Deacon King Kong (18. Investigation)
The fight over the free cheese in Hot Sausage’s basement boiler room that Saturday morning would have broken out into a full-scale riot if Soup Lopez hadn’t been there. Sister Gee was glad she’d made him come. It wasn’t so much that Hot Sausage wasn’t there to dole out the free cheese, Sister Gee thought, but rather the fact that Sausage was dead—shot and killed the previous Wednesday, along with his dear friend Sportcoat. Apparently both had been shot and dumped in the harbor by Deems, who also shot himself dead. That’s what the early word was. They were just bad rumors. The Cause was used to those, Sister Gee knew. Even so, the whole business hit everyone pretty hard.
“Damned Deems,” Bum-Bum said. “He got the order wrong. He shoulda shot hisself first.” She was usually the first in line at the basement ramp door, rising at five a.m. to arrive by six. It was part of a quest she’d begun in recent months to find out who the secret cheese giver was. She hadn’t found out yet, but her early arrival confirmed three points: One, that Hot Sausage wasn’t the cheese giver. Two, that her place at the front of the line was always assured, since most of her friends were there early too. And three, she’d have first dibs on the gossip, since all the early cheese grabbers were friends from the flagpole she’d known for years.
That morning she got there ten minutes later than normal, to find Miss Izi first in line, having arrived early as usual, chatting with Sister Gee, who stood behind the cheese distribution table, having been appointed to the sad duty of distributing the cheese in Sausage’s absence. Not far behind her were the Cousins, Joaquin the numbers runner, and Bum-Bum’s secret delight, Dominic the Haitian Sensation, whose face, she noted, looked freshly washed and whose fingernails looked clipped—always a sign of good sanitation in a man. Behind him were the two other members of the Puerto Rican Statehood Society of the Cause Houses. All the heavy hitters of news, views, and gossip were there in perfect formation. Today had all the makings of good conversation and excellent hot gossip.
She sidled into her honorary place at the front of the line just behind Miss Izi, who had saved her a spot, and slipped in just in time to hear Miss Izi give her views on the matter.
“Sportcoat had been drinking himself to the quit line for twenty years,” she said. “But I didn’t think Sausage drank that much. Maybe they got into a fight and shot each other.”
“Sausage didn’t shoot nobody,” Bum-Bum said.
Standing in line behind her, Dominic—who just happened to rise up at five a.m. and just happened to arrive at the basement door at six a.m., and by golly just happened to find himself lined up behind Bum-Bum after trading places with several people in line so that he could move up—agreed. “Sausage was a good friend,” he said.
Joaquin, several spots behind them, looked strangely sad. “I borrowed twelve dollars from Sausage,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t pay it back.”
“God, you are cheap,” Miss Izi said. She was standing a good five people ahead of her ex-husband and stepped out of line to address him. “You’re so tight with money your ass squeaks when you walk.”
“At least I have an ass,” he said.
“Yeah. Three. One’s on your face.”
A man at the back of the line yelled at Miss Izi to get her fat ass back in line.
“Mind your business!” Joaquin snapped.
“Make me, Joaquin!” he hollered.
Joaquin stepped out of line and a general ruckus was about to get out of hand but was quelled by Soup the giant, who stepped in, looking somber in his Nation of Islam suit. Sister Gee quickly intervened, moving from behind the long table piled high with cheese and gently coaxing Soup aside.
“Can y’all keep your heads, please?” she said. “We don’t know what happened. We’ll know more later.”
Later came right away, as there was a bit of shuffling at the entranceway. Sister Gee watched as the cheese line that snaked out the door suddenly shifted. Several people stepped aside, and Sergeant Potts stepped into the boiler room.
He was followed by his young partner and two plainclothes detectives, all business, who squeezed past the line that jammed the doorway and into the middle of the suddenly crowded boiler room, which fell silent.
Potts looked at the table where Sister Gee stood, then at the nervous residents waiting in line. He noticed movement out of the corner of his eye and saw three people, one woman and two men, step out of line and slip toward the exit without a word. He guessed they were either parolees or had outstanding arrest warrants. A fourth, a huge, young, well-dressed Puerto Rican nearly seven feet tall, moved to follow. The young man looked vaguely familiar to Potts, and as the big figure moved toward the door, Potts’s partner Mitch tapped him and nodded at Soup. “You want me to question him?”
