“The test of a crime series is its main character, and Sully is someone we’ll want to read about again and again. . . . When the murder victim in the novel is identified as the young scion of one of the city’s most wealthy and influential African American families, the story expands its themