Zack stared out of his bedroom window overlooking Main Street. He stared through a film of dirt so thick, everything outside appeared gray. He opened the window and cold air whipped around his waist, traveled down his legs, causing him to jump and dodge its icy sting. Atlanta winters still surprised him one day hot, the next day cold, rarely two days the same. Not at all like Gary, Indiana, where he grew up and winter seemed to last a lifetime. He sipped his coffee, enjoying the bitter contrast of hot and cold, watching his window fog. He wiped a small circle, just in time to see Willie Blood setting up his shoe-shine stand.
Willie had a mind for money and a nose for everything else. Most folk would probably question his setting up his stand on such a cold day like today, a holiday when most businesses were closed. Willie hung his wreath, a small crocheted thing of algae green with a bright red velvet ribbon, something a kid made, gave him, or conned him into buying, the same one he’d hung for the last three years. It didn’t blend in with the rest of the Christmas decorations lining Main Street, but neither did Willie.
On both sides of the street, there were colorful lights strung overhead, wrapping around light posts, candy-cane style. Large tinseled and snow-covered wreaths with shiny balls and gold angels hung at every door. Willie’s wired, homemade wreath was a lot like him, a relic from the past, but it was his way of celebrating; after all it was the beginning of the Christmas season. It was Thanksgiving, and Stone Mountain hosts its very own parade where Willie would be front and center providing shoe shines to anyone who could afford one. Maybe I’ll pay him a visit. I could always use a shoeshine and his conversations aren’t bad either, Zack thought. Willie had all the neighborhood gossip. He knew what was what, with whom and when. He probably had answers Zack could use, especially involving his John Doe case.
Zack shook his head in despair. His investigation so far was at a dead end. Pookie’s mom hadn’t seen him in a couple of weeks. When Zack approached her about Pookie’s disappearance, she didn’t even act surprised or alarmed. She said nonchalantly, cigarette halfway hanging out of her mouth, “Pookie run the streets all the time. He’ll come home when he get ready.” The one thing he knew for sure Kenny Woods would never go home again. The rest of his case was pure speculation. There was some significant evidence, but he couldn’t relate any of it to anything, the fingerprints, the man with no face, the morgue fire were all hard core evidence that lead nowhere. Zack felt like the mouse in the maze. Someone knocked.
“Zack, you in there?” Miss Jenkins shouted.
“Yes, Ma’am. I’m not dressed though.” He heard Miss Jenkins giggle.
“Oh, that’s okay, Baby, I just wanted to invite you to dinner, that’s all. We’ll be eating around six. You come on by, okay? Miss Jenkins done put her foot in it this time, and I know you don’t want to miss out.”
Zack shouted back, “I’ll be there, Miss Jenkins; wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Well okay, don’t be late, because Reverend Morton coming by to say grace.”
“I won’t,” Zack said, looking through his peephole. Miss Jenkins wore the same housecoat, same wig and same wide grin he had come to know and love. He watched her nearly three-hundred-pound frame waddle back over to her apartment, which was directly across the hall. Time and food had become her worst enemies, but it never seemed to bother her.
Just before dinner and after the parade, Zack grabbed his basketball and headed for the court down the street at the high school. Shooting baskets helped him to think clearly. The weather hadn’t changed much since the morning and with the sun disappearing behind the clouds, the temperatures dipped lower. It had been some years since he had played on an outside court, especially one this size. All in all it felt good.
He dribbled on the cold, damp pavement, moving the ball between his legs, around to the left then the right, front and back, performed a three-sixty and slammed the ball through the wire rim. “Hell yeah,” he shouted. This was where it all began for him some twenty years ago. Alone on a court, he emulated, played imaginary games with the giants of his time, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, and his hero, his mentor, Dr. J. Julius Erving. Later, he would play with up-and-rising stars like Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and a very young Michael Jordan. They told him he would be the next superstar.
Zack dunked the ball, causing the rim to shake, bending from his weight. He landed hard on the pavement; his knees crumbled to catch his fall. The pain was sharp and intense. Zack fell to the ground, grabbing his left knee, pressing it close to his body. This was how it all ended up, him with a busted knee held together by four steel pins. Never again, the doctor said. He would never again play professional ball. After surgery and rehabilitation he would walk, the doctor said, but with a limp. That was where they were wrong. He had no limp, but his professional career was over. Zack cupped the ball in his hand, held it out along the pavement. It didn’t move. His grip was still good, one of the best in the league. He was one of them, a baller for life, if nowhere but in his mind.
