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What It Was
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Rich with details of place and time – the cars, the music, the clothes – and fueled by non-stop action, this is Pelecanos writing in the hard-boiled noir style that won him his earliest fans and placed him firmly in the ranks of the top crime writers in America.
Table of Contents
A Preview of The Cut
A Preview of The Double
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This novel came about serendipitously, as novels often do. Many years ago I was sitting in the offices of The Wire, bullshitting with my friend and partner, Ed Burns. Before becoming a television writer and producer, Ed, a combat veteran of Vietnam, had been a police officer, a homicide detective, and a public school teacher in Baltimore. He's lived a full life. Our discussion revolved around his experiences as a young patrolman in uniform, and the relationship between the police and the underworld in the 1970s. I'm guessing Ed does not even remember our talk that day, but I do. I was taking notes.
A couple of years later, I was looking through morgue material in the Washington Post, doing some halfhearted research for a possible Watergate novel that I had no great desire to write. In the library I came upon two articles: "5 Held in Plot to Bug Democrats' Office Here" and "Cadillac Smith's Legend of Violence." Both carried the byline of the Post's revered longtime crime reporter Alfred E. Lewis. Sensing something I might use later on, I planted a fable within my novel The Night Gardener (2006) about a character named Red "Fury" Jones, very loosely based on the exploits of notorious D.C. criminal Raymond "Cadillac" Smith. It was a way of forcing my hand to eventually complete his story in a future novel. The idea was that someday I'd give Red his own book.
As a result of a brief conversation I had with Ed Burns, and two newspaper articles written by Alfred E. Lewis, I had the ammunition to ignite my imagination. What It Was, the book you hold in your hand, was written in a fever in the summer of 2011.
MANY THANKS to Ed Burns and the late Alfred E. Lewis.
JOHNNIE WALKER," said Derek Strange. "Rocks."
"Red or Black?" said the bartender. His name was Leonides Vazoulis, but folks on Georgia Avenue called him Leo. The short version was arranged horizontally, in neon, on the sign outside the bar.
"Make it the Black."
"How about you, patrioti?" said Leo, thick and bald, pointing to a fellow Greek who sat beside Strange. "Heineken?"
The Greek was middle-aged, thin, solidly built, with short hair salted gray. He wore 501s and a faded black T-shirt from the Harley store in Key West. On his feet were black high-top Chucks.
"Yeah," said Nick Stefanos. "And put a Knob Creek next to it. Neat."
Strange settled in, shifting his broad shoulders beneath his black leather blazer. His closely cropped hair was shaped up and correct. A Vandyke beard, straight silver against dark skin, framed his mouth. "Thought you were a Grand-Dad man."
"You moved up the shelf. So can I."
"I stopped with the Red when I turned sixty. If I'm gonna drink, I'm gonna enjoy every sip."
Leo served them. They tapped glasses and drank without comment. The silence was pleasant in the way that it can be between men. Plus, Bettye LaVette was singing "Your Turn to Cry" from the juke. Strange and Stefanos were showing respect.
When the song was done, Stefanos crossed the empty room and stopped at the jukebox, which was stocked with soul rarities, funk, and R&B singles. Strange wondered what Stefanos, a rock and punk man, would choose. Stefanos punched in some buttons and moved toward the head as a song began to play. Through the plate glass fronting Leo's, Strange watched a slanting downpour hit the street.
Boy went for theme music, thought Strange. And: It's a good day to drink.
" 'I wanna go outside… in the rain,' " sang Strange, very softly.
It got him to thinking on the year that song had hit the charts. And, as thoughts of the past did more often of late, this drove his mind further into a cinematic recollection of that thrilling time.
"Nice choice," said Strange, as Stefanos settled back onto his barstool.
"The Dramatics. Nineteen seventy-two."
"The summer Watergate broke."
"You ask some people on this side of town to recollect that year, they wouldn't think on Nixon. They're gonna tell you that seventy-two was the summer that Red went off."
"Some called him Red Fury."
Stefanos hit his bourbon and waited for the rest.
"Robert Lee Jones was his given name," said Strange. "He was known by Red from when he was a kid, on account of his light skin and the tint of his hair. Fury was the car his woman drove."
"You're funny, man."
Strange put up two fingers and made a swirling motion over the empties that were parked on the mahogany. Leo commenced to pouring their next round of drinks.
"You were, what, twenty-five in seventy-two?"
"That summer? I was twenty-six. But this ain't about me."
"We got all afternoon," said Stefanos.
"Then let me tell it," said Strange.
