Sunday, December 16, 2007

O' Christmas Tree

One thing I’ve learned in my business is that different people get impressed by different things. Tonight I was standing outside on the Ellipse, that grassy patch south of the White House, in sub-freezing temperatures, watching a few white flakes floating down on us. I was just standing there in the crisp winter night air, staring at something that impresses me. Something my German-born mother never got to see. Something that is low tech, natural, old fashioned and just too cool.

Yeah, I’m awed by our Christmas tree. I mean the one that’s all our Christmas tree. The National Christmas Tree.

For 82 years we’ve had a National Christmas Tree in the District. In 1954 they added a "Pathway of Peace." The pathway is 56 smaller decorated trees planted so they surround the National Christmas Tree. They represent all 50 states, the five territories and of course D.C. Every year, sponsors from each state provide the decorations. If you look close, you can see each one is encased in a plastic globe to protect it from the weather. The tree and the pathway are lit up from sundown to 11 p.m. every day until New Years. It’s a great sight, an inspiring sight for this boy who grew up in Europe, and I’m not out here alone. Aside from us gawkers, there’s some group out here in the cold playing music every night.

Looking at that benign beauty, that tall, green, colorfully decorated and garishly illuminated evergreen symbol of life, I had to wonder just how anybody could find a Christmas tree offensive. I mean, sure if you saw it as a pagan symbol or a false idol we were worshiping, then maybe. But otherwise, I don’t get it. I don’t get offended by five pointed stars or crescents and moons. And as I think about it, that’s not even relevant, because those are actual religious symbols. To most of us in this country, a Christmas tree is just a decoration.

In Boston, they called theirs a holiday tree until the public outcry got so loud that the Mayor and Parks Commissioner had to back down. Theirs IS symbolic in a way, an annual gift from Nova Scotia to thank the people of Boston for their generosity after a munitions ship blew up in Halifax harbor during World War I. When the donor heard that the tree wouldn’t be called a Christmas tree any more, he threatened to shove the whole thing in the chipper. That seemed to have the right effect.

Out on the West Coast, where Santa Claus wears shorts half the time, Encinitas, California had a holiday parade a few years ago, but this year it’s a Christmas parade again. It’s not in any way a religious parade. It’s all in fun. And people of all faiths are welcome to enjoy it, just like the forest giant I was staring up at tonight.

You see, the thing is, to most of the people I know Christmas isn’t a religious holiday anyway. It’s a holiday for kids, overloaded with American traditions borrowed from all the people who came here. Snowmen. Reindeer. Santa. Lights. All that stuff the Grinch stole, none of which involved a baby in a manger. Of course, you’re free to worship on that day and put up a manger too as long as you don’t piss somebody off by sitting it in front of a mosque or synagogue. You don’t want to be snotty and push your religion up in anybody’s face. But when my mama talked about the Christmas spirit she sure as hell didn’t mean the Holy Ghost. She just meant the simple phrase she taught me in Germany: Peace on earth, good will toward men. That’s the Christmas spirit. Lots of Jews have it. Lots of Moslems have it. I even know a couple of atheists who have it. And standing there in front of our national peace symbol in sight of the President’s house I realized that if you want to change a simple tradition like putting up a Christmas tree, well, you ain’t got it.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Monte’s Reading List

I didn’t even look up when my pal Monte walked into my office. The private eye business requires a lot of specialized skills, but typing isn’t one of them. So I’m still a two-finger guy, although I can get going pretty fast that way.

“So H, what you call me over for?” Monte asked. I’m lucky to find myself mentoring a bright young fellow who lives right across the street from me. I sometimes wish he didn’t have to grow up here in SouthEast DC, but like a lot of barely-teenaged Black guys he’s a hardy plant that would grow wherever you planted him. And he generally responds when I call him, even if he thinks it’s to get him to do some work. He’s a good kid, even if his pants can’t seem to find his waist.

“Relax, kid. I’m just putting something together for you. Remember a couple weeks ago you mentioned that you kind of enjoyed the reading assignments I gave you over the summer?”

Monte looked down and huffed. I think maybe he was embarrassed to admit he liked the books I gave him. “Well, that was part of a bargain. You somehow managed to get me to spend a day with one of my rap idols down in Virginia Beach and that was the tradeoff.”

“Yeah, yeah, but you DID say you enjoyed the reading,” I said. I poked the right button and my printer lurched into action, slowly grinding out pieces of paper. “And you did say winter was kind of boring.”

Monte nodded, dropping into my visitor’s chair. “Uh huh. You right. I just don’t feel like poking around in the library like an idiot. How am I supposed to know what’s good?”

“Got you covered, little G,” I said, getting up and pulling the pages from the printer. “See I was thinking about you. I reached out to a couple friends who have kids around your age, and one who’s a librarian in Baltimore. They sent along a list of likely suspects. You can check through them to see what you might like to spend some time with.”

I handed Monte the list and he whistled. Then he tightened his ball cap on his head by the bill hanging over his left shoulder and looked more closely.

“H, there’s got to be fifty books here!”

“Actually, only about half that,” I said. “I wanted you to have some stuff to choose from. You probably won’t like them all.”

“Wait a minute,” he said, drawing the words out the way he did when he thought he was being hustled. “The Great Gatsby? A Raisin in the Sun? These are movies my grandma watches. The Raisin thing has Sydney Poitier.”

“When we talked about Huckleberry Finn before I thought it made sense to put a few classics on the list. Gatsby is a nice, short, simple book about a self-made millionaire and how he deals with suddenly having money. Sort of a jazz-age rapper, only he’s white. Raisin in the Sun, on the other hand, is all about a struggling African-American family and how they deal with poverty and racism while they’re trying to get to a better life. It’s people you can relate to, little bro.”

Monte was clearly interested now. “I heard of this one too, ’Fahrenheit 451. Isn’t that science fiction?”

I smiled, looking back on some nice childhood memories. “Well, yeah, Ray Bradbury’s a sci-fi writer, but this book isn’t about space ships or aliens. It’s a scary view of the future, where firemen don't put out fires--they start them to burn books.”

“That’s wack,” Monte said with a smile. “Might be a cool story, though. And this title - Giovanni's Room. Is that like Da Vinci’s code?”

“Oh, wow, that’s an interesting leap,” I said. “Actually, James Baldwin wrote about a guy who couldn’t decide if he was in love with his girl friend or another guy.” And this was in the 50s when people didn’t talk about stuff like that.”

“Sounds kind of heavy. And old.”

“Well, they’re not all set in the past,” I said quickly. “Look at Bronx Masquerade. In that one, a teacher is holding open mike night in his class and the kids doing poetry are sort of working through their own identity confusion with their rhymes.”

Monte kept scanning, and I watched his face shift from smile to frown and back as he hit titles that he recognized and some that were strange to him. Then his eyebrows went up.

“Your experts recommended these? A Series of Unfortunate Events? The Bionicle Chronicles?”

“Well, if you’re like me you might like getting caught up in a series. I’m told there are 13 of that first series, written by a dude with a weird name...”

“Yeah,” Monte tossed in. “Lemony Snickett!”
“Uh huh, and I hear they’re the thing for people who just can’t get enough of a bad thing. The Bionicle Chronicles look like they’re all action, about six warriors out to save the world from evil.”

I headed to the kitchen for a couple of root beers. When I got back with the bottles Monte was still smiling. I think I got his attention, and maybe he was happy that I took the time and trouble to make up the list instead of just telling him to go find a book to read. I got to tell you, getting a 13 year old to stick his head in a book is as rewarding as catching a murderer.

“You know, Grandma will be real proud if she sees me reading all the time,” Monte said. “And it IS too cold to be on the court all the time. But I don’t have any friends who are into books like this. I’d get into it more if I had somebody to talk about them with.”

With Monte, everything was about the negotiation. He had to feel like he was winning something. In this case, I was happy to play into it.

“Tell you what, little G. You tell me what you’re reading and I’ll read every one at the same time. Then you can talk them over with me. Deal?”

We smacked our fists together like he’d taught me and I grabbed my jacket. I needed to make a run to the library while the idea was still hot.

Here’s MONTE’S reading list:

The Classics
A Raisin in the Sun Lorraine Hansberry
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
Black Boy Richard Wright
Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury
Giovanni's Room James Baldwin

Might Make You Think
Bang Sharon Flake
Chocolate War Robert Cormier
Bronx Masquerade Nikki Grimes
First Part Last Angela Johnson
Forged by Fire Sharon Draper
Hoops Walter Dean Myers
Monster Walter Dean Myers
Scorpions Walter Dean Myers
Slam Walter Dean Myers
Outsider S.E. Hinson
Rite of Passage Richard Wright
Where Do I Go From Here? Valerie Wilson

Just for Fun
A Series of Unfortunate Events (series) Lemony Snickett
The Serpent's Spell Rae Bridgman
Freak the Mighty Rodman Philbrick



Sunday, November 18, 2007

Huck & Jim in the 21st Century

When it starts to get cold out it’s not uncommon for me to get up on a Saturday morning, get in a good run and then sit in my front window and take in a good book. I love a good mystery, and that day I was hip deep into Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River” when I saw Monte bouncing up my front steps. I got up to unlock the door so he could get into the apartment, sat a root beer on the kitchen table and went back to the living room to sit in the sun. Monte walked in, scooped up the soda as if there was always one sitting there waiting for him, and joined me in the front.

“I’ve heard of that one,” Monte said, dropping into the sofa cushions hard enough to bounce. How does a skinny kid like that make such an impact. “Is it any good? I’m looking for a book right now.”

“Really?” I lowered my book to make sure I’d heard him right. “Over the summer I had to blackmail you into reading.”

“Yeah, I know, and it was worth reading a book a week all summer to see you in that studio in Virginia Beach, rapping. But after all that, it turned out I really dug a lot of the stuff you gave me. And the whole reading thing kinda got to be a habit. So should I take that one off you?”

I had to think for a minute. “This probably ain’t the best for you for pleasure reading. It’s kind of heavy.”

