Sunday, June 3, 2012

Work In Progess: Chapter 1 of "Till Death Do Us Part"

Vice President Joe Biden inspects the 18th Air...
Vice President Joe Biden inspects the 18th Airborne Corps with CSM Allen and Lt. General Austin at the units' welcome home ceremonies at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cite: Fort Bragg Cultural Resources URL: http:...
Cite: Fort Bragg Cultural Resources URL: Description: Pollen cores being taken at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The first chapter of a new Al Pennyback mystery, "Till Death Do Us Part."


     Washington, DC is a peaceful city at night.

     Most of the central part of the city is deserted by the many federal and city workers who live in the suburbs of Maryland and Northern Virginia, or in one of the many neighborhoods that surround the federal center, with its floodlight Greek revival buildings, monuments and statues.  Traffic, which chokes the city during the day, is limited to a few of the red, white, and blue Metro busses, cabs of all colors, a few late night carousers heading for pubs in Georgetown or down near Union Station, and police cars from one of the dozen or so police agencies.

     The neighborhoods; opulent and expensive houses in the Northwest, run down in Southwest and Southeast, and somewhere in between in Northeast; are also quiet, except for the areas around shopping centers.  When the sun goes down, people either head for the nearest shopping center-based eatery, or eat at home.

     We were gathered, we friends, at the home of Buster and Alma Mayweather.  The sun had set and we were sitting in the back yard sipping drinks and waiting for Buster to finish burning the steaks on a large grille near the back porch.

     There was Quincy Chang, a lawyer and senior partner in the firm of Holcombe, Stein and Chang, the firm that keeps me on retainer.  Quince and I have been friends since we both served in the army together at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; me in the Delta Force, him a Judge Advocate General, or JAG, officer in the post headquarters.  He left the army before me, preferring to use his legal talents to make some real money, instead of spending his time defending errant GIs who left post without permission or hit their spouses a bit too hard.

     Sitting on a bench with Alma, their heads together gossiping about whatever it is the two of them talked about, was Heather Bunche, five-three of computer genius who works as my assistant at the detective agency I started after retiring from the army.  She’d just graduated from secretarial school and needed a job, while I needed someone to keep the paperwork straight, answer the phone and pay the bills.  She’s five-two or so, except when she wears heels, and with her peaches and cream complexion and mop of blonde hair that she’d taken to wearing pulled back and tied in a pony tail, looks like a mature teenager.  More than one tough guy has made the mistake of thinking she’s as soft as she looks.  When they wake up they know better. 

     Buster is a detective first class on the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Force.  I met him when he came with two uniformed officers to tell me that my wife Sarah and son Ethan, along with four of Ethan’s soccer team mates, had been killed when a stupid truck driver ran a stop sign and broadsided the van my wife was driving.  He took me to the morgue to identify the bodies and stayed with me as I worked through the grief.  He’d played football in college and until he blew out his knee his senior year was a shoe-in to play pro.  Unable to play football, he’d joined the police force.  He looked like a football player, one with an attitude, and he needed it since he usually worked the street gang task force.  His shaven head, square jaw, and scowling brown face were often more effective than a gun at calming street toughs.  When that didn’t work, he just busted their noses.  Alma was Buster’s opposite, petite, small breasted and angelic looking.  But, she controlled him like a master animal trainer.  Their twins, now eighteen months old, were more like her, small and as cute as could be.  They’d named them Albert and Sandra, after me and my girl friend, Sandra Winter, and named us their god parents, so of course they were cute.

     Sandra Winter, a teacher at one of the District’s toughest inner city high schools, was fair and blonde like Heather, but nearly as tall as me, and just as tough when she wanted to be.  She hadn’t arrived yet; having to attend some kind of parent-teacher conference at her school.  She’d called and said she would be arriving about the time the steaks were ready.

     The twins had been put to bed after we’d all fussed over them for about an hour.

     That just left me; Al Pennyback; actually Albert Einstein Pennyback; private detective, six feet and two hundred pounds of brown flesh that I had to exercise regularly to keep from spreading over my belt.  My parents had a wicked sense of humor when it came to naming me.  With my moniker, growing up in a small East Texas town, I had to learn to fight early.  By fifth grade, only new kids, or ones spoiling for a fight would dare call me anything but Al.

     Just a few friends sitting around, swapping stories and enjoying each others’ company; but, I noticed that Quincy looked nervous and kept glancing at his watch and looking at me out of the corner of his eye.

     I have a sense for people.  It served me well during my twenty years in the army, and again as a private detective.  I know when there’s something amiss.  I walked over to Quincy.

     “What’s up Quince?” I asked.  “You look like you have something important on your mind, and I don’t think it has anything to do with some brief you forgot to lock away.”

     He looked at me with a guilty smile and took a quick sip of his gin and tonic.

     “I should know by now that it’s impossible to keep anything from you,” he said.  “It’s a wonder they needed radar or lie detectors in the army with a human radar like you around.”

     “Okay then, spill it,” I said.  “What do you have up your lawyer’s sleeves now?”

     “Uh, well, I took the liberty of inviting an extra guest to join us tonight, and he’s late.”

     “Quince, it’s not like you to mix business into a friendly gathering,” I said.  “What’s up?”

     “Yeah, I know.  It’s not the best way to do it, but this fellow didn’t want to go to your office or mine.  I’ll apologize to Buster and Alma when he comes; if he comes.”

     “I don’t envy you having to tell Alma you’re spoiling her evening,” I said.  “Still, you want to tell me what it’s all about?”

     “I’d rather wait and let him tell you himself,” he said.  “Look, Al, I don’t like holding out on you, and I really don’t like imposing, but this guy’s an important client, and he has a problem that I think only you can solve.  Just bear with me, okay?”

     I nodded.  Quincy never did anything without good reason, so I decided to trust him.

     “What are you two up to?” a melodic voice said behind me.

     I turned.  Sandra had come around the side of the house and walked up behind me.  I pulled her into a hug.

     “Hey, babe,” I said.  “Glad you made it.  Steaks are almost ready.”

     She kissed me on the cheek and pulled from my embrace.  She leaned forward and gave Quincy a peck and a pat on the shoulder.

     “Good; I’m starved,” she said.  “They didn’t have anything but chocolate chip cookies and coffee at the meeting.  You didn’t answer my question, though.  You two were huddled and looked like you were talking about something really serious.”

     She’s almost as good as I am at reading people.

     “Quincy has a new client for me,” I said.  “But, he won’t tell me what he wants me to do.”

     “He’s making it sound worse than it is,” Quincy said.  “I just want the client to explain things himself.”

     “I hope it’s nothing dangerous,” Sandra said, frowning at him.

     “I doubt it,” he said.  “The guy’s owner of a chain of flower shops up and down the east coast. Not much danger associated with flowers.”

     She made a snorting sound.

     “Where Al’s concerned, there’s danger in almost anything,” she said.  “Remember the fashion designer who hired him?”

     I didn’t like being reminded of that case; someone was threatening the poor guy, and then killed him before I could get a line on it.  Not one of my finest moments.  Sandra recognized the expression on my face and caressed my cheek, giving me one of her ‘it wasn’t your fault’ looks.

     “Hey, Sandra,” Buster called from over by the grille.  “You’re just in time; steaks are ready.  Everybody grab a plate and get over here before they burn.”

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