Thanksgiving dinner was all Miss Jenkins had promised and then some. She had turkey, dressing, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, collard greens, chitterlings and sweet potato pie for dessert. Zack had two servings of everything, but that was nothing compared to Willie B’s boys, Gerald and Everett. They were still at the table when he left. Miss Jenkins didn’t mind. She was all the happier to see anyone eating. Zack went back to his apartment only to find the place too dismal after the all the socializing and good company he had just left. The holidays were always hard on him, reminding him just how alone he was. He grabbed his cigarettes and stepped outside. Across the street, Willie B was closing down for the evening.
“Z, what’s up?” Willie asked, showing off all thirty-two of his false white teeth. He had more teeth than mouth and more hair than most men his age. His mixed gray Jherri curl peeked out of his mohair Kangol cap, framing his face like the hat and hair were one and the same. “I see Miss Jenkins done fattened you up for the kill,” he said, laughing.
“Yeah, but I believe your boys got the best of her. You eat?”
“Naw, not yet. Miss Jenkins say she put me a plate away early, before my boys could eat up everything. They sure are some big eaters. I thanks God for Miss Jenkins though. She don’t never mind sharing or cooking. I finds it hard sometimes with no wife and all, but she takes care of us so good, I hardly missing any.” He paused. “So what you doing out? You come for a shine? Or you sneaking and smoking again?”
Zack looked down at his scuffed shoes. “Sneaking? I’m a grown man. Grown men don’t sneak!” They both laughed. “Go ahead and hit me up with one of your special shines,” Zack said, taking a seat in one of the chairs. Zack lit up, while Willie B worked some of that black magic on his shoes.
“I hear you got that case, the one where they found that black boy and white man all messed up. Ooh boy, I hear they was shonuff nasty.” Willie rubbed his soft cloth into the pasty can of black polish, dabbing it slowly and methodically onto Zack’s shoes.
“So what else you hear?” Zack wasn’t going to confirm or deny Willie’s take on the murders. He could tell Willie was itching to tell him. That man kept his ears closer to the ground than anyone Zack knew. “If you know something, spill it, old man. Somebody out there is doing a whole lot of talking, because half of what you said ain’t even hit the newspapers yet.”
“I hear you got a pretty tough case there, Zack.” Willie looked up seriously. “You be careful, you hear. Folks talking about this ain’t a normal killing. Thems some powerful people to blow up that there morgue. Don’t you think they won’t blow yo’ass away!” Willie brushed right, and then left, until a glow followed. He smiled at his accomplishment then moved onto the other boot.
“Willie, there you go again with all that mystical, evil plot shit. Anybody can plant a bomb or pour gasoline. It don’t take no genius to blow up no building, or kill. Just like I don’t need to be no genius to catch him. If he living, breathing and walking, he can be caught.”
“Oh, I knows you bad, Z. I have no doubt about your ability to catch the bad guy, but tell me this, how many times you catch yo’self a ghost?”
* * *
Bad dreams. Willie’s ghost story had him going. Zack woke up some time before midnight with one thought on his mind. Smudge, Zack’s friend and sometime snitch. He dialed Smudge’s number and left a message on his answering machine requesting they meet that night. Smudge would know where to find Pookie. He was better even than Willie B when it came to the information. He knew everything about everyone.
Zack checked out the clock, 11:15. He had plenty of time to get downtown. He was awake but groggy. He always ate too much on Thanksgiving, and always vowed never to do it the next year. Zack tried to shake off the sleep, remembering bits and pieces of his nightmare. Not much was clear, except Willie’s ghost was there and he was having a hard time capturing it. It must have been all those greens, macaroni and cheese and pie he downed before nodding off. That would do it. Big Mama used to say too much eating before bed caused nightmares. For the first time in a long time Zack would agree with her. In fact there was no other explanation he could come up with. The clock read 11:25, time to make a move.
Zack’s drive into town had a calming effect on him. He liked driving at night. City lights twinkled against the dark horizon. He cracked his window slightly, letting in a cool breeze. The after-effects of the nap left him dazed; the cool air offered the pick-me-up he needed. Zack drove through the streets of Atlanta many nights, but didn’t remember it looking so desolate. At 11:45, the streets should be jumping. Yet there was almost no one. It looked like a scene out of some horror movie, a tragedy waiting to happen. The eerie feeling he had about the John Doe murders didn’t seem to help the situation. He continued down Peachtree looking for some signs of life, then slowed when he reached the corner of Peachtree and Baker. Just across the street was Jackson Park, which was designed and named for Atlanta’s former mayor, Maynard Jackson. It was constructed just before the Olympic games, part of the Beautify Atlanta campaign, now a public eyesore and home to many of Atlanta’s homeless.
