“Thomas,” said Richie. “It’s a good sound. I like it: it suits you. What do you think, Olivia?”
“I think it’s wonderful.” Thomas could see her breasts swaying under the purple velvet robe. Maybe that was it. “And your new look absolutely suits you. It’s like, a whole new avatar. I’m just pleased that I managed to talk you into taking that first step.”
“It wasn’t the first step,” said Thomas.
“Well, to be part of your transformation.”
“I’m glad you care. Your encouragement certainly helped me take the final step.”
“It’s final?” asked Richie. “I mean, you had the?”
Thomas held up a hand. “Hey, Olivia? I don’t want to make you feel bad, but do you think Richie and I could have a word together, privately?”
She chuckled and blushed. “Your secrets are safe with me.” Thomas noticed that Olivia had rings on every one of her fingers, all gold with brightly-colored stones. Were any of them real gems?
Richie said, “Yeah, don’t worry about it. It’s all good.” He caught Thomas’s expression. “But if you’d rather,”
“Yes, I would. It’s nothing personal, Olivia; it’s really about the business. Richie’s been my husband for sixteen years.”
“Of course, of course. Do you want lunch? I was going to do a veggie stir-fry.”
“No, thanks. I had lunch with Jack. It’s only going to take a few minutes.” As Olivia scurried out of the room in bare feet, Thomas noticed that she had rings on most of her toes, as well.
After the door was shut, Richie said, “You know what? I think I knew it all along. I never would have guessed until I saw you, but… you look awesome.”
“Thanks, baby.” Thomas went to the window, opened the heavy drapes, let the hot Atlanta sunshine in. He saw Richie flinch. “Sorry. Hung over?”
“Yeah. Can you shut them?” “I wanted to get a good look at you. I was right. You’ve finally put on a little weight.” “Olivia’s a hell of a cook. You know how I never ate vegetables? It’s a whole new me, too.” “I guess it is, baby. I’m just not used to you being… well, content.” “It’s amazing. I’m thirty-nine, and finally someone accepts me for who I am.” “Hey! I’ve always understood–”
“I know. What I mean is, accepts me and gives me what I need. I know: you tried. And you were a real good sport about it. But you didn’t like it. And Olivia does.”
“I’m sincerely happy for you. Jack tells me she’s been a real help with the business, too.”
“Oh, sure. Her and David both. Jack’s been handling your end, and between Olivia and David, I just have to show up and make people feel welcome, schmooze a little. I’m not running around like a headless chicken. I can have fun, now.”
“Good.” Thomas opened the curtains further, took a good long look at Richie. “Happiness suits you.”
“Yeah, finally. I almost didn’t know how to deal with it. But it’s like you always used to say, before. Just let yourself be open to the universe, and you’ll find the road you should travel.”
“How does Olivia know David? I mean, from before she knew you?” At Richie’s confused expression, “I mean, are they old college pals? Did they work together?”
“Oh. They knew each other through the Internet. They both posted on the same forum. Something about books, I think? I’m not sure. Let’s ask her.”
“No. Better question: how well did they know each other?” “Um, they had never met, in person. Remember when we interviewed him? Before you showed up, they were
laughing about it, like they’d been friends but now were seeing each other up close for the first time.” “So pretend you’re the skeptical one, and I’m the New Ager.” “You are. I am.”
“Not anymore. Look at both of us. What I’m saying is, something that seems too good to be true probably is. Wait: hear me out. I’m glad you’re happy. Really, I am. I’m just concerned. You decide to come out, and the first person you meet fits all your desires. And then, she knows the perfect person who can take over when we decide we want to drop back from the business.”
“I opened myself to the flow. You’re the one who told me to. And the universe provided. You can do your thing; I can be loved. And you never have to work another party.”
“Yes, that’s it; we both got exactly what we wanted.”
“I find it a little curious. I think—well, I think both of us ought to work a few more parties.”
“Why? I’m as sick of it as you are. The kids get younger every year, and none of my cool clothes fit me anymore.”
A knock on the door. Olivia’s voice: “Who wants green tea?” “Come in,” said Richie.
Thomas said, “No, thanks. I needed to get going, anyway. Jet lag. Think about it, Richie.” Thomas brushed aside Olivia’s questions and headed down to the car.
Later, in the office, there was a knock, then an opened door before Thomas could say anything. David had on his best corporate smile. “Holy cow. Olivia was right. You look great. Welcome back.”
“Thanks.” Thomas tried to look at David with no filter, no suspicion. What was there?
“You’ve been missed. You want to get right down to business?”
“Not right now. I’m just dealing with the personal e-mail before I go home and sleep it off. I can’t believe I ever thought I was going to miss the Internet.”
“Tomorrow, then? Oh, hey: who’s Charlotte?”
Thomas couldn’t hide the jolt of surprise. “What?”
“Twice last week, Jack wasn’t around, call came in on the main line. I’ve never heard of a man named Charlotte before, was why it struck my interest. I told him you stayed out there an extra week. Forgot to tell Jack, but I just remembered now that I saw you. Said to tell you he had a file for you to be read?”
“Yes?” Thomas began closing windows on the screen. “A red file, you mean?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Thanks. I have to go. Wiped-out tired.” Thomas tried hard to see David as just David, but couldn’t. If there was a red file, wasn’t the flow already sending something this way?
“Need a ride?”
“No. I need to run some errands.”
“Olivia is here. Let her drive you. If you’re that tired.”
“No, really: thanks. I’m just running to the library.” At his confusion, “I’m going to wake up at two in the morning, and I’ll need something to read.”
The eastern sky was banded with dark clouds, in tiers, ominously dark, lightning flashes diffused by multiple layers. The darkness was probably part twilight; a week into August, Detective Diana Siddal could no longer deny that the days were noticeably shorter. She shivered, even though it was still eighty degrees outside, and tried not to think about November.
Mustapha awaited her on the front lawn; next to him was a polished, poised girl with a pixie cut, a man’s suit, and red-rimmed eyes. The bungalow was well-maintained and recently remodeled, in the deep valley part of Midtown right off Charles Allen and a long walk across Piedmont Park from Diana’s own neighborhood. If the victim had bought in 1995, when there were crack dealers on the street, she was rich—well, now her heirs were. If she bought in 2005, she was just coming out from underwater.
Mustapha cocked his head at the girl. “Jack here is our victim’s assistant; came by with some paperwork.”
“If only I had taken the car instead of the bike,” moaned Jack.
“Don’t blame yourself.” He motioned Diana into the house past the patrol cop guarding the front door. The Crime Scene officers made way for them. The walls of the living room were covered with New Age art, the expensive kind that almost sort of looked good. On the dining room table were a spoon, a lighter, cotton balls and a big bag of white powder. A chair was tipped over; a corpse was on the floor next to it. A slim man, short hair, a well-preserved forty. Black dress shirt, black jeans, black shoes, all quite new and unworn. Tourniquet, fresh track, syringe on the floor next to his outstretched other hand.
“Oh,” said Diana. “So sad.” She whispered to Mustapha. “Sorry it took me. Packing for my trip, phone was downstairs.”
“Victim’s not going anywhere. When do you need to leave?”
“I got a couple of hours. Drop me off at the Midtown station?”
“Only if you tell me who this guy you’re going to see is.” At her grin, he added, “I’m channeling my inner teenage girl today.”
Diana drew breath to reply, but was cut off by Jack’s abject weeping. “I can’t believe it. She’s been clean for so long.”
“She?” said both detectives.
“Yeah.” Jack blew her nose on Mustapha’s extended handkerchief. “I was still getting used to it. Linda took a three-month leave of absence from the business. Came back yesterday today as Thomas. I worked for her for, what? Thirteen years, now. Never knew she felt this way. Follow your bliss, you know? But it was strange; because it wasn’t strange. She—he—came into the office, wanted to sit down and see how the books were doing. Went over a few things. He went over to Richie’s after we met, wanted to see him. Called me, wanted some things printed out. If only I’d driven.”
“You can’t make yourself responsible for his, her, death,” said Diana. “Who’s Richie?”
“Linda’s husband. And her partner. They started the business together. He’s on his way over with his girlfriend. I also called David Jones, our operations manager. He was out jogging, said he was on his way back.”
“What’s the business y’all work at?” asked Mustapha.
“Gemini Promotions. It’s a,”
“Big dance parties,” said Diana. “Raves, that sort of thing.” She smiled at Jack. “I used to work Vice. Y’all run a tight ship.”
“Watch out for people offering easy money,” said Jack. “That’s what Linda always says. Thomas said. Oh, my god.”
Mustapha said, “You said she’s been clean for years. He’s been clean. Look, I’m going to stick with one gender, here, so since I see a man, I’m going to go with the wishes of the deceased. Anyway: tell me about that.”
“It’s from a little before my time,” said Jack. “When I started working for them, both of them had been through rehab and were maybe three or four months clean. He’ll party a little bit, but it’s mostly because some of the promoters and talent expect it. But it’s all uppers; maybe a little weed at an afterparty. I can think of three or four times where he caught someone snorting heroin, or even talking about it, and he called security right away and blackballed that person. This was long ago: now: everyone knows that hard drugs are going to get you off the guest and talent list permanently, so nobody even tries. Linda, Thomas, isn’t straightedge, but pretty close. Maybe a glass of wine at a special dinner. But this? After so many years?”
Diana said, “It’s very common, unfortunately. Heroin addicts who’ve been clean for years can fall back into it very easily. And then they’ve been clean so long that they’ve lost their tolerance, so they miscalibrate and end up overdosing. It’s very sad; but it happens more than we’d like to think.”
Jack followed them back outside to the lawn. “It’s how they developed the rep for a clean business, which in our field isn’t common. It wasn’t so much a business model as a way of keeping themselves away from temptation.”
Mustapha said, “So how do you throw a rave without drugs?”
Diana said, “Without drug dealers, is what they mean.”
Jack nodded. “Yes. Of course, most of the people dancing are high as kites. Why else would they come? But at our parties, they have to show up that way. Or maybe bring a little bit in: it’s not like we can strip-search people, and a few pills are easy to hide. But large scale and even medium-scale dealers, we keep out.”
They all turned to see a man jog the last few steps to the house’s front lawn. Mid-forties, alpha male, expensive jogging clothes; too winded for shock. “My god, Jack, is it really true? I came as fast as I could.” He took his phone from the Velcro armband that held it in place, tapped and swiped, went to put it in his pocket, then realized he didn’t have one.
“David, these are the police.” “David Jones. I’m the operations manager. So, what happened to… Thomas?” Mustapha said, “That’s why we’re here. When did you see him last?”
“Maybe two-thirty or so? She—he—had just come back from a leave of absence, sabbatical. And come back as a man, which, well, I guess that was the reason for the sabbatical.” He squatted and worried his left sock; Mustapha caught a glimpse of a piece of black plastic that was probably a car key. He stood back up. “I mean, it’s cool: I’m not trying to be judgmental about it. Tell you the truth, the new look really suited… him.”
“And how was his mood?”
“Fine. Well, preoccupied and jetlagged. But not depressed or anything. Well, I guess people who get sex changes probably have a pretty high rate of other issues. Jack said he overdosed? After all that time clean. Man, that sucks.”
“Tell me about the rest of your afternoon, sir.”
“On the phone, paperwork. We have a big gig coming up on Saturday. Maybe…” he looked at his phone, “a little more than an hour ago, I closed up shop, drove down here to Midtown, hit the jogging track at the park. Jack was still at the office when I left.”
A car pulled up and a guy jumped out, fell to the ground, got up, came running to them. Shrimpy, Asian, late thirties, black silk pajamas, Doc Martens. He was weeping as he collided with Jack, who held him up as he staggered. “That bitch!” He cried. “Stupid, stupid bitch! God, we promised!”
Mustapha broke in. “This is the husband?”
“Yeah,” said Jack, straining to hold him up. “Richie, these are the police.” In the background, the car started to back into an empty place along the sidewalk.
The guy straightened himself up, took a deep, shuddering breath. “Did she really OD? Can I see her?”
“Sure. But hang on a moment, will you?” The driver backed in the car all wrong, had to try again. “When did you last see your… wife?”
“This afternoon. She was fine. I mean, you see, she–”
“Took a leave of absence, came back as a dude. Got it. What time did you see each other?”
“I can’t really do time. Ask Olivia.”
“It would have been after he left the office,” said the guy in the jogging clothes. “Maybe three-thirty, by the time he got there.” The driver screwed up the parking again, gave up with the back wheel up on the curb.
“How long was he there?” said Mustapha to the husband.
“Not real long. We… we just talked for a few minutes. She, well, she wanted to show me she was a man, now. Which, okay.”
“Yeah? That didn’t bother you, your wife becoming a dude and all?”
“No; I was glad she was happy. We’re married, but we haven’t been a couple for years now. We love each other, but we have different needs.”
The driver got out, walked toward them. Curvy, maybe mid-forties, barefoot, braless. She ran up to Richie, grabbed him from Jack, held him to her breasts. “There, there, baby; I’m sorry. Let it out.” Richie just whimpered. “You must be the police,” she said to Mustapha. “Olivia Ward: I’m Richie’s partner.”
“Sorry for your loss. You saw the victim this afternoon?”
“Yes. She—he—came by, mostly to show Richie the new him.” Her hair was all wrong: instead of being frizzy or in braids or dreadlocks, it was all smooth and conditioned. “He wouldn’t stay for lunch: said he was going to bed. Jet lag.”
Mustapha pulled the Crown Vic out onto Tenth. On Diana’s side was the vast green expanse of Piedmont Park, which even with the darkness and a storm coming was still dotted with healthy people doing all the healthy things he probably ought to try. “Kind of sad,” he said, half to himself. “You go across the world, get a sex change, still not happy.”
“Addicts,” said Diana, who had her heels on the seat and her arms wrapped around her shins. “You stay clean for fifteen years and then one day you can’t make yourself stop.” She shivered. “God, I hate winter.”
“Dude, it’s August. It was eighty-four degrees today.” “Still. It’s coming.” “Emo girl. So you worked with their company back before you came over to Homicide?”
“Least sleazy promoters in the city. I knew her, though I would never have recognized him as her. Think about one-third of the way from yuppie to hippie. So easy-going that you just go ahead and do it her way. Very cooperative with law enforcement: call Randolph over in Vice if you want more recent info.”
“I’ll let Doctor Dhandha report back, do a background, see if anything pops up. Addicts, sex change: pretty obvious suicide markers. None of them seemed hinky to me so much as just crazy to begin with, except maybe that Jack guy.”
“Hunh? Jack’s a girl.” “No way.” She put her feet back down. “Maybe not. I totally had girl. Party people.” He went through Piedmont, the corner that had once been Gay Central. “You’re back Monday?” “Sunday. Wanted to make brunch with Dad.” “So who’s the lucky guy?”
She turned her face away. “Not a guy. Sort of a social group.” A long pause through Juniper, then Peachtree. “I can’t really be part of a couple: I’m just not wired for it. This is more of a meet new people thing. Kind of wishing I hadn’t signed up, but I feel stupid canceling.”
“Hey, go have fun. I’m going to clean out the garage this weekend, unless some gangbangers do me a favor and shoot each other to death. This one doesn’t not look like a suicide, but there’s no reason not to wait forty-eight hours before calling it. That poor freak of a husband won’t be able to make an insurance claim till Monday, anyway.” He glided to a stop at the Midtown station. “You sure you don’t just want a ride to the airport?”
“Train’s faster at this hour. Thanks. Call me if anything interesting comes up.” She got out, opened the back door, grabbed her bag. “See ya.”
“Have fun,” he said, but she’d already slammed both doors.
Gisèle had book club, so Mustapha drove around the block and parked at the precinct. In their cubicle, he made tea, put the Braves on the radio, got out the three-by-five card from his desk drawer, followed the instructions Diana had written down, screwed it up, swore, drank his tea, tried again, slowly and carefully. Got to the right page, plugged in the case number, made it to the page where the photographs from the scene had been uploaded or whatever you call it. He poured himself another cup, browsed the photos, eyes open, mind empty.
After twenty minutes, nothing really jumped out. The house looked like it had been empty for three or four months: the only signs of life were the works and a little bit of mess in the kitchen where the victim had cooked up. And the corpse, of course. No note, but that was to be expected if it was an accidental OD, and even with a planned suicide it was only about fifty-fifty that the person would leave one. He took a closer look at the scene around the corpse. When Linda became Thomas, she made the full commitment: no purse. Wallet, keys, phone, spare change: nothing else but the works and the bag of dope. You go away for months, you come back, show off to your husband and his girlfriend how you’re a man now, then you tell everyone you’re sleepy, run out and buy enough heroin to kill an entire platoon, shoot up without even taking your shoes off. Maybe you forget you’ve lost your tolerance; maybe you don’t care. Addicts, sex changers or whatever you were supposed to call them nowadays: people that uncomfortable in their own skin. At least there weren’t any kids, which was usually the worst thing about suicides.
