In this epic standalone from David Swinson "one of the best dialogue hounds in the business" (NYTBR), Homicide Detective Alex Blum must answer a terrible question: 'how far would you go to love the wrong woman?'
In a red brick house on a tree-lined street, DC homicide detective Alex Blum stares at the bullet-pocked body of Chris Doyle. As he roots around for evidence, he finds an old polaroid: the decedent, arm in arm with Arthur Holland, Blum's informant from years ago when he worked at the Narcotics branch.
But Arthur has been missing for days. Blum’s only source: Arthur’s girl, Celeste—beautiful, seductive, and tragic—whom he can’t get out of his head. Blum is drawn to her and feels compelled to save her from Arthur’s underworld. As the investigation ticks on and dead bodies domino, Blum, unearths clues with damning implications for Celeste. Swallowed by desire, Blum’s single misstep sends him tunnelling down a rabbit hole of transgression. He may soon find the only way out is down below.
Set in 1999, Swinson, a former DC cop, offers a look back at a rougher, grittier, bygone DC replete with seedy strip clubs, pagers beeping, and Y2K anxiety. It’s here we’re taken inside sting operations, fluorescent-tinged interrogation chambers, and rooms that have seen irreversible mistakes. At once authentic, gritty, tragic, and profound, SWEET THING asks how far can you fall when the world teeters on the edge?
Release date: November 7, 2023
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 336
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Three marked cruisers and an unmarked detective cruiser were double-parked in front of the house. It was on a narrow one-way road lined with ginkgo trees. Late fall and the duck-feet-shaped leaves were beginning to turn yellow. A beautiful sight, but the fruit from most of the trees would soon fall to the sidewalk and leave the worst kind of smell, like ripened shit. A body was like fallen fruit too. Everything falls. That was the world we lived in. The world I was reminded of every time I was about to walk into a crime scene.
In my job, OCD was your best friend. I was trained to be enslaved by routine. Procedure was our ally. Procedure was my obsession. General orders were like Leviticus.
Everything was defined. I was defined by this.
Two of the marked cruisers belonged to Third District patrol, the other one to the district watch commander. Too many feet trampling on a crime scene, is what I thought. And that was usually the case, because they all wanted to see a dead body. The best I could hope for was a good Crime Scene Search officer to keep the scene contained, but they hadn’t arrived yet. I was one of those types back in the day: rushed to the scene for a shooting, stabbing, or an unconscious male or female, hoping to find a dead body. I remembered my first. Stayed with you like the first girl you had sex with. I have devout memories of both.
Still hoped for a suicide at this location.
No curbside parking, so we pulled in front of the detective cruiser. Concerned neighbors standing on their front porches and sidewalks looking on. We stepped out of the car. Two uniformed officers were on the stoop at the front door. One of them I recognized. A master patrol officer who’d been on for a bit. I didn’t recognize the younger one. Made our way up, shot the MPO an upward nod.
“What’s up, boys,” he said.
“Just another day,” Kelly replied.
The young officer looked at our name tags and wrote in his notebook. He stepped aside to let us enter as we put latex gloves on.
The familiar stench of a dead body that had been there for a few days lingered heavily inside. Not so bad as other scenes.
The watch commander, a tall, thin older man, was in the living room talking on his Nextel. All the command and most of the detectives, especially in Homicide, were issued Nextel cell phones. Pain in the ass, really, because they could always get in touch with us. Not as easy to ignore as a pager.
He glanced at us sideways and said over the phone, “The Homicide detectives arrived. I’ll call you back. Yes, sir.”
“Blum. Ryan,” he said, pronouncing my name like Bloom. Most people did. I got tired of correcting them.
“Lieutenant,” I acknowledged.
Two officers entered from another room.
“I’m assuming they were the first on the scene?” Ryan asked.
Ryan pulled her notebook from her rear pants pocket. I noticed that she wrote down the date and the LT’s name as being on the scene. The officers stepped up.
“The body’s in the dining room,” the overweight one advised. “Crime Scene’s on the way.”
“How was the body discovered?” I asked.
“Out-of-state sister called 911 to check on the welfare of her brother after she hadn’t heard from him in days, and he never returned her messages. We responded. The front door was slightly opened. We could smell the stench of the dead body, so we entered, announced ourselves, but got no response. Found the body where it lay. Called for Homicide and the Fireboard. EMTs left just before you guys got here. Declared him dead on the scene.”
“You have the sister’s information then?”
Ryan flipped a page in her notebook. The officer took out his, flipped through.
