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Alexa begins to suspect the children in question are being poisoned, and she soon makes the acquaintance of ...
Alexa begins to suspect the children in question are being poisoned, and she soon makes the acquaintance of Detective Bud Prior, of the Atlanta Police Department. Bud is also the Atlanta liaison to the FBI Hate Crimes Unit, which is why he takes such a passionate interest in the case-or is his passion ignited for another reason? As Bud gets to know the stunning Alexa, he feels himself growing even more interested.
Alexa feels the same way about Bud, but they're both torn about getting involved, especially considering the media frenzy surrounding their case. Plus, the poison threat is anything but neutralized as the hateful mission of a white supremacist mastermind continues to cause trouble. Alexa and Bud must solve the case before any more damage is done-or else they may find themselves at risk, too.
Saturday, September 9
Alexa Mason walked into the party without a coat or a purse. Her gray eyes flashed as she surveyed the room. A thin strand of pearls circled her long white neck. Thin-strapped high-heeled sandals showed off her slender legs. She had moussed her short dark hair up into a crown. Men stared as she glided across the room in her slinky black mini-dress.
The party host was a wealthy friend of the mayor. His home was a large, old house on Peachtree Circle in Ansley Park. The ornate chair rails and crown moldings in the living room had been refinished. The wallpaper was expensive. The paintings on the walls were originals. The party spread itself over the fifteen or so rooms in the downstairs of the house.
Alexa had met the host only once. She had been invited because she knew the mayor. The party was political—an informal kickoff for the heavy-lifting portion of the mayor's upcoming re-election campaign.
Alexa found the bar and took the champagne proffered by the bartender. Their fingers met, and she winked at him. He smiled at her and mouthed the question, "Later?"
Alexa's answer was a laugh that tinkled across the bar and through the room like the sound of the imported Venetian glass wind chimes on the porch outside.
Although it was just a week after Labor Day, still early September, the evening was cool and pleasant, and a group of partygoers enjoyed the deck in back of the house.
"... so it's not that the people who get caught getting workman's comp when they're able-bodied are bad people, it's just well, they're not hurting that bad anymore, they're at home, and the chores are piling up around the house." A tall dark-haired man in a blue suit was speaking to a slender man with sandy hair and a tall African American man with chiseled features.
"Their injury, if they really had an injury in the first place," blue suit continued, "doesn't feel that bad. That's when they get caught."
"Insurance fraud? Workman's comp?" Alexa asked him.
"You got it. You in the detective bidnez too?"
"I'm in the environmental business," Alexa told the man.
Alexa nodded yes.
"Chuck, I was wondering one thing," said the sandy-haired man. "What happens to these guys when they go back to work? Does anyone believe anything they say ever again?"
"Don't know, Bud," said the blue-suited man. "The advice I give is not to lie. Workman's comp fraud amounts to millions a year, and the insurance companies figure it's the same as stealing."
"When I was in the fire department, there were a few guys like that. Took more time off than they really needed," said the black man. He was muscular and fit with chiseled cheekbones below watchful intelligent eyes. His skin was the color of a cup of strong French roast. He had no jewelry save a rolex Oyster on his left wrist.
The black man shrugged and nodded.
"I'm forgetting my manners," said blue suit. "I'm Chuck Porter and do some detective work from time to time. You are?"
"Alexa Mason. I've got my own company. We do some work for the city. It's called AMM Services. We do environmental work, just about everything involved with that. Soil and water samples, contract for lab work. Even figure out cleanup strategies."
"This is Jack Williams." Chuck gestured toward the black man. "He probably heard of you because he's the mayor's environmental guy." Alexa shook Jack's hand, noting the firm pressure of his large hand and how it seemed to swallow up hers.
"This is Bud Prior." Chuck motioned toward the sandy-haired man. His dark-blond hair was overly long in front and hung toward his eyes. He was slender and fit-looking without being overly muscular.
"Bud is a cop," said Chuck. "FBI now? Is that right?"
"That's right," said Bud as he shook Alexa's hand. His hand was warm and dry and smaller than Jack Williams's hand. Her hand fit into his so that the webbing between her thumb and index finger fit against Bud's palm. The tips of her fingers lay against his wrist. The handshake felt really good, and she immediately liked Bud. Their eyes met, and Bud smiled at her.
Cops can be pirates too, she thought. Bud is a nice-looking man.
After a moment, Chuck turned to Alexa.
"I'm interested in the environmental business," he said. "What's your company again, please?"
"AMM Services. We're small. We have a contract with the state that's our bread and butter. We also do some work for the city."
"You got a card?"
Alexa grinned and showed Chuck her empty hands.
"A purse didn't go with this outfit. AMM Services. I'm in the phone book. Gimme a call and we can talk about it." Her musical laughter turned heads again as it chimed through the night.
"I do need help with something, and I will be calling you," said Chuck.
Alexa cruised back to the bar. As she was getting another glass of champagne, she felt a hand on her arm. It was the dark-skinned man, Jack Williams.