Well, what else you got, H?” Monte asked. “Gimme something fun.”
After some thought, I said, “You know, when I was your age I really dug historical stuff like Treasure Island. Oh, hey, I know. Ever read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?”

Monte waved a derisive hand at me. “Please! Ain’t that the one about the Southern white boy floating on the river with a grown slave? Why would I want to read that crap?”

How much things had changed since I was growing up. I had to wonder if people had changed that much too. “I’ll admit that back in Berlin I was looking for stuff about America and nothing’s more American than Mark Twain. But the book’s not about sitting on a raft. Huck’s an outcast on the run, with no where to go. As a teenager I could relate. The book’s about family, and how this kid deals with murderers, thieves and con men. There’s a lot of action.” And, I thought to myself, there is a powerful message about honor that every young man ought to get.

“But, Hannibal, nobody wants to read that book no more.” Monte got back on his feet, and I wondered for the hundredth time what kept his pants from falling down. “It’s banned in a lot of schools because everybody knows it’s racist.”

“That’s a pile of crap,” I said, a little louder than I intended. “In the book, Jim is strong, brave, generous, and wise.”

“You mean Nigger Jim?” Monte asked.

“Not once,” I said, suddenly recognizing a conversation I’ve had before. “Twain does use the N word a lot in the book, but he never once uses the phrase "Nigger Jim". And the book, if you read it, is overwhelmingly against racism. It was critics, and Twain’s biographer, who started saying Nigger Jim, not Huck Finn, and not Mark Twain.”

“But the writer does say nigger a lot, right?”

I laughed in his face. “What, like you care? All that rap you listen to, those guys use the N word every ten seconds. So give me the whole “I’m offended” routine.”

“So, you’re saying all the teachers got it wrong?”

“I’m saying it’s a rough book, but not racist,” I told him. “Dig. All the people Huck and Jim run into on the Mississippi are drunks, killers, bullies, swindlers, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers, hypocrites, loudmouths or just morons. Jim is the only man of honor in the whole damned book.”

I had Monte thinking, I could see that by the way his eyes went up and to the right while he was noodling through what I said. This was usually when he would hit me with a surprise. He emptied his soda can before he started again.

“Well, I guess I might want to read a book just because the schools and libraries don’t want me to. But if Jim’s so cool, how come the book ain’t about him?”

“Well, that was the time,” I said. “Still, Jim is one of the most controversial characters in American literature, and yeah, maybe that is a good reason to pick up the book. And after you read Huck Finn, you can pick up “My Jim” by Nancy Rawles. That book IS about him, only it’s told from the point of view of an ex-slave named Sadie. She’s remembering Jim, who she was in love with, and using the lessons she got from him to get ideas to help her granddaughter. “

“Oh, so there’s a sequel,” Monte said. “I do like reading a series.”

Maybe later I’ll tell him that “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is actually a sequel to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” But Tom’s book isn’t nearly as socially conscious so there’s no good reason to always start a series at the beginning. Instead I made him a promise.

“I’ll tell you what, Monte. Give me a couple of weeks and I’ll have a whole reading list for you, just right for a bright young Black teenager.”

“I ain’t saying I’ll read everything you come up with,” Monte said, “but I’ll at least give it a try. When it’s too cold to be on the court outside, a really good book turns out to be a good way to pass some time.”

(Hannibal raps and Monte reads in the latest Hannibal Jones Mystery Damaged Goods)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Somebody's Eskimo

One thing I try hard not to do is letting the bad guys get the drop on me. So I’m a little embarrassed to explain how I ended up in that alley at night with three gang-bangers waving switchblades at me. Sure, I knew I could get my gun out before I got cut, but I didn’t think these guys were smart enough to back off even at gunpoint. That would leave me in the ugly position of having to shoot some teenager. I was wishing for another option, but right then none was coming to mind.

“Y’all get away from him!”

That voice booming from the other end of the alley drew everyone’s attention. I knew the tall black man marching toward us instantly. Matt Lincoln was a neighbor I had history with. The thugs recognized the baseball bat he was waving. Backing him up was Monte, the middle school kid I’ve been mentoring.

“I done called the cops already,” Lincoln said. “And I’m about to beat your asses until they get here. You don’t want none of this.” He raised the bat and all the young punks turned to face him. That gave me the chance to back off a couple of paces and draw my automatic.

“You fellows are badly overmatched here,” I told them calmly. “This ends badly unless you drop the blades and move out now.”

That was enough. I heard three slivers of metal clatter on the street, followed by three pairs of feet racing down the alley. Lincoln raised the bat higher, as if threatening the boys from behind. As puzzled as I was relieved, I holstered my weapon.

“I ain’t complaining, Matt, but what the hell are you doing here?”

“Monte here saw you was heading into some trouble,” Lincoln said, leading us back toward the street. “He come looking for help.”

I slapped a hand on his shoulder. “There are no words to cover thank you, but I’ll admit I’m a little surprised that you’d stick your neck out for me. I mean, the day we met, I shot you.”

“Yup,” he said and sort of chuckled. “But that was cause I broke into your house. Hell I could have had a gun for all you knew, but you only hit my leg a bit. I had my boy with me and you didn’t hurt him none. And then, when you saw I was hurt, you gave me money to go to the hospital.” We were walking slowly together through the neighborhood and stopped at the door of a little coffee shot I’d never noticed before. “What you didn’t know is, I’m an alcoholic. I was down to stealing for booze.”

We walked inside and I moved quickly to the counter to order hot drinks for the three of us. I know I looked uncomfortable having that admission so casually dropped, but Monte, bless his heart, rushed right in. “Mr. Lincoln, you’re a drunk?”

“Not any more,” Lincoln said, looking right at me. “Hannibal, your act of kindness snatched me back to real life. I been sober since that night. You was my Eskimo.”

“A Eskimo?” Monte asked as we slid into a booth. “What does that mean?”

“You don’t know the Eskimo story?” Lincoln asked. The gray at his temple made him look wise, and he had that look on his face like the story was pushing to come out, so I smiled and lied that I didn’t know either. Lincoln sipped his coffee, then leaned forward on both elbows on the table.

“Well, it’s an old story that people who is in recovery like to tell. It starts with a guy sitting in a bar knocking back the drinks. After a while the bartender says, ‘Maybe you should take it easy, buddy.’

The guy says, "What's the use? The Lord has abandoned me."

“What makes you say that?” the bartender asks.

Well, the guy throws back another drink and says, “Just a couple of days ago I was on a business trip to Alaska. There was engine trouble and my flight went down just inside the Arctic Circle. I was the lone survivor,” he says. “I managed to crawl up on a ice floe. There I was, with no food or shelter. What could I do? Well, I prayed for God to help me. I thought maybe I had been saved for a purpose, and swore that if God would just help me get home, I'd change my ways and never drink again. But I learned my lesson. There's no point to life. God didn't come save me life, so there’s no point."

So after a minute, the bartender says, "Wait a minute. If God didn't save you, how the hell did you end up in my bar?"

The guy’s drunk by then and kind of slurring, and he says, “Pure coincidence. It just so happened that some poor Eskimo got lost out there and pulled up in a dog sled next to my ice floe. He offered me a lift, wrapped me in a blanket and gave me a piece of blubber to eat. Then he brought me to the nearest town, which was a hundred miles away."

Lincoln stopped to drink more coffee and allowed a few seconds for the lesson to sink in. Monte leaned back and whistled. I guess he got it. When Lincoln looked at me again he spoke softly. “You could have killed me that night, and you had the right, but you gave me one more chance. You was my Eskimo.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But tonight you were mine, and that’s for sure.” I looked at Monte, but I could see that his lecture meter was on full.

“Don’t worry, H, I get it. And I’ll be watching for my chance. It will be cool to get to be somebody’s Eskimo sometime.”

Monday, October 08, 2007


It occurred to me that since my girl Cindy got me into this blogging thing I’ve never taken any time to talk about what I do. A lot of people have a very romantic picture of private investigators so I figured I’d set the record straight a little bit.

First of all, books and TV would give you the idea that there are millions of us out there, in every city on every street. The fact is, there are only about 45,000 private detectives in the country. That might still sound like a lot, but you got to realize that only about a quarter of us are self-employed. About the same number work for some detective agency. Then you subtract out the 15 percent who are store detectives - the rest of us don’t count those guys anyhow. That leave about a third of the big number who are working for state or local government, law firms, employment services companies, insurance agencies, and banks and the like. None of them wants to help you with your problems.

So why only an average of less than 500 per state? Well, the hours suck. The work is dangerous. And people who are really qualified usually have better sense and stay in law enforcement, or insurance, or the military, or they get a job in government or doing intelligence work.

Most P.I.s come from those professions and the guys I respect are highly qualified. Not all of them have their B.S. degree in police science like I got, but some have lots more than my six years of police experience and the three years I spent in the Protective Service as a U.S. Marshal. But some have no qualifications at all so if you’re in the market, be careful.

Most states, like The District, require private detectives to get a license. The requirements are all different, though, and in Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota there’s no license required at all.

Some people say, why do we need private investigators? Isn’t that what we pay the police for? Well, there’s stuff we do that the cops can’t, and most of it’s legal. The biggest thing for me, is the surveillance. Sure, I can check a guy’s employment or income with a phone call, but to know what he’s really up to, nothing replaces laying eyes on a guy for hours or days at a time. Cops can’t afford the resources for that kind of thing. They can’t informally interview friends, neighbors and coworkers. Lawyers and businesses hire me to do that kind of stuff as much as individuals do. And the cops can’t just work one case until it’s done, like they do on TV. I can, and generally do.

As you know, I also do personal protection work, stop harassment, get the goods on people at the wrong end of law suits and child custody cases, and handle missing person cases if someone being missing puts somebody else in jeopardy. Any kind of trouble people get into, I can try to get them out of, except maybe computer fraud or identity theft, in which case I’ll refer you to another expert I know. I’m also not interested in premarital screening or verifying infidelity, but for some of my fellow private investigators, that’s their bread and butter.

