True blue, p.25
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       True Blue, p.25

           David Baldacci

  “Yep. Middle of Cheerio Alley. How do you like your Cheerios, Roy?”

  “Usually without OxyContin. How exactly are we supposed to go into places where the police don’t want to go and come out reasonably healthy?”

  “It’s a little late to be asking that, isn’t it?”

  “Humor me.”

  “We’re going to help people, not bust their ass. That’ll count for something.”

  “That’s it? We just tell them we’re here to help people and the dangerous seas will part? This isn’t a Disney flick.”

  “I never took you for a cynic.”

  “I’m not a cynic. I just want to go home alive tonight.”

  Mace’s smile faded. “Never a bad goal to have.”


  ALISHA LIVED in an apartment house that more resembled a bombed-out building in the middle of Baghdad than a residence within an easy commute of the Capitol building. As they pulled into the trash-strewn parking lot where the skeletons of a dozen cars lurked, Roy looked around nervously. “Okay, I’ve definitely been in Georgetown too long, because we’re still in the car and I’m already freaking out.”

  “There are more sides to life than the rich one, Roy. Sure, there’s a lot of crime here, but most people who live in this area obey the law, work really hard, pay their taxes, and try to raise their families in peace.”

  “I know, you’re right,” he said sheepishly.

  “But keep a sharp lookout because it only takes one bullet to ruin a perfectly good day.”

  “You could’ve stopped with raising families in peace.”

  As they headed to the building on foot they passed men and women huddled in tight pockets on low brick walls, sitting on dilapidated playground furniture, or else standing inside darkened crannies of the building’s overhang. All these folks stared at the pair as they made their way to the entrance. Mace kept a brisk pace, though her gaze scanned out by grids, probing gingerly into the shadowy edges before pulling back. As Roy watched her it was like she was using antennae to sense potential threats.

  “Okay, are we in imminent danger of dying?” he asked.

  “You get that just by waking up every day.”

  “Thanks for being optimistic.”

  “Reefer, crack, H, Cheerios, meth, Oxy,” recited Mace as they marched along.

  “I can smell the pot, but the other stuff?”

  Mace pointed to the ground where there were remnants of plastic baggies, elastic straps, snort straws, bits of paper, crushed prescription pill bottles, and even broken syringes. “It’s all right there if you know what you’re looking for. Which apartment does Alisha live in?”

  “File said 320.”

  They walked inside and the smell of pot, urine, raw garbage, and feces hit them like a wrecking ball. In a low voice Mace said, “Don’t even wrinkle your nose, Roy, we got eyes all around the clock face. No disrespect. Can’t afford it.”

  They marched on while Roy’s gut churned and his nose twitched.

  “Elevator or stairs?” he said.

  “I doubt the elevator works. And I don’t like being locked in little places where I don’t know who’ll be waiting for me when the doors open.”

  “Taking the stairs will probably be dicey too.”

  “No probably about it. It will be dicey.”

  She opened the door to the stairs, pushing it all the way against the wall in case someone was lurking there. Her gaze moved up, to the next landing.

  “Clear, let’s hit it.”

  “What if somebody stops us?”

  “Getting jumpy on me?”

  “Actually it’s been a real struggle keeping my underwear clean since we left the car.”

  “I know you’re the lawyer, but if someone stops us let me do the talking.”

  “I have no problem with that.”

  “One thing, though, can you fight?”

  “With words or fists?”

  “Look around, this is not the Supreme Court.”

  “Yeah, I can. My Marine brother used to kick my ass on a regular basis until I grew six inches in one summer and started holding my own. Then he taught me the tricks of the trade.”

  “Marines are good at that. Might come in handy. Last time I was here I was wearing my badge and I barely got out alive.”

  “Thanks for telling me,” muttered Roy.

  They reached the third floor and found their way blocked by two enormous men in prison shuffle jeans with the waistbands down to the bottom of their butt cheeks and sporting short-sleeved shirts showing muscular arms so tattooed there was no bare skin left. When they tried to walk around them, the men moved with them, forming a wall that stretched right across the narrow hall. Mace took a step back, her hand sliding to her pocket even as she smiled.