IT WAS a Plymouth Fury, the GT Sport, a two-door 440 V-8 with hidden headlamps and a four-barrel carb. The color scheme was red over white, and its vanity plates read "Coco." White interior made it a woman's car. The bright finish and the personalized tags would render the vehicle easily identifiable around town, but Robert Lee Jones was unconcerned. To him it was important that he be remembered and that what he did got done with style.
Jones had bought the Fury for his woman, Coco Watkins, whose Christian name was Shirley. She was in the wheel bucket of the Plymouth, a Viceroy in her long-nailed hand resting atop the driver's-side mirror. She and Jones were idling in park, facing south on 13th, between S and R, in Northwest. The in-dash radio was set on 1450. A Betty Wright number was playing.
Coco, so nicknamed because of the dark, buttery texture of her skin, was tall and strong of thigh. She wore red lipstick and violet eye shadow. When she stood she was finely postured. Her hair was big and it touched the headliner of the car. Jones thought of her as a stallion, if a stallion could be female. Surely they had a name for girl horses, but he couldn't recall it. Aside from prison time, and a West Virginia childhood he barely recalled, he had rarely been outside the city.
"He's in there," said Jones, looking up to the face of the red-brick apartment house on the northeast corner of R. In a second-floor window, against a frayed curtain, was the silhouette of a small man.
"How you know it's him?"
"That's his itty-bitty shadow."
"Could be a kid."
"He tiny like one. But it's him."
"Maybe he got a girl up there."
"Last time Bobby Odum had a girl, a black man was in the White House."
"Wasn't never no black president."
"And he ain't had no pussy since then."
Coco's shoulders shook as she issued a low laugh. Smoke dribbled through her painted lips.
"Leave it run," said Jones.
He got out of the Plymouth and crossed the street in long strides. He, too, was tall. He wore patch-pocket jeans and two-tone brown Flagg Brothers stacks with three-inch heels and curlicue white stitching on the vamps. His loud-print rayon shirt, tails-out, had collars big as spears. His nose had been broken and left unset. He had very light skin, and his face and hard body were prominently freckled and moled. His ratty blowout was the color of rust and its unpicked, misshapen form gave him a general air of I-don't-give-a-fuck. He was as he appeared to be.
Jones entered the building at 13th and R through a glass door set between nonfunctioning gas lanterns. He walked up a flight of stairs and stopped on the second-floor landing, which smelled of cigarettes and marijuana. In the air was the thump of bass coming from the stereo of one of the residents below, and he could feel it pulse through the wood floor. He came to the scarred door that he knew opened to the apartment of Bobby Odum, knocked on the door roughly, after a while heard a muddled voice say, "Who it is?" and he answered, "Red."
The door opened. Odum, wearing plaid pants and a silk shirt open to expose a ladder of chest bones, stood a few steps back from the frame. The black stacks on his feet elevated him but somehow managed to make him look smaller. He was the size of Sammy Davis Jr. but lacked his talent. Plus, Sammy got all that play, and Odum got none. Even the whores, retailing their licorice on what was left of the 14th Street stroll, chuckled when he pulled out his money, cracking on him while they palmed his bread. Bring your twin brother, you got one, and strap him 'cross your ass so you don't fall in. Ha ha ha. Almost made Jones sorry for Odum. Almost.
Odum forced a smile. "Red."
"It is me."
"What brings you here, brother?"
"My money does." Jones entered the apartment and closed the door behind him.
Odum stood before him, flexing and unflexing his hands. Sweat had appeared on his dark, deeply lined forehead. His eyes told Jones that he was high.
"You want a drink, somethin?"
"Let me treat you to some Regal."
"Pour it," said Jones.
Odum went to a rolling cart displaying liquor and setups, and free-poured scotch into a clouded tumbler from a Chivas bottle. The bottle had been filled and refilled over the years with off-brands, its label faded to gray. It now held Scots Lion, the low-shelf brand from the Continental liquor shop on Vermont Avenue.
Odum handed Jones his drink, and Jones hit it. It tasted like scotch. He pointed to the sofa and said, "Sit down."
Odum had a seat on the sofa and Jones settled into an overstuffed chair. Between them, a coffee table was littered with burned bottle caps, cotton balls pink with blood, a two-dollar necktie, and a large metal ashtray.
Jones reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a pack of Kools that was unopened on top. He shook a smoke from the hole he had torn out of the bottom of the pack, flipped the cigarette, and put the filtered end in his mouth. He picked a book of fire up off the table, read its face, and struck a match, touching flame to tobacco and taking in a deep lungful of menthol. He let the smoke out slow.
"So you been past Ed Murphy's," said Jones, his eyes going to the matchbook before he helped himself and slipped it into his pocket.