My kind tends to specialize. There’s guys, and gals I better say, who focus on intellectual property theft. There’s legal investigators, corporate investigators, financial investigators, store and hotel detectives. And then there’s me. I’m the only professional troubleshooter that I know of, and I’m kind of glad of that. As far as private eyes, now you’ve got an idea of who we really are. And for me, I hope you got an idea of what I do.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Tall Tales in the Hood

There were four cops, three police detectives and a couple of crime scene techs present but not one of them wanted to sit in the dead man’s seat.

Don’t get me wrong, I understood how they felt. After all these, guys had died messy. According to the forensics boys somebody had come up on the passenger side with a tech 9 and put three bullets in each of them, the passenger and the driver. Two in the chest and one in the head. Then the shooter had dragged them out of the car and shoved them under it, head first, with their legs sticking out. The crime scene techs were done with the inside of the car but they wanted to draw their traditional chalk lines. The car had to be moved.

So there we all stood, on a narrow side street in Southeast DC where the two passengers must have been talking in the car. I got called because the police chief knew I’d been hired to help a client deal with the gangsters trying to squeeze him for protection money. The two victims were leaders of smaller gangs that might have been involved in the protection racket. He figured a private eye like me might have some valuable intel to share, but instead of exchanging information we were standing around looking at the expensive Chux sticking out from under a black Mercedes.

“What a bunch of pussies,” I snarled, yanking the door open. They had thrown a sheet over the Benz’s blood spattered seat and the blood was dry from last night anyway. I plopped down, started her up with the key left in the ignition, pulled the seat forward so I could reach the pedals comfortably, lowered the window to let the stench of death out, and cranked the wheel hard right.

“Give me a ground guide, Sergeant Burke,” I hollered out the window. Burke was a thick guy with real dark skin, one of those dudes who wears a trench coat when he doesn’t need it. Maybe he wanted to be Columbo.

I put the car into reverse and backed slowly until he closed his fist, meaning I was about to roll over somebody’s skull. I wound the wheel all the way the other way and inched forward.

“So what were these two chatting about?” Burke asked, waving me forward with his fat fingers.

“How am I going to know until I see their faces? Did you crawl under the car and make an I.D.?”

Burke clenched his fist to stop me before I rolled over their legs. I turned the wheel again and started back, letting Burke guide me in straightening so the car’s wheels would be straddling the bodies.

“One of the uniforms did,” Burke said. “He says they both got crazy street names. The brother they call G-raffe and the one who calls himself Tego Suave.”

I kept backing up until I saw their faces emerge from under the front bumper. Yeah, that was G-raffe, so named because he was probably six foot five and a hell of a baller. He ran with the 12th Street Mob. Tego Suave was a little guy with huge arms, a powerful Latin banger, representing the Brown Union.

When I was completely clear of the bodies I shut off the car and got out. The sun was just climbing over the nearby buildings, illuminating the two faces, both twisted more in anger than pain. Two young men, leaders by nature, lying there in wife beaters and jeans. A couple of blocks away we could hear the traffic as the city got down to its business without them. Burke hustled over to me.

“Was either of these guys involved in the protection scam you’re working on?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “That’s a Jamaican thing.”

Burke nodded, poking at his teeth with a toothpick. “So maybe they were getting together to take over this new racket. Do these street gangs form unions?”

“Naw. What happens when they feel threatened is that one gang takes another over. They might have been talking about that. If that’s the case, the shooter would be a member of the gang that was about to be swallowed up who didn’t agree with the takeover.”

“Great!” Burke rolled his eyes. “So our suspect pool is every member of two rival street gangs. I ain’t got the manpower to question them all.”

I shook my head and walked over to stare down at the two corpses. “Not really, chief. I can cut your suspect pool in half just by looking at these guys. See, the guy who’s taking over is going to be driven around by the other dude, not the other way around.”

Burke stood beside me, as if he might catch a clue if he got close enough. “I don’t get it,” he finally said. “How the hell do you know which one was driving?”

I looked at him. “You’re kidding, right?” He kept staring at me. I figured I better put him out of his misery.

“Chief, didn’t you just see me pull the seat forward when I got in the car? If Tego had been driving, I’d have had to push it back. G-raffe’s a freakin’ giant.”

Burke nodded. “So you’re saying G-raffe was driving Tego around. Somebody didn’t want Tego taking over the 12th Street Mob so they blew him away, and then had to take out G-raffe too.”

“Right,” I said. “You find the boy who’s trying to move up into the top spot in the 12th Street Mob and I’m betting you’ve found your shooter. And now that I’ve done your driving, and your detecting, I’ve got my own case to get back to.”

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Choosing Happiness

I don’t talk about it much, but Tuesday night is still my night to work at the homeless shelter. The District seems to have more than its share of people who got nowhere to go, but I never forget that that don’t make them useless. I can’t. All my neighbors in my apartment building in Southeast, I met there. And while Southeast DC is kind of a run down neighborhood, we got a roof over our head and the furnace works in the wintertime.

Anyhow, this week I decided to bring Monte with me. I figure when a guy hits his teens it’s time to start thinking about other people too. Of course he figured he had better things to do, but his grandma, Mother Washington, kind of insisted he join me. So he helped me serve the evening meal. I expected some comments about how many of the people there are black like us, or about the smell some of them bring along, but as is so often the case, the boy surprised me.

“So, is this what Grandma means when she says we’re put on this earth to serve?” Monte asked as he handed a tray to an old, toothless man. “I wouldn’t want nobody serving me this crap.”

“You might if it was all you had,” the old man said, not offended, just defeated. The next couple people in line said hello to me by name. I’m down there a lot. A lot of times I don’t know their names, but when they give me a nod and a smile as they pass, I always return it.

“Why you so happy all the time?” Monte asked, as if nobody could hear him but me. “In fact, why are they so happy?”

A guy in a short, gray beard and a Vietnam era Army field jacket stopped in front of us. “The question, young fellow, is how come you’re so unhappy. I heard what you said before and yeah, your grandmother’s right. We are put on this earth to serve. Life’s about making somebody else’s life better.”

As the veteran passed, Monte muttered under his breath, “I live in a damned slum. Ain’t nobody making my life better.”

Before I could say anything, the veteran turned back from the far end of the line. “What’s that supposed to mean? Like somebody ain’t doing their job? Son, you go through life thinking happiness is all about getting what you want, you’ll always feel like you got cheated.”

The line of homeless men and the woman in front of me burst into laughter. Monte had the good sense to blush a bit.

I wrote the incident off as a good learning experience and maybe a lesson in humility for my little pal, but on the walk home, Monte was down right pensive. He was walking with his hands deep in his pockets, like a guy who was dealing with some serious issues. I’ve learned that if I leave him alone long enough, eventually he’ll say what’s on his mind.

Six blocks later, out of nowhere, Monte asked, “I don’t think I’m selfish just because I feel like I need more money, better clothes and a nicer place for Grandma to live. Don’t everybody want more than they got?”

At the corner I stopped to look around my neighborhood, which ain’t the best in the city by any means. I chose to live here because I felt like I was needed here, maybe like I could do some good. But Monte didn’t need a speech. Besides, it was a serious, fair question and I’ve learned when you talk to a kid that age, if you sound like you’re not taking them seriously they won’t hear a word.

“Monte, it ain’t wrong to want more. I think it’s natural, maybe just human nature to want more and better stuff.”

He looked at me. “Then how can them homeless guys that got nothing act so happy?”

That one was a little harder. I’d have to steal my answer from somewhere else. “I’m not sure you’ll understand this, man, but some of those guys are happy just because they decided to be happy. I know they teach you the Gettysburg Address in school, but I don’t think they tell you my favorite Abraham Lincoln quote. One of the coolest things he ever said was, "A person is generally about as happy as he’s willing to be.”

Two blocks later we were standing in front of Monte’s home. The house Monte’s grandparents bought before his mother was born, before his grandfather worked himself to death, before his father ran off and his mother disappeared, before his grandmother accepted the mission she said God gave her, to raise Monte.

Monte stood in front of the porch steps for a minute and said, “I don’t think it’s all she hoped for, and she deserves better, but she loves this piece of crap house.”

I was thinking the same general thing about loving a grandson she didn’t plan on raising. “Maybe that’s why Mother Washington is always smiling,” I said. “It ain’t getting what you want, kid. It’s wanting what you got.”

Monday, July 30, 2007

Potter Changes the World

Standing near the door in a crowded bookstore at midnight I came to a startling revelation. I might need to break down and read this series of young adult British dark fantasy novels in order to communicate with my woman and the youngster I’m mentoring.

Watching people from six to 60 bum-rushing the counter I saw that this Harry Potter thing is not just a triumph of 21st Century marketing. It is a genuine social phenomenon.

Teen street hustler Monte and crusading business lawyer Cindy have bonded over these books and these characters in a way I never could with either of them. I haven’t read any of the books, and I haven’t paid much attention when I’ve taken them to see the movies. But you don’t have to get into the books to get the most important part. The stories aren’t so much adventures as they are morality tales. It’s about the ongoing battle between good and evil, halfway between the pure fantasy of the Lord of the Rings and the reality-based fantasy of James Bond. Like the fantasies I grew up on - Bond, Tarzan, Batman or my old role models Lew Archer and Travis McGee, people read this stuff for fun. They hardly seem to notice the moralizing, and that makes it all the more effective.

Naturally I love anything that gets Monte to sit down with a book, but the real shaker for me is that Cindy likes the books just as much. I hardly ever read fiction myself, except mysteries to test myself against the puzzle, but I’ve gotten dragged into the debates between Cindy and Monte about the plot twists.

The night after the “midnight party” we went to the IMAX and I actually watched the latest Harry Potter movie. At my place afterward I provided the popcorn and sodas and we talked... actually talked... until Monte nodded off on the sofa. Cindy leaned her head on my shoulder.

“We’re boring you to tears, aren’t we?” she asked.

