Washington, D.C., 1972. Derek Strange has left the police department and set up shop as a private investigator. His former partner Frank “Hound Dog” Vaughn is still on the force. When a young woman comes to Strange asking for help recovering a cheap ring that she claims has sentimental value, the case leads Strange onto Vaughn’s turf, where a local drug addict has been murdered, shot point-blank in his apartment. Soon both men are on the trail of a ruthless killer: Red Fury, so called for his looks and the car his girlfriend drives, but a name that fits his personality all too well. Red Fury doesn’t have a retirement plan, as Vaughn points out—he doesn’t care whom he has to cross, or kill, to get what he wants. As the violence escalates and the stakes get higher, Strange and Vaughn know that the only way to catch their man is to do it their own way.
Release date: January 23, 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 272
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What it Was
“Red or Black?” said the bartender. His name was Leonides Vazoulis, but folks on Georgia Avenue called him Leo. The short version was arranged horizontally, in neon, on the sign outside the bar.
“Make it the Black.”
“How about you, patrioti?” said Leo, thick and bald, pointing to a fellow Greek who sat beside Strange. “Heineken?”
The Greek was middle-aged, thin, solidly built, with short hair salted gray. He wore 501s and a faded black T-shirt from the Harley store in Key West. On his feet were black high-top Chucks.
“Yeah,” said Nick Stefanos. “And put a Knob Creek next to it. Neat.”
Strange settled in, shifting his broad shoulders beneath his black leather blazer. His closely cropped hair was shaped up and correct. A Vandyke beard, straight silver against dark skin, framed his mouth. “Thought you were a Grand-Dad man.”
“You moved up the shelf. So can I.”
“I stopped with the Red when I turned sixty. If I’m gonna drink, I’m gonna enjoy every sip.”
Leo served them. They tapped glasses and drank without comment. The silence was pleasant in the way that it can be between men. Plus, Bettye LaVette was singing “Your Turn to Cry” from the juke. Strange and Stefanos were showing respect.
When the song was done, Stefanos crossed the empty room and stopped at the jukebox, which was stocked with soul rarities, funk, and R&B singles. Strange wondered what Stefanos, a rock and punk man, would choose. Stefanos punched in some buttons and moved toward the head as a song began to play. Through the plate glass fronting Leo’s, Strange watched a slanting downpour hit the street.
Boy went for theme music, thought Strange. And: It’s a good day to drink.
“ ‘I wanna go outside… in the rain,’ ” sang Strange, very softly.
It got him to thinking on the year that song had hit the charts. And, as thoughts of the past did more often of late, this drove his mind further into a cinematic recollection of that thrilling time.
“Nice choice,” said Strange, as Stefanos settled back onto his barstool.
“The Dramatics. Nineteen seventy-two.”
“The summer Watergate broke.”
“You ask some people on this side of town to recollect that year, they wouldn’t think on Nixon. They’re gonna tell you that seventy-two was the summer that Red went off.”
“Some called him Red Fury.”
Stefanos hit his bourbon and waited for the rest.
“Robert Lee Jones was his given name,” said Strange. “He was known by Red from when he was a kid, on account of his light skin and the tint of his hair. Fury was the car his woman drove.”
“You’re funny, man.”
Strange put up two fingers and made a swirling motion over the empties that were parked on the mahogany. Leo commenced to pouring their next round of drinks.
“You were, what, twenty-five in seventy-two?”
“That summer? I was twenty-six. But this ain’t about me.”
“We got all afternoon,” said Stefanos.
“Then let me tell it,” said Strange.
IT WAS a Plymouth Fury, the GT Sport, a two-door 440 V-8 with hidden headlamps and a four-barrel carb. The color scheme was red over white, and its vanity plates read “Coco.” White interior made it a woman’s car. The bright finish and the personalized tags would render the vehicle easily identifiable around town, but Robert Lee Jones was unconcerned. To him it was important that he be remembered and that what he did got done with style.
Jones had bought the Fury for his woman, Coco Watkins, whose Christian name was Shirley. She was in the wheel bucket of the Plymouth, a Viceroy in her long-nailed hand resting atop the driver’s-side mirror. She and Jones were idling in park, facing south on 13th, between S and R, in Northwest. The in-dash radio was set on 1450. A Betty Wright number was playing.
Coco, so nicknamed because of the dark, buttery texture of her skin, was tall and strong of thigh. She wore red lipstick and violet eye shadow. When she stood she was finely postured. Her hair was big and it touched the headliner of the car. Jones thought of her as a stallion, if a stallion could be female. Surely they had a name for girl horses, but he couldn’t recall it. Aside from prison time, and a West Virginia childhood he barely recalled, he had rarely been outside the city.
“He’s in there,” said Jones, looking up to the face of the red-brick apartment house on the northeast corner of R. In a second-floor window, against a frayed curtain, was the silhouette of a small man.
“How you know it’s him?”
“That’s his itty-bitty shadow.”
“Could be a kid.”
“He tiny like one. But it’s him.”