Zack pulled up alongside an abandoned apartment building and across the street from the park. The wind whipped around him, the force of it almost blowing him back the way he came. He battled the strong winds, coughing, covering his mouth with his scarf, partly to keep out the cold and the scent of the homeless. Even on a windy night like tonight he could still smell them. The stench of urine, liquor and unwashed bodies emanated throughout the park. Zack stepped slowly through the park, kicking bottles and litter out of his way. He looked at his watch. Midnight and still no contact.
“Z,” someone whispered from around the corner. Zack didn’t answer. Even though he was supposed to contact Smudge there, the streets could not be trusted so he didn’t answer the call, but listened intently and followed the voice. Whoever it was, he was close now, because he could almost smell the person’s hot breath coming around the corner. As cold as it was, it was visible even in the dark. Zack halfway made it around the corner before a sharp pain and the sound of breaking glass caused him to drop to his knees. Zack was stunned; his ears closed up and the world was silenced, muzzled; then a painful pop deep inside his head allowed him to hear again. Zack heard muffled voices talking so fast and choppy that he thought they were speaking a foreign language. The two crackheads argued over who would get the watch and how to split the money. Everything seemed far away. He was losing consciousness. Stay awake. Alert, Zack told himself. He opened his eyes just in time to see a large object flying through the air aimed at the two men talking. One of them was hit. He saw it all in slow motion, like a movie exaggerated for special effect. He watched the man tumble to the ground, hard, bones cracking on impact. The second crackhead ran, leaving both the wallet and the watch behind. Zack reached for his spare gun, attached to his ankle. He didn’t know who or what was coming next, and he would be damned if he was going to get jacked twice. He laid still, his hand on the trigger and he waited.
The wheels on Smudge’s chair crushed against the fallen leaves, causing a snap, crackle and pop. A strong wind whistled and swirled, raising leaves, dirt and debris around Smudge. Zack raised up, removed the gun safety and aimed at the wind.
“Whoa, Z!” Smudge said. “It’s just me Man. You alright?”
“Smudge, where the hell you been?” Zack asked, lowering his gun.
“What you mean, where I been? I just saved yo’ass! That’s where I been, Nigga!” He breathed heavily. “You can’t be stepping up here half-assed. Streets ain't safe no mo’ since crack.” He rolled over to the crackhead. “He dead?”
“Naw, at least I don’t think so.” Zack rubbed the back of his head and checked it for blood. “You know them?”
“Them just some street rats, Man. They know you and me cool, and they still try to jack you. That’s why I busted that nigga in the head. I’ma bust him again when I see him in the shelter.”
Smudge, born Walter Smiley, was named so, not because he was dirty, but because his dark complexion resembled black ink smudged against a finger. He wasn’t ashy black or muddy black, but a midnight-coal black with gold eyes, constant reminders of his Cold Duck wino days. No amount of eye drops could remove the yellow stains that circled his pupils.
Zack stood and dusted himself off, before slapping palms with Smudge. “You doing alright?” he asked.
Smudge located his pack of cigarettes and quickly lit one. He puffed hard and long before answering. “Cold as shit. Other than that, I’m okay.”
Zack pulled out his pack of cigarettes as well and lit up.
“You smoking again?” Smudge asked.
“Yeah.” Zack took a very long drag and was surprised that he was able to hold it down without coughing. It was like he had never stopped smoking. “So tell me what you know about those murders.”
“What makes you think I know something? You see how I’m rolling. How a man in a steel cage supposed to know about some murders on the other side of town?”
“Don’t play me, Smudge. Willie B already talking, and you know and I know if Willie B knows something, it’s a bet that you the one got the tip. So what’s up?”
“What’s in it for me?” Zack gave him a stern look. Smudge said, “Alright, I guess I owe you something. Look, it ain’t much, but you know whatever I say is between you and me, alright? And I don’t want to be talking to none of your 5-0 buddies downtown, so keep my name out of this one.” Smudge flicked his cigarette before looking right and left as if he was halfway expecting someone else to show up.
“All that goes without saying. You know me, Smudge, and you know I wouldn’t put you out like that.” Zack looked around, too, but there was no one, only streetlights and the ghostly white mist their breath and smoke left behind.
“What’s up, Smudge?”
“Black Seville, white man, with a big gun, silencer.”
“Was there a struggle or anything? Did he see the license plate?”
“Don’t know, Z. All I know is there were two men down, one black, one white, and one man left standing. That’s it.” Smudge pulled out a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. He twisted the cap off and took a swig, but not before offering a sip to Zack, who declined. Zack couldn’t help but notice the diamond-encrusted Rolex Smudge was sporting.