"I'm Jack Williams," he said.
"I remember you, Jack Williams," she said and laughed. "You remember me as well?"
"Alexa Mason. It was just a few minutes ago, and besides, I'm not about to forget a woman who laughs like you do."
This guy Jack doesn't waste any time, she thought. "Are you liking your job with the mayor, Jack, if you don't mind my asking?"
"I do like it so far, but I haven't had the job very long." He looked sheepish. "There was a huge pile of paper on the desk when I got there. Now it's only a little less huge."
"Well, when you get to it, you'll see a report I did last year on the Seitzman's Foundry site. No rush. It won't be that interesting. Tell me about your injury; it sounds dangerous."
"Well, I almost got taken out by a falling beam in a burning building. It just brushed me—or I might not be here."
Alexa responded with a sharp inhalation. She was a sucker for smart men who lived on the edge.
The two grinned at each other again.
"That sounds really dangerous," said Alexa.
"Well ... yeah, it was," he answered in a self-deprecating way.
Alexa decided right then that if Jack asked, she would leave the party with him.
What was undeniable was that she wanted a man, a strong man—a man with his needs tattooed on his soul. She wanted the dark smell of her pirate sharp in her nostrils and the feel of his psyche greedily wrapping around her own as their bodies entwined.
"Jack, would you take me dancing?" Alexa asked him with a smile, but admonishing herself to take it slow.
When they got to Jack's car, he held the door for her.
When he got in, Jack paused a moment before starting his car.
"Where to, mister?" she asked him and laughed.
"You'll see," Jack told her.
But as they drove away, Alexa found herself thinking of Bud Prior's warm dry handshake and the way he smiled at her.
* * *
They went to Backstreet, a late-night bar in Midtown.
Jack was dancing wildly. His sweat-streaked face shone darkly in the strobe lights. They danced together for four songs until, breathless, she leaned in to hug him, catching the dark and tantalizing odor of his sweat mixed with aftershave.
"Jack, I'm hot. I need to catch my breath."
"Get you somethin' to drink as well," Jack whispered in her ear.
Backstreet had a mezzanine where customers could sit and watch the dance floor below.
Jack led Alexa to a table and left her there. He returned with two beers. The music was too loud for anything but the briefest conversation. They drank, smiled at each other.
Dancing until the heat and energy of the dance floor became too much and then cooling off upstairs with a beer became a pattern they repeated twice more. Then, two songs later, Alexa clung to Jack and whispered in his ear.
"Let's go. I'm getting tired of this place."
Jack led her to his black BMW in the parking lot. When they were inside, she leaned over and kissed him. Jack held her face.
"I love your skin," she told him as she touched his cheek. "So smooth and dark, like polished wood—and you're dangerous, you're a pirate."
Jack smiled at her and kissed her again.
"But I want to go slow," she told him with a lump in her throat.
Monday, September 11
Chuck Porter called early that morning. Alexa nodded to Karyn, her receptionist, and took the call in her office.
Chuck made small talk for a moment.
"So what's up?" Alexa asked him.
"I can't give you details on the phone. Why don't you come over here?"
Alexa rolled her eyes.
"Well, I am curious," Alexa told him and agreed to meet. He gave directions. Alexa told Karyn where she would be.
"Alexa, I do a little pro bono work for some of the churches," Chuck told her when they were seated in his office. "I came upon this situation. I've got a mother of twins. One of them is okay, but the other's got something wrong with him. I'm stumped. I've had two other scientists draw a blank. Maybe it's something environmental. That's why I was interested in you."
Chuck scrubbed his face with his hands.
"Alexa, I'm out of my depth on the medical part."
"So far I'm interested," said Alexa.
"The timing is odd," said Chuck. "The kid started to have problems when their church started up a day care center with a playground this summer. The one kid was staying in day care after school. The mother said she started noticing problems about a week after school started."
"What sort of problems?" Alexa probed.
"Well, like I say, they're twins, a boy and girl. She noticed a change in the one that spent time at the day care center—the boy. Started doing poorly in school, ill tempered, couldn't seem to concentrate on anything. Before this summer, he was a model student."
"Any other parents notice or say anything about their kids?"
"So this one mother might be just a crackpot?" Alexa remained skeptical.
"I don't think so," Chuck told her. "Because of their being twins, the mother notices differences in their behavior."
"I take it she's pulled both kids out of day care."
"She has, but nobody else has moved their kids out," said Chuck. "The church is the Summerhill Primitive Missionary Baptist Tabernacle over near Turner Field. Jack Williams grew up in that neighborhood.
"I got the mother coming in shortly, Alexa," Chuck continued. "We'll go easy on her so she doesn't feel like she's being ganged up on. She's older and pretty mistrustful of white people. You understand?"
They talked for a few more minutes until the bell rang, and Chuck brought in a small black woman in a shapeless cotton dress of faded blue.
"Ms. Tohler, this is Alexa Mason. She's helping me with your problem. Would you mind answering a few of her questions?"
