It is significant that the year was 1981 – before smartphones and pocket video, even before personal computers and the Internet. The location – the city and state – could matter to parties who might not wish this story to be told. Let’s just say we’re talking about a large metropolitan area somewhere in North America.
This is a work of fiction. You may think you find truth here and there. But guilty parties will take comfort in believing that what you want most is not justice but entertainment.
Putting a law firm above a funeral home might seem an unwise marketing decision. But the price was right on the rent. Luther “Bones” Jackson Jr. gave Lazer “Eli” Wolff a break. Originally, it was because they both liked progressive jazz. Or maybe it was because they both followed basketball, made friendly bets on games, and Bones often lost. But Eli reasoned that he only needed the place for meeting new clients, which so far wasn’t all that often. He was a litigator. He belonged in court. Win a few cases and he could afford more impressive digs.
That was the plan, anyway. Until all the rest of it happened.
As for Bones, maintaining a mortuary as a storefront also had its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, having a picture window on the street was a great way to show off caskets, like so many shiny new cars. On the negative side, the clientele might think of the establishment as a kind of revolving door. If you thought about it, life was like that. But no one wanted to be reminded. Also, because Bones offered informal counseling services above and beyond those of an undertaker, locating his business on a busy street emphasized his role as an unofficial public servant.
Indeed, Bones was the godfather of the local community of color.
But the only control he had over the criminal element was what you would call moral persuasion. Eli could offer his own advice on occasion, and as with too many of his other clients, those services ended up being rendered pro bono.
Bones did it to keep up what you might call commercial goodwill. He was a standup guy not only for stiffs but also for their living, breathing survivors. Which, in numerous cases, included a warm widow who suddenly had control of the family checkbook. Not that he would hit on that right away. He knew how to court a lady. And Bones was a patient man.
As for Eli, his practice of law needed practice. He had no delusions about that. Collecting from a personal-injury case also required patience. It took one or two years, typically, and he did have a couple of big scores on the horizon. But meanwhile, an upstanding member of the bar had to stay out of the bars, as they say. So, Eli took on some pathetic cases. Which often came to him from Bones.
But today, Eli was expecting a paying customer in the hot seat. Divorce. Not his strong suit, but, if not too complicated, it would be mostly a paperwork hand he could play.
From the weight of her day jewelry, the silk of her too-tight top, and the prominent bulges of what surely must be silicone implants, Eli judged this babe must have some powerful reason to come to this side of the tracks to find counsel.
Eli was poised to take notes on a yellow pad, but so far all he’d jotted down was a phone number with an area code from the tonier part of town and the first name Chrissy. He guessed she had met Mr. Cadillac at a gentleman’s club or perhaps a sporting event. Maybe she’d been a basketball cheerleader and he had one of those expensive courtside seats. She’d been looking for a sugar daddy, he for a trophy wife, and they’d both had sticky hands. Hers were groping in his pants for his credit cards, his inside her blouse for those artificial but perfectly shaped boobs.
Which in her aristo neighborhood was not always a recipe for true love but could be a mutually beneficial marital arrangement.
Chrissy was sobbing.
Uh oh. Here’s the first danger signal, Eli thought.
Whenever they turned on the waterworks, he could feel the size of his retainer shrinking. There was bound to be a temporary problem with her cash flow. That was probably the reason she’d come over to his side of the tracks – to find a cheap lawyer. If the guy’s wealth was into the millions, there were all kinds of high-toned attorneys on the right side of the tracks who would take her case on contingency. Even if her legal position was iffy, they’d at least take her on retainer, and what Amex account couldn’t withstand a ten-grand hit? Answer – a card that has already been maxed out, or one that hubby was quick enough to cancel already.
So, here she was – no cash, no credit – and probably (and this was the real challenge) with no idea whatever where chubby hubby had his assets hid.
Here comes the sob story.
And Eli could decide either to walk away from the case or accept what she could scrape together now and hope he could find the loot on discovery and get enough of the settlement to not only make it all worthwhile but also top off his fee. Just now, considering his own problems with cash flow, he was inclined toward the more expedient course.
A more prudent man might have been concerned that his law practice did not focus on family law. Eli was a competent personal injury man. He knew enough about fractures, soft tissue damage, rehabilitation time, painkiller addictions, chiropractic and acupuncture alternatives, and all the gut-wrenching, subjective issues surrounding pain and suffering.
And what is divorce but an acute personal injury?