“Give him up, Smudge! Who saw it? I can protect him, Man. My word is bond. You know that. It’s Pookie, right? Tell Pookie I want to talk with him. Just me and him, on the down low.” Zack grabbed his coat at the collar, trying to shut out some of the hawk, to no avail. It was getting colder by the minute. The wind that had whistled earlier now whined and moaned its way through the streets of Atlanta.
“What you talking about, Man? Pookie who? I don’t know no Pookie. Hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil. Look, you know what you dealing with? You got yo’self a ghost killa, and he’s a bad mutha, so watch yo’ back, Boy. I thought you were bad until I peeped those two crackheads taking you out. You slipping, Z!”
Zack’s mind was running in twenty different directions. Smudge was the second person tonight to mention ghosts. What was it about this case that had him endlessly searching for clues? Ghosts didn’t leave any clues. “Whatever, Smudge. Where you get that Rolex from, Man? You living in a steel cage, rolling around sporting a Rolex. What’s that about? You robbing again?”
“Oh, shit! Z, now you gonna try to write me up for some shit I didn’t do, Man. I thought you was my boy. I’m out here freezing my ass off, trying to help you, and you accusing me of stealing. Damn, Z, I shoulda let yo’ ass get jacked.”
“Smudge. That whining act don’t work with me no more. Tell Pookie I want to see him and it will be easier for him if he comes looking for me.” Zack shivered. “Let’s find somewhere warm to go. It’s freezing out here.” He was ready to get the hell out of Dodge, into some place preferably with heat, pronto! “So where you going? You need a ride?”
“Naw. Got me a room at the shelter tonight. Just wheel me across the street. I’ll be fine.”
Zack pointed to the crackhead. “What about this guy?”
“Leave him! It’ll be just my luck his stanking ass be my bunkmate.”
The steel rails of the wheelchair sent shivers through Zack’s hand. It was already cold, but the metal felt more like ice. He pushed Smudge up to the door of the shelter.
“Alright, Z. Look if I hear anything, I’ll ring ya; alright?”
* * *
The night was far from over. Even though it was reaching early morning, Zack had one more thing to do, one more person to see. It was close to two in the morning when Zack pulled in front of Club Mikki’s. He was hoping Sashay hadn’t left. One of the bodyguards stood blocking the doorway and waited for Zack to hand him a ticket stub. Zack surprised the huge man, flashing his badge instead. The guard reluctantly stepped aside, allowing him to squeeze past his massive Santa size.
The club was nearly empty. It must be a holiday thing. Brothers too full of turkey and dressing, family and football, for it to be a get-it, get-it night. A few men sat drinking at the bar, and others were scattered among the tables, but it was an unusually quiet night. Zack headed for Sashay’s dressing room when yet another bodyguard stopped him. This one was super-Santa-sized with a beard to match. The only thing he was missing was the white hair and the suit. He would make old St. Nick proud.
“Where you going, Man? Nobody’s allowed back here!” Super Santa said. Zack
took out his badge again. “Look, I got some business with Sashay. Is she back there?”
“Man, that shit don’t mean nothing to me.” The bodyguard waved the badge away like it was an annoying fly. “Like I said, nobody’s allowed back there so take your little badge and move on.”
Sashay opened her door and confronted the bodyguard. “Bruce, it’s okay. Let him by.”
“Yeah.” She directed her attention to Zack. “ Hello, Detective.”
“Sashay.” Zack moved past the bodyguard.
“Come on in,” Sashay said, closing the door behind Zack. “So, Detective, you found my brother yet?”
“Sit down, Sashay,” Zack said, moving toward her.
Sashay didn’t move. She stared at him, through him for what seemed like an eternity. He tried to move toward her, but she stuck out her hand to stop him. Sashay bit at her bottom lip. She spoke again, but he could barely hear her. “Did you find my brother, Detective?”
Zack nodded his head, but somehow his eyes had already spoken the truth. He sat on her tattered loveseat and explained all about how her brother was found and how far they were on the case. He didn’t need to look up to tell that she was crying. He heard her sniffles and soft sob despite her efforts to hide her grief. She listened quietly to his findings, excuses and advice.
