Authors: George Pelecanos
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller
“What does it mean when you see more than one snake,
“Something bad’s about to happen,” said his father. “But not to you. Now, you go back to sleep.”
“Don’t leave me, okay? Stay here.”
“I’m not goin anywhere, son.”
Twenty years later, while in the desert in Iraq, Spero saw two horned vipers sidewinding up a dune at dusk, and felt a melancholy drop in his stomach. Van Lucas died the next day, in Washington, of the cancer that had slowly eaten his brain.
By the time he had loaded his boat and gear, and taken a bike ride on a railroad trail, it was late afternoon. Lucas drove back up the Indian Head Highway and, with the help of his GPS system, found the wooded area where Edwina Christian had been discovered. The forest was set back from acres of farmland, currently yielding a crop of soybean. The road that led into the woods was not a road exactly, but a cut-through in the field, worn down to dirt by years of use.
Lucas put his Jeep in 4WD and drove onto the road. Using the photographs he had brought with him, he found the approximate spot where Calvin Bates had allegedly left tracks from his Cherokee. Lucas parked his own Cherokee there. He got out and used his iPhone to take photographs of his vehicle in position. He studied the blown-up photographs of the Bates tracks, and compared them to the images on his phone. He then retrieved a twenty-five-foot Craftsman tape measure from his vehicle and took the width of the road, and the distance-width between his tires. He entered the numbers into the Notes app of his phone.
He had something now.
When Lucas got back to his place, he did some research on his laptop, then called Petersen and told him what he’d found.
“You’re talking about the wheelbase,” said Petersen.
“No,” said Lucas. “The wheelbase is the distance between the center of the front wheel and the center of the rear wheel. I’m talking about the axle track: the distance between the centerline of two tires on the same axle.”
“Basically. Just from eyeballing the photos of the tracks, and putting my truck in the same spot, it looks to me that the tracks laid down on that road were wider than a Jeep Cherokee would leave.”
“It looks to you.”
“Go to the discovery and check it out. The police report will have the recorded distance between the tracks. Compare that distance to the axle-track specs on a 2000 Cherokee. I can damn near guarantee that the two measurements will differ. We’re talking about a bigger vehicle, a heavy-duty truck or one of those oversized SUVs that nobody actually needs.”
“You’re saying what?”
“I don’t know that Calvin Bates didn’t kill that woman. Maybe he did, and maybe he took her down to those woods in his truck. But the tracks they found were not consistent with tracks from a Jeep of that year and model.”
“What about the tire tread?”
“Any specific tire can be mounted on thousands, tens of thousands of different cars. Right? If you bring that up to a jury…”
“Thank you, Jack McCoy.”
“It’s something,” said Petersen.
“I’m not done,” said Lucas. “I’ll talk to Edwina Christian’s mother next. The transcripts of her interviews were a little off. You notice that?”
“She’s had problems. She was once a police officer in PG County, but she left the force under a cloud. Something to do with a credit card scam.”
“I’ll get on it.”
“No, not tonight. I’ve got an appointment with a woman.”
“I should have known.”
“Not like that. Business.”
“One of your side jobs?”
“I’ll talk to you soon.”
Lucas ended the call and sat down in his favorite chair, set next to a side table holding books. He watched the dim light of dusk outside his windows, and felt a familiar stirring inside him. He looked again at his phone, scrolled through his contacts, and found the name and number he had entered the night before. He touched the number on the screen and waited.
“Charlotte Rivers,” said the voice on the other end of the line.
“It’s Spero Lucas. The guy at the bar of Boundary Road. White T-shirt, black shorts. You know,
’s Man of the Year?”
“I remember you.”
“And I you.”
“Hold on.” He waited, and soon after that he heard the closing of a door.
“Hello?” said Lucas.
“Thank you for, you know, being so nice last night. Giving me a chance, I mean. I should have come over and introduced myself.”
“You tried to buy me a drink instead.”
“I admit, that was clumsy. I was a little intimidated, to tell you the truth.”
“You’re a beautiful woman. I was sweaty from a bike ride, not properly dressed. I wasn’t exactly at my best.”