If Mrs. Cadillac could do a reasonable job helping him fill in the paperwork, he should be able to float her boat through the sewer of the county court system. It was a job-creation thing. And wasn’t this part of town a bona-fide enterprise zone? Besides, Eli’s pain-and-suffering antenna was picking up the strong signal that, although Chrissy might be fed up with tit squeezing, what she craved and eventually would pay dearly for was good, old-fashioned handholding.
But, as it turned out, Eli was wrong. She wasn’t here about divorce at all. Since she’d walked in without an appointment, she’d been complaining about her husband’s performance. Eli had made an understandable assumption about what kind of performance she was talking about. He further guessed that her litany of disappointments would culminate in her wanting to end the marriage and cash out her share of the community property.
“Mr. Wolff,” she whimpered, “Since that awful accident, my husband hasn’t been able to do anything for a long, long time.” She licked her lips and started to unbutton her blouse.
She’s really overdoing it.
He’d have to get the facts straight before he could decide what to make of her come-on.
“Wait a minute,” he said, gesturing to red-light her striptease. “What’s this about an accident? I thought we were talking about a divorce here.”
“He was injured on the job,” she said. “But his employer went bankrupt.”
It’s personal injury after all? Hey, insurance claim or maybe workman’s comp. Someone should have deep pockets. Maybe we’re back in business.
And he asked, “Do you have any health insurance? If they’re not paying up, we can fix that.”
She sighed. “We got behind on the premiums.” Then she added, undoing another button, “Please, I’ll do anything.”
Eli was getting a time-honored ploy for reducing the amount of his retainer. But something about this woman didn’t add up.
She’s dressed upscale, but somehow she and hubby failed to keep their insurance current?
Eli had trouble picturing Mr. Cadillac as the groveling employee of a company that was managed so badly it ended up in the toilet.
Unless it had been his company.
And he’d been planning to deep-six it all along.
“Let me get this straight,” Eli said. “The company your husband worked for is totally defunct? Is that right?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“And there’s no way you could make good on that insurance? No grace period? I mean, they usually give you, like, ten days after the due date.”
“No,” she said. “It’s lapsed. We got the letter.”
“And it’s not a divorce action you wish to bring?”
“Who said anything about divorce?”
Eli was still trying to figure her angle. There was a long-established Department of Labor procedure for filing workman’s comp claims if the responsible company no longer existed. It was a paperwork chore, involving no court appearances, not the kind of thing he’d prefer to take on. What she needed was a paralegal at a clinic or perhaps some social worker. He had no direct experience with this type of claim, and he’d have to do some research to either get the job done or get Chrissy a referral.
But just to be sure, he asked, “Am I to understand there’s no one to sue? And it’s not your husband’s resources you’re going after to maintain your own lifestyle? You do plan to stay with him?”
“That’s right” was all she said. Then she added as she unbuttoned still lower, wetting her lips mid-sentence, “Can’t you think of any way you could, ah, waive your usual fee?”
Now, it wasn’t that Eli wasn’t horny. His last sexual encounter had been about as intimate as a clammy handshake, months ago with a supermarket clerk who craved a hormone flood even more than he did. It was remarkable that they’d taken precautions in the heat of the moment, but they had. He didn’t even have that kind of regret to pepper the memory.
He gave her his best, insincere smile.
To which, unaccountably, she started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“Why,” she said, “you lose! You’ve just been punked by Luther Jackson Junior. He was sure, if there was no money, you wouldn’t take a case for love or lust, no matter how much I poured it on. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m running late. I’ve got an audition for a recurring role on a soap. Bye now.”
And she grabbed her purse, stood up, and hurried out.
He yelled after her, “How is that a bet? I would have stipulated as much!” But she was already out the door.
Eli didn’t see the humor. And worse, as an attorney, he was particularly offended there had been no binding wager to begin with. But when in his righteous fury he tried to call Bones, all he got was the mortuary’s answering service.
“Bones,” he said to the recording in a low growl, “you are one sick, sorry, son of a bitch.”
Eli was impressed by his friend’s inventiveness and the effort it must have taken to set it up, but he was puzzled about its timing. It wasn’t like they were in some grudge match and Bones was losing. They habitually bet on sporting events, especially basketball and baseball, and by Eli’s reckoning Bones was temporarily ahead. Granted, Eli had just come off a long winning streak. That was during basketball season when the home team had won the championship. Since both Bones and Eli were rabid fans of the local club, all they could do honorably was bet the point spread, and Eli was the statistics man.
