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 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 again, 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. The smell hit him first: the usual odor of fried foods mingled with beer and sweat, cut by the sudden but unmistakable stench of violent death.

The building had responded to the fatality in the usual way. Instead of the constant thump of rap beating from multiple speakers, Michael heard only the murmur of voices from behind closed doors. Televisions were turned down low, the halftime show serving as background noise while people talked about the girl on the sixth floor and thanked the Lord it was her this time and not their children, their daughters, themselves.

In this relative quiet, sounds started to echo down the stairwell: the familiar rhythms of a crime scene as evidence was gathered, photos taken. Michael stopped at the bottom of the fourth-floor landing to catch his breath. He had given up smoking two months ago but his lungs hadn’t really believed him. He felt like an asthmatic as he made his way up the next flight of stairs. Above him, someone laughed, and he could hear the other cops join in, participating in the usual bullshit bravado that made it possible for them to do the job.

Downstairs, a door slammed open, and Michael leaned over the railing, watching two women wrangle a gurney inside the foyer. They were wearing dark blue rain jackets, bright yellow letters announcing “MORGUE” on their backs.

Michael called, “Up here.”

“How far up?” one of them asked.

“Sixth floor.”

“Mother fuck,” she cursed.

Michael grabbed the handrail and pulled himself up the next few stairs, hearing the two women offer up more expletives as they started the climb, the gurney banging against the metal railings like a broken bell. He was one flight away from the top when he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Sweat had glued his shirt to his back, but some sort of sixth sense sent a chill through him.

A flash popped and a camera whirred. Michael stepped carefully around a red stiletto shoe that was flat on the stair, looking as if someone had sat down and slipped it off. The next step up had the perfect outline of a bloody hand gripping the tread. The next stair had another handprint, then another, as someone had crawled up the stairs.

Standing on the landing at the top of the fifth flight was Bill Burgess, a seasoned beat cop who had seen just about every kind of crime Atlanta had to offer. Beside him was a dark pool of coagulating blood, the edges spreading in rivulets that dropped from one step to the next like falling dominoes. Michael read the scene. Someone had stumbled here, struggled to get up, smearing blood as she tried to escape.

Bill was looking down the stairs, away from the blood. His skin was blanched, his lips a thin slash of pink. Michael stopped short, thinking he’d never seen Bill flustered before. This was the man who’d gone out for chicken wings an hour after finding six severed fingers in the Dumpster behind a Chinese restaurant.

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