"I caught that boy Hathaway at the Supper Club. He was playin there last week. Donny's a Howard man."
"My woman's into him. And that female he be singin with, too."
"They gonna be together at the Carter Barron," said Odum. "I got tickets for the show." His face soured as he realized his mistake.
"Where the tickets at?" said Jones.
"They in my leather," muttered Odum, angry at himself. Something else came to him, and his tone betrayed him as he pointedly added, "The inside pocket."
Jones dragged on his Kool, double-dragged, leaned forward, and tapped ash into the tray. He stared at Odum and said nothing.
"Shit, Red, I been lookin to get up with you."
"You ain't give me no number, though."
"I called you and got nary an answer."
"That's funny, 'cause I been here."
"Maybe your phone line's fucked up. We could check it right now and find out."
"Nah. You must got the number wrong, somethin."
"Decatur two, four seven nine five?"
"Then I ain't get nothin wrong. Did I?"
"Where my money at?" said Jones.
Odum spread his hands. "Wasn't but eighty dollars, Red."
"One or eighty, it's all the same to me. You played and you lost. Trying to be funny with a ten and no royalty. Now you need to make it right."
What Jones said was true. There was a card game and Odum had stayed in on a ten-high, looking to outlast Jones and the others on a bluff. Jones, who did not fold, had been holding a pair of faces. But a weak hand and eighty dollars was not why Jones had come.
"You can have my watch," said Odum.
"I don't want that off-brand shit."
"I got heroin."
Odum tapped the toe of his right Jarman on the wood floor. "One dime is all."
"What am I supposed to do with that?"
"I don't know. Look, I'm just a tester, man—"
"Where you get your medicine at?"
"Ah, shit, Red."
Odum lowered his eyes. "Dude named Roland Williams. He got bundles."
"Roland Williams, went to Cardozo?"
"Nah, not Ro-Ro Williams. I'm talking about Long Nose Roland, came out of Roosevelt. He been going up top. You know, coppin at that spot in Harlem they call Little Baltimore."
"Where Long Nose stay at?"
"Thirteen hundred block of T," said Odum.
Odum did not know the address. He described the row house by the color of its shutters and the little porch out front. Jones saw it in his head.
"Okay," said Jones. He drank from the tumbler, emptied it, and placed it roughly on the coffee table. He dropped his cigarette into the glass and rose from the couch as if sprung.
"We done?" said Odum.
"Put some music on the box," said Jones. "It's too quiet in this hole."
Odum got up. His feet were unsteady beneath him as he crossed the room. He went to the home entertainment center he had purchased, on time, for one hundred and forty-eight dollars at the Sun Radio uptown. He had not paid on it for many months. It was an eighty-watt Webcor system with a record changer and dust cover housed atop an AM/FM stereo receiver and eight-track player. Two air-suspension speakers bookended the unit, seated on a slotted metal stand holding Odum's vinyl.
Odum chose an album and slipped it out of its dust jacket. He placed the record on the turntable, side two up, and carefully dropped the tone arm on the first song. Psychedelic funk came forward.
Odum did not turn around. As the groove hit him, he began to move with a small, off-the-rhythm dip and a shake of his hips. He was not much of a dancer. He forced himself to smile.
"Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow," said Odum.
Jones, now standing behind the couch, said nothing.
" 'I wanna know if it's good to you,' " sang Odum, as the chorus kicked in. His mouth had gone dry and he licked his lips. "Wait till you hear Eddie Hazel's guitar on the way out the jam. Eddie can do it."
"Turn it up," said Jones. Odum hiked up the volume. "More," said Jones. Odum's trembling hand clockwised the dial. "Now sit your narrow ass back down." The music was loud in the room. It had been mixed to travel from speaker to speaker, and its freaks-in-the-funhouse effect made Jones cold. Odum sat on the couch, his birdlike hands folded in his lap.
"Red," said Odum.
"Hush," said Jones.
"Red, please, man… I'll get you your eighty."
"This ain't about no eighty. It's about you runnin your gums."
"You a churchgoin man?"
"I try to be."
"All that bullshit the preacher been tellin you? About that better world you gonna find on the other side?"
"You about to see if it's true."
Jones drew a .22 Colt from beneath the tails of his rayon, put the barrel behind Odum's ear, and squeezed the trigger. Odum said, "Huh," and as he lurched forward, blood flowed from his mouth and splashed onto the coffee table, and Jones put another round into the back of his head. Odum voided his bowels, and the smell of his evacuation and the one-cent smell of blood were fast in the room.