But tonight Bones had box-seat tickets to the baseball game, and the odds were all the other way. Born and raised in corn country, Eli was still a devoted fan of his team there, which had stayed put over the years. In his opinion, too many of the pro teams and the players in all the sports had traded venues much too often. How can a local boy find any loyalty in his heart for a team whose owner, coaches, and players have no roots in the city? If Bones weren’t paying, Eli would just as soon catch a game – any game – on TV, keeping one eye on the screen and another on a mystery novel. When they bet on baseball, Bones stuck with their home team, and Eli took whatever club was visiting. Bones’ favorites were winning this season, so he should have no reason to fret.
So? Why the elaborate ruse with Chrissy?
“Sheer entertainment value, my man” was all Bones said when Eli met up with him at the park.
Eli was carrying hotdogs and beer, the least he could do when his friend had somehow scored seats between the dugout and first base. He guessed Bones had some kind of connection, political or otherwise, because a box seat was not something you could just buy. It would be rented for the season, typically year after year to a business or some rich family. But on this subject, Eli was not inclined to ask questions. Not from someone who literally knows where bodies are buried.
They agreed on their small-cap bet on the game, which just as often would involve a favor rather than money. Then after a while, Eli had to ask, “Just what was so damn funny?”
Bones flashed a smile as he admitted, “I had to prove, with you, it is always, always about the money.”
“You’re saying I’m, what? Crass? Greedy? Ambulance chaser?”
“Not at all.” He gulped his beer and laughed. “Just that you’re not near horny enough, which is a matter of concern for a healthy man of your age.”
Eli still didn’t see the humor. “Nice seats,” he huffed. “Like this makes us all homeys and shit?”
Still laughing, Bones nodded. “I coulda had hotter dates.”
“Was she a hooker?”
That did it. Bones laughed so hard the corporate boys’ club in the next box over shot them curious looks.
“Naw. Actors are cheaper.”
“You watch,” Eli said as the new hotshot pitcher squinted to get the catcher’s signals. “Intentional walk.”
The 3-2 pitch was high and outside, and the batter trotted off to first base.
“You’re a fucking cynic, Wolff,” Bones said. “And that’s a fact.”
That night, the home team beat the visitors 7-2, giving Eli all the more reason to think he’d fallen into a personal slump.
Eli was renting a one-bedroom bungalow on a block of aging tract homes located south of downtown and the university campus, just a few miles from the rapidly gentrifying black ghetto and his office above the funeral home. It was a mixed neighborhood, mostly Hispanic and solidly working-class. It wasn’t necessarily safe, but then it wasn’t gang turf, either. The rent was reasonable, the house was clean, the trash pickups were regular, and if there were rats, he hadn’t seen any.
On this sunny morning before the holiday weekend, he was putting a loving, hand-rubbed coat of paste wax on the ’69 Mustang in his driveway. Some boys were playing ball in the street. Eli looked up occasionally from his buffing to keep an eye on them. It was early and traffic was light, but kids think they will live forever.
Eli was admiring the flawless shine when Bones drove up in his classic and just as immaculately maintained Coupe de Ville.
As he hopped out of the Caddy, Bones gestured expansively toward the gleaming sports car. “What happened to that bucketa bolts you used to drive?”
“Took her down to Tijuana,” Eli said proudly. “New interior, three coats of lacquer. Less than a grand, all in.”
The paint was a deep, metallic orange – not exactly a Ford factory color. There were doubtlessly a few low-riders in this town with the same new paint job.
“You come into money?” Bones teased.
“New credit card,” Eli shrugged.
“Careful, now. You got gambling debts, remember.”
“I’m expecting a big settlement,” Eli informed him. “Slip and fall in a classy department store.”
Just then, they heard CRACK! and a hardball sailing high and hard smashed through the rear window of the Mustang.
“Damn!” Eli said, thinking immediately his new card would take another hit.
Bones reached in to pluck the ball from the backseat, and he and Eli headed off to confront the boys.
But Miguel and Ramon and their friends didn’t see them coming. Those two boys were locked in a fistfight. Miguel, who looked to be about twelve, was the bigger physically, but there was plenty of fight in Ramon, who was wiry and quick, maybe younger. But he had the advantage of wielding the baseball bat.
Bones came between them, grabbed the bat, and tossed it aside as he pushed the boys apart.
“Whoaaaa,” he said.
“Butt out!” yelled Miguel, eager to pound Ramon now that the bat was out of the picture.
Eli held up his hands, addressing Ramon, the only boy he knew by sight. “Conoces la palabra lawsuit?”