“Robin Doyle,” he said, and then provided a phone number and address.
Ryan wrote it in her notebook.
“All right then,” Ryan said. “You can release the scene to us, Lieutenant. We got it from here.”
The LT glared at Ryan like he didn’t like taking orders from a woman or he deserved a more respectful tone. “You heard the big boys,” he told his officers, and they followed him toward the door.
Ryan smiled, like she knew he was mocking her with “big boys.” I knew she didn’t give a shit.
“Appreciate if you keep the two other officers at the door, LT,” I said politely.
He nodded and walked out.
“It ain’t pretty,” the older, overweight officer’s partner told us before exiting.
Wasn’t like we hadn’t heard that before. We walked toward the dining room.
The odor was sharper. Stung the nostrils.
Detective Bobby Butner was in the dining room, standing a few feet from the body, which was on the tiled floor flat on its back. Blood everywhere.
Butner was a good detective, made a name for himself working robberies at the district level. Always was a good source of information when it came to corner thug-boy shootings in 3D.
“What’s going on?” he said.
“Don’t want to be here, that’s for sure,” Ryan said bluntly.
I shot Butner a nod.
We scanned the room for a few seconds, then moved to the decedent. Dried blood was thick on the tiled floor around the head and upper body. Looked like you could ice-skate on it. Nose and left eye were swollen and bruised. Nose had to be broken. Blood from both nostrils, now dried and purplish in color, painted over the upper lip and left corner of the mouth. The collar and chest area of the blue long-sleeved dress shirt was also covered in blood. Looked like he took a couple, maybe more, of small-caliber rounds in the chest.
“Anyone disturb the body?”
“Not our people,” Butner replied. “EMT did a quick check but didn’t move the body.”
“Need to confirm this is Chris Doyle,” Ryan said.
“What’s your story?” I whispered to the dead man.
“His story is maybe he got himself into a bad fight with someone he knew. Looks like he was a lover boy to me. Probably let the suspect in. Place doesn’t look ransacked. Suspect left in a hurry and didn’t close the door. Domestic is what I think,” Butner said.
“Nose looks broken so obviously a fight. Like I said, probably domestic,” Kelly said.
“That’d be too easy. Don’t think we can get that lucky.”
I turned to notice two Crime Scene Search officers entering.
“Good to see it’s you two,” Kelly told them.
Like Butner, Troy and Kimble were two workers. Couple of boys you could depend on. They were both old-timers, having spent most of their years at Crime Scene Search. We let them have the scene to do their thing. Didn’t have to say much. They knew what to do. Kelly and I broke up to search the rooms.
“Maybe he doesn’t have a mobile phone, but hopefully a wallet with identification somewhere,” I told Kelly. “Maybe in one of his pockets. Wait for the ME first.”
“I’ll take the kitchen for now,” she said. “Maybe get lucky and find something in the trash.”
“I’ll start here.”
“And I’m outta here unless you guys need me. We’re shorthanded and I’m the only one on call.”
“See you around,” I said, as Butner walked out.
Based on the nice wooden furniture, and fine art and numbered prints on the wall, it appeared that the decedent was well off. Place looked nice. Well kept. Furniture appeared to be recently polished. Suspect do that? Maybe it was an attempt to wipe it clean of possible prints? I opened the humidor on the bookshelf. It was filled with nice cigars.
“Aside from the body on the floor, it’s too damn clean in here,” I told Troy and Kimble.
“I like a nice clean crime scene,” Kimble said.
“Yeah, makes your job easier, huh? But not ours.”
“Got that right.”
Not much was in the dining room. Decided I’d get back to the body when they finished with photos. I walked back into the living room.
“Searched the trash and didn’t find anything useful. I did find a scale, cutting agents for heroin or coke, and several baggies and a ton of clear little zips that would hold tens and twenties.”
“He was probably dealing then?”
“Looks that way.”
“I’m gonna go find his bedroom,” I advised.
“I’ll be up in a minute.”
A narrow staircase led to the second floor. I walked up, careful not to touch the banister. The hallway was also narrow. Three doors. One to each side of the hallway, and another in the middle across from the banister. The bedroom doors at each end were open. Middle door opened into a bathroom. Looked over the sink, then opened the shower curtain. Everything spotless.