The Braves were up 6-1 in the seventh, so he turned the game off: if they ended up losing, he didn’t want to have to hear it. He tried to imagine the kind of craving that would make someone need to shoot up after months away, and got nowhere, until he considered what he was like at ten in the morning if he hadn’t had tea yet. He went back and looked at the close-ups of the needle marks: there were other tracks, but they were faded, years and years old. He went to close the page, then stopped, unsure of why but trusting his instincts. After another cup, it hit him: where was the suitcase? He flipped through the images again: nothing, in the whole house. Trunk, then. The DMV database was old hat: Linda Wilson owned a two-year-old hybrid Toyota. The house was typical Midtown, no garage or driveway, and the drawback to living that close to the park was that it was a giant pain in the ass to find a space that the ratfuckers at Park Atlanta wouldn’t ticket you for, even with the neighborhood sticker on your window. And it wasn’t like there was going to be some kind of secret clue in the damned suitcase, even if he did wonder what kind of underwear was in there.
But if he went home now, he was just going to flip channels, get pissed off about politics or watch another baseball game, and then he was going to get a call back in anyway, since there was no way Atlanta was going to make it through a Friday night without somebody getting murdered. He went down to the mailroom, but the evidence bag with the personal effects had already been sent down to Property. He got a ride with a patrol cop, caught the last out in the top of the ninth, still 6-1. Used the terminal in the car to look up Lucy Randolph in Vice, caught her avoiding paperwork.
“Linda Wilson, a suicide?” said Randolph. “Man, that sucks. What a nice lady. Most of that party crowd, they make money off the drug dealers, but her and her partner kept them out. I don’t know the partner; I only deal with her. Dealt. She said, well, she was a user when they first got started. No. She got hooked after they started, had to go to rehab, got real militant about it like some of them do. There’s probably ten or fifteen people doing long jail terms because of her, from a while ago before all of them figured out it was too risky. She helped out with the Feds, too, but it was before my time and I don’t know any of the specifics. Man, I’m real sorry to hear about that.”
“You ever see her dressed up like a guy instead of a girl?”
“Hunh? No. She stands out in that crowd, though; she wears regular business clothes instead of shiny shit or T-shirts with spaceships or anything like that. But, like, girl business clothes.”
Down in Property, he bullshitted about politics with the old sergeant while the civilian assistant went and got the bag. He went through the contents at the counter, copied down the numbers in the Recent Calls section of her phone, used the sergeant’s terminal to look them up. Jack, whose name really was Jack, not John. Then the husband, then a hair salon in the Highlands. Nothing else. The passport stamps had her in Sweden for four months with a stop in Heathrow on the way back. It had her as a woman, and its picture had her with long hair. Mustapha wondered whether it was worth it to deal with the runaround at the airport to figure out how she got through Immigration as a he. Wallet had a driver’s license as a woman, credit cards, the usual. Plus a card from a stylist from the same salon: probably met her on the plane. And an Atlanta Public Library card. Right: she told everyone else she was going there because she was jetlagged and needed a book, which was a pretty good cover for buying dope.
But he was wrong. Folded up with some Swedish currency and nine US twenties were the ATM receipts from the airport and a receipt from the Ponce de Leon branch of the library, a late return of Tahar Ben Jalloun’s The Sand Child, four months late, twenty dollars in late fees. Mustapha gave Linda/Thomas a posthumous thumbs-up for reading the work of a fellow Moroccan, then smiled once he remembered that the book, which he had read in the original French long ago, was about a girl who had been raised as a boy. Written on the receipt in ballpoint was the word Henry, with a circle around it.
He shrugged. There wasn’t murder behind every sad, confused person’s death. He thought about going down to the ME’s office, but Doctor Dhandha would call him if there was anything worth knowing. Maybe if he went home and cleaned out the garage, he’d find The Sand Child and remember how it ended.
He walked through the halls from Property up to where the usual chaos of a Friday night was being sorted out. No homicides, though; but it was still early, just after midnight. The city had time. Back to Midtown with a patrolman fresh off her probationary period, a starry-eyed kid talking a mile a minute about her dreams of one day making Homicide. Back to his own house in Toco Hills, Gisèle’s soft snoring rendering him unable to sleep. He thought about all the people he’d known in Vietnam so long ago, when he himself was just a starry-eyed kid, and how they medicated themselves to deal with the horror of what they saw every day. Lots of heroin addicts in his generation; he used alcohol until he figured out it didn’t do any good. Vets these days got antidepressants, but they still killed themselves in record numbers. His own kid was doing okay now, showing off his prosthetic hand, working for Diana’s crazy ex, had a girl he was talking about moving in with. But there had been some real rough spots. Linda, Thomas, whatever, had never been on a battlefield, but who knows what someone went through as a kid?
He awoke to piercing sunlight and the smell of espresso. He was on the couch, a half-empty warm beer next to him, a quilt over him. He sat up, blinking, checked his phone. How the fuck did he sleep until eleven? Nobody in all of Atlanta got killed on a summer Friday night?
Gisèle came in from the kitchen. “Bonjour. I couldn’t bear to wake you.”
“Thanks. Guess I needed it. You know, chou, it’s Saturday: you don’t need to put on a suit.”
“Oh, but I do. Jennifer’s mother passed away yesterday.”
“Her mom was still alive?”
“I didn’t know, either. Ninety-six years old. So I’m going to walk Jennifer’s clients around while she flies out to Oregon. I can’t believe the city let you sleep.”
“Me, neither. Dinner?” “With the clients. You can join us, tell them gritty police stories.” “City won’t sleep for that long.”
After she left, he puttered about, poked his head in the garage, told himself to forget about it. He made a second cup, used the laptop to file his activity report on Linda Wilson, which if that was the name on her ID, that was what he was going to have to go with—hang on. She gets back in the country, gets $200 out of the ATM, spends twenty dollars on late fees, has $180 left: how does she pay for the heroin? The stuff got cheaper every year, but she still had three or four hundred dollars’ worth in that bag. For that matter, when, where and how did she get it? There was an open-air market on the bluff in the West End, but that was going to be the cheap brown Mexican kind. A second ATM charge, maybe? Or somebody in the club business owing her a favor. But that much?