“But I left you my phone number anyway.”
“I know. Why?”
“I’m not sure myself.”
“Can I meet you sometime, for coffee, or whatever you’d like? I promise I’ll come correct.”
“I have some time tomorrow evening,” she said. No hesitation. She suggested a time and place. Lucas wrote it down and they ended the call.
He stared stupidly at his cell. He thought of her walking past the bar, black tank top, black jeans, brown motorcycle boots, exquisitely built, those brilliant blue eyes, that upturned mouth with the hint of a smile. Lucas had swelled and he felt flushed. The last time he’d gotten an erection while talking to a girl on the phone, he’d been a teenager. But this was a full-blown woman, not a girl. There was something about Charlotte Rivers that heated him. Maybe she was just another challenge, and he was hot with the thrill of the new.
He had an appointment with Grace Kinkaid. He took a shower and began to think of Charlotte and her throaty voice. He tried not to fall in love with a bar of soap while he was in the stall.
race Kinkaid lived on the 2300 block of Champlain Street, in Adams Morgan, in a newish condo building set on the slope between Columbia Road and Florida Avenue. Her place was orderly, gender neutral at first glance, and minimally furnished. The walls were painted in pale shades of green and gold.
Lucas and Grace sat on her balcony in fold-out chairs, a small black table between them. Below them, in the light of a streetlamp, a father and son kicked a soccer ball back and forth.
On the table lay a manila folder. Grace was drinking Chardonnay from a large glass meant for red wine. Lucas had gone with ice water. From inside her living room, music played through her open sliding glass doors. Her stereo dial was set to 89.3, WPFW, the jazz station broadcasting from a building on Champlain, a half block north of where they sat.
“The painting,” said Lucas. “Can you describe it?”
“Take a look at it,” said Grace, opening the folder and pushing it across the table. The top sheet, one of many papers in the file, was a photograph of a framed oil painting mounted on a wall painted light green. Lucas supposed it had been taken while it hung in her condo.
“It’s nice,” said Lucas, to move the conversation along.
The painting was of two men, one middle-aged, one young, shown from the bare shoulders up, both of them looking directly into the eyes of the viewer. The middle-aged man had a gaunt face, a receding hairline, and a beard. The young man was clean shaven with a full head of black hair. The artist had painted a black backdrop for the older man and a brown backdrop for the younger one, giving the effect of separation within the frame. The portions of their chest and arms that showed were creamy white, while their necks and faces were burnished from the sun. Workers, thought Lucas. That, and the vaguely east-of-Europe features of the men, brought to mind one of those Russian proletariat posters…or something. He liked the painting, but he had no idea what he was looking at. Lucas didn’t “know” art.
” said Grace. “The artist is Loretta Browning. Born in nineteenth-century America, studied in New York and Chicago, moved to Paris after the First World War. Known for her portraitures, landscapes, and still-life paintings. Died in California, mid-twentieth century.”
“You say she was known.”
known. Up until recently, that is. Some scholarly reassessments and a few key gallery showings have elevated her reputation to the general public in the past ten years.”
“And elevated the worth of her paintings.”
“Considerably. I got the painting fifteen years ago.”
“So you bought it relatively cheaply.”
“I didn’t buy it at all,” said Grace. “It was a gift from my uncle Ron before he died. He said, ‘Take good care of this, honey. It’s going to be worth a lot of money someday.’ He was right.”
“How much is it worth?” said Lucas.
“I had it assessed before it was stolen. The man who came here and looked at it said it was worth somewhere in the neighborhood of two hundred thousand dollars.”
“That’s a pretty exclusive neighborhood.”
“And your uncle just gave you the painting? Why?”
“After my parents passed, my uncle became the father figure for me and my brothers. Then he came out as a gay man, officially, and my brothers, who weren’t the most enlightened guys at the time, sort of rejected him. My uncle was a fair guy and he offered the painting to all of us. But my brothers looked at it, connected the images to Uncle Ron, and saw a picture of two gay guys. They felt that it promoted a lifestyle, and they didn’t want it in their homes, what with their babies and all. Like a painting could corrupt their kids. Me, I just liked the way it looked, so I took it. Of course my brothers’ feelings on the issue have evolved, just like our president’s, but it’s too late.”