“You kidding? You see the size of that guy?”
Soup slipped out, along with the others.
Potts turned his attention to Sister Gee. Even on an early, bleak Saturday in that dank, crowded basement, she looked lovely as an Irish spring morning. She wore jeans and a blouse that she tied at the waist and her hair tied in a bun with a colorful sash, which set off her lovely features.
“Morning,” he said to her.
She smiled thinly. She didn’t seem happy to see him. “Seems like you brought the whole force today,” she said.
He glanced at the people in line, noticed Bum-Bum, Dominic, and Miss Izi staring at him, nodded toward the three officers, and said, “Could you speak to these officers a minute? Just routine. Nothing to worry about. I saw you three at the church, is all. We just wanna learn about the victims.” To Sister Gee he said, “Can I speak to you outside?”
Sister Gee didn’t bother to tell him that only Sister Bum-Bum was actually a member of Five Ends Baptist. Instead, she turned to one of the Cousins, Nanette, and said simply, “Nanette. Take over.”
She followed Potts up the ramp and outside. When they were in the plaza he turned to her, placed his hands in his pockets, and frowned at the ground. She noticed he was wearing a double-breasted sergeant’s jacket. He looked quite sharp, she thought, and also bothered. Finally he looked at her.
“I will not say I told you so.”
“But as you know, there’s been an incident.”
“All of it?”
“No. Just rumors. I don’t believe in rumors.”
“Well, we think Ralph Odum . . . Mr. Odum. Um, Hot Sausage, the boiler man, drowned in the harbor.”
She heard herself gasp without really feeling it. She had no plan to howl and lose her face in front of him. She felt foolish suddenly. He was a wonderful stranger, a lovely dream, and now he was just like any other cop. Bringing bad news. And probably reports. And more warrants. And more questions. Always questions from these types. Never answers.
“I didn’t believe it when I heard it,” she said somberly. “I thought maybe Sportcoat was the one that drowned.”
“No. Sausage drowned. Our guy—your guy—Sportcoat is alive. I saw him this morning.”
“Is he okay?”
“Shot in the chest. He’s alive, though. He’ll make it.”
“Where is he?”
“Maimonides hospital in Borough Park.”
“Why’d they brung him all the way out there?”
Potts shrugged. “Also, Deems Clemens was shot in the left shoulder. He’ll live too.”
“Lord. They shot each other?”
“Unknown. Also there was a third person shot. Randall Collins. He was killed.”
“I don’t know him.”
“Apparently he had a nickname.”
“Everybody does out here.”
“I know him.” She said it curtly, to cut off the choking sound of her own weeping. Once it started she knew it wouldn’t stop. She was not going to cry in front of him. Then the first surge of shock and sorrow passed and he was still silent, so she spoke again, just to keep her composure. “What do you need from me?”
“Any reason your man Sportcoat would want to shoot those two?”
“You know the reason behind it much as I do,” she said.
Potts’s glance moved to the rooftop of the plaza building in front of him. He noticed a kid peek over the edge of the roof and disappear. A cop watcher, he thought.
“Actually, I don’t,” he said. “I saw your Sportcoat in the hospital this morning. He’d been shot close to the heart. They operated and took out the bullet, but he’s okay. He was groggy. Sedated. He was kind of confused. We spoke only a few minutes. He said he didn’t shoot Deems.”
“That sounds like Sportcoat. He was drunk when he did it—that first time anyway. Says he don’t remember a thing. Which he probably don’t.”
“Your Sportcoat, he says a woman shot them all.”
“Well, I reckon a soul will say anything to stay outta jail.”
“I told him that his buddy Hot Sausage drowned. That hit him hard.”
Potts was silent a moment as she bit her lip and blinked back tears.
“You sure he’s drowned?” she asked.
“I’m sure we can’t find him. We found your Sportcoat in an umpire’s outfit. Randall, the dead kid. And Deems, who was wounded. No Hot Sausage.”
She was silent.
“I told you this was serious business, didn’t I?” Potts said.