He got out his notebook and made a timeline. Lands at 0950. Uses the airport ATM at 1145 after clearing Immigration at 1130. Lunch with Jack: better nail that down, see if there was a gap between there and David at the office, or between there and the husband’s place. Or the husband’s place and the library. He put the pencil down: it was always going to be too vague to be probative. Just because the lady was opposed to hard drugs didn’t mean she didn’t know where to find them.
Later in the day, he had the lawn half mowed when he came in for a tea break, and his phone was full of messages. None of them new active cases, but Doctor Dhandha was on the list, sandwiched between two unfamiliar numbers, so she got a call back before he listened to any of the messages. “Doc, you saved me from mowing the lawn.”
“So glad I could help, Inspector.” She sounded like the Queen of England, but looked like the hot mom in a Bollywood film. “I take it you have questions about my report?”
“Tell you the truth, I just saw your number and called you back. Anything to suggest Linda Wilson was anything other than accident or suicide?”
“Not really. If I had to wager, I’d say suicide. Some of the powder was in her nostrils, and she shot up not once, but twice. She had no other needle marks that weren’t years old, so I have to guess it was deliberate.”
“She shot up twice? Where? Under her clothes?”
“No. Right in the same spot. Even up close, you wouldn’t notice; but under the microscope, it was clear. Two separate needle punctures, one right on top of the other.”
“No shit? How far apart?”
“About four-tenths of a millimeter.”
“No, I mean in time. How long between them?”
“Oh. Well, I couldn’t argue it in court, with the second puncture being so close to the first, but the first had had time to scab up completely. So, more than fifteen minutes. The first one was much sloppier than the second.”
“So what you figure is, she had enough, shoots up once, but it doesn’t do the trick, cooks up more, slides it in.”
“Well, the total dosage was enough to kill three people, so she must have gone for it the second time.”
“And she’s nervous the first time, and then she’s loaded, so it takes her fifteen minutes to pull herself together to finish the job. Sure. Why bother going for the same place so carefully? Nevermind; trying to make sense of the mind of a suicidal junkie is gonna make me want to shoot up. Or mow the lawn. Hey, one last question: had she had… sex change surgery, or whatever you call it?”
“No. Oh, she was transgendered? That explains the haircut and clothes. Normal female body, slim but unaltered. Perhaps she was beginning to take hormones?”
“Which would mean needles, which gave her the idea.”
“I think they can be taken orally, now. They’ll show up in the blood work, but unlike heroin, they don’t come up in the tests I can do here. I’ll flag it for you.”
“No, don’t worry. I’m just obsessing about this because I have no other cases.” “It’s a strangely quiet weekend, isn’t it? I have to say it worries me.” “You and me both, Doc.” “Remember to trim around the trees, Inspector.”
But he didn’t want to, especially after he listened to the third message. Within half an hour, he was down at the impound lot, in the blighted neighborhood all the way on the other side of the baseball stadium.
The guy behind the counter was a testimony to the power of the fast food diet. “It’s like I told your voicemail. I plugged in the registration, the name popped up as a homicide, you were the contact on it. I ain’t even opened the door; the last thing I need is the cops busting my balls for fucking up a crime scene.” He lumbered out of his chair, led Mustapha down rows of vehicles, each with a number and date in white grease paint on its windshield.
When they reached the gray Prius, the guy pointed at the driver’s side window. “Now there’s the fucked-up part: see down there? The key’s in the ignition.”
Mustapha bent down, shaded his eyes with his hand. Sure enough, he could see the black plastic key with the Toyota logo sitting in the slot.
“Who the fuck does that?” said the guy. “And in Midtown? Chick’s lucky Park Atlanta got to it before it was stolen.” He had just enough grace to look sheepish. “Sorry. Guess she’s not really concerned about that.”
“Don’t worry about it.” She’s going to off herself, she probably figures the car’s a gift to whoever finds it. “You got a way to unlock the door?”
“Sure.” He reached under Mustapha’s arm and pulled the handle.
Mustapha leaned in, looked around. The interior was pristine. He popped the trunk and went around to look in. There was the suitcase: inside was all men’s clothes, high quality, labels in what looked like Swedish. Bag of toiletries, nothing else. He was just about to walk away, but made himself take a second look inside the car. And there it was: under the seat was a thick hardback novel, with a wizard, unicorn and a dragon on the cover, along with a sticker from the Ponce branch of the Atlanta Public Library.
“I had to read this kind of shit, I’d check out, too,” he said out loud.
“You kidding?” said the guy. “That one’s a classic. There’s a whole series.”
Tucked inside the front cover was the receipt. Mustapha had to double-check in his notebook, but Master of Apprentices was checked out forty-five minutes after The Sand Child was returned. What the hell? She’s going to leave her car as finder’s keepers, but she’s going to check out a 700-page novel about an hour before she kills herself? She’d never have made it over to the West End and back in Friday afternoon traffic.
Park Atlanta was their usual prick selves, but they gave him a time: the tow truck was called in at 1900, about an hour after he dropped Diana at the train station. “I got pictures here,” said the lady. “The car was on a hydrant and blocking a driveway. She would have come up flagged right away: she’s one of our top hundred scofflaws. Thousands of dollars in unpaid tickets.”
“Yeah? Don’t count your money just yet.” He hung up. None of this made any sense. A car that badly parked, in that neighborhood, where Park Atlanta was thick on the ground waiting to ticket some poor schmoe who just wanted to jog or play kickball or whatever on a summer Friday in the park—and it sits there for at least two and a half hours? With the key in the damn motor? Your average suicide might not care, but Park Atlanta sure as shit would.