“You kidding? Maybe you don’t get just how hard it is to have a meaningful discussion with a young teenager. And it’s good for him to hear stuff like the fact that this hot shit lawyer was crying when she finished a book. Listening him bitch about who died or who turned on their friends I really get to see the core of the boy. He gets the... um... I guess he gets the character of the characters. Do you get what I mean?”

Cindy said, “Reading can be a very solitary activity, but I guess we need to thank J.K. Rowling for giving us the one thing every good book ought to gives you - not just a good read, but a good reason for conversation.”

Monday, July 16, 2007

Charged with Murder

It took me a while to find a place to park that Friday evening in Northwest DC. The streets are generous and wide out in the Spring Valley neighborhood, but too many official vehicles were crowding me out of the driveway and the rest of the cul-de-sac. When I finally hiked up to the house, my girl Cindy was standing out front with her client.

“Hannibal I’m so glad you’re here,” she said as I came within earshot. “Mr. Nolton here has had a terrible shock and I hoped you could help us straighten things out.”

The tall, well-dressed fellow beside her stuck his hand out. “You’re Hannibal Jones? The Troubleshooter and private eye I’ve heard so much about? Good. Maybe the cops will believe you, and I can start taking care of the ugly details.”

I returned the firm shake. “Glad to meet you, Mr. Nolton,” I said. “But sorry it has to be under these circumstances. Want to give me a quick rundown of what you know?”

His lips quivered a little and he ran a hand through his nicely styled red hair. “I know it’s my fault because she found out last week that I was having an affair. But she said we’d talk about it when I got back from my business trip. I get back after three days away and I find her in the garage. In the Lexis. She was so still. Her skin was...”

When Nolton broke down Cindy picked up the story. “She was dead behind the wheel, Hannibal, in the closed garage. Mr. Nolton wisely called his attorney immediately. None of the partners is in town right now so I rushed right over. The coroner’s in there now but his quick assessment is carbon monoxide poisoning and she looks to be about three days gone.”

Then she said a word or two to Nolton and took my arm to guide me toward the garage. Once he couldn’t hear us, she said, “He’d really like for you to reassure the police, as an outside consultant, that his wife’s death is an obvious suicide. It might shorten their investigation and speed up any settlement.”

I said, “Yeah, he’s a brand new widower but you’re my woman. What do YOU want?”

We stopped at the open garage door and Cindy said, “I knew Mrs. Nolton and I just can’t see her killing herself. Just see if you can get a feel for whether my client is a victim or a potential defendant.”

I nodded and stepped into the garage. The crime scene fellow recognized me and didn’t give me any grief. I tightened my gloves on my hands and just looked over his shoulder when he opened the driver’s door. They’d hauled the body away, but the stench of three-day-old corpse had stayed behind. He started dusting for prints, but we both knew that if he found them from both Noltons it wouldn’t mean anything. There was an empty CD case on the passenger seat. It wasn’t labeled, and curiosity prompted me to lean over the tech and poke the stereo’s power button with a gloved fingertip. Dolly Parton’s voice poured out, claiming in strained tones that she would always love me. I liked it better by Whitney Houston.

“Music to die by, eh?” the tech said, continuing his work. I shut it off and walked back out on the driveway where Cindy stood waiting.

“You couldn’t have seen anything that fast,” she said.

“Enough,” I said. I looked at Nolton over in front of the door. A plainclothes detective was taking a statement from him right then, so I waved a uniform over. “Don’t let Mr. Nolton wander off, kid,” I said. “And when your lead detective is done with him, you’ll be a hero if you remind him to check Mr. Nolton’s actual whereabouts every minute of the day and night since he left on his trip.”

“Okay,” Cindy said. “You think he came back here three days ago and killed her. So do I, but what makes you think so?”

“The CD,” I said.

“Yeah, a pretty depressing choice, but how is that a clue?”

I grinned. “Think it through, babe. A woman gets in a car, shuts the garage door, starts the car, starts the tear-jerking music, and sits there until she’s dead. Does she turn it off?”

Cindy shook her head. “Of course not. But it’s reasonable to assume the husband came home, found her in the garage and once he was sure she was dead, he turned off the stereo and I guess the car.”

“Not likely,” I said, watching Nolton in front of the house. “Not three days later. The car would have run out of gas. But the ignition would have still been on and the stereo too. So…”

She jumped in. “So the battery should be dead. But you just turned the stereo on and it played.”

“Uh huh. Somebody shut off the car not too long after the woman was dead. Maybe somebody who didn’t want CO2 seeping into the house the last couple of days. Now I’ve got no proof as to who that might have been, but I think we can pretty much rule out suicide, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Cindy said, “and if we don’t find a third person’s fingerprints inside the car, I’m afraid my client is going to be a defendant after all. Since the battery was still charged, I think he will be too.”

Saturday, June 30, 2007

[From time to time, I have invited other authors to present an alternative view of the Hannibal Jones universe. Bernie Thomas has taken up the challenge and come up with a nice twist I just had to share. Bernie was a prize winner in this year’s Maryland Writers’ Association novel contest, which should tell you that it’s worth your time to read this little nugget all the way to the end.

Nightmare in Apt. 301-B

Thinkin’ back, I shouldn’t o’ answered. A ringing phone at 2 a.m. is always trouble. This was no exception. The sexy voice on the blower says she needs my help. I’m a shamus. That’s what I do. Besides, I ain’t never said no to a dame.

She tells me she’s got trouble. The kind o’ trouble that shouldn’t involve the cops. She says Orson Rissik gave her my number. Rissik’s a Virginia police detective and a friend o’ mine. He’s always givin’ my number to birds in a jam. I gotta talk to him ‘bout that. It don’t pay so well.

So I pulls on a pair of trousers and loops my suspenders over my undershirt. Slidin’ into my loafers, I grabs my jacket and jams my fedora on my head. I’m out the door in two shakes. Halfway downtown and realizes I forgot my Sig 40—another problem with middle-o-the-night calls.

I pulls my jalopy up to the address she gave me. It’s a private club. You know—one o’ them after hours speakeasies they hide in the back alleys. I knocks on the door and some big palooka opens it a crack.

“What you want?”

“I’m here to see Cindy.”

“She’s workin’. Ain’t got no time to be talkin’. Hit the road.”

I ain’t expectin’ this. And there ain’t no getting’ in with this bimbo blockin’ the door. I gotta get him out here with me.

“Listen, sap…”

That’s all it takes, see? Next thing I knows there’s a couple o’ paws liftin’ me off the asphalt. I figures I’m gonna take a couple before I gets my licks in, but then I hears this dame’s voice yellin’.

“NO! Rocco! Leave him alone!”

Next thing I know I’m pickin’ myself off the ground. I looks up. Rocco’s a baby grand—a whole lot bigger than he looked on the other side o’ that door, see? I probably shoulda been nicer.

“You Jones?” she says, helpin’ me up.

“Yeah, Doll. But my clients call me Hannibal.”

I dusts myself off and gets my first good look at Cindy. She’s the berries. A real looker. And from the outfit she’s wearin’, I figures she’s a dancer. Hoofers with gams like hers can make some real dough in a joint like this.

"You all right?”

“Everything’s Jake. So, what’s this trouble you’re in?”

“Let’s talk inside.”

We step past Rocco and he gives me the evil eye. Followin’ Cindy, I checks out the joint, see? The place is full of smoke and everybody’s bent. I spots a couple o’ high hat sugar daddies buyin’ bootleg for a couple o’ quiffs. I figure they’re steppin’ out on their ol’ ladies. I’m glad I’m not in the business o’ tailin’ cheatin’ husbands any more.

We goes past the band, through a door and into the back dressing room. There was only a couple o’ girls there, but they was half-naked. They gives me the once over and smile. Suddenly getting’ up in the middle o’ the night wasn’t so bad. Cindy pulls out a chair and motions I should sit down.

“Can I get you a drink?”

“I don’t drink, Doll. But I’ll take a cup of Joe if ya got it.”

“Yes, we have coffee. And I bet you take it black.”

“Is there any other way?”

When she comes back she tells me her trouble.

“I been seein’ this guy. He says he needs me to keep a package for him. Wants me to keep it at my place so he can get it when he needs it. When I get to work last night, I hear the cops found him face down in the Potomac. Turns out, he’s a dealer. Then, when I get home, my place is all torn up—like somebody was lookin’ for somethin’. I’m scared, Mister Jones.”

“What’s his name?”

“Falcone. Maltese Falcone.”

“Rissik told me about him. Locked him up about a week ago. I bet he wishes he was still there. Where’s the package?”

“It’s still in my car. I forgot to bring it in the other night.”

“You better give it to me. And you better find another flop for a while.”

She turned those big brown eyes on me. “Do you have a couch, Mister Jones?”

I gives Cindy my address and the key to the front door. I keep another one under the mat. A real dumb thing as it turns out. I takes the package and heads to national Airport. I put it in a locker, then mails the key to myself. Somebody bumped off that small-time hood boyfriend of hers, see? And now she’s holdin’ the bag. I figure I’ll use the package as leverage to get her off the hook.

When I walks into my place, I gets jumped by a couple o’ goons. One guy pins my arms from behind and the other slugs me. I falls onto the sofa, see? Then the second guy walks over, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a set of brass knuckles. He starts talkin’ as he slides ‘em on.

“Where’s the goods?”

“Goods? What goods? I don’t know from nothin’.”

He holds up his fist and gives me a real good gander at those knuckles.

“I asked real nice once. I ain’t askin’ again, Hannibal … Hannibal! … HANNIBAL! Wake up!”

I feels this shakin’ like I got the heebie-jeebies or somethin’. Then I hears another voice.

“Hannibal! Wake up, dude.”

“Wha? Where am I?”

“You’re in my apartment. You fell asleep on the couch and started flailing around and yelling.”


“Yeah, buddy. It’s me. You okay?”

“Whew! Yeah. I was having a nightmare. Cindy was there and she was in trouble and a couple of guys were beating the crap out of me…”

“Really. … Well, I invited you over to watch these old Bogart movies because I thought you’d enjoy them. They’re classics, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. But I couldn’t keep my eyes open.”

