“Where’d you see him?”

“Wit’ Cousin.”

“Who’s that?”

“It’s a boy, a man. You know.”

“A young man?”

“Uh-huh, he used to go here. But he graduated an’ dropped out.” First looked up at me. “Am I in trouble?”

“No, Number One. You did all right. You might have to tell somebody else about it. But don’t worry right now. Don’t you have a class to go to?”

“Yeah. History-geography.”

“You better go then.”

I watched the child, who was so willing to rely on my strength, run up all those eighty-odd stairs without a falter.

I CALLED THE POLICE STATION and asked for Sergeant Andre Brown. When he wasn’t there, I talked to another policeman; I forget his name. I forget because he was of no help. He told me to come in the next afternoon and file a report. When I said that I thought it might be more important than that, he hung up.

Then I called the fire department. Gregson was out on a call. When I told the operator why I was calling, he told me to call the police.

“ALL I KNOW IS that his nickname was Cousin,” I said to Laini Trellmore, Sojourner Truth’s registrar.

“Cousin. Hm,” the elderly woman said to herself. She looked closer to seventy-five than the age she gave, which was sixty-one. I wasn’t the only one to suspect that under her duties as record keeper, Miss Trellmore had altered her date of birth to keep her job past the age of forced retirement.

She frowned.

“Oh yes. I remember now. Douglas Hardy. Oh yes. Trouble from the first day to the last. He was sixteen years old and still in the ninth grade. Oooo. The kind of boy who’s always grinning and nodding and you know he just did something bad.”

“You got an address for his family in the files?”

THE HARDY FAMILY lived on Whithers Court off of Avalon. It was a dead-end street that had once been nice. Neat little single-family homes built for working people in a cul-de-sac. But the houses had all been bought up by a real estate syndicate called Investors Group West. They raised the rent as much as the market would bear. The turnover in tenants had a harmful influence on the upkeep of the dwellings and the street. Barren lawns and walls with the paint peeling off were the norm.

The Hardys’ home was secured by a screen door frame that had no screen. There was loud cowboy music blaring from inside. I looked for a doorbell but there was none. I knocked on the door, but my knuckles were no match for the yodeling cowboy.

I pulled the door open and took a tentative step inside. It was that step, uninvited into the house of people who were strangers to me, that was the first step outside the bounds of the straight and narrow life that I pretended to. The room had a gritty look to it. Dust on the blanket-covered sofa and dust on the painted wood floor. The only decoration was a paper calendar hung by a nail on the far wall. It had a large picture of Jesus, his bleeding Valentine’s heart protruding from his chest, over a small booklet of months. There was no sign of life.

I considered calling out, but I would have had to shout to be heard over the warbling cowboy, and anything that loud might alarm any occupants of that tinderbox home.

I turned off the radio.

“What the hell is goin’ on?” someone said from beyond a doorway that led to the kitchen.

A short brown woman hustled in. She was wearing a shapeless blue shift that had white butterflies all over it. The neck of the dress had been stretched out, one side sagging open over her left shoulder.

“Who the hell are you?” she asked, squinting and scowling so that I could see the red gums of her almost toothless maw.

“Ezekiel,” I said, remembering the morning caller.

“What the hell do you want?”

“I’m lookin’ for Cousin.”

Her nose twitched as if she were tied to a post and a mosquito were trying to bite her nose.


I heard a man grunt somewhere in the house. The heavy pounding of footsteps followed and soon a man, not as short as the woman but not as tall as I, came through the doorway. He was wearing only boxer shorts and a yellow T-shirt. His nose, chin, and forehead jutted out from the face as if his head were meant to be used as an axe. His eyes seemed insane, but I put that down to him getting rousted by the woman’s scream.

“What, Momma?”

“This man lookin’ for Cousin.”

“The hell are you?” Rinaldo asked me.

“Cousin’s in trouble,” I said.

“The fuck he is,” Rinaldo said.

“Watch your language, boy,” Toothless Mama said.

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