On the way to the library, he phoned Jack, left a message asking to meet for coffee. Much of the local homeless population spent their day lounging in the library stacks and at the tables with the public computers, so the building was well-stocked with security cameras. The librarians were their usual helpful selves: within five minutes, Mustapha was watching a grainy, digital, black and white Thomas, who if he’d lived was going to need to take lessons in how to walk like a dude. He returned The Sand Child, paid his fine, then went straight back into the computer area. Mustapha switched camera feeds to see Thomas using what had to be one of Atlanta’s last working pay phones to make first one call, then another, both very short. During the second call, Mustapha could see him fish in his pocket, take out the receipt from the book return, borrow a pen from a grizzled guy with an old-school Braves cap, write something on it, hang up, sit down at one of the ancient PCs. Half an hour later, Thomas was still online, his facial expression somewhere between incredulous and angry. Five minutes to browse the stacks, check out Master of Apprentices, off Thomas went, too upset not to swish his hips.
Even a dinosaur like Mustapha knew how to work his way through the phone company to get the numbers Thomas had called. The first had a 202 prefix: DC. Mustapha called it, got a voicemail beep with no introductory
message, left his name and number. The second was 404 for Atlanta: when Mustapha tapped it into his phone, the first few digits made the rest of it autofill.
Jack picked up on the first ring: “Your ears must be burning. I was just about to return your call.”
“Your boss called you, maybe ninety minutes before you found her. Not from her usual number. What did he, she want?”
“Oh. She had me look up David Jones’s middle name.”
“Which was Henry, right? Did he say why?”
“No, sir. And yes, it was Henry. Is there something else?”
“I still need to meet with you. Where are you, right now?”
“At the office. Trying to reassure clients that the show will go on.”
“Stay there. No, wait: indulge my paranoia. Get out of there, now. Go to… you ever eat at the Majestic, on Ponce?”
“Are you kidding? I want to live to see forty.”
“Right. Perfect. It’s across the street from me. Meet me there in an hour. Have a grilled cheese or something; they can’t fuck that up too badly.”
Mustapha hung up, went back out into the main room. Sure enough, the old guy with the Braves cap was right there, reading a thick hardback book. Mustapha sat down next to him. “You got a minute?”
“I got all day, Detective.” He closed the book, kept a finger in its place.
Mustapha could see the cover had a similar design to Master of Apprentices. “That book any good?”
“For mainstream fantasy? Yeah. One of the few series where there’s magic, but it explains where the power comes from instead of just making things up. Maybe too much time describing the landscape, but it’s not like I’m in a big hurry. But you ain’t no literary critic.”
“No. Just wondering.” Mustapha fished in his wallet, found one of his cards, handed it to the guy. “Get out of jail free. I got two questions for you. No negative consequences for honest answers. First one: a guy in a dark blazer and pants borrowed a pen from you yesterday while he was on the phone.”
“That wasn’t no guy: it was a chick in drag.” At Mustapha’s raised eyebrow, “Man, this is Ponce. She used the computer for a while. I’m not saying I was looking over her shoulder, but I’m pretty sure she was doing a background check on someone. You know, Google, the other search engines. She cleared the history when she was done, though.”
“Right. Thanks. Question two: and again, I want to emphasize no consequences. Somewhere within maybe forty-five minutes of walking out of here, that woman acquired a big bag of high-quality junk. Who deals around here?”
The man looked genuinely shocked. “At the library? No way, man: first of all, those library ladies have eyes in the backs of their heads. Nobody would get away with it. And nobody here would risk losing their library privileges.” He
tapped the book in his lap. “I got to find out how it turns out. I think the apprentice is going over to the dark side, and he don’t even know it yet. And that lady was no junkie.”
“Yeah, she was, but it was years ago.”
“Oh, I see. Yeah, they relapse. It’s sad. You’re talking high-grade China White type of junk? You’re not going to get it on the street; you got to know somebody. Maybe, you hang out at the Majestic after dark, or you go down to Boulevard and North, you might could get yourself some brown powder. If you look like me. But a white yuppie? Drag or no drag, without a connection you’re never going to score on this side of town; everyone will think you’re a cop. West End? Sure. But it will still be brown, not white.”
“What I thought, too. Thanks, man.” Mustapha pointed at a vacant computer. “You want to help with a background check?”
“I’ve got time.” Plugging David Henry Jones into search engines got them a wealth of information: news articles, entertainment postings, Facebook page, lots of postings on discussion boards about alternative sexual communities. Olivia Ward’s name was in a lot of those.
“Now I see why that lady was pissed,” said the guy. “David Henry Jones ain’t real.” At Mustapha’s look, “Man, you got to learn to stack your search parameters. Pass me the damn keyboard.” A few clicks later, the results queue was empty. “See? Not a damn thing before February of 2008. You show me a, what, thirty-four-year-old guy who wasn’t on the Internet back then. She, he, was dating a dude with a made-up identity. You go and use those po-lice computers, you’ll find out that guy used some dead person’s Social Security number to get his driver’s license.”
Mustapha looked back and forth between the screen and the guy. “You know, as a valued confidential informant you’re entitled to fifty bucks.”
“Don’t tempt me: I’ll spend it all on liquor. Besides, I stay away from cash: the federal government tracks every bill with radio-frequency chips. You can give me another one of your cards, though.”
“Here, have two. Go backtalk some patrol cops.”
Mustapha walked rather than drove to the Majestic, even though it was over two blocks away. The diner itself got a makeover in the last few years, after serving “Food that Pleases” since 1929, though its marquee conveniently left out precisely whom the food was supposed to please, as very few of its customers weren’t drunks, junkies, or late-night revelers. Or slumming hipsters, which was what the staff probably figured Jack for.
Mustapha sat down across from Jack, who was polishing off the last of the fries on the plate. Mustapha pointed at the crust of bread. “Decent grilled cheese?”
“It was… adequate, really. I have to say I’m shocked.” He moved like a guy, in a way his boss hadn’t. But his hands were small, and there wasn’t much of an Adam’s apple. “I have to say I’m concerned. Was I really in danger, in the office?”
“Probably not. Just being safe. I’m starting to think your boss wasn’t a suicide. But it’s all hunch and no data. I’m trying to firm up a time. You said you had lunch with her on Friday: had she come straight from the airport?”