When he finally looked up, he saw Sashay at the door, looking at him as if he was the devil incarnate. He had nothing more to say and knew that no words would make a difference anyway. I should leave, he thought. He got up and Sashay still made no move from her door. Zack noticed how vulnerable she looked, like a scared doe caught up in car headlights. He reached for her, and she swung at him landing a hard, painful blow to his right ear. “Shit!” he shouted. He was caught off guard by Sashay’s anger and her strength. He grabbed his ear, halfway expecting it not to be there. Sashay seemed even more pleased at his pain, pounding harder¾ machine gun arms making contact with everything in her way, everything being Zack. He grabbed her arms only to be attacked by her feet. She tried kicking him but he twisted and turned, staying out of her way. He held her at a distance. When she began to tire, he tried talking. “Sashay, what the hell’s the matter with you? Stop it, Girl. Stop it!” He slapped her, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. She just kept on, until someone banged at the door.
“Shay? You all right? What y’all doing in there? Shay!” It was Super Santa.
Zack knew that it would be only minutes before the bodyguard came charging through the door, and he would be damned if he was going to do battle with that beast. He tried holding onto Sashay tightly, not allowing her to move. Sashay fought harder for control, shoved, kicked and pretty much used Zack for a punching bag. He was getting tired and way passed pissed.
“Sashay, please! I’m only trying to help! I will find who did this. You got to trust me on this, Girl.”
Sashay stopped. Maybe she had finally heard him, or maybe she was just tired. Hysteria could do that. Zack breathed a sigh of relief. A breath that got caught somewhere between his throat and his lungs. The door flew open, and Santa charged him like a raging bull.
“Nigger, I’ll kill you!” Santa hollered.
“Oh shit!” Zack had little time to think. He pushed Sashay to the ground and pulled out his piece. “Not before I kill you.” Zack aimed and was ready to fire when Sashay spoke up.
“Bruce, I’m okay. You can leave now.”
The bodyguard looked from Zack’s gun to Sashay and back to the gun.
“Leave, dammit!” she shouted.
He looked back at Zack and left. Sashay returned to her bureau as if nothing had happened. Zack saw her out the corner of his eye staring into the mirror as if it could give her some answers that he couldn’t. He stared straight ahead though. He wasn’t sure if Bruce was gone or if he was just lying in wait for him. Zack held his piece in place. He didn’t want any more surprises.
“You talked to Mrs. Woods yet?” Sashay asked.
“No. I’ll see her tomorrow.”
“I’ll tell her. It’s time we talked,” Sashay said.
* * *
When someone, anyone banged at your door at six in the morning it had better be an emergency, fire or something, Zack thought the next day. He had only a good two hours of sleep; the last thing he expected was an early-morning emergency.
“Who is it?” he hollered.
He heard it, but didn’t believe it. How did she find her way to his apartment? What did she want? Was she in trouble, or just trouble? The questions ran through Zack’s. The only way he was going to get answers and peace was to open the door. Zack opened it reluctantly and there Sashay stood, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt that bragged in large neon letters SEXY. An unexpected smiled crept at the corners of his mouth and she returned the smile. Sashay didn’t say much at first, just spent her time perusing Zack’s apartment and probably his lack of furniture, taste and style. He felt a little embarrassed greeting her at the door in boxer shorts and his wife beater T-shirt but that could be expected at six in the morning.
“Did I wake you?” she asked nonchalantly.
“No, I always stay up to sunrise.” He wiped the sleep from his eyes, questioning how there could be any, since he had so little time to sleep. He sat on his leather sofa, but nearly jumped up because it was cold. The whole room was cold.
“You got some coffee?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Zack answered, looking and feeling confused about her visit. He stood and went into the small kitchenette in search of coffee. Sashay followed.
“I’m sorry about waking you. I just needed to talk. I found your address in the phone book. I was surprised though. I thought being a detective and all you would be unlisted, but you weren’t.” She reached for the canister of coffee he was holding and dipped out two scoops, placing them in the filter.
“Yeah, well don’t everybody know me like you do.”
She looked down to his shorts and back up at him. “You cold?” she asked.
“A little.” He thought about his appearance, him in just his shorts in front of her. Then, he remembered, that she was standing, sitting and putting on makeup butt naked in front of him. Hell yeah. He poured the water into the machine and switched it on. Sashay wasn’t saying much, just doing a whole lot of staring.
She looked down at him again and smiled.
“What?” He asked.
“Nothing. I just thought a man your size would have bigger legs.” She laughed.
“You got chicken legs.”
Zack didn’t find humor in that statement, especially at six in the morning. He thought of at least five snappy comebacks, but decided against them. He really wasn’t feeling particularly humorous; in fact, he wasn’t feeling particularly anything except tired and cold. The coffee perked in silence. Zack reached for two cups, handing one to Sashay.
“Pookie called me last night after you left. He said he knows who killed Kenny.”