"I could see that. You laid down on the couch and fell asleep in the middle of The Maltese Falcon. So, I left you sleep. If I’d have known it would give you nightmares, I’d have waken you.”

“It wasn’t the movie that caused the nightmare.”

“Oh? What was it then?”

“You should’ve heard the way I was talking.”

Friday, June 15, 2007

Who Needs Nuclear Bombs?

My little pal Monte lives with his grandmother and Mother Washington seldom reads anything except her bible so lots of days he comes to me with his homework. This particular day I was laying out the ingredients for Cindy to make us Cuban Sandwiches for lunch while he went through is social studies.

“So what do you know about the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty?” Monte asked. He tried to hand me a photocopy of the treaty, but lucky for me my hands were full.

Usually current events is one of my strengths but this time I had to say, “Not much, buddy. What’s the question?”

“Well, the teacher’s talking about this ex-president Carter,” Monte said, moving his books to take up less than half my kitchen table. “Carter’s saying the U.S. doesn’t support this treaty because we’re not getting rid of our nuclear weapons. He’s like, we’re the reason Iran and North Korea don’t stop trying to get their own nukes. Then he says, “discuss.” I hate it when he does that.”

“Well, I don’t know about the treaty,” I said, buttering the bread, “but claiming that America is responsible for somebody else wanting nukes doesn’t make sense to me. Do you really think Iran, North Korea and other countries wouldn’t want nuclear weapons if we didn’t have them? That nut I can’t pronounce in Iran, Ahmad-whatever, says in public that he wants to dominate the Middle East and wipe Israel off the map. He can use nuclear weapons to do that and whether or not we have them is irrelevant.”

I kept talking while I pulled the dill pickles and roast pork out of the refrigerator. “And anybody who’s studied Kim Jong Il in North Korea knows he’s just plain power hungry. I think he’d be even more interested in having nuclear weapons if he thought he could be the only leader on earth to have them.”

Right about then Cindy came in, in her typical whirlwind fashion. She dropped her briefcase, gave me a quick kiss, slipped out of her suit jacket and draped it on the back of her chair. I dropped the ham and Swiss cheese on the table and handed her papers Monte had tried to give me.

“Before we get started with food, tell the kid here about the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.”

“I’m impressed you could even pronounce that,” she said, accepting the papers and starting to scan them. “What about the treaty, Monte?”
“I guess the real question is, is the USA setting a bad example by not obeying the treaty.” I could see Monte perk up. I guess he was happy to get a more educated opinion. I was only a little insulted. But I could see Cindy examine the treaty language more carefully and knew she was still in lawyer-mode. In this case, that was probably a good thing.

“Monte, I’m not going to tell you I agree with the way our country has handled this,” she said in her courtroom voice, “but the claim that we are in violation is legally false. Look here. When you talk to your teacher you can say that this is the pivotal provision, Article VI.”

I read it over her shoulder. It was short: Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

“See, fellows, there’s no binding legal obligation to give up nuclear weapons. The only legal requirement is to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament. We’ve been negotiating on such matters for more thirty years. We’ve also signed and implemented several arms control agreements that have reduced our nuclear inventory quite a bit.

Monte’s brow wrinkled. He likes to debate. “But right after that, doesn’t Article VI say we need to have a treaty complete disarmament?”
Cindy dropped the papers and started building sandwiches. “That’s right. But keep reading. You’ll see that “elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons" would take place not prior to, but "pursuant to a Treaty on general and complete disarmament." That means we get rid of the rest after everyone agrees to a treaty.”

“Then why’d Carter make this remark?”

Cindy stopped to push up her blouse sleeves before putting the first sandwich in our little press. “That’s politics, Monte. Because the language of Article VI doesn’t actually say what the disarmament fans want it to say, they have worked for decades to reinterpret it. But you can tell your teacher that your lawyer friend says it’s not good legal strategy for one party to go beyond the letter of a legal agreement until all the parties agree to do so. Now clear off the table. I’ve been waiting all day for this sandwich.”

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Top Detective

Monte ran past me like death itself was behind him, but as it turned out, he was racing toward it.

I fell back against my car to give him room. He shouted as he raced by.

“Dude was shot in his car.”

Well, news travels fast in my neighborhood, and murders in the southeast corner of the District aren’t exactly rare so I had to figure it was probably true. I was in no hurry to get into the apartment, and it was the first really warm day of spring, so I followed on foot. I’ve been mentoring Monte for a while now so I know he’s seen corpses before. Still, this kind of thing can affect you and I thought I should try to be on hand, just in case.

Two blocks later I saw I didn’t have to be so concerned. The police were already there, and the familiar yellow tape kept everybody, even inquisitive teenage boys, out of sight of the damage. But by the time I was standing beside Monte, I was already being made an exception.

“Jones,” Billy Johnson called to me as he approached the perimeter. Johnson was a local patrolman, real young and real tall. One of those fellows who made a police presence welcome rather than hated in the hood. It was kind of nice to have a brother on the streets.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“We got a little bit of a puzzle here,” he said. “Sure wish you’d come in and take a look.”

Never one to resist a crime scene I lifted the yellow tape and stepped under it. Monte tried to follow but I pushed him back. “I’ll report back,” I told him with a wink.

The scene of the crime turned out to be a brand new silver BMW 325i parked not far ahead. Two forensics guys were kneeling on either side of the car, leaning into the cramped back seat from opposite sides. It was pretty clear why. The dead man was still in the driver’s seat, at least most of him was. I leaned my forearms on the roof and looked in through the driver’s window. The hole in the back of the victim’s head was fairly small, but most of his thinking equipment and probably the top half of his face was smeared all over what remained of the windshield.

I was real glad I had made Monte stay behind.

“Looks like an execution,” I said. “This guy a gangsta? Hard to recognize what’s left.”

“You knew him,” Billy said. “Bumpy Walker. Drugs and numbers. Not a fan, myself, but nobody deserves to go like this.”

“Don’t sweat it,” I said, looking at the guys going over the back seat. “They’ll turn up all you need to find the shooter. Can’t do a thing like this without leaving trace.”

“Want to bet?” one of the techs said. Billy stood behind me like he didn’t want to get too close to Walker. I could have told him that death wasn’t catching.

“The lab boys haven’t found a thing,” he said. “It sure looks like somebody sat in the back seat and put a bullet in the back of Walker’s skull, don’t it? But there’s no evidence of anybody being in the back seat. And that ain’t all. There’s no GSR.”

I turned to face the young cop. “That can’t be right. There has to be some kind of gun shot residue. If not on the seats then at least on the body.”

“Not even on the body,” Billy said.

“Then he was shot from outside the car,” I said.

“I thought so at first, like a drive by, but that’d be a hard angle of impact to get, even with a window open. But when he was found all the windows were up and all the doors locked. And the key’s still in the ignition.”

“How the hell?” I asked no one in particular. I walked slowly around the car. All the glass was intact except for the hole in the windshield and that was clearly an exit hole. I leaned over one of the techs to check the back seat myself. I tried to imagine a shot from the trunk, but there was no hole in the upholstery. I was stumped.

“Thoughts?” Billy said. “Ideas? Theories?”

“Not a clue,” I said. “But if anything comes to mind I’ll let you know.”

When I got back on the other side of the police tape I shared everything I’d seen and heard with Monte. He seemed real excited to be in on a murder case. Me, I’d just as soon never see another murder. But Monte wanted more, and seemed disappointed when I stopped talking.

“Wish I had more for you, little guy, but I haven’t a clue how the shooter nailed old Walker without leaving gunpowder on the body or anyplace in the car.”

Monte looked around, and then came back with a question out of the blue.

“Was Walker driving his own car? The Beemer?”

“Brand new BMW 325i,” I said. “Silver, automatic, four-seater.”
“Oh,” Monte said. “Well, there you are, then.” When he saw the confusion on my face he smiled, then laughed, and finally pumped his fist.

“You don’t know, do you?” he asked, poking a finger at my face. “Do you? YES! I got it! I got it and you don’t know. I figured one out before you!”

I looked at him. “Okay, Einstein, just what do you have?”

“Nuh-uh. Not unless you let me see the crime scene.”

So a minute later, Monte was pacing around the vehicle, smiling in a way that worried me a little, while I hung back to talk to Billy.

“Monte says you’re in the wrong place looking for evidence in the back seat. He thinks the killer might have left prints on the controls up front.”

“Based on what?” Billy wanted to know. That’s when Monte walked up and took his dramatic moment.

“Based on the fact that you guys don’t know jack about cars. Walker’s new ride made him the man ‘cause it’s a drop top. That Beemer is one of the new hard top retractable convertibles. There’s no gun powder stuff in the car because the killer took the shot while the top was down. Then he or somebody in his posse just reached in and pushed the button that raised the top back into place. If they didn’t have gloves, that’s where you’ll find your evidence.”

Yeah, it was his dramatic moment. But hell, he earned it.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mom's Day

“How come she wrote it that way?” Monte asked. “"To my honey". Not what most moms would say to their kid.”

It was an odd moment for me. Monte was looking at my only remaining photo of my mother. Normally the little frame stood on the fake mantle in my bedroom. I had moved it to the living room because it was the eve of Mother’s Day and I wanted to see her all night and all the next day.

It was an odd moment because of the losses we shared. Monte’s mother died in childbirth and his father left him with his grandmother soon after. Cindy’s father Ray was with us. He watched Cindy’s mother die of tuberculosis soon after they came to this country from Cuba. I lost my father to the Vietnam War when I was pretty small and my mother within a year of my high school graduation. Mother’s Day was a bittersweet event for each of us.

“It’s because of my skin tone,” I told Monte. “She called me her honey boy because she thought my skin was the color of honey.”

“You miss her don’t you?” Monte asked, maybe a bit rougher than he meant to. “You’re lucky you got somebody to miss.”

“Mother Washington is more mother to you than most get,” Ray said, sipping at a beer. “You ought to appreciate that. In fact, she’s a mother to everybody on the block, and everybody in her church. Did you get her something nice?”