“Sure. Met me at Peachtree Center, where there’s a food court? I get there, get some food, this guy sits down next to me. I didn’t even realize it was her.” He, she smiled. “It was quite a transformation.”
“What did you talk about?” A waitress came, one of those fully-tattooed white chicks with a dozen facial piercings. Mustapha ordered tea.
“Well, that, mostly: why she did it. I worked for her for thirteen years, and I never knew. After a while, I realized she wanted my approval, wanted to know if I’d be okay working with her. Him. I’m like of course I will. I’m not in any place to judge, and besides, once I got used to it, Thomas felt more natural and comfortable than Linda.”
“So, testing the waters. Anything else?”
“He wanted to know how the business was going. Which is fine. David is doing a great job, the revenue is up, profits a little less so, but the market is tight and people aren’t spending like they were. Richie and Linda—Thomas— want to sell out: they’re too old to enjoy huge parties anymore. So am I, for that matter. So Thomas wanted to know how well David and Olivia had done, see if he could continue to step back. So far, so good, is what I was saying.”
“Then where did you go?” If Jack was a dude, then he had a truly clean, close shave. “I went straight to the office. Um, David was there, Thomas went to Richie’s house.” “Okay: be as specific as you can. Did this David guy do anything unusual while your boss was at Richie’s?” “No, he… Well, he wanted to know about Charlotte.” “Who’s that?”
“An old friend of Thomas’s. Never met her. I think they went to college together? Doesn’t live in town, but sometimes passes through? I really don’t know that much. See, when we came back, I warned him that Linda was Thomas now. David’s a little straight for this business, the only one who isn’t a weirdo. So I explain it, he’s cool with that, that he says it reminds him, who’s Charlotte? I told him what I just told you. He’s like yeah, because a few days before, Charlotte called when I was out, thought Linda would be back already, but David says she stayed an extra week, which was true. Only thing is, Charlotte’s a dude, with a real deep voice. Like, obviously a real dude, not a deep-voiced woman. I’m like, I have no idea, go ask Linda, only remember she’s Thomas now. That was the last I heard of it. Maybe fifteen minutes later, off goes Thomas to visit Richie.”
“But then he calls you from the pay phone, wants to know David’s middle name.” “That’s right.” “Why?”
The waitress dropped off the tea. Mustapha checked out her epic cleavage, then wondered briefly whether if she held a big mouthful of water, it would leak out of the cheek piercings. “Didn’t say. Maybe…” Jack took out an iPhone, swiped and tapped. “Twenty to five, calls me back on the regular phone, tells me to pull every last financial report from all the way back to the first of the year, says he’s going to do a full audit.”
“Well, that would drive me to drugs. When did this David start working for you?”
“After New Year’s.”
“So you get all this paperwork, ride your bike over there,”
“If only I had taken the car.”
“Yeah, you might have ended up dead, too. Where was this David guy the whole time?”
“At the office, meeting with vendors. Left to go for his jog… I don’t know for certain. A little before Thomas called me to ask for the paperwork. You think he killed her?”
“Maybe. Yeah, but the timing is too tight. So now I don’t know. He had a couple of good reasons to. Did you say anything to this guy about her, him asking you for the middle name? Or about being at the library?”
“She—he—made sure David wasn’t in the room with me before he asked. I didn’t say anything; I didn’t even know he was at the library.”
“Shit. There’s what I think, and what I know, and what I can prove, and big-ass gaps between them. Tell me about the husband, and why he’s got a girlfriend. Well, aside from his wife turning into a dude and all.”
“Richie? He manages the talent. Linda did the billing. Thomas. They’re married for legal reasons: they haven’t been a real couple since maybe a year after I started working. Richie is special. He wants to be dominated. Linda wasn’t into it. Richie has had a succession of really bad relationships; Olivia is the first nice person he’s ever dated. He used to be all in the closet.”
“But he’s dating a woman. And married to one. Or was.”
“I mean, about liking to be humiliated and whipped at all. I knew enough from Linda, just not all the details. Then he came out about it. Which, I respect. But… you know how when someone, like, takes up a religion—or drops it? And then that’s all they ever talk about? Well, I’m glad he was happy, but did I really want to hear all the details of what Olivia did to him? Maybe not.”
“Got it. How did he meet her?”
“Internet, I’m pretty sure. She’s real nice, and she was a big help with the business. She cooks wonderful food, but it’s all a little too heavy for me. One bite goes straight to my gut.”
“I hear you. And she was the one who knew this David guy.”
“Yes.” As far as Mustapha could tell without being real obvious about staring, Jack had no tits at all. But that wasn’t really all that uncommon.
“Did you see her, Olivia, yesterday?”
“She came into the office just as I was getting ready to leave with the paperwork. She was a little upset, because she thought David was going to wait for her. And then she wanted to talk about the whole Linda/Thomas thing. She’s one of those people who wants to talk everything out. Which, she was a hundred percent supportive, but I needed to get the hell out of there.” Jack looked at her—his?—nails, like a man would, palm facing in, fingers curled. “I’m confused. Why would David kill poor Thomas?”
“Thomas wanted David’s middle name so he could look him up. It’s a lot harder than you think to really fake an identity.”
On the way back to get his car, Mustapha’s phone rang. 202, but not the same number he called. “Alawi.” A deep basso voice. “You served in Nam, right? ‘70, ‘71?” “Yeah. You’re Charlotte?”
“Charlotte retired about five years ago; when I took over, me and Linda kept the name as a joke. I’m Steve Granger: I’m a regional coordinator for a DEA task force. I just got back from taking my kid’s Boy Scout troop up to the mountains of Pennsylvania, was catching up on messages. And now I found out Linda’s dead. Of an overdose? Tell me you’re not working this as an accident or suicide.”
“I’m at eighty percent murder. No; I know it’s murder, but I don’t know if I can get enough evidence for the DA.”
