“The hell are you?” Rinaldo asked again. He balled his fists and levered his shoulders to show off a ripple of strength.

“He knows a man who tried to burn down the junior high school,” I said. “Somebody saw them together —”

“Who?” the woman asked.

Ignoring her, I kept on talking to Hatchet Face. “…if I don’t see me some Cousin I’m just gonna give the police this address and let you shake your shoulders at them.”

Rinaldo’s eyes got crazier as he woke up. He seemed torn between attack and flight. He was fifteen years my junior, but I felt that I could take him. It was Mama who scared me. She was the kind of woman who kept a straight razor close at hand.

“Cousin didn’t start that fire,” Mama said.

“How would you know?”

“He was here with us.”

“Where is he now?”

Mama and Rinaldo exchanged glances. They were afraid of the police. They had good reason to be. All black people had good reason to be. But I didn’t care.

“Tell me or I’ll go right down to the precinct,” I said.

“He live on Hooper,” Rinaldo said. He blurted out an address.

“Okay,” I said, and I took a step backward. “I’ma go over there. If somebody calls him and warns him off I’m sendin’ the cops here to you.”

Rinaldo gave his mother a sharp look. Maybe he wondered if he should try to kill me. I took another step back. Before they could decide on an action, I was out of the door and on the way to my car. Rinaldo came out to watch me drive off.

“WHO IS IT?” a voice asked after I knocked.

“Are you Cousin?” I asked.

There was a pause, and then, “Yeah?”

“I’m John Lowry. Rinaldo sent me.”

When he opened the door, I punched him in the face. It was a good solid punch. It felt good but it was a stupid thing to do. I didn’t know who else was in the room. That crouching, slack-jawed man might have been a middleweight contender. He could have had an iron jaw and a pistol in his pocket. But I hit him because I knew that he had something to do with the fire at my school, because Mama and Rinaldo set my teeth on edge, because the police didn’t seem to care what I did, and because my best friend was dead.

Cousin fell flat on his back.

The room was painted a garish pink and there was no furniture except for a single mattress no thicker than a country quilt.

“Get up,” I said.

“What I do to you, mister?” he whined.

“Why you try’n burn down the school?”

“I didn’t burn nuthin’.” Cousin got to his feet.

He was an old twenty. Not smart or mature, just old. Like he had lived forty years in half the time but hadn’t learned a thing.

I knocked him down again.

“Hey, man!” he yelled.

“Who’s the white man you were with?”

“What white man?”

“You want me to kick you?” I moved my right foot backward in a threatening motion.

“What you want from me?”

“The man put that bomb under the metal shop at Truth.”

Cousin’s skin was a deep, lusterless brown. His jaw was swelling up. He passed his hand over his head from fear that I’d mussed his hair.

“You the law?”

“I work for the school.”

“Man named Lund.”



“How you spell it?”

“I’on’t know, man.”

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