“Maybe he got a girl up there.”
“Last time Bobby Odum had a girl, a black man was in the White House.”
“Wasn’t never no black president.”
“And he ain’t had no pussy since then.”
Coco’s shoulders shook as she issued a low laugh. Smoke dribbled through her painted lips.
“Leave it run,” said Jones.
He got out of the Plymouth and crossed the street in long strides. He, too, was tall. He wore patch-pocket jeans and two-tone brown Flagg Brothers stacks with three-inch heels and curlicue white stitching on the vamps. His loud-print rayon shirt, tails-out, had collars big as spears. His nose had been broken and left unset. He had very light skin, and his face and hard body were prominently freckled and moled. His ratty blowout was the color of rust and its unpicked, misshapen form gave him a general air of I-don’t-give-a-fuck. He was as he appeared to be.
Jones entered the building at 13th and R through a glass door set between nonfunctioning gas lanterns. He walked up a flight of stairs and stopped on the second-floor landing, which smelled of cigarettes and marijuana. In the air was the thump of bass coming from the stereo of one of the residents below, and he could feel it pulse through the wood floor. He came to the scarred door that he knew opened to the apartment of Bobby Odum, knocked on the door roughly, after a while heard a muddled voice say, “Who it is?” and he answered, “Red.”
The door opened. Odum, wearing plaid pants and a silk shirt open to expose a ladder of chest bones, stood a few steps back from the frame. The black stacks on his feet elevated him but somehow managed to make him look smaller. He was the size of Sammy Davis Jr. but lacked his talent. Plus, Sammy got all that play, and Odum got none. Even the whores, retailing their licorice on what was left of the 14th Street stroll, chuckled when he pulled out his money, cracking on him while they palmed his bread. Bring your twin brother, you got one, and strap him ’cross your ass so you don’t fall in. Ha ha ha. Almost made Jones sorry for Odum. Almost.
Odum forced a smile. “Red.”
“It is me.”
“What brings you here, brother?”
“My money does.” Jones entered the apartment and closed the door behind him.
Odum stood before him, flexing and unflexing his hands. Sweat had appeared on his dark, deeply lined forehead. His eyes told Jones that he was high.
“You want a drink, somethin?”
“Let me treat you to some Regal.”
“Pour it,” said Jones.
Odum went to a rolling cart displaying liquor and setups, and free-poured scotch into a clouded tumbler from a Chivas bottle. The bottle had been filled and refilled over the years with off-brands, its label faded to gray. It now held Scots Lion, the low-shelf brand from the Continental liquor shop on Vermont Avenue.
Odum handed Jones his drink, and Jones hit it. It tasted like scotch. He pointed to the sofa and said, “Sit down.”
Odum had a seat on the sofa and Jones settled into an overstuffed chair. Between them, a coffee table was littered with burned bottle caps, cotton balls pink with blood, a two-dollar necktie, and a large metal ashtray.
Jones reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a pack of Kools that was unopened on top. He shook a smoke from the hole he had torn out of the bottom of the pack, flipped the cigarette, and put the filtered end in his mouth. He picked a book of fire up off the table, read its face, and struck a match, touching flame to tobacco and taking in a deep lungful of menthol. He let the smoke out slow.
“So you been past Ed Murphy’s,” said Jones, his eyes going to the matchbook before he helped himself and slipped it into his pocket.
“I caught that boy Hathaway at the Supper Club. He was playin there last week. Donny’s a Howard man.”
“My woman’s into him. And that female he be singin with, too.”
“They gonna be together at the Carter Barron,” said Odum. “I got tickets for the show.” His face soured as he realized his mistake.
“Where the tickets at?” said Jones.
“They in my leather,” muttered Odum, angry at himself. Something else came to him, and his tone betrayed him as he pointedly added, “The inside pocket.”
Jones dragged on his Kool, double-dragged, leaned forward, and tapped ash into the tray. He stared at Odum and said nothing.
“Shit, Red, I been lookin to get up with you.”
“You ain’t give me no number, though.”
“I called you and got nary an answer.”
“That’s funny, ’cause I been here.”
“Maybe your phone line’s fucked up. We could check it right now and find out.”
“Nah. You must got the number wrong, somethin.”
“Decatur two, four seven nine five?”
“Then I ain’t get nothin wrong. Did I?”
“Where my money at?” said Jones.
Odum spread his hands. “Wasn’t but eighty dollars, Red.”
“One or eighty, it’s all the same to me. You played and you lost. Trying to be funny with a ten and no royalty. Now you need to make it right.”
What Jones said was true. There was a card game and Odum had stayed in on a ten-high, looking to outlast Jones and the others on a bluff. Jones, who did not fold, had been holding a pair of faces. But a weak hand and eighty dollars was not why Jones had come.
“You can have my watch,” said Odum.
“I don’t want that off-brand shit.”
“I got heroin.”
Odum tapped the toe of his right Jarman on the wood floor. “One dime is all.”
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
“I don’t know. Look, I’m just a tester, man—”
“Where you get your medicine at?”
