By Karin Slaughter
Random House Karin Slaughter
All right reserved. ISBN: 0385339461
February 5, 2006
Detective Michael Ormewood listened to the football game on the radio as he drove down DeKalb Avenue toward Grady Homes. The closer he got to the projects, the more tension he felt, his body almost vibrating from the strain by the time he took a right into what most cops considered a war zone. As the Atlanta Housing Authority slowly devoured itself, subsidized communities like Grady were becoming a thing of the past. The in-town real estate was too valuable, the potential for kickback too high. Right up the road was the city of Decatur, with its trendy restaurants and million-dollar houses. Less than a mile in the other direction was Georgia's gold-encrusted capitol dome. Grady was like a worse-case scenario sitting between them, a living reminder that the city too busy to hate was also too busy to take care of its own.
With the game on, the streets were fairly empty. The drug dealers and pimps were taking the night off to watch that rarest of miracles occur: the Atlanta Falcons playing in the Super Bowl. This being a Sunday night, the prostitutes were still out making a living, trying to give the churchgoers something to confess next week. Some of the girls waved at Michael as he drove past, and he returned the greeting, wondering how many unmarked cars stopped here during the middle of the night, copstelling Dispatch they were taking a ten-minute break, then motioning over one of the girls to help blow off some steam.
Building nine was in the back of the development, the crumbling red brick edifice tagged by the Ratz, one of the new gangs that had moved into the Homes. Four cruisers and another unmarked car were in front of the building, lights rolling, radios squawking. Parked in the residents' spaces were a black BMW and a pimped out Lincoln Navigator, its ten-thousand-dollar razor rims glittering gold in the streetlights. Michael fought the urge to jerk the steering wheel, take some paint off the seventy-thousand-dollar SUV. It pissed him off to see the expensive cars the bangers drove. In the last month, Michael's kid had shot up about four inches, outgrowing all his jeans, but new clothes would have to wait for Michael's next paycheck. Tim looked like he was waiting for a high tide while Daddy's tax dollars went to help these thugs pay their rent.
Instead of getting out of his car, Michael waited, listening to another few seconds of the game, enjoying a moment's peace before his world turned upside down. He had been on the force for almost fifteen years now, going straight from the army to the police, realizing too late that other than the haircut, there wasn't that much difference between the two. He knew that as soon as he got out of his car it would all start up like a clock that was wound too tight. The sleepless nights, the endless leads that never panned out, the bosses breathing down his neck. The press would probably catch on to it, too. Then he'd have cameras stuck in his face every time he left the squad, people asking him why the case wasn't solved, his son seeing it on the news and asking Daddy why people were so mad at him.
Collier, a young beat cop with biceps so thick with muscle he couldn't put his arms down flat against his sides, tapped on the glass, gesturing for Michael to roll down his window. Collier had made a circling motion with his meaty hand, even though the kid had probably never been in a car with crank windows.
Michael pressed the button on the console, saying, "Yeah?" as the glass slid down.
"Not Atlanta," Michael told him, and Collier nodded as if he had expected the news. Atlanta's previous trip to the Super Bowl was several years back. Denver had thumped them 34-19.
Collier asked, "How's Ken?"
"He's Ken," Michael answered, not offering an elaboration on his partner's health.
"Could use him on this." The patrolman jerked his head toward the building. "It's pretty nasty."
Michael kept his own counsel. The kid was in his early twenties, probably living in his mother's basement, thinking he was a man because he strapped on a gun every day. Michael had met several Colliers in the Iraqi desert when the first Bush had decided to go in. They were all eager pups with that glint in their eye that told you they had joined up for more than three squares and a free education. They were obsessed with duty and honor, all that shit they'd seen on TV and been fed by the recruiters who plucked them out of high school like ripe cherries. They had been promised technical training and home-side base assignments, anything that would get them to sign on the dotted line. Most of them ended up being shipped off on the first transport plane to the desert, where they got shot before they could put their helmets on.
Ted Greer came out of the building, tugging at his tie like he needed air. The lieutenant was pasty for a black man, spending most of his time behind his desk basking in the fluorescent lights as he waited for his retirement to kick in.
He saw Michael still sitting in the car and scowled. "You working tonight or just out for a drive?"
Michael took his time getting out, sliding the key out of the ignition just as the halftime commentary started on the radio. The evening was warm for February, and the air-conditioning units people had stuck in their windows buzzed like bees around a hive.
Greer barked at Collier, "You got something to do?"
Collier had the sense to leave, tucking his chin to his chest like he'd been popped on the nose.
"Fucking mess," Greer told Michael. He took out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat off his forehead. "Some kind of sick perv got ahold of her."
Michael had heard as much when he'd gotten the call that pulled him off his living-room couch. "Where is she?"
"Six flights up." Greer folded the handkerchief into a neat square and tucked it into his pocket. "We traced the nine-one-one call to that phone." He pointed across the street.
Michael stared at the phone booth, a relic of the past. Everybody had cell phones now, especially dealers and bangers.
"Woman's voice," Greer told him. "We'll have the tape sometime tomorrow."
"How long did it take to get somebody out here?"
"Thirty-two minutes," Greer told him, and Michael's only surprise was that it hadn't taken longer. According to a local news team investigation, response times to emergency calls from Grady averaged around forty-five minutes. An ambulance took even longer.
Greer turned back to the building as if it could absolve him. "We're gonna have to call in some help on this one."
Michael bristled at the suggestion. Statistically, Atlanta was one of the most violent cities in America. A dead hooker was hardly an earth-shattering development, especially considering where she was found.
He told Greer, "That's all I need is more assholes telling me how to do my job."