“Didn’t know what to get, so I got a box of candy.” To his credit, he didn’t sound proud of it. Monte’s not quite a teenager, but he already has a good sense of what’s right and what isn’t.

“Every mom wants to feel special on Mother’s Day,” I said, looking deep into my own mother’s celluloid eyes. “Is it the same with Father’s Day, Ray?”

Ray thought a minute, and I could see his eyes fading back to when Cindy was Monte’s age, before Ray’s hair deserted him and ambition left him behind. “You know, at one time Father’s Day was very important to me. I remember how bad I wanted my little girl to see how hard I worked at raising her. Not just the trips to the park, you know, but the skinned knees I tended, the slumber parties I put up with, the days I pretended not to know she did something wrong, the nights I chased the bad boys away. All of it.”

“She appreciates it,” I said.

“Maybe. But she sure didn’t when she was a kid.”

“You’ll always be her father,” I said, lightly punching his shoulder. “That’s where Cindy has it over me and Monte here.”

“Well, I did all I could, but I’m through,” Ray said, slowly crushing his beer can. “She don’t need a father no more, she’s on her own. And you know, I’m not her friend the way…” he swallowed, his mouth already dry. “The way my Juanita was.”

“I get that,” I said, pulling another beer out of its plastic loop and handing it to Ray. “I mean, my dad was a soldier’s soldier. Maybe that’s just the thing with dads. They can be friends or they can be trainers.”

“Yeah, us men, we ain’t got the goods to be both. That’s what makes mothers special.” Ray clinked his beer can against mine. “Guys, even the best of us, can only be in one place at a time.”

“Y’all saying Grandma can be in two places at once?” Monte asked, eyeing the beer.

“You bet,” Ray said. “She can lead you, stand beside you, and get behind you, all at the same time. That’s what a mother can do.”

“Pretty poetic for a cab driver,” I said. “You deserved a gift on both days for raising Cindy alone.”

Ray waved the notion away. “Guys don’t care about that stuff. All I ever wanted on Father's Day was for the kid to call or come by and say thanks for trying. The rest is just… well it’s like wrappings on a present, you know? Guys don’t care about that crap but you know it’ll spoil it for the kid if you show you don’t care so you keep it to yourself.”

It was my turn to drift away. I was counting back, one year at a time, through the Mother’s Day presents I had given Mama. I got back to second grade before the memory train ran out of track.

“Mom’s ain’t like that at all. They make every flower, every card, every little gift bought with your allowance seem like solid gold and just what she was praying for. They make you feel good, just by appreciating your effort and a little thought. I know some of that reaction was for my benefit, and some was probably just tradition, like the gift wrapping you mentioned. But I know that mostly she loved whatever I did for her just cause I did it, just like I know she loved me no matter what I did.”

“That’s what makes a mother,” Ray said. “They love you no matter what. And you only get so many chances to tell her she’s special. So you got to be sure to go to your mom or whoever’s been your mom on Sunday and say thank you. Thank you for trying and for caring.”

I know that last bit was aimed right at Monte. I looked at him, and then at Ray, and we all seemed to be in the same place. I was the first one to stand up.

“You were right, Ray. Mother Washington has been a mother to all of us on the block. Come on. Let’s the three of us go out and see if we can find her something really special for tomorrow.”

Monday, April 23, 2007

Virginia Tech - Still in mourning

Yeah, I know I don’t often give my opinion on this blog thing, but being ex-federal law enforcement and a private op now, I guess I ought to say something about the tragedy at Virginia Tech. I got to admit, as a resident of Southeast Washington DC, my first reaction when I heard about all the shooting was...WHERE? I mean, where I live I expect to hear guns go off in the middle of the night. But Blacksburg, Virginia is the opposite of the kind of environment where you expect violence. By most measures it’s one of the best places in the country to live, a peaceful, suburban college community where average income, education level and church attendance are all way above the national average. There is no way to understand why such a tragedy would happen there, and I think it’s the horror you can’t predict that’s the scariest.

Right after that is everybody searching for something to blame it on. I’ve already heard all the anti-gun screamers out there. And I’ll even admit it’s a reasonable point of debate. But, damn it, not NOW. It was only a week ago. People are hurting. It’s wrong for their expression of grief to get hijacked by any political agenda. You bet there’s people who think the guns are the reason for the violence. You can bet there’s also people thinking that if I was in the building, or if anybody else was there who was armed and properly trained, the body count would have been a lot lower.

But the truth is, we ought to leave the blame-casting and fault finding for later. Let's just take a few more days to stare in horror at the things human beings can do to one another, and mourn the innocents.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Dead Man's Hand - A Mini-Mystery

The thumping on my door was too loud to be a potential client and too long and insistent to be the police. I dragged myself out of bed, grabbed my Sig Sauer and went to stand by the door.

“Who is it?”

“It’s Bumpy Miller,” he said from outside. “Let me in, man.”

Bumpy was lucky I was sleeping alone that night. If Cindy was there she’d have told me to shoot him. I’ll cop to being tempted myself.

“What the hell would make me want to open my door to a gambler and a hustler like you at two-thirty in the morning?”

“Let’s see,” he said. “A dead body, four guys who could go to jail where only one ought to, and five large if you can figure out who the one is.”

Well, Bumpy had the right answer. There are only three things I could think of that would get me pulling on my black suit at that hour: a corpse, a puzzle and a nice fee.

Inside of fifteen minutes Bumpy was knocking on another door with me standing beside him. Bumpy was a little guy with a bald head and a little scar over his right eye. Still he got respect because of the monster opening the door. Bruise got his nickname because he was so black he was almost blue. But when you’re five inches over my six feet and pushing 300 pounds, nobody laughs at you.

A poker table dominated the room, but there were no chips, just stacks of cash. I knew the two guys still sitting. Freddie was a West Indian fancy man with a bad attitude and, from what I could see from the table, bad luck at cards. Victor was a loose cannon the gangs called on from time to time to correct a member’s behavior. Victor was good at making people see things his way. He liked blades and he liked fire. I didn’t like him.

“What the hell?” Victor said, getting half out of his seat. Bumpy waved him back down.

“Gentleman, I called Hannibal Jones here because I trust him, and you both know he’s honest. You also know that if five-oh comes in here and looks in that bedroom we’re all going down, just because of our history. So I say, he goes in there and tries to figure out who the real trouble maker is. Then that guy goes with Hannibal to see The Man, and the rest of us go home.”

“This is bull,” Freddie started to say, but Bruise took a step in his direction and he shut right up.

“So who’s the fifth player?” I asked.

“It’s Gant,” Bumpy said, pushing the bedroom door open. “Or it WAS Gant.”

Gant was tall and lanky, and on that night wore a dark blue suit and alligator shoes. His kinky hair had hints of gray at the temples and when I’d seen him before he always had a ready smile, not the lethal leer most pimps wear. Slumped in that chair he didn’t look like he had smiled in weeks.

I pulled on my gloves and stepped closer. He had a rock the size of a cat’s eye marble on his left hand and a fountain pen clutched tight in his right. His Rolex was still on his wrists so nobody tried to rob him at least. A hastily-scrawled suicide note lay on the bed’s side table. Twenties and fifties were splayed across the bed and on the floor. I lifted his left hand and let if go. It fell limply. No rigor. In fact, he was the most relaxed dead man I ever saw.

“And you know it wasn’t suicide, because…?” I asked Bumpy, who never walked past the doorway.

“Cause why the hell would Gant kill himself?” Bumpy said. “He been winning all night. Winning, and grinning. Then he comes in here and never comes out. But now, if you think he might have really offed hisself, we’ll just head on home and you can be the one who found him. Same fee.”

I chuckled, and stared checking the area around the body. “Who really found him?”

“That was Freddie,” Bumpy said. “Little fool damn near pissed his pants.”

“And nobody came in here since?” I asked, fishing in the trash. Didn’t see much, but there was a little medicine bottle. I wondered what Gant might have been taking.

“Not a soul,” Bumpy said. “Bruise saw to that.”

The bottle might have held any number of possible drugs, since it had no label, but my nose told me it probably also held something more than Gant bargained for.

“If it was suicide, he did it right,” I said. “I got the bitter almond smell of cyanide here.”

“Naw, I seen Gant swallow pills out of that bottle before,” Bumpy said. “They was for his blood pressure he said. I nodded and looked again at Gant’s face, so relaxed in death. I dropped the bottle back in the little trash basket and brushed past Bumpy. I was tired and didn’t want to make this an all-night affair.

“So, Bumpy, did you collect from everybody else for my fee?”

“Damn right he did,” Victor said.

“Fine,” I said. “Pay me, Bumpy. Then you and the boys can go home. Except for Freddie here. He goes with me.”

“What?” Freddie said, jumping to his feet. “How can you do that? Victor here is a stone killer, every body knows that. And Bumpy, he’s so slick, and he sure hates losing all night at his own poker game.”

“Well, I sure ain’t mad at you,” Bumpy said, “but I am curious how you can be so sure Freddie did Gant in.”

“Then let me give you all a little forensics lesson,” I said. “Cyanide is such nasty stuff because it’s actually a nerve agent. If you swallow that stuff, death comes pretty damn fast but first you go into convulsions. After that, your body goes completely limp. All the muscles relax.”

“So what?” Freddie said. “When I saw Gant he looked pretty limp to me. Dead limp.”

“Yeah, probably so,” I said. “But you had to go and get dramatic and fake a suicide. You wrote a sloppy note, and that was okay. But then you had to get fancy and stick a pen in his hand.”

Freddie dropped back in his chair, white as a West Indian ghost, but I kept talking.

“Guess you didn’t know it, but after death by cyanide there’s no way in hell he could have held on to a pen through the convulsions and even if he did, when his body relaxes his hand would have dropped it. And since you found him and nobody else went in the room, you’re the only one who could have pushed that pen into his hand. Now Bumpy, how about making that anonymous call, and I’ll baby-sit Freddy here until the cops show up.”