The door to the left of the bathroom led to the master bedroom. I stepped in. The king-size bed was unmade. There were two other doors, with one that led into a walk-in closet and the other the master bathroom. Large painting on the wall above the headboard. To me it looked like a nude in abstract, but that’s just the way my mind works. Probably nothing but splotches of paint, like a Rorschach test. Other smaller pieces on the other walls. No computer was here either, but maybe he kept that at an office somewhere. A Nokia cell phone, wallet, and a Rolex were on the nightstand. I checked the wallet. It contained a couple of credit cards and a DC driver’s license, but no cash. The name and photo on the license confirmed that the body was Christopher Doyle. Someone would have stolen the cards and that Rolex, even the cell. I was surprised they were still there. No telling how long that front door was left open. Lot of burglaries in this area. Maybe there was an attempt, but after seeing the dead body in the dining room the burglar decided to get the hell outta there.
The cell phone would be going with us.
I opened the nightstand drawer. Looked like an “everything drawer,” filled with change, papers, couple of rings, and a flashlight. After Crime Scene took photos, I’d go through everything. I looked under the bed, found a shoebox. Pulled it out. It was filled with photos, including a stack of Polaroids. I picked up those first. Several taken of nude women, posing in all sorts of ways and smiling like they were high. Most of them looked nice, not like crackheads. Looked to have been taken on the king-size bed. One photo, though. Fuck. It was the decedent arm and arm with Arthur Holland. Son of a bitch. Arthur. My fucking confidential informant from when I was assigned to the narcotics branch before I got to Homicide. What are the odds of that? I looked over my shoulder. It was clear. I slipped the photo into the inner pocket of my suit jacket. Decided I was gonna keep this to myself for now. Probably not the best decision, but I’ve been known to make a few bad ones in my time.
I searched the other room but didn’t find anything worth taking. Crime Scene dusted the paraphernalia that Kelly found. Got a couple of good prints. Latent prints were also recovered throughout the house. Kelly and I took a few items that might prove useful, like the cell phone, the decedent’s wallet and keys to the house, and the shoebox containing the photos, minus the Polaroid of Arthur, of course. The cell phone was good. Kelly was probably right, and the decedent knew the suspect and the numbers on the cell might lead us to who it was. I was hoping that Arthur would not be that person. He made some great cases for me back in the day, but other than that, he was nothing but a piece of shit. Would have had nothing to do with him if he hadn’t been such a great informant. I got close to him back then, so I had to look into him myself. I trusted Kelly with my life, but because of my history with Arthur, I had to keep this one from her. For now, anyway.
When we got back to the office I told Kelly I had some personal shit to take care of and asked if she’d cover for me. I’d done it for her several times when it came to her kid.
“I’ll take care of the write-up,” she advised.
“Shouldn’t be more than a couple of hours.”
“No worries. Do what you have to.”
As soon as I’d left her at the office and rounded the corner in our car, I grabbed my cell from my suit and scrolled until I found Arthur’s number. Tapped to call. It went to an automated voice mail. I didn’t leave a message. I headed toward Rhode Island Avenue, NE, where I hoped Arthur still lived. He had a three-story brick row house that he’d inherited from his deceased mother. Mortgage paid. Last time I was there, the place looked like shit. He lived with a young girl. Celeste. They never maintained the home. A drug lifestyle and all that shit. The house stood on the corner of Rhode Island Ave, like so many of the other deteriorating homes. But when I arrived, it was a far cry from that, like it had a face-lift. The yard on the sides of the steps that led to the patio had mums of different colors planted, along with other seasonal perennials. The red brick was now a soft blue. I wondered if he had sold it.
I found a parking spot around the corner. The neighborhood was still a bit rough. Couple of boys who were standing on the corner at the next street a block from Rhode Island had made me. They spit on the sidewalk and slunk away. I looked up to the windows at the side of his house. Blinds were closed, but there was a dim light through the slits. That was where the dining room was. I admired the yard as I walked up the few steps to the patio. A couple of wicker patio chairs were to the right of the door. I rang the doorbell. Waited a second and tapped on the cast-iron security door. The metal rattled a bit. Heard movement, like light steps along a creaky wooden floor. There was a pause and I assumed whoever was on the other side of the door was checking me out through the peephole.
“Can I help you?” asked a female voice. It was a delicate tone. Sounded young. Like Celeste.
“I was looking for Arthur. Didn’t know if he still lived here. My name is Alexander. I’m an old friend of his.”
The door opened. It was Celeste. Few years older, but still beautiful as ever. Maybe even more beautiful. Like she had cleaned up, except for the bruises on her arms. I was pretty sure what that was from. Fucking Arthur. I didn’t see any tracks. Her hair was a wavy light brown and shoulder length. She was stunning. It took me a second to compose myself. Hoped she didn’t realize. Women’s intuition, though. Much stronger than a detective’s, so I’m sure she knew and was also probably used to it.