Jones reholstered the .22 in the dip of his bells. He found the concert tickets in Odum's leather and slipped them into one of his patch pockets. Then he recalled Bobby Odum directing him, almost desperately, to a particular place in the jacket, and his suspicious nature told him to search the jacket further.
He put his hand into the left side pocket of the leather and retrieved a woman's ring the color of gold. Its mount carried a large center stone, clear and bright, surrounded by eight smaller stones orbiting around it. To the untrained eye it could have been a cluster of diamonds, but Jones was certain that he was looking at rhinestones or plain old glass. Long as Jones had known him, Odum had been ass broke.
It was a fake piece, for sure. But it was pretty, and Coco would like the way it looked on her hand. Jones slipped the ring into his patch pocket, too.
He took the glass he had been drinking from and carried it with him, wiping the doorknob off with his sleeve as he exited, listening to the guitarist going off from the stereo. The little man had been right. That cat Hazel could play.
Out on 13th, Jones crossed the street. A man named Milton Wallace sat on the concrete edging of a row house lawn, smoking down a cigarette he had resurrected from a nearby gutter. Wallace watched Jones pass.
Jones got into the Fury's passenger bucket. He handed the tickets to Coco and said, "These for you, baby."
Coco's eyes came alive as she studied one of the tickets. "Donny and Roberta at the Carter Barron? Thank you, Red."
"Ain't no thing."
"Bobby give these to you?"
"He can't use 'em no more." Jones placed the scotch glass on the mat between his feet. "I got somethin else for you, too."
"Show me, baby."
"When we get to your crib. We need to leave outta here now." Jones pointed to the keys hanging in the ignition. "Cook it, Coco."
She turned the key, engaged the transmission, and pulled away from the curb.
Milton Wallace eyed the Fury as it traveled south on 13th. Wallace recorded the image of the car, and the license plate, in his head.
SHE WAS stepping out of a Warwick-blue Firebird convertible, sitting on redline tires, when Strange first saw her. She had parked the Pontiac on 9th, near the Upshur Street cross. She was young, had prominent cheekbones and clean beige skin, wore her hair in a big natural, and was unrestrained in a print halter dress. The girl was fine. Purse in hand, her hips moving with a feline sway.
Looked to Strange that she was headed toward his spot. He could see her clearly through the wide plate glass window fronting his business. One of the reasons he liked this place: the open view.
He got up out of the swivel chair behind his metal desk. A hard desk-style chair, like the kind he'd had in high school, sat before it. He looked around with an eye to straightening up, but there wasn't much to put in place. He had one of those new machines, recorded the phone calls when they came in, but he had not yet figured out how to use it. He'd been here for just four months or so, and he had only acquired the bare bones that a person needed to replicate the look of an office. Everything seemed temporary. Even the sign out front was a bullshit sign, done by a dude around the corner who called himself an artist but claimed he was a lot of things when he was high.
A radial GE clock radio sat on his desk, plugged into a floor socket. Its AM dial was set on WOL. The sound was all treble, no bass. Amid the static, "Family Affair" was playing low, Sly and his drugged-out drawl.
A little bell mounted over the door chimed as the woman entered the shop. Strange, tall and broad shouldered, wearing low-rise bells, a wide black belt, brass-eye stacks, a rayon shirt stretched out across his chest, and a thick Roundtree mustache, stepped up to greet her.
"Are you Mr. Strange?"
"I am. But call me Derek, or Strange. Either way's fine with me. No need to call me mister."
"My name is Maybelline Walker."
"Can I take some of your time? I'll be brief."
Strange shook her hand and took in her smell, the faint sweetness of strawberries. "Let's sit."
They crossed the cool linoleum floor. Strange allowed her to go ahead so he could check out her behind, as a man will tend to do. He made a maître d's hand motion, pointing her to the client chair. She fitted herself into it, glanced at its attached desktop with puzzlement, and rested her forearm atop its face as she crossed one bare leg over the other. Strange noticed the ripple of muscle in her thigh as he took a seat behind his desk.
"What can I do for you today?"
"I've been seeing your sign out front for months now."
"I'm fixin to get a new one."
"Strange Investigations. Do you have many?"
Background checks, mainly, thought Strange. Case-builds for divorce lawyers. Infidelity tails. Nothing of any weight.
"Are you busy with one now?"
"I'm in a slow period."
Strange looked her over. Straight backed and poised. Had some nice titties on her, too. High and tight, big old erasers about to bust through the fabric of her dress. A redbone with light-brown eyes. One of those brown-paper-bag gals, the kind he'd rarely gone after, as dark-skinned women were more to his liking. Not that he wouldn't straighten out Miss Maybelline Walker if she'd give him a go-sign. God, he would hit the hell out of it if he had the chance.