"This asshole thinks it's exactly what you need," the lieutenant countered. Michael knew better than to argue--not because Greer wouldn't tolerate insubordination, but because he'd agree with Michael just to shut him up, then turn around and do whatever the hell he wanted to anyway.
Greer added, "This one's bad."
"They're all bad," Michael reminded him, opening the back door to his car and taking out his suit jacket.
"Girl didn't have a chance," Greer continued. "Beat, cut, fucked six ways to Sunday. We got a real sick fuck on our hands."
Michael put on his jacket, thinking Greer sounded like he was auditioning for HBO. "Ken's out of the hospital. Said come by and see him anytime."
Greer made some noises about being real busy lately before trotting off toward his car, looking back over his shoulder as if he was afraid Michael would follow. Michael waited until his boss was in his car and pulling out of the lot before he headed toward the building.
Collier stood at the doorway, hand resting on the butt of his gun. He probably thought he was keeping watch, but Michael knew that the person who had committed this crime wasn't going to come back for more. He was finished with the woman. There was nothing else he wanted to do.
Collier said, "The boss left fast."
"Thanks for the news flash."
Michael braced himself as he opened the door, letting the damp, dark building slowly draw him in. Whoever had designed the Homes hadn't been thinking about happy kids coming home from school to warm cookies and milk. They had focused on security, keeping open spaces to a minimum and covering all the light fixtures in steel mesh to protect the bulbs. The walls were exposed concrete with narrow windows tucked into tight little corners, the safety wire embedded in the glass looking like uniform cobwebs. Spray paint covered surfaces that had been painted white once upon a time. Gang tags, warnings and various pieces of information covered them now. To the right of the front door, someone had scrawled, Kim is a ho! Kim is a ho! Kim is a ho!
Michael was looking up the winding staircase, counting the six flights, when a door creaked open. He turned to find an ancient black woman staring at him, her coal dark eyes peering out around the edge of the steel door.
"Police," he said, holding up his badge. "Don't be afraid."
The door opened wider. She was wearing a floral apron over a stained white T-shirt and jeans. "I ain't afraid'a you, bitch."
Clustered behind her were four old women, all but one of them African-American. Michael knew they weren't here to help. Grady, like any small community, thrived on gossip and these were the mouths that fed the supply line.
Still, he had to ask, "Any of y'all see anything?"
They shook their heads in unison, bobbleheads on the Grady dashboard.
"That's great," Michael said, tucking his badge back into his pocket as he headed toward the stairs. "Thanks for helping keep your community safe."
She snapped, "That's your job, cocksucker."
He stopped, his foot still on the bottom stair as he turned back toward her, looking her straight in the eye. She returned the glare, rheumy eyes shifting back and forth like she was reading the book of his life. The woman was younger than the others, probably in her early seventies, but somehow grayer and smaller than her companions. Spidery lines crinkled the skin around her lips, wrinkles etched from years of sucking on cigarettes. A shock of gray streaked through the hair on the top of her head as well as the ones corkscrewing out of her chin like dreadlocks. She wore the most startling shade of orange lipstick he had ever seen on a woman.
He asked, "What's your name?"
Her chin tilted up in defiance, but she told him, "Nora."
"Somebody made a nine-one-one call from that phone booth outside."
"I hope they wash they hands after."
Michael allowed a smile. "Did you know her?"
"We all knowed her." Her tone indicated there was a lot more to be told but she wasn't the one who was going to tell it to some dumb-ass white cop. Obviously, Nora didn't exactly have a college degree under her belt, but Michael had never set much store by that kind of thing. He could tell from her eyes that the woman was sharp. She obviously had street smarts. You didn't live to be that old in a place like Grady by being stupid.
Michael took his foot off the step, walking back toward the cluster of women. "She working?"
Nora kept her eye on him, still wary. "Most nights."
The white woman behind her provided, "She an honest girl."
Nora tsked her tongue. "Such a young little thing." There was a hint of challenge in her voice when she said, "No kind of life for her, but what else could she do?"
Michael nodded like he understood. "Did she have any regulars?"
They all shook their heads, and Nora provided, "She never brought her work home with her."
Michael waited, wondering if they would add anything else. He counted the seconds off in his head, thinking he'd let it go to twenty. A helicopter flew over the building and car wheels squealed against asphalt a couple of streets over, but no one paid attention. This was the sort of neighborhood where people got nervous if they didn't hear gunshots at least a couple of times a week. There was a natural order to their lives, and violence--or the threat of it--was as much a part of it as fast food and cheap liquor.
"All right," Michael said, having counted the seconds to twenty-five. He took out one of his business cards, handing it to Nora as he told her, "Something to wipe your ass on."
She grunted in disgust, holding the card between her thumb and forefinger. "My ass is bigger than that."
He gave her a suggestive wink, made his voice a growl. "Don't think I hadn't noticed, darlin'."
She barked a laugh as she slammed the door in his face. She had kept the card, though. He had to take that as a positive sign.
Michael walked back to the stairs, taking the first flight two at a time. All of the buildings at Grady had elevators, but even the ones that worked were dangerous. As a first-year patrolman, Michael had been called out to the Homes on a domestic disturbance and gotten caught in one of the creaky contraptions with a busted radio. He had spent about two hours trying not to add to the overwhelming smell of piss and vomit before his sergeant realized he hadn't reported in and sent somebody to look for him. The old-timers had laughed at his stupidity for another half hour before helping get him out.
Welcome to the brotherhood.
As Michael started on the second flight of stairs, he felt a change in the air.
Excerpted from Triptych by Karin Slaughter Excerpted by permission.
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