She looked away and said nothing.
“Were they close friends, those two, Thelonius Ellis, your Sportcoat, and Mr. Odum?” Potts asked.
“Very close.” Sister Gee thought a moment about telling Potts that there was no Ralph Odum. That Ralph Odum was really Hot Sausage’s phony name. That his real name was Thelonius Ellis. And that Sportcoat’s real name was Cuffy Lambkin. And that those two traded off the driver’s license from week to week. Yet Potts hadn’t said a word about Cuffy Lambkin. Something was wrong.
“Sportcoat did seem concerned about his buddy drowning. He was woozy, but he kept talking about his buddy. I told him we weren’t sure his pal Mr. Odum drowned, but the fact is we are. It’s pretty clear. We got a witness from the old paint factory who heard the shots and saw Deems fall in. The witness saw Deems crawl out. Not the old man. Some of Hot Sausage’s effects were in the water as well. Housing Authority hat. Housing Authority jacket. The current was going out by the time the divers got there. The current at this time of year moves out fast. The water’s cold. Bodies sink in cold water, they don’t float. Divers will go in later today and retrieve the body.”
“Did you ask Deems what happened?”
“He’s not talking.”
“I’da thunk it’d be the other way around,” Sister Gee said. “That Deems shot Sportcoat. Or shot them both. Sausage couldn’t stand Deems. But Sausage wouldn’t shoot nobody. Neither would Sportcoat. Not in his right mind. Sportcoat liked Deems—he loved Deems. Even though he shot him, he still loved him. He was Deems’s Sunday school teacher for years. He coached him in baseball. That means something, don’t it?”
Potts shrugged. “Just ’cause you toast marshmallows with a kid on a camping trip doesn’t mean he’ll become a Boy Scout.”
“It’s funny,” she said. “Sport dodged death so many times . . . Sausage, he never got in no trouble with anyone. You sure it ain’t some mistake? They look a little alike, you know.”
“It’s Sportcoat all right. We checked his wallet. His driver’s license with a photo ID.”
“His driver’s license ID?”
She felt a spark go off in her mind, thinking back to Soup’s party, when Sausage said that Sport had gone to the motor vehicle bureau and got a driver’s license bearing Hot Sausage’s real name: Thelonius Ellis. Which Sausage had retrieved from Sportcoat at Soup’s party.
“He was even wearing an umpire’s costume,” Potts added, “which I’m told he wears sometimes.”
“That’s him.” She nodded, but then she thought it through. Even though she saw Sportcoat hand that ID over to Sausage with her own eyes, it would likely take the cops weeks to figure out that the real Thelonius was Hot Sausage and not Sportcoat. Is it possible, she thought, that the two switched the ID again after Soup’s party, on the chance that if the cops arrested Sausage, it would give Sportcoat a chance to run? She decided against it. No. Sportcoat wouldn’t do that. He’d be too drunk. He’s too lazy to think that far ahead. Still, her hopes glimmered a bit. If Hot Sausage was still too woozy to tell them what had happened and who was who, there was a chance.
“That umpire’s vest saved Mr. Ellis’s life,” Potts said. “The bullet hit from the side and the chest protector slowed it. Otherwise, he would have been cooked. Thing is, he was kinda woozy and garbled in his talk. He wasn’t all there. So we’ll go back in a day or two and check with him again, when he’s feeling better.”
“Oh yeah, and he was talking about a woman. What’d you say his wife’s name was?”
“No, it wasn’t Hettie. Something about a Denise Bibb.”
“Sister Bibb?” Sister Gee felt another spark go off in her mind. She stared at the ground, working hard to keep her face blank. “She’s the organ player at our church. Minister of music is her real title.”
“Your Sportcoat said a woman was the shooter, and he mentioned this woman several times. Denise Bibb. Why would he do that? I thought his wife was dead.”
Sister Gee bit her lip. “I reckon he had to be out of his head. You said he was woozy, right?”
“Very much so. Pretty gone, actually. He said some strange things about Mrs. Bibb. Something about her being a killer. A grinder. Strong as a man. A machine gunner. That kind of stuff. Did she have anything against him? You think she might have been involved in some way?”