“Look out,” Miguel jeered. “He’s a law-yer.” Apparently, this made Eli the new enemy and Miguel the new defender of innocent Ramon.
“Do you boys have the money to pay for what you did to my car?” Eli asked, and it wasn’t a rhetorical question since he wasn’t sure there was enough left on his card to manage it. “You plan to be rich one day?”
“Millions!” Miguel shouted, even though Eli was still focusing on Ramon on the assumption that, as the batter, he’d hit the errant ball.
Pulling a dollar bill out of his jeans, Eli turned and handed it to Miguel. “Okay, here’s your million bucks.”
“Yeah!” Miguel said, snatching the bill.
“What’s your name?” Eli asked the smaller boy.
Eli shook his hand. “Well, Ramon, I’m your attorney, Eli Wolff. And this is my associate, Mr. Jackson.”
Deftly, Eli turned to Miguel, snatched the money back, and gave it to Ramon.
“Lawsuit’s over. You win!” he told the smaller kid.
“Jeez!” came the cry from Miguel as it was Ramon’s turn to say, “Yes!”
But now Eli plucked the bill from Ramon, quickly tore it in half, handed one piece back to Ramon, and kept the other for himself.
“You gotta pay my fee.”
Ramon was staring disheartened at the torn bill when Eli grabbed it again, tore off a postage-stamp-sized piece, and gifted the scrap ceremonially to Ramon.
“I had expenses,” he explained.
The boys were still trying to make sense of the civics lesson as Eli pointed to the Mustang. “You guys are going to work this off. Ramon, I’ll be having a talk with your mother.”
Bones gave the ball back to Ramon, whose guilty look made further fact-finding unnecessary.
As he and Eli walked back to the house, Bones grinned. “Nice work back there, counselor.”
“I guess I’m not exactly telling them the legal system works.”
“You know what they say.”
“No, what do they say?”
“Those who can’t do – teach.”
Bones’ crack about teaching stung because Eli had been considering doing just that. He wasn’t thinking about changing professions. He’d just take on some volunteer work to keep himself out of the bars, as the expression goes.
Eli had met Vince Dipego at the Police Youth League, a community outreach program sanctioned by the department. At the PYL gym, cops and kids played basketball. Social workers and public defenders occasionally got tapped as subs for the overworked cops, and that’s how Eli happened to be on the court one night. Dipego, a parole officer, had reached out to him about doing some pro bono legal work. He declined at the time because he was working for free too much already. Most of Eli’s paying clients weren’t paying.
You could say Eli was bored. That was partly it. As for whatever free time he could manage, dating seemed like asking for grief. He wasn’t retired from the game, but just now he wasn’t about to go scouting. As many workaholics do, he nursed the faint hope that he’d collide with a new prospect in the performance of his daily professional routine. A few times, he’d thought about calling Keiko on impulse. But asking for more rejection was no plan at all. And dialing drunk, in the wee hours when he was most inclined to try, might help him say what he felt but would not win him her sympathy.
No, Eli’s motivations had more to do with his accidental meetup with Ramon. Here was a kid, lived in his neighborhood, he’d never met. What kind of prospects did this boy have? Was he learning anything at school? What did he want to be when he grew up, and how wildly unlikely was that goal for him in this town, in this society? Had he ever been approached by a gang member? Did he know anyone who was in a gang? Or serving time?
When would it be too late for him?
“So what kind of trouble do you want to get into?” Vince asked Eli on the phone when he called.
“What’ve you got?” Eli asked (bravely, he thought).
“I’m assuming you still don’t want to do legal counseling, and you frankly suck at basketball.”
“Guilty and guilty.”
“What’s driving this?”
“I want to know these kids better,” Eli said. “I had a run-in with a young one the other day. I’d like to help him, but I don’t know how. Seems like I need to see where he could be headed before I go charging in there. You know how, if you don’t know what you’re doing, acting with good intentions can make things worse? My high-school English teacher freshman year was the chairman of the department. He’d spent years teaching seniors, and he saw how screwed up they were. So he decided he’d take over the freshman classes – correct their mistakes before those became bad habits. But he could only do that because he’d already spent time with the seniors, seen exactly where they were challenged.”
From Vince came an audible sigh. “Well, if you think you’re going to change the world, think again.”
“Isn’t that what you’re trying to do?”
“Never mind me. I get lots of double overtime and great benefits. What do you expect to get?”
“I get to wear myself out even more than usual. Then maybe I can skip the sleeping pills.” Eli wasn’t on drugs, at least not yet, but he did spend too much time watching movie reruns on late-night TV.