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Real gun control - Washington DC had the strictest gun ban in the country until a court recently overturned it.

“So how does it feel to not be the only gun in town?” Cindy asked me the day after the ruling.

She was talking about the 30 year old District law that pretty much outlawed handguns or rifles except for police or security guards, until it was overturned a few days ago.

She was facing me over a chess board, with Monte looking on. We were supposed to be demonstrating, to help him sharpen his game. But I knew she really wanted to win, and had brought up what she figured was one of my hot buttons to distract me.

“Actually, I feel safer with more law abiding citizens getting armed.”

She pushed her king’s pawn forward another space. “So you figure it’s okay that a court decided that the District’s law limiting gun ownership to police and professionals like yourself was useless.”

“Actually, what I think the federal appeals court decided was that DC’s handgun ban was unconstitutional,” I said, putting my queen’s knight out. “It was a violation of our Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Surely an officer of the court like yourself must respect the constitution.”

“We both know the founding fathers meant that right to apply only to militias,” Cindy said. She was pulling out her queen way too early.

“We do?” I castled and managed to get into the king’s Indian defense. Let her try to get in there without losing her queen. “The court specifically said that the activities protected by the Second Amendment are not limited to militia service.”

She actually stopped to think about her next move. That was the lesson I wanted Monte to learn. But she kept talking. “So, you don’t mind losing your edge as the only one out there not in uniform but packing a gun.”

“I don’t know,” I said, turning to Monte. “Tell me, do you know anybody else who carries a handgun?”

“You kidding?” Monte barely avoided laughing out loud. “Be easier to ask me who I know who ain’t strapped.”
“Here’s the thing,” I said, almost forgetting about the game. “Crooks don't obey the law, so they got guns. Always have, always will. The law only disarmed law-abiding citizens."

“Oh you know that’s not true.” Cindy was on her feet now. It seemed I had pushed her buttons instead of the other way around. “Just by keeping gun shops out of the city the law helped decrease gun violence here.”

Even Monte had to laugh at that. “This is your idea of a city with reduced gun violence? Sure don’t seem like that to me.”

“And even if that was true, that sounds like you’re saying the ends justify the means, and we can just brush the constitution aside. That’s no way for a lawyer to think.”

“Oh, so you think everybody should have a gun? I can see how that would play out on our streets.”

“Yeah,” Monte said, miming pulling an automatic’s slide back and pointing it sideways, the way movie gangsters do. “Then I’d get some respect.”

“Oh, baby, you know better,” I said, smiling my best conciliatory smile. “Does everyone have the right to own a car? There are reasonable restrictions we should all be able to agree on. I’m good with guns being registered, just like cars, so we know who has what. Like cars, guns should get safety inspections to make sure they’re safe to use. And I’d even support mandatory training, like we require driver’s ed before kids get their license. Of course, no guns for criminals or crazy people.”

That softened her attitude… a little. But it didn’t take her hands off her hips. “I know you’re trying to make this all sound reasonable, but those ideas don’t equal gun control.”

“Gun control?” I quipped. “I’m strongly in favor of gun control.”


“True gun control,” I said. “Proper breathing, sight picture and trigger squeeze so the bullets hit their intended target. THAT’S gun control.”

Saturday, March 03, 2007

It’s Gettin’ Hot in Here. So What?

One opinion on global warming

After my girl Cindy and I had our quasi-scientific conversation about global warming, she thought I should let it all hang out here in the web log. Good place to vent, she says. Yeah, and maybe she’s right.

Well to start you ought to know that I’ve heard the scientific stuff and accepted it. 2,500 scientists got together and agreed that the earth IS getting hotter and they’re pretty sure we humans are the cause. The average temperature around the planet is going to go up at least 3 and maybe as much as 7 degrees by the turn of the next century, a short 93 years from now. And sea levels will rise by 23 inches. Or maybe, the same group says, only by seven inches. This they equate with the coming of Armageddon, or the end days in Revelations. I get it. And I suppose it’s probably real.

Of course, I have a detective’s natural skepticism of their evidence. We’ve got maybe a century worth of hard data. The planet, as I understand it, is six BILLION years old, and tends to work in very long cycles. And it seems like in the 60s and 70s the scientists were just as certain that the earth was cooling off.

Also, can we check our egos, people? Personally, I think it’s pretty damned arrogant for us to assume that we’re actually changing planetary conditions. And maybe it’s even MORE arrogant for us to think we can change it on purpose and fix this “problem.”

But here’s the thing. Suppose the scary scientists are right. I sure won’t live to see it. If I had kids, they probably wouldn’t either. But after I’m gone the ocean will rise up and bury us. Well, let’ see… 23 inches… 93 years… I think that’s like a quarter inch per year. And that’s the worst estimate. Are we really scared that we can’t adapt to this? Build all our stuff a little farther from shore, or build dikes a little higher? Or how about digging a couple channels and letting those extra inches of water flow in and irrigate some of our existing dessert land and making arable so more folks can eat? Why must everything be a calamity?

The truth is we got way too much ignorance, hatred, poverty, crime, and terrorism going on right now, not to mention pestilence, war, famine and death. Yep, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have already arrived and “warmth” ain’t one of them. So how about we focus on the crap we need to fix here and now, instead of sweating what might happen a couple of generations down the road?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Don’t wait for perfection

As it turned out, Monte had a beautiful left hook.

Cindy and I were walking into my place loaded down with all the fixings she’d need to make her patented paella crab fritters (yeah, with the fried lemon and peas) when I heard the scuffle down the block, in front of Monte’s house. Some kid was smarting off to him and Monte wasn’t having any of it. I could guess his grandmother, Mother Washington, was not around or she’d have shooed he boys away.

“Should we call to him?” Cindy asked.

“Don’t sweat it,” I said. “Teenagers are going to argue, that’s their nature, but it’s too cold out here to fight.”

Just as I said that, the other guy said something that made him laugh out loud and got Monte fuming. He waved an open hand at Monte’s face, teasing him. And that’s when I got to see Monte’s left hook. His gloved fist dug into the other kid’s belly, doubling him over. He was winding up for the follow-up right when I shouted his name, dropped the grocery bags and dashed up the street as fast as I could in the leather coat Cindy gave me for Christmas. A few seconds later I had Monte by the back of his collar and the other kid was sitting on Monte’s stoop, holding his stomach and panting.

If there’s one thing I hate to see when I’m outdoors it’s my breath, so I was already pissed off about still being out there, dragging cold air into my lungs from running most of a block.

I asked, “What’s the matter with you?” just like my dad used to ask me when I was a bit younger. “Whatever the beef is, you don’t need to solve it with your fists.

Usually, Monte will back off when he knows he’s wrong, but this time he stood up to me, poked his chin forward and stared me right in the eye.

“Yeah, like you never shut some sucker up with your fists. Ain’t that how you solve yours and everybody else’s problems?”

I fell silent then, and just watched the other kid run away as best he could. What could I say to Monte? I mean, I always try to make a punch in the nose the last resort, but sometimes I know I get too tempted to take that shortcut to resolution and I’m a pretty fair scrapper. I was feeling a little like a hypocrite right then. Who WAS I to teach him nonviolence?

While I was thinking, Cindy caught up to us. She looked at Monte, then at me, and shoved my shoulder with one hand while she shoved his with the other.

“What the hell’s the matter with you two?” From the first word I knew she wasn’t going to be speaking from her attorney mouth, but out of her snappy Rican girl mouth. The first blast was for Monte.

“Monte you know damned well you were wrong taking a poke at that boy! What, did he say something that hurt your feelings? That’s no excuse for hitting somebody and you know it!”

When he turned away, embarrassed, she switched her focus to me. “And you, mister big hero. What the hell you backing off for?”

“Hey, the kid had a point,” I said.

“Nonsense!” Cindy crossed her arms and made me feel for a minute like I was the little kid. But her eyes went back to Monte.

“You know, there’s nobody more qualified to teach you about being a man, Monte. He's not perfect, but that don’t mean he can’t teach you valuable stuff. When I was your age I was taking gymnastics lessons. My coach couldn’t do a back flip, but she taught me how to.”

She turned back to me. “And you. You don’t have to be a saint to teach young blood here how to behave right. You’re supposed to be mentoring this young man. The fact that you’re trying so hard to live up to your own super high standards just means you understands how hard it is.”

I took a deep breath. “Yeah, I guess I know you’re right. It’s just, well, I ought to do better. I want to be a good example.”

“Sure, and I want to be a size four, especially when I'm not hungry. I been dieting all my life, but I keep coming back to about here. Not because I don't know what I ought to do, but because I love black bean soup and crab fritters and a good pressed Cuban sandwich. Unfortunately for my waistline, resisting temptation most of the time just isn’t good enough. Same with you and fighting. And you can’t give up trying to get it right every time. But you also can’t wait until you’re perfect to teach Monte what you know is right.”

Then she squeezed my shoulder and smiled. “Now that I’ve vented, I’m going back inside. It’s cold out here.”

While I watched her coat sway on her way back to the apartment, I heard Monte say, “Hey, H, I’m sorry I smarted off at you before. I should have stayed cool.”

“No biggie, Monte. Long as you understand that you need to stay cool with your friends, and keep arguments on a verbal level.” Then I gave him a wink. “Why don’t you come on back to the office? I’ve got a heavy bag hanging in there and I can teach you how to throw that punch right. You could be a contender.”

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Future Cops: New York's Real Time Crime Center

As a private eye running a one-man agency, the tools I use to help people in trouble are usually limited to muscle, guts, observation and deduction. P.I. work usually calls for a lot of legwork, the kind the police can’t afford to do. They don’t’ have the time or the manpower. One thing I have in common with the cops is we both laugh at the stylized world of law enforcement you see on TV, where every crime can be solved in an hour.

You probably know that I used to be one of those cops, then a police detective in NYC and then with the Secret Service. That’s why I keep an eye on what’s going on in their business. And since my girl Cindy wants me to make entries into this blog thing, I figured somebody might want to hear about some of the stuff that might make that one-hour per crime thing a reality someday.