“It’s too late for them to cash in because you own it.”
“I used to own it.”
“I believe it was stolen by a man I was in a relationship with. A guy named Billy Hunter.”
“Like it sounds, I assume,” said Lucas, scribbling the name in his Moleskine notebook.
“Yes,” said Grace. “I’m gonna have another glass of wine. Would you like something besides water?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t drink?”
“Not when I’m working.”
“Please don’t let me drink alone. I have some things to tell you that are somewhat difficult for me to talk about.”
“Okay. I’ll take a beer if you have it.”
“I have a variety.”
“Anything that’s not light.”
He watched her get out of her chair and, because he was that kind of man, watched her behind as she walked, somewhat unsteadily, into her apartment. She was a woman nearing her forties, or already there. Black hair undone, olive green slacks, a short-sleeve tangerine peasant shirt, simple sandals. Grace was attractive, with green eyes and an aquiline nose, but the eyes were needy, and her arms were too thin for her frame. Grace was untoned, with the spent look of a woman whose weight loss had come from stress.
She returned with a bottle of Dogfish Head and her own glass, refilled to the rim. Lucas guessed that Grace, on her third wine since he’d arrived, had a drinking problem. He’d seen the pattern in his mother, who had developed a dependency on alcohol after his father died.
Grace retook her seat and crossed one leg over the other.
Lucas sipped from his bottle. “That’s good. Thanks.”
“So,” she said.
“Tell me about Billy Hunter.”
“Where to start? I met him at the Safeway up on Columbia Road, by the vegetable and fruit bins. He asked me how to buy a ripe avocado, and the secret to a good guacamole. I thought it was a chance encounter. I now think it was a setup.”
“He followed you there?”
“I was a mark.”
“I’ll get to that later. Billy asked me out for coffee or a drink. I accepted. He was funny, he seemed to be a gentleman, he was handsome in a marina rat sort of way: tan, blond, blue-eyed, and fit. He was my body type, too. Strong legs, low center of gravity, powerfully built.” She paused.
Lucas nodded awkwardly. “Go on.”
“The next night, we met down at Cashion’s.”
“Columbia, off Eighteenth. I know the spot.”
“I guess I had one too many glasses of wine. I don’t normally take a man home with me on the first date, but I did. We made love that night and frankly it was wonderful. He was good in bed, with staying power. Tender when it was called for and rough when I wanted it to be.”
She watched Lucas, whose eyes had gone down to the pages of his open notebook.
“Am I making you uncomfortable?” she said.
“What I’m telling you is pertinent to the story. You’ll see where I’m going with this by the time I’m done.”
“I started seeing him regularly. After that first night at Cashion’s, we never went out. Billy always came to my place and it was always the same thing. We were in the bedroom minutes after he walked through the door. And we stayed in there for hours. Whatever tenderness he’d shown that first time was gone. He knew what he was doing. When he was in bed the light that I had seen in his eyes initially, the playfulness, was gone. He enjoyed wearing me out. There wasn’t any lovemaking involved. He took me like an animal, and I liked it.”
Lucas reached for the bottle of beer and took a pull.
“I’m forty-two years old,” said Grace. “I’ve been with my share of men, but never anyone like him. When I wasn’t with him, I was thinking of him.
is a better word. Preparing for the next time he’d come over, debating what to wear, how to fix my hair, all of that. I wanted to please him. All my planning and preparation, and he didn’t even notice. He’d walk in, point to my outfit, and say, ‘Take that shit off.’ He’d put me right on my back. He’d put me on all fours, sit me on the bathroom sink, stand me up against a wall. I climaxed repeatedly, and every time I did, he laughed. It was like he’d won. For his part, he could only get there if I put him in my mouth. Then he’d get dressed without so much as a word and leave. You’d think I wouldn’t allow myself to be treated that way, but I found myself desperate for him to come back. And also dreading it. Because I was aware what he was doing to me. I ate very little. I drank more than I ever did before. I began to lose weight. I knew that I was just a receptacle to him. I knew it and I didn’t care.”