  “We’re looking for Alisha Rogers. Do you know her?”

  The men simply stared back without answering. One bumped shoulders with Roy, knocking him back against the wall.

  Mace said, “Alisha knows we’re coming. We’re here to help her.”

  “She ain’t need no help,” said one of the men. He was bald with a neck so thick it seemed like a continuation of his bull-like trap muscles. From down the hall there came the sounds of screaming, the slamming of a door, and then what sounded like shots. An instant later, music started blaring from multiple sources and the screams and shots could no longer be heard.

  “So you do know her?” Mace continued in a pleasant tone.

  “What if I do?”

  “There could be some money in it for her too.”

  “How much money?”

  “Depends on how well our meeting goes. And no, we didn’t bring the cash with us,” added Mace as she spotted one of the guys’ hands flit behind his back.

  “Who you from?” asked Baldy.

  “Social!” said a loud voice. They all turned to see a woman nearly as wide as she was tall marching up to them. She was dressed in a long jean dress stretched to its absolute maximum. A colorful scarf was wound around her head and her long toes poked out from the sandals she wore.

  “You know them?” said Baldy.

  The scarf lady clutched Mace’s hand. “Damn right I do. Now get your sorry asses out the way right now! I am not messing with you today, Jerome, and I mean what I say.”

  The men moved quietly if grudgingly aside and scarf lady led Mace down the hall while Roy scurried after them, his gaze back on Jerome.

  “Thanks,” said Mace.

  “Thanks doesn’t come close to cutting it,” Roy chimed in.

  “Alisha told me Carmela called a little bit ago and she asked me to be on the lookout for you. But I was taking some laundry down and you got past me. Sorry about those jerks. Barks worse than their bite, but they still bite.”

  “Were those shots we heard a minute ago?” Roy wanted to know.

  “Just a little disagreement probably. No blood no foul.”

  “What’s your name?” Mace asked.

  “Just call me Non.”


  NEITHER MACE nor Roy probably knew what to expect next. But what they certainly didn’t expect was what they found in Alisha Rogers’s apartment. The place was clean, smelled of Pine-Sol, and was amazingly tidy, particularly because in the hallway leading to her apartment they had passed twelve large bags of garbage stacked nearly to the ceiling. Maybe, Mace thought, that was the reason why Alisha used so much Pine-Sol.

  The furniture was cheap, all probably secondhand, but arranged with some thought and even design. The small windows had what looked to be hand-sewn curtains. A few toys were stacked in one corner in an old cardboard crate that had “Deer Park” stamped on it. From what they could see, the place consisted of only two rooms, the one they were in and another, probably the bedroom, where the door was closed. The “kitchen” had a hot plate and an under-the-counter mini-fridge.

  Non had a key to the apartment and had let them in.

  “Alisha!” she called out. “Social’s here.

  There were footsteps in the other room, a door opened, and Alisha Rogers stepped out. A three-year-old boy was riding on her slim right hip. Her hair was long and pulled back and tied with a clip except for a tightly braided ponytail that poked out on the right side of her head. Her eyes were big, her face small, and her lips thin and cracked. At five-three she probably didn’t weigh more than ninety pounds, while the little boy had to be almost half that.

  Roy looked down at the file he was holding documenting Alisha’s background. Roy had seen enough while at CJA that teenage mothers did not really surprise him, though he also knew that a child raising a child was never a good thing. Yet it was far better than leaving the little boy in a Dumpster. He had to admire Alisha Rogers for taking that responsibility when some others didn’t.

  Non said, “I’m gonna leave you folks to it. Alisha, you need anything I’ll be down in the laundry room.”

  “Thanks, Non,” Alisha said, her gaze on the floor as the boy stared at Mace and Roy openmouthed.

  Mace stepped forward. “Alisha, I’m Mace and this is Roy. We met with Carmela this morning.”

  Gaze still on the floor, Alisha said, “Carmela’s nice.”

  “And she was very excited about us meeting with you.”