I loved how she said my last name. She said it right. Didn’t forget.
“Hi, Celeste. I’m glad you remember me.”
“How could I forget.”
“The place looks great. You two made some nice changes. You look good too.”
“Thanks. Lot of work on my part, but yes. I got tired of living like a squatter. Arthur isn’t here right now. In fact, I don’t know where he is. Why are you here?”
“Just needed to get with him about something.”
“Get with him about something? I know he’s still involved with that kinda work but didn’t think it was with you anymore.”
“It’s not. I’m with Homicide now and I think he can help me with something.”
“Homicide? What would Artie know about anything having to do with that?”
“I don’t know if he does, but I still need to get with him, ’cause you never know. He’s not in any trouble, though. He didn’t answer his cell, so I thought I’d drop by. Do you know when he’ll be home?”
“He hasn’t been home for two days.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“No. You know how he disappears sometimes. It’s usually because of what he does with cops he works with. I don’t question it. Never did.”
“Do you know who he’s working with now?”
“No. Like I said, I don’t question anything anymore. It’s safer that way.”
I knew what she meant.
I smiled like I wanted to show comfort and said, “I need to talk to him. Can you get in touch with him?”
“I tried and left a message. Do you have a card? If I hear from him I’ll have him call you.”
I pulled out a card from a leather card case in my front pants pocket and handed it to her. She looked it over.
“Yes, it says Homicide. You’re moving up, Detective Blum.”
“I don’t know if I’d say that.”
“I’ll pass it along to him when I see him.”
“Thanks. You doing okay, by the way?”
That seemed to confuse her, like why would I be asking that.
“I’m doing just fine.”
I had to wonder how the hell someone like Arthur ever hooked up with someone like her. I know back in the day it was all about drugs, but he was at least fifteen years older, and last time I saw him, a bit disheveled in appearance.
“All right then. I appreciate your time. Please be sure to tell him it’s important that I speak to him.”
“I will, and like I said, I’ll pass this on to him when I see him.”
“Detective Alexander Blum,” she read off the card one more time, like it was supposed to mean something. “Been a long time since I heard that name.”
And I liked hearing her say it.
She closed the door before I could respond. I stood there for a second, taken by surprise.
As I walked along the side of the house, I noticed her peeking through the blinds, checking me out. The boys at the corner were gone. I drove around the block and back to Rhode Island, where I found an illegal parking spot with a good vantage of Arthur’s house, and far enough back that I wouldn’t be made. I’d give it an hour, see if he showed. Don’t want to stay out too long and leave Kelly to do all the work.
It was chilly out, a nice breeze. I cracked the window to allow a little fresh air in, get rid of some of that cigarette stench that remained from Kelly’s occasional smoking and mine. After forty-five minutes of surveillance, I made my way back to the office. There was a dead body that needed some attention, and for some reason I could only think about Celeste.
I worry about things. Sometimes I worry about having nothing to worry about.
I don’t worry about death, just the means of death. I was allowed back once before, but the road back wasn’t fun. I got stabbed way back when I was a rookie in uniform. Routine patrol. A domestic violence situation and I didn’t wait for my backup. If it had ended that night, all I would have realized was a fearful, hopefully temporary discomfort.
I’m one of the few who survived. And it is few. If you were to consider all the deaths resulting from crime in this country alone, and then all the victims and survivors like me, you’d realize we are a select few.
What I feared most in life now were things like sudden blindness, dementia, getting caught up in a bad shooting, maybe going bald. That was by no means a comprehensive list. I’m sure I could come up with more, but I didn’t want to think about it, or it’d stay in my head for the day.
I was hoping to get through the remainder of this tour without another call. We had a full squad, but if it was something like a multiple then we’d all have to go.
A lot of people were being moved around in the department. The result of a new mayor taking office at the beginning of the year. A city councilman made mayor. Had the backing that came from a powerful community, a confederation of loud voices and old money. But our new mayor also had the talent to not only convince those who were less fortunate in life that he could make a difference but unite them around the idea. Those were the people in this city who could provide a candidate the winning numbers.
The new mayor named a new chief during the transition. He was the reason for all the movement around here. Months of preparation and only a couple of days to shake the whole department up.
Change was inevitable in this line of work. You could depend on it, like the changing of seasons, but you could never accurately predict what would come with it. There were those who’ve tried. All they got at the end was a reputation for having looked stupid. The best t. . .
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