"Is there something?"
"What?" said Strange.
"You're looking at me… well." Maybelline blushed, a little.
"I'm just waitin on you to tell me what this is about, Miss Walker."
"Make it Maybelline."
Maybelline took a deep, theatrical breath. "I lost a piece of jewelry. A ring. I'd like you to find it and bring it back to me. I'll pay you for your time, of course, and a bonus if you succeed."
"How do you mean lost, exactly?"
"I loaned the ring to an acquaintance of mine. He said that he had an associate who could appraise it. You know, to see if it had any real value."
Strange knew the meaning of the word appraise, but he did not make an issue of her condescension. If she was one of these uppity, educated girls, if she thought she was better than him because of geography, high school, skin color, or whatever, it made no difference to him. A job was sitting across the desk from him, and that meant cash money, something for which he had need.
"And your acquaintance, he, what, took off with the ring?"
"He was murdered."
Strange sat forward in his chair. He picked up a pencil that he had been using to draw the design of a logo he intended to implement on a new sign for out front, in the event that he ever had enough money to purchase one. He'd put the logo on his cards, too, when he got around to having some printed. He'd been playing with a magnifying glass laid partially over the name of his business, but as of yet he had not gotten it exactly right.
"So now the ring's missing," said Strange.
Strange opened a schoolboy notebook and looked at Maybelline.
"The name of your acquaintance?"
"Robert Odum. Went by Bobby."
"When was this? His murder, I mean."
"A week ago yesterday. He was shot to death in his residence."
"Gimme the address."
Maybelline told him where Odum stayed and Strange wrote it down. He vaguely remembered reading about the murder in the Post, buried in the section locals called "Violent Negro Deaths."
"Why was Odum killed?" said Strange. "Any idea?"
"I don't know why anyone would want to hurt Bobby. He was gentle."
"You knew him long?"
"Not very. He was a friend of a friend." She held her eyes on his. "I like to think I'm a good judge of character."
"How you know the ring's gone?"
"I've been by his apartment since his death. I looked everywhere for it."
"Police let you in?"
"No. I spoke to a detective, but he told me I couldn't pass through. I waited until they were done working the… what do you call that?"
"The crime scene."
"It was several days after Bobby's death that I went by."
"How'd you get into his place?"
"I have a key."
"But you say you were only an acquaintance."
"We'd grown close in a short period of time. Bobby trusted me."
"If he was going to a fence with your ring—"
"I didn't say he was going to a fence."
"Okay. Where'd you get the ring, originally?"
"I'm not sure I like your tone."
"No offense intended," said Strange.
Maybelline's eyes flickered delicately with forgiveness. "The ring was in my family. It was my mother's. Her mother's before that. It's costume jewelry, you want the truth. But it means something to me."
"I understand. Still, if it was only costume jewelry, why was Odum getting it appraised for you?"
"He seemed to think that the body of it, the ring itself, I mean, was gold. Obviously the stones were cheap glass, but gold, of course, has value. I didn't care about its worth. I wasn't ever going to sell it. But for insurance purposes, I thought it was a good idea."
"All right." Strange was tiring of her story, which was illogical and probably a lie. It had begun to confuse him, and maybe that was her intent. Still, he was curious. "Describe the ring, please."
"But I haven't decided to hire you yet," she said, rather petulantly.
"I can provide references if you want."
"That won't be necessary. Tell me something about your background."
"I'm D.C. born and bred. Grew up in Park View, on Princeton. Went to high school at Roosevelt, right across the street from where we sit. I was Four-F 'cause of a knee injury I got while playing football for the Rough Riders. My knee is good now, and as you can see I'm perfectly fit. I was an officer with the MPD until the riots, at which time I left the force. Kicked around some, doing a little bit of this and that, until I figured out that I dug detective work but not a uniform. So I copped a license and opened up my own place. I like soul and funk, the Redskins, good-looking women, Western movies, half-smokes, nice cars, puppy dogs, and long walks on the beach. Hot oils, too, if the situation calls for it."
This time Maybelline blushed full. She smiled and said, "I guess that almost covers it."
"Why have a storefront here when you could operate out of your car? What I mean is, what does paying rent get you when your business is done mostly on the street?"
"It's an odd question."
"I'd like to know if my money is going to your overhead or to shoe leather."
"Fair enough. Kids in this neighborhood watch me open that front door every morning. I think it's important for them to see a young black man going to work each day, building his own thing. Don't you?"
"So there it is. Now tell me something about you."
"If you're looking to know more about me, here's not the time or place."
"Okay, then," said Strange. "The ring?"
- On Sale
- Jan 23, 2012
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Back Bay Books