Sister Gee felt the spark in her head turn to fireworks. I knew it! she thought. Sausage and Sister Bibb had a thing going! She kept staring, willing her face to stay emotionless, before she tried to speak.
“Sister Bibb wouldn’t hurt a fly,” she managed to croak.
“It’s called evidence. I have to ask.”
“It’s called, ‘when you get old, all’s you got is your imagination,’” Sister Gee said. She tried to make her face take on a grim smile but was having trouble. The smile now was real.
Potts stared at her. That smile, he thought, is like a rainbow. He tried to keep his voice even, official. “No other reason to think that this Sister Bibb of yours might have had a grudge against Sportcoat? Lovers’ quarrel maybe?”
Sister Gee shrugged. “There’s plenty tipping going on in church, just like in anyplace in this world. People got feelings, y’know? They get lonesome, even when they’re married. There’s love in this world, mister. It don’t stop for nothing or nobody. You ain’t never seen that?”
She looked at him with such desire that he had to stifle an urge to raise his hand like a third grader in a classroom waiting to be called on—and reach for her hand. She had unmasked him. She didn’t even know she’d done it.
“Of course,” he managed to say.
“But I don’t think there’s nothing between them,” she said. “Whyn’t you ask Sister Bibb herself?”
“Where is she?”
“She’s in Building Thirty-Four. But today being Saturday, she mostly works Saturdays at her job. She cooks in a cafeteria in Manhattan.”
“Did you see her last night?”
“No.” That was the truth. She’d seen her three minutes ago. In the cheese line. But he didn’t ask that. Sister Gee felt a little better. At least she wasn’t “wholesale lying,” as her mother would say. Besides, would he ever know? She found herself hoping he would. It meant he’d likely have to come back and she’d see him again, and again and again. I’ll keep lying, she thought, just to fold into that big shoulder and see him smile and tell a joke in that heavy, pretty voice he got, the way he did that first day in church. Then she felt acid creeping into her throat. Ain’t I a dreamer, she thought bitterly. He’ll be gone when this is all done. Maybe I’ll see him sometime outside Rattigan’s joking with his buddies while I’m sweeping their bottles off the curb. Thinking of it made her miserable.
Potts saw her face fall and was not sure why. “We’ll come back later and check with her,” he said.
She smiled, a sad, genuine one this time, and felt her heart fall to earth as she said the words that brought light to his heart every time he heard them. “Come on back then. Hurry back, if you wanna.”
Potts forced himself to check his emotions. He would have slammed the door on them if he could. He was at work. People were dead. There were families to notify. Detectives to check up on. Paperwork to fill out. They’d rattle this case around the Seventy-Sixth Precinct till somebody got tired of it. The best he could get out of it was standing right in front of him, as gorgeous and kind a woman as he’d ever seen. He sighed deeply, offered a small smile, then glanced at the line at the basement door as his fellow officers waited.
“We better go back down lest they think we’re out here ordering Chinese.”
He turned to head down the ramp until she touched his arm, stopping him.
“Are you sure that Sausage fell in the harbor?” she asked.
“Not really,” he admitted. “You can never be sure till you’ve seen the body.”
She followed him down the ramp. He gathered the other three officers and the four officers filed out in silence.
When the cops were gone, Sister Gee turned to the relieved cheese gatherers, who stood in groups, the line now disbanded. They ignored the cheese, which lay in neat stacks on the table, Nanette guarding them. They gathered around Sister Gee instead.
“I thought I said take over,” she said to Nanette.
“Forget that,” Nanette snapped. “What’d the cop say?”