“Ah, shit, Red.”
Odum lowered his eyes. “Dude named Roland Williams. He got bundles.”
“Roland Williams, went to Cardozo?”
“Nah, not Ro-Ro Williams. I’m talking about Long Nose Roland, came out of Roosevelt. He been going up top. You know, coppin at that spot in Harlem they call Little Baltimore.”
“Where Long Nose stay at?”
“Thirteen hundred block of T,” said Odum.
Odum did not know the address. He described the row house by the color of its shutters and the little porch out front. Jones saw it in his head.
“Okay,” said Jones. He drank from the tumbler, emptied it, and placed it roughly on the coffee table. He dropped his cigarette into the glass and rose from the couch as if sprung.
“We done?” said Odum.
“Put some music on the box,” said Jones. “It’s too quiet in this hole.”
Odum got up. His feet were unsteady beneath him as he crossed the room. He went to the home entertainment center he had purchased, on time, for one hundred and forty-eight dollars at the Sun Radio uptown. He had not paid on it for many months. It was an eighty-watt Webcor system with a record changer and dust cover housed atop an AM/FM stereo receiver and eight-track player. Two air-suspension speakers bookended the unit, seated on a slotted metal stand holding Odum’s vinyl.
Odum chose an album and slipped it out of its dust jacket. He placed the record on the turntable, side two up, and carefully dropped the tone arm on the first song. Psychedelic funk came forward.
Odum did not turn around. As the groove hit him, he began to move with a small, off-the-rhythm dip and a shake of his hips. He was not much of a dancer. He forced himself to smile.
“Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow,” said Odum.
Jones, now standing behind the couch, said nothing.
“ ‘I wanna know if it’s good to you,’ ” sang Odum, as the chorus kicked in. His mouth had gone dry and he licked his lips. “Wait till you hear Eddie Hazel’s guitar on the way out the jam. Eddie can do it.”
“Turn it up,” said Jones. Odum hiked up the volume. “More,” said Jones. Odum’s trembling hand clockwised the dial. “Now sit your narrow ass back down.” The music was loud in the room. It had been mixed to travel from speaker to speaker, and its freaks-in-the-funhouse effect made Jones cold. Odum sat on the couch, his birdlike hands folded in his lap.
“Red,” said Odum.
“Hush,” said Jones.
“Red, please, man… I’ll get you your eighty.”
“This ain’t about no eighty. It’s about you runnin your gums.”
“You a churchgoin man?”
“I try to be.”
“All that bullshit the preacher been tellin you? About that better world you gonna find on the other side?”
“You about to see if it’s true.”
Jones drew a .22 Colt from beneath the tails of his rayon, put the barrel behind Odum’s ear, and squeezed the trigger. Odum said, “Huh,” and as he lurched forward, blood flowed from his mouth and splashed onto the coffee table, and Jones put another round into the back of his head. Odum voided his bowels, and the smell of his evacuation and the one-cent smell of blood were fast in the room.
Jones reholstered the .22 in the dip of his bells. He found the concert tickets in Odum’s leather and slipped them into one of his patch pockets. Then he recalled Bobby Odum directing him, almost desperately, to a particular place in the jacket, and his suspicious nature told him to search the jacket further.
He put his hand into the left side pocket of the leather and retrieved a woman’s ring the color of gold. Its mount carried a large center stone, clear and bright, surrounded by eight smaller stones orbiting around it. To the untrained eye it could have been a cluster of diamonds, but Jones was certain that he was looking at rhinestones or plain old glass. Long as Jones had known him, Odum had been ass broke.
It was a fake piece, for sure. But it was pretty, and Coco would like the way it looked on her hand. Jones slipped the ring into his patch pocket, too.
He took the glass he had been drinking from and carried it with him, wiping the doorknob off with his sleeve as he exited, listening to the guitarist going off from the stereo. The little man had been right. That cat Hazel could play.
Out on 13th, Jones crossed the street. A man named Milton Wallace sat on the concrete edging of a row house lawn, smoking down a cigarette he had resurrected from a nearby gutter. Wallace watched Jones pass.
Jones got into the Fury’s passenger bucket. He handed the tickets to Coco and said, “These for you, baby.”
Coco’s eyes came alive as she studied one of the tickets. “Donny and Roberta at the Carter Barron? Thank you, Red.”
“Ain’t no thing.”
“Bobby give these to you?”
“He can’t use ’em no more.” Jones placed the scotch glass on the mat between his feet. “I got somethin else for you, too.”
“Show me, baby.”
“When we get to your crib. We need to leave outta here now.” Jones pointed to the keys hanging in the ignition. “Cook it, Coco.”
She turned the key, engaged the transmission, and pulled away from the curb.
Milton Wallace eyed the Fury as it traveled south on 13th. Wallace recorded the image of the car, and the license plate, in his head.
SHE WAS stepping out of a Warwick-blue Firebird convertible, sitting on redline tires, when Strange first saw her. She had parked the Pontiac on 9th, near the Upshur Street cross. She was young, . . .
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