  “That’s a good-looking boy you have there,” said Roy. “What’s his name?”

  “Tyler,” she answered. She lifted one of her son’s pudgy fists and did a small wave. When she let go, however, Tyler let his arm drop limply to his side and continued to stare at them, his mouth forming a big O.

  “You want to sit down while we talk?” said Mace. “Tyler looks like a load.”

  While Roy and Mace sat on a small battered sofa with trash-bag-covered foam, Alisha put Tyler down on the floor and sat cross-legged next to him. She snagged a toy out of the Deer Park box and handed it to him.

  “You play, Ty, Momma’s got to talk to these people.”

  Tyler plopped down on the floor and obediently started playing with the spaceman action figure from Toy Story that was missing an arm and a leg.

  Alisha looked up. “Carmela say you folks got something for me.”

  “To be part of a study,” said Mace.

  Alisha didn’t look happy about this. “I thought it gonna be a job. A real job, you know, with child care and some health benefits.”

  “No, that’s right. The study does have a money and training component.”

  “How ’bout school?”

  “And an education component too. That’s considered critical, in fact.”

  “Ain’t got my GED. Dropped out to have Tyler. Went back but couldn’t make it work.”

  “We can help with that. You still want to get your GED?” asked Mace.

  “Got to if I want to get out of here. Here’s just drugs or Mickey D’s if I ain’t got no school. Can’t take care of Ty good.” She reached out and stroked Tyler’s wiry hair.

  As Mace looked at the little boy’s face it struck her that she recognized his features, but couldn’t remember from where. “Let’s go over the details and we’ll see if it’s something you’re interested in.”

  “I’m interested in anything that’ll get us outta here.”

  “You and Tyler, you mean.”

  “And my brother.”

  “Your brother?” Mace said questioningly. That had not been in the report.

  “He just got back.”

  “From where?”


  “Okay. How about Tyler’s dad?”

  She hesitated, her gaze darting to the floor.

  Mace had seen that same maneuver a million times. The lady was about to lie.

  “Dead probably. I don’t know. He ain’t here, that’s all.”

  “How about your parents?” asked Roy.

  “My daddy’s dead. He sold heroin on the corner a block over from here. My momma left me with my grandma.”

  “Why did your mother leave you?” Roy asked.

  “Had to. She in prison for killing my daddy.”

  “Oh,” said Roy.

  “Ain’t like he didn’t deserve it,” she said defensively. “He beat her bad all the time.”

  “And your grandmother?” asked Mace.

  Alisha’s big eyes became watery. “Drive-by. She just walking down the street with her groceries and got caught between two damn crews. But she got to see Ty born. He got to see his great-grandma.”

  “That’s pretty rare,” said Roy. “Four generations.”

  “She was only forty-nine when she got killed. My momma was thirteen too when she had me.”

  Mace was about to ask another question when the door to the apartment opened. When Mace saw who it was she realized where she’d seen Tyler’s facial features before.

  “What the hell you doing here, bitch?” the man at the door screamed.

  Darren Rogers, a.k.a. Razor, the guy Mace had pepper-sprayed, stood in the doorway. A moment later the “crappy” semi-auto pistol was pointed right at her face.


  WHAT THE HELL you doing, Darren?” said Alisha as she jumped to her feet.

  He pointed at Mace. “This the bitch what sprayed that shit in my eyes last night. I told you ’bout her.”

  “Well, in all fairness, I wouldn’t have if you weren’t pointing a gun at me.”

  Alisha stared at him. “Did you do that?”

  “Hell no. The bitch just shot me with the shit while I was walking by. I never pulled no gun on her ass till right now.”

  Mace turned to Alisha. “He’s also got a .22 caliber revolver in a left ankle holster. And his street name is Razor ’cause, as he told me, he’s so sharp.”

  Alisha put her hands on her hips and scowled at Darren. “How she know all that if you just walking by and ain’t pulled your damn gun?”

  Darren’s face screwed up in frustration. “How I supposed to know that?”

  Mace turned to Alisha. “Is he your brother?”


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