Sister Gee looked at the people staring at her: Dominic, Bum-Bum, Miss Izi, Joaquin, Nanette, and the rest, at least fifteen people in all. She’d known most of them her whole life. They stared at her with that look, that projects look: the sadness, the suspicion, the weariness, the knowledge that came from living a special misery in a world of misery. Four of their number were down—gone, changed forever, dead or not, it didn’t matter. And there would be more. The drugs, big drugs, heroin, were here. Nothing could stop it. They knew that now. Someone else had already taken over Deems’s bench at the flagpole. Nothing here would change. Life in the Cause would lurch forward as it always did. You worked, slaved, fought off the rats, the mice, the roaches, the ants, the Housing Authority, the cops, the muggers, and now the drug dealers. You lived a life of disappointment and suffering, of too-hot summers and too-cold winters, surviving in apartments with crummy stoves that didn’t work and windows that didn’t open and toilets that didn’t flush and lead paint that flecked off the walls and poisoned your children, living in awful, dreary apartments built to house Italians who came to America to work the docks, which had emptied of boats, ships, tankers, dreams, money, and opportunity the moment the colored and the Latinos arrived. And still New York blamed you for all its problems. And who can you blame? You were the one who chose to live here, in this hard town with its hard people, the financial capital of the world, land of opportunity for the white man and a tundra of spent dreams and empty promises for anyone else stupid enough to believe the hype. Sister Gee stared at her neighbors as they surrounded her, and at that moment she saw them as she had never seen them before: they were crumbs, thimbles, flecks of sugar powder on a cookie, invisible, sporadic dots on the grid of promise, occasionally appearing on Broadway stages or on baseball teams with slogans like “You gotta believe,” when in fact there was nothing to believe but that one colored in the room is fine, two is twenty, and three means close up shop and everybody go home; all living the New York dream in the Cause Houses, within sight of the Statue of Liberty, a gigantic copper reminder that this city was a grinding factory that diced the poor man’s dreams worse than any cotton gin or sugarcane field from the old country. And now heroin was here to make their children slaves again, to a useless white powder.
She looked them over, the friends of her life, staring at her. They saw what she saw, she realized. She read it in their faces. They would never win. The game was fixed. The villains would succeed. The heroes would die. The sight of Beanie’s mother howling at her son’s coffin would haunt them all in the next few days. Next week, or next month some time, some other mother would take her place, howling her grief. And another after that. They saw the future, too, she could tell. It would continue forever. It was all so very grim.
But then, she thought, every once in a while there’s a glimmer of hope. Just a blip on the horizon, a whack on the nose of the giant that set him back on his heels or to the canvas, something that said, “Guess what, you so-and-so, I am God’s child. And I. Am. Still. Here.” She felt God’s blessing at that moment, thanked Him in her heart, for right then she could see that glimmer in their faces, too, could see that they would understand what she was about to tell them, about the man who had wandered among them for most of his adult life, whose lymph nodes grew to the size of marbles when he was eighteen, who staggered around with scarlet fever, hematoid illness, acute viral infection, pulmonary embolism, lupus, a broken eye socket, two bouts of full-blown adult measles, and several flus, and whose one-hundred-proof body had survived more operations in one year than most of them would have in a lifetime, and she felt grateful that the Good Lord had given her the opportunity and presence of mind to share it with them, because in her heart it was proof that God was forever generous with His gifts: hope, love, truth, and the belief in the indestructability of the good in all people. If she could have, she would have stood on top of Building 17 with a bullhorn and shouted that truth for the whole projects to hear.
But telling it to this small group, she knew, was enough. She knew it would go far.
“Sausage ain’t dead,” she said. “He was shot but he’s still living. He’s in the hospital.”
“And Sportcoat?” Bum-Bum asked.
A blanket of silence covered the room.
Sister Gee smiled. “Well now, that’s a story . . .”
Potts and the three officers trooped grimly across the plaza to their squad car. They hadn’t gone five steps when an unexpected sound from the basement boiler room caused them to stop. They stood in place and listened for a moment. The noise quickly dimmed, and after a moment the cops started walking again, this time more slowly.
One of the detectives fell in step with Potts, who was at the back of the group. “Potts, I don’t understand these people. They’re barbarians.”
Potts shrugged and kept walking. He knew there would be strategy meetings, and calls from the mayor’s office, and memos from the new drug task force down at the narcotics bureau in Manhattan. All a waste of time. And at the end of it, there would still be people who argued that housing projects cases weren’t worth spending any more money and manpower on. And now there were three other cops who’d just heard what he’d heard, which would only make his argument that they should pursue this case that much more difficult and inexplicable to the higher-ups, because what the three officers had heard from the boiler room was outrageous—impossible to anyone who hadn’t worked in the Cause Houses for twenty years like he had.
It was the sound of laughing.