“You don’t need to worry about that. Linda Wilson worked as an informant for us for over a decade. There are at least a couple of dozen people serving long sentences because of her. Federal time. You point us at the guy, we’ll bury him so deep they’ll forget he ever existed.”
“I’m booking a flight right now. I can meet you at about 2200. You can bring me up to speed, hand over the documents, we’ll take your suspect down.”
“I don’t think–” But Charlotte had already hung up. “Fucking Feds.” When he got back to the precinct, Diana was already there. “How was brunch?” he asked. “Full of family. Tell me the city needs me.”
“No, but I do. Our OD? Was a Federal informant.” He sketched out the story for her. “I figure I got about six hours before this arrogant suit yanks it out of my hands. I’ve got motive. The guy works in the club business, so it’s not going to be hard to find a drug connection. He takes her by surprise, puts enough dope in her to make her go limp, sets the scene, goes for a jog so when Jack calls him, he can show up and act concerned. Trouble is, I can’t do opportunity. All the timing’s too tight. The guy would have had to run like that Jamaican dude to make it. Too much reasonable doubt.”
“Maybe the fingerprint crew will come through.” She grimaced. “But his lawyer would claim he’d been over there before.”
“Maybe you can talk to Jack. If only I could figure out whether he’s a dude or a girl. I sat there at the Majestic across from him, her, for like half an hour, and I still couldn’t tell.”
“Maybe he’s both. Somewhere in the middle. You went to the Majestic?”
“Yeah. I mean, it’s really none of my business… Wait. What if it is both?”
Mustapha slapped the folder down on the table in the interview room. Diana sat in the windowsill, pretending interest in the parking lot outside. David Jones sat across from Mustapha, maintaining the cheery calm of the true sociopath. The slap of the folder didn’t even make him flinch. Mustapha said, “Sorry to bring you in here on a Sunday, man, but we’re on a real time crunch here. So are you, even if you don’t know it. You see, in about five hours, Charlotte is going to show up. Yeah, that made you flinch a tiny bit. Charlotte is not just a dude: Charlotte is a Fed. DEA. And so was Thomas, back when she was Linda. You killed her because she started to figure out you were ripping her off: what you didn’t know was you killed a Federal informant. That’s a capital crime; and they don’t fool around. You get convicted by the state, even here in Georgia, you’ll get ten years before the needle even comes close. But the feds will put you put it on a plane to some shithole like Turkey, where you’ll last about a week while people who make you look like a humanitarian rape you with live jumper cables.”
David blinked twice. “You don’t scare me.”
Diana spoke without turning her head. “Then you’re a lot dumber than you look.”
“You’ve got nothing.”
Mustapha said, “That’s not quite true, Mr. Jones. Well, whatever your real name is. Even on a Sunday, your fingerprints will pop. Then we’ll know what else you’ve done.”
“My guess is, you skipped bail, or probation or something. You’re going into a cage no matter what. You’ve got a few hours to decide what kind of cage, and where. Because even if Charlotte or whatever his name is doesn’t show up to take you off to TortureWorld, I’m going to have enough from your fingerprints to hold you until the DNA results come back.”
Three blinks. Then, “What DNA?”
“Yeah, that. You wiped shit down, Dave, Steve, whatever your real name is. But you see, what was bugging me was the car. No way someone as careful as your boss was going to leave her car in a place like that, with the key in the ignition. Never mind it getting stolen: she, he knew damn well that those bastards at Park Atlanta were on the prowl. And that was the key.”
“So to speak,” murmured Diana.
“Yeah. When your pal Olivia slid up next to Thomas and popped him full of junk, she pushed him into her own car. She met you at the house, where you just jogged from the office after waiting as long as you could so as to mess up the time window. One or both of you set up the fake suicide, she goes back to the office so she can be seen, you take the key and stick it in your sock so you can fetch the car from the library. But Jack blows it, gets to the house too soon, calls you. You can’t very well show up in your boss’s car, so you got to turn around and run back. When Detective Siddal here and I first talked to you, you kept fiddling with it in your sock. Then, after we were gone, you
jogged to the library and brought the car back. Because you couldn’t leave it at the library, else it would mess up the suicide thing. You leave the key in the ignition because there’s still Crime Scene techs at the house: you figure it will get stolen and mess up the evidence chain. But it’s hard as hell to find parking that close to Piedmont Park on a Friday night, and you were in a hurry, and you probably didn’t know what a hardon Park Atlanta had for your boss. That key, my man, had your sweat all over it.”
“Stinky,” said Diana.
All three remained silent until Jones finally said, “You’re talking to me now because you really don’t have much of a case.”
Mustapha said, “Not until the DNA comes back, we don’t.”
Diana said, “Mostly, we just get cranky when the feds steal our cases.”
“Yeah? So what do you want?”
Mustapha said, “A confession. Takes the death penalty off the table.”
Diana said, “You’re serving life without parole in Georgia, Charlotte’s bosses won’t authorize the money to fly you to Turkey.”
A long pause. “Not good enough.”
Mustapha said, “I figured you’d say that. Mr. Quinn from the DA’s office is watching this. You give us your pal Olivia, and the whole story, from when you met on the Internet all the way through her kidnapping and assaulting your boss.”
“And murder,” said Jones. “Olivia cooked the second shot; Linda was dying when I got there.”
“Well, that’s just great.”
Three hours later, the papers were signed. David Jones, whose real name was Jerry Eisenstein, would do twenty years. Olivia was in custody. Charlotte was philosophical. Diana and Mustapha drove Eisenstein down to the Catacombs for booking. As they prepared to hand him over, Mustapha said, “Just one more thing, Mr. Eisenstein.”
“Jack: boy or girl?”
The man turned around and spread his hands, with the first look of real humanity Mustapha had seen in him. “You can’t tell, either? I’ve been trying to figure that one out for months.”