“No girlfriends in the picture?” Vince was smiling, Eli was sure.
“How do you know, and why do you care?”
“Because women tend to not only keep a man busy, but they spend enough of his money that he’s desperate to earn more. A guy in a committed relationship doesn’t go looking for volunteer work.”
“Again, guilty,” Eli said. “Come on, there must be something.”
“Sure,” Vince said. “I’m just trying to qualify the request, you might say. So, just to be clear, this is not about meeting women?”
“Is that what you do at A-A?”
“You don’t get to jerk my chain, Lazer,” Vince chuckled. “I just need to know where you’re coming from.”
“I told you,” Eli said. “I don’t know enough to make my request more specific.”
“Funny you should bring up English composition,” Vince said. “You any good at that?”
“I can spell. Hell, I can type.”
“But can you tell a story?” Vince wanted to know. “I mean, without gulping down two drinks first.”
“I can manage. Sure.”
“I’m not connected with the kids in the youth camps or the ones on probation. Different department. And besides, when it’s kids, some of the higher-ups get their panties in a twist about whether you’ve got a teaching certificate. But, for some of my guys, we’ve got this halfway house. Mostly young guys, mostly convicted of nonviolent crimes. They’re not kids anymore, but they messed up before they could get any work experience. And if you ever do tutor the younger ones, it won’t do you any harm to understand what they could face when they get older. Out in the world, what are they going to do? Wash pots or bus tables. Unless they decide, what-the-hell, they’ll go back to grand theft or selling dope. The best thing we can do for them is push them to get their GED, high-school equivalence. We need instructors for English comp and math. I presume you suck at math.”
“It wasn’t my best subject.”
“Nor mine. But we got a guy for that. Chinese, what else?”
“So, you want me to teach English comp?” Eli asked.
“Storytelling, my man. You ask them to write something on current affairs, news headlines, you’re going to get blank looks and blanker paper. But you ask for their story – they all got stories – you might get something.”
“Sounds like therapy.”
“Damn straight. You get them to open up, you might find out a lot more than whether they can spell.”
It was the day before the long Labor Day weekend. (We’re still in 1981.) The forecast was for hot and sticky, which to patrol officers Norbert Oates and Rob Torres meant citizens could be drunk and angry even more than usual. As the cops cruised the crowded surface streets in their black-and-white Gran Fury, they were on the lookout for drivers who were in too much of a hurry, weaving, or just driving too slow. It was mid-afternoon. Workers who had taken off early for the weekend had already cashed their checks and hit the bars.
And, sure enough, here was a guy who had trouble staying in his lane.
After they switched on their MARS lights, the guy drove on for a block and a half before he pulled off the busy boulevard and into an alley, where he stopped. The car was a battered Ford Falcon, so they weren’t expecting a pimp or a dealer. Probably a guy who’d already drunk his paycheck.
Oates stood behind the open passenger door of the patrol car as Torres ordered the perp out of the Plymouth. The guy was short, scrawny, ebony-skinned, and wearing a do-rag.
But he was no drunk. He couldn’t stop twitching.
Torres had the guy face away from him and place his hands on the roof of the car. Oates could tell he was having trouble taking simple directions. His erratic movements were worrisome. Clearly, he was strung out, but the question was, how would he react? He didn’t seem hostile so much as confused.
Torres was taking it slow. Fine. But the guy couldn’t keep his hands from fidgeting. Oates couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he saw the man was gesturing with them as he answered Torres.
Suddenly, the guy jerked around, one arm outstretched as if in appeal, the other dropping to his hip. Oates judged the outstretched arm was too close to Torres, feared he was going for his partner’s sidearm, and the senior cop drew his weapon.
Torres, who should have been standing to the side, had his back to Oates, in the line of fire.
“Get clear!” yelled Oates.
Torres and the perp were doing a dance now. The perp’s other hand went from his hip into his pants pocket.
Torres spun around toward Oates, still blocking the shot. He now appeared to be protecting the perp as he gave his partner a push-back gesture.
“It’s his wallet, Bert. He went for his wallet.”
The perp was waving both hands in the air now, having dropped the wallet. He was whimpering.
Torres bent down to pick up the wallet. That move also baffled Oates, but he holstered his gun.
They called for the Plymouth to be towed. Then they took the guy in and booked him on DUI for drug intoxication, which took most of the afternoon.
By the time they left the station, there were still three hours left on the day watch. As they were about to climb back into the patrol car, Oates indicated he wanted the driver’s side. Torres, who had driven through the morning hours, hoped that getting behind the wheel would calm his partner down.