"Sure I will." The woman smiled and held out her hand to Alexa.
"Ms. Tohler," began Alexa when they were seated again, "you have two children, right? Twins?"
"That's right. My boy is sick."
"Tell me what you noticed."
"Well, Marcia, she be my gal. She be fine, but she didn't stay at day care. She be over with her friends. She only be at day care for about two or three days at the beginning of school.
"My boy be called DeMario. He be at daycare every day. He stop paying attention in school this fall. Both of them only be seven year old. DeMario don't mind me no more. He quit doing chores less'n I fuss at him, and he been in two fights since school start."
"Ms. Tohler, is he restless? Does he complain about being tired?"
"He real restless all the time, and he do complain about being tired. I don't know what to do about it. He was fine last school year in first grade. It's just since he's been in the day care." "Ms. Tohler, did uh ... Marcia go to the same school as DeMario last year?"
"Sure she did. They both in second grade this year. I got me a job working for Georgia State University in maintenance. This day care center in the church be so much better than the one at the university I use last year. It also be close to my house. I likes reverend Watkins, but I be worried about my kids. I mean, if DeMario don't do well in school ..."
Alexa watched as the woman started to cry softly. Education was the most certain ticket out of the poverty of the Summerhill neighborhood.
Alexa pulled a tissue from her purse and handed it to the woman.
"Ms. Tohler, I understand your worries. I want you to know the most important thing right now is to get DeMario the help he needs."
Without the woman's trust, Alexa realized, anything else would be moot.
They made plans for Alexa to visit that afternoon.
* * *
Alice Tohler and her two children lived in a small bungalow on Spruill Street in Summerhill, about a half-mile northeast of Turner Field. The house needed painting, and several of the boards on the front porch were cracked.
The door opened before Alexa could knock, and Ms. Tohler ushered Alexa into the tiny living room.
A young boy was seated on the floor, playing Nintendo, stabbing at the controls with his thumbs.
"This be DeMario. Stand up and say hello to Ms. Mason," she chided her son, whose attention was concentrated on the television.
The boy was small and dark skinned. He wore a pair of Nike high tops, a pair of shorts, and a Michael Jordan T-shirt.
"Wanna know what they call me in school?" said the boy.
"What do they call you?" Alexa smiled at him.
"I see. What should I call you?"
"You can call me Super Mario too."
"How about just Mario?" Alexa felt she might start laughing if she addressed the cute little boy as Super Mario. There was nothing obvious wrong with him so far.
"Mario's okay," he said.
"Do you know why I'm here, Mario?"
"No, and I don't care. I want to get back to my game."
"It's important. Your mom said you've been acting, well ... different since school started."
"Mario ain't no diff'ent," he said angrily. "My momma be worryin' 'bout my grades in school. Them teachers be teachin' me, then I be learnin'."
The boy yawned deeply.
"Mario, I've got to do some tests on you. First, I've got to look at your gums. Come over by the window, please?"
The boy walked over to Alexa. She pulled on a pair of latex gloves and pushed back his upper lip. In the light coming through the thin curtain, she saw clearly a dark line on his gums near his teeth. Then the boy twisted his head away from her.
Alexa knew the line on his gums, his poor performance in school, his listlessness, and his belligerence could all be caused by lead poisoning.
"I've got to do one more thing, Mario—take some of your blood."
"I ain't gonna be stuck wi' no needle."
"I really need some blood, Mario, to make sure you're okay."
Alexa reached into her bag for a Vacutainer. When she turned around, DeMario's fist crashed squarely into her cheekbone. Alexa went down hard, and her head was ringing.
Her cheekbone stung, and she could feel the anger rising hot inside her. She touched her cheek and felt sticky wetness. Her recognition of the anger and hate in her thoughts and the gulf separating her from DeMario somehow calmed her.
Alexa's chest heaved. She took several deep breaths, willing her agitation to subside.
I've got to get some blood from him, she thought. I'm pretty sure the kid's been lead poisoned, and I need hard evidence of that.
She got slowly to her feet and wiped the blood from her cheek with a tissue. DeMario was not in sight.
"Mrs. Tohler," Alexa called. "I need some help."
The woman came in, a puzzled look on her face.
"I tried to take some blood from him. He didn't like it." Alexa pulled the blood-stained tissue away from her face and held it out.
"Now you see what I mean," said Mrs. Tohler. "It don't do no good giving the boy a whippin' neither. I done tried that, and he be just as bad when it's over."
"Ms. Tohler, I need some blood to be certain what's wrong with DeMario. I can get the blood tested within a day, and then we'll know if he needs a doctor."
"That's right, Ms. Tohler. It's important not to wait. Otherwise, the changes could be permanent. Where did he go?"
"I fetch him for you."
She came back a few minutes later, leading the boy by his ear.
"You apologize to Ms. Mason. She told me what you done."
"Sorry," whined Mario. His eyes flashed at Alexa with hostility.
Excerpted from A Toxic Assault by Ted Simon Copyright © 2011 by Ted Simon. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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