skinny, lightskinned girl with an unhealthy, splotched complexion. He remembered thinking it odd that she had made a show of wiping tears from dry eyes. Maybe, after days of grieving, it had become her habit to take her sleeve to her eyes. Maybe she had wanted to keep crying but by then was all cried out.
Strange thought it over, his back to Leona. It would be an easy job, reinterviewing the players, retracing steps. He had a business to maintain. He wasn't in any position to be turning down jobs.
"My rates," said Strange.
He turned to face her. "You haven't asked me about my rates."
"I'm sure they're reasonable."
"I get thirty dollars an hour, plus expenses. Something like this will take time—"
"I have money. There was a settlement, as you know. And Christopher's insurance, his death benefits, I mean, and his pension. I'm certain he would have liked me to use the money for this."
Strange went back to the couch. Leona Wilson stood and rubbed the palm of one hand over the bent fingers of the other. She was eye to eye with him, nearly his height.
"I'll need access to some of his things," said Strange.
"You can have a look in his room."
"He lived here?"
"What about your daughter?"
"My daughter doesn't live here anymore."
"How can I reach her?"
"I haven't seen Sondra or talked with her since the day I buried my son."
Strange's beeper, clipped to his belt, sounded. He unfastened the device and checked the readout. "Do you mind if I use your phone?"
"It's right over there."
Strange made the call and replaced the receiver. He placed his business card beside the phone. "I've got to run."
Leona Wilson straightened her posture and brushed a strand of gray hair behind her ear. "Will you be in church this Sunday?"
"I'm gonna try real hard."
"I'll say a prayer for you, Mr. Strange."
"Thank you." He picked his leather up off the back of a chair. "I'd surely appreciate it if you would."
STRANGE drove down South Dakota to Rhode Island Avenue and hooked a left. His up mood was gone, and he popped out the Blackbyrds tape and punched the tuner in to 1450 on the AM dial. Joe "the Black Eagle" Madison was on all-talk WOL, taking calls. Strange's relationship with OL went back to the midsixties, when the station's format had first gone over to what the newspapers called "rhythm and blues." Back when they'd had those DJs Bobby "the Mighty Burner" Bennett and "Sunny Jim" Kelsey, called themselves the Soul Brothers. He'd been a WOL listener for, damn, what was it, thirty-five years now. He wondered, as he often did when thinking back, where those years had gone.
He made a left turn down 20th Street, Northeast.
Leona Wilson's posture had changed when he'd told her he'd take the job. It wasn't his imagination, either—the years had seemed to drop off her before his eyes. Like the idea of hope had given her a quick shot of youth.
"You all right, Derek," he said, as if saying it aloud would make it so.
He'd been straight up with Leona Wilson back at her house, as much as anyone could be with a woman that determined. Her temporary hope was a fair trade-off for the permanent crash of disappointment that would surely follow later on. He told himself that this was true.
Anyway, he needed the money. The Chris Wilson case was a potential thousand-, two-thousand-dollar job.
Down along Langdon Park, Strange saw Ron Lattimer's Acura curbed and running, white exhaust coming from its pipes. Strange parked the Caprice behind it, grabbed his binoculars and his Leatherman, climbed out of his car, and got into the passenger side of the red coupe.
Lattimer was at the finish line of his twenties, tall and lean with an athlete's build. He wore a designer suit, a tailored shirt, and a hand-painted tie. He held a lidded cup of Starbucks in one hand, and his other hand tapped out a beat on the steering wheel. The heater fan was blowing full on, and jazzy hip-hop came from the custom stereo system in the dash.
"You warm enough, Ron?"
"I'm comfortable, yeah."
"You doin' a surveillance in the winter, how many times I told you, you got to leave the motor shut down 'cause the exhaust smoke, it shows. Bad enough you're driving a red car, says, Look at me, everybody. Notice me."
"Too cold to leave the heat off," said Lattimer.
"Put that overcoat on you got there in the backseat, you wouldn't be so cold."
"That's a cashmere, Derek; I'm not gonna wear it in my car. Get it all wrinkled up and shit, start looking like I picked it up at the Burlington Coat Factory, some bullshit like that."
Strange took a breath and let it out slow. "And what I tell you about drinking coffee? What you need to be doing, you keep a bottle of water in the car and you sip it, a little at a time, when you get good and thirsty. Coffee runs right through you, man, you know that. What's gonna happen when you got to pee so bad you can't stand it, you get out the car lookin' for some privacy, tryin' to find a tree to get behind, while the subject of your tail is sneaking out the back door of his house? Huh? What you gonna do then?"
"The day I lose a tail, Derek, because I been drinkin' an Americano—"
"Oh, it's an Americano, now. And here I was, old and out of touch like I am, thinking you were just having a cup of coffee."
Lattimer had to chuckle. "Always tryin' to school me."
"That's right. You got the potential to be something in this profession. I get you away from focusing on your lifestyle and get you focused on the business at hand, you're gonna make it." Strange nodded toward the faceplate of the stereo. "Turn that shit off, man, I can't think."
"Tribe Called Quest represents. "
"Turn it off anyway, and tell me what we got."
Lattimer switched off the music. "Leon's over there in that house, second from the last on the right, on Mills?"
Strange looked through the glasses. "Okay. How'd you find him?"
"The address he gave the old lady, the one he took off? He hadn't lived there for a year or so. One of the neighbors I interviewed knew his family, though—both of them had come up in the same area. This neighbor told me that Leon's mother and father had both passed, years ago. Got the death certificate of his mother down at that records office on H, in Chinatown. From the date on that certificate, I found her obituary in the newspaper morgue, and the obit listed the heirs. Of the family, only the grandmother was still alive. Leon didn't have any brothers or sisters, which makes him the only heir to g-mom. I figured Leon, hustler that he is, is counting on the grandmother to leave him everything she's got, so Leon's got to be paying regular visits to stay in her grace."
"That the grandmother's house we're looking at?"
"Uh-huh. I been staking it out all this week. Leon finally showed up today. That's his hooptie over there, that yellow Pontiac Astra with the rust marks, parked in front of the house. Ugly-ass car, too."
"Sister to the Chevy Vega."
"People paid extra for that thing 'cause it had the Pontiac name on it?"
"Some did. Nice work."
"Thanks, boss. How you want to handle it?"
Strange gave it some thought. "I think we need to brace him in front of his grandmother."
"I was thinking the same way."
"Glistens with the grit of D.C.'s mean streets."
"Slangy, hip...one of the very best young mystery writers...Pelecanos is the spikiest, stylewise, and probably the most menacing."
"One of the best."
—Dennis Lehane, New York Times bestselling author of the Coughlin series
- On Sale
- Feb 23, 2011
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Back Bay Books