When I was a New York beat cop they didn’t have a Real Time Crime Center. It’s like a super detective help desk, the nerve center for technology to help the detectives out there on the streets with the kind of information that helps you develop leads and solve crimes.

You know how on TV the cops can just type stuff in and get instant info? That’s what they’re trying to do with the Real Time Crime Center. Information networking they call it, but to me it’s just good old crime analysis. COMPSTAT, for Computerized Statistics, is a weekly precinct-by-precinct analysis of crime trends and hot spots. In New York, they can reduce violent crimes by putting 1,500 cops into a targeted location. That’s how NYC got to be the safest large city in the USA.

The next step is to look at crime data and intel in real time and shoot it out to the cops so they can see crime patterns and trends. Not only could they use their resources better to fight crime, but they could support investigators better to ID and catch the bad guys faster.

When I chat with my old pals on the force I’m amazed at how they’ve made different sources electronically searchable and user friendly. I swear the department up there must have 50 huge databases, all crime data warehouse from IBM to put all that info into a common format. They hooked the last 10 years of complaints, arrests and detective case information into a real-time feed from the 911 system.

The Real Time Crime Center has access to more than 120 million New York City criminal and arrests complaints and 911 call records dating back to 1995, more than 5 million New York State criminal records, parole and probation files, 31 million national crime records and 35 billion public records. Detectives can search the data sources easily, almost like using Google. If you can search for, say, a white male, 5-foot-8-inches to 6-foot, doing robberies, in the Bronx, uses a silver gun, and targets old ladies," well, that can save a lot of the grunt work gathering your list of suspects.

The NYPD sends an incident response vehicle with every homicide squad in the five boroughs and one major case squad. These vans are on scene for all serious stabbings, shootings and homicides. With secure wireless access to the Real Time Crime Center, detectives can access and print out anything they need, out in the field.

Think about it. Before the detective starts to canvas the area, he’s got details about his location. incidents and arrests within a given distance of this crime, parolees, probationers and wanted felons in the area, open narcotics investigations, gang activity, the whole ball of wax. This is the stuff I’d love to know at a murder scene. Have there been a lot of drug arrests in the area? Is there a sexual predator nearby? Who the nosey neighbor that calls 911 all the time? The kind of stuff beat cops used to know.

And the Real Time Crime Center can put it all up on a screen. The detective gets a visual representation of the suspect or the location. He can see the relationships the suspect has with other criminals, other crimes, other cases, guns, and so on. We call it a link analysis, with one person or location at the center. Then, graphical links are shown to phone numbers, known addresses, relatives, criminal records, whatever.

Another new trick is called crime mapping. The Real Time Crime Center identifies crimes and trends that used to require days for analysts to dope out. The Geographic Information System lets you even show where all the complaints are that make up what you think is a pattern. You can see all the crimes near bus stations, for example or near schools. This kind of pattern analysis is great for robberies or sex crimes.

The Real Time Crime Center even helps the cops when crimes cross jurisdictions. New York has been able to hook up with other agencies in and out of New York State, like the New York/New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Regional Intelligence Center. I’ll tell you about that some time.

New York is THE big city, but I think the concept of the Real Time Crime Center can work for any police force. It saves more man-hours than anybody can count. And it gets the technology down to the street. Right now about 700 of New York’s finest have direct access to the Real Time Crime Center, but when it’s complete, more like 5,000 detectives will, not to mention the narcotics investigators, terrorist investigators and organized crime units. If this keeps up, old fashioned private eyes like me might end up out of business.

I hope I didn’t bore you. I know that was just a lot of shop talk but like I said, I have a real interest in the latest good news in law enforcement. If you don’t care how cops are solving crimes these days, well, you ought to be reading somebody else’s blog.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Thanksgiving at Mother Washington’s house

What’s the difference between heaven and hell?

We would all be at Mother Washington’s house for Thanksgiving dinner even if she wasn’t the only one with a real dining room. She may be an African American woman in a white man’s world, a senior citizen in a nation that worships youth, short and round in a city that is fitness-crazed, and poorly educated in a land that reveres degrees. But she is also a spiritual leader in her church and the heart, soul and conscience of my neighborhood and maybe everybody who know her. She has taught me that wisdom is blind to color, age, appearance and education.

Anyhow, on Thanksgiving afternoon we were all gathered around her table: Cindy and her father Ray, my neighbors Sarge, Quaker, and Virgil, and me. Monte helped his grandmother carry platters of food to the table until there was barely room for our plates. The house was bursting with quiet but friendly conversation, and the warm aromas of turkey, gravy, and the sweet potato pies still in the oven.

When Mother Washington stood behind her chair, everyone stopped talking and bowed their heads. We all knew the drill. She would bless us and the table, maybe say a few extra words of inspiration, then ask me to carve the giant browned bird. We didn’t expect what came after we said amen.

“I want to tell you a little story this year,” she said, her round face covered with a smile of grace. “Y’all can wait a minute before you start eating.”

“I can’t,” Monte said under his breath, then jumped when Cindy kicked him under the table.

She went on as if she had not heard him. “A holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day and he said, ‘Lord, I heard a lot about Heaven and Hell, and I’d like to know what they’s really like.’ So The Good Lord showed the man two doors. He opened one up, and the man thought it looked kind of like Thanksgiving in there. In the middle of the room was a big old table and in the middle of the table there was everything you could want. Turkey. Stuffing. Yams. Corn. Mashed potatoes. A real feast. It looked and smelled so good it made the holy man’s mouth water.

Now there was people sitting around the table, all moaning and groaning and looking like they was starving. Do you know why?”

“They couldn’t reach the food,” Monte said, trying to keep things moving along.

“Oh no,” Mother Washington said, waving a finger at him. “They could reach the food because they had these great long knives and forks attached to their arms. Sort of like these.” She picked up a knife and fork designed for use on a barbecue grill and sliced off a bit of the hot, juicy turkey breast. “They was even longer than this. They could reach everything.”

“Then why weren’t they eating?” Monte asked.

Mother Washington smiled and handed the fork to Monte, putting the end of the handle into his hand. “Well, the forks was so long that after they got some food on them, they couldn’t get them back to they mouths.”

Monte tried unsuccessfully to get the turkey into his mouth. Sarge chuckled. “I take it this was hell.”

“That was hell,” Mother Washington said, nodding her graying head solemnly. “So then the Lord took the man to the next room and opened the door. And do you know what he saw? Well, it was exactly the same. Same big old table covered with delicious food. It got the holy man’s mouth watering all over again. There was just as many people sitting around the table, just like you are, and they had the same forks and knives with the long handles. Except…”

Mother Washington has a gift for the dramatic pause. She knew she had us so she held us for a couple of seconds. When she spoke she shared the big, broad smile we’re all used to.

“Except these people was all fat and happy. They was well fed, all laughing and talking and having a good time. So the holy man asked, ‘Lord, what’s different about this room?’ And do you know what he said? Do you know why these folks was fed while the people in hell was starving?”

And she stopped right there. Everybody around the table was staring at each other, except Mother Washington who was staring at me. Well, I guess I am supposed to be the detective. She knew when it hit me because it made me grin. I checked the faces around the table to make sure no one else wanted to speak before I did.

“It’s not the room that was different,” I said. “It’s the people.” I took the fork from Monte and held the turkey slice to his mouth. “The folks in the second room figured out they would all be okay if they’d feed each other.”

“That’s right,” Mother Washington said, making me feel like the teacher’s pet. “The folks in hell were starving because the greedy think only of themselves."

Mother Washington sat down, and the gang started passing the bowls and platters around while when I stood up to carve the bird. And even though he was already chewing, I think even Monte got the lesson this year.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Dash of Life

My name, Hannibal Jones, is just about the only thing I have that my father gave me. That doesn’t stop me from missing him. My father died for his country, but he’s buried in his home town in Georgia so I don’t see him very often. Instead, I visit his name on a big black wall on Veteran’s Day, and then I cross the Memorial Bridge with my pal Sarge to visit a couple of his old friends in Arlington Cemetery. This year, we brought Monte with us. I try to show the boy what being a man is all about, and remembering those you’ve lost is a part of that.

It was sunny and warm this year, almost 70 degrees, with a slight breeze raising the sweet smell of fresh cut grass and waving the rows of flags. Every year soldiers volunteer to go out the night before and plant those flags on every grave. We stopped in front of a name I didn’t recognize and stood quietly, just staring at the modest stone. Sarge had told me the guy was in his unit back in the Nam but he didn’t say anything more. After a couple minutes of silence Monte started to fidget. Young teenagers aren’t known for their patience but Monte kept his voice respectful and his question real.

“Hey, Sarge, what you thinking about?”

Sarge smiled. “Just thinking about Kenny, and the dash of life.”

“What’s the dash?” Monte asked.

“There’s going to be a last day,” Sarge said. “When it gets here I’ll look back on my career in the Marine Corps and my years as a bouncer and my time helping Hannibal here and ask the hard questions. “What did I do to make a difference? Did I take on the servant attitude of giving something back?"

“I know you did,” I said, resting a hand on Sarge’s shoulder. “But what’s that got to do with a dash?”

Sarge stayed enigmatic. “This country’s first great military man was probably George Washington. If we were looking at his grave right now, we’d see when he was born. Know when his birthday is?”

“February twenty-something,” Monte offered. That got a smile from Sarge.

“See. Not many people can tell you what day he was born on, since it's not a holiday anymore. And fewer still can tell you when he died. When you look at a tombstone, you see "born" on a certain date, and "died" on another. And in between is a dash. That’s all that represents everything that goes between those dates. But it's what's in that ‘dash of life’ that people remember.”

We all went silent again, and Sarge’s words really got me thinking. I know Dad’s dates of birth and death by heart, of course, but I resolved to think more about all he did in his life, how he filled the dash. And if you find yourself staring at a gravestone on Veteran’s Day this year, look hard at what’s between the dates and remember how your soldier, sailor, airman or Marine filled his dash of life.