They’d only been riding together for a few months, but Torres already knew Oates was a fanatic about control. Torres was a lean, Marine Corps vet who’d recently joined the department after two tours in Vietnam. He was even-tempered and capable. And he could take orders. But in Oates’ estimation, Rob was a probationer, a green recruit. Oates had been on the ghetto beat for fifteen years, during which time he’d changed partners more frequently than most. He was a big man with swagger, and he didn’t suffer fools. He knew the street, and he’d made his place on it. These young cops may have gotten high marks at the academy, and, like Torres, they might even be war heroes, but too often they didn’t know any better than to go faithfully by the book.
Oates knew procedure, and he could cite you chapter and verse. But, if you wanted to stay alive in this job, you had to learn when to trust your gut. Take, for example, the lessons learned by their colleagues, the state troopers. When those guys were in training on the firing range, it was drilled into them to pick up their spent shell casings and pocket them before reloading the next magazine. And over the years there had been more than one case of dead troopers, found outgunned by the side of the road, their left hands in the pockets of their nancy jodhpurs, still clutching eight empty shells.
Oates favored his gut, which, if he were to be honest, was starting to bulge over his belt. The city’s officers prided themselves on their military-style physical fitness. Most of them looked like Torres – crewcut, slender, and fresh-pressed. These days, as he was pushing forty, Oates feared he was beginning to look like a doughy flatfoot.
They resumed their patrol near the alley where they’d made the arrest, and they drove by to make sure the druggie’s Falcon had in fact been taken to the impound yard.
Oates’ style when he was angry, like now, was to shut up. It was Torres’ job, he figured, to know what he did wrong. And if he didn’t know, he’d better learn – fast.
Torres finally broke the silence. “What happened back there?”
“You nearly got yourself shot in the back is what happened back there.”
“Why did you draw on him?”
“Are you kidding me? He was all over the place. For all I knew, he was trying to grab your weapon.”
“Not even close,” Torres said.
“Then he goes for his goddamn pocket? For all I knew, he had a knife! You think of that?”
Torres went quiet and took a breath before he spoke again. He didn’t want Oates getting more upset. “Looking back on it, there was more chance of you shooting me. That guy would have trouble putting his socks on.”
“Okay, Rob,” Oates said. “You think I’m the wild one, like I make it up as I go along? You want to talk procedure? Your position was all wrong.”
“It’s not like that perp was standing still!”
“Even when he was getting out of the car, you had your back to me.”
“I had to step back, or he could have hit me with the car door.”
“Is that what really happened, or is that how you’re telling it?”
“I’m being honest,” Torres said. “With due respect, sir.”
“Okay, there was a lot going on, not your usual stop. But let’s say the situation was reversed. You covering me. Shit like that comes down, can I count on you to act fast enough I’m not gonna be dead?”
In the morning briefing at the station, the watch commander had emphasized how dangerous was the combination of the heat, the holiday weekend, binge drinking, and domestic firearms. As a usual precaution, public service ads on TV and radio – as well as billboards all over the city in two languages – warned against firing weapons into the air in celebration. People somehow forgot that what goes up must come down. Those bullets don’t go into orbit – they can kill a child miles away, where there isn’t even a drive-by perpetrator to blame for the family’s lifelong grief.
“That open window makes me nervous,” Oates complained. Their cruiser didn’t have air conditioning.
“I gotta have some air,” Torres said.
“Procedure says leave it up,” Oates shot back. “You wanna take a brick in the head?”
And then because the window was open, they distinctly heard what sounded like a barrage of small-arms fire.
Oates stepped on the accelerator, flipped on the MARS lights and siren, and took the next corner hard.
“Holy shit,” he said. “Call it in.”
They drove in the direction of the sound, even though there might be no way to identify its source. But just a block and a half away, a crowd that had gathered at an apartment complex drew their attention. It was a block party of about fifty people, African-Americans of all ages. They were gathered in the courtyard of a two-story building around smoking barbecues. A lot of them were congregating on the second-floor balcony, where several apartments doors were propped open.
Among the facts later established, a large, muscular black man named Hank Ellis, age twenty-nine, was standing in the middle of that courtyard lecturing a group of kids. He was easy to spot in his red T-shirt. From the balcony, his scrawny cousin Danny Ellis was looking down on the party as he nuzzled his flashy girlfriend Cyndi. He was in a good position to see what the kids had been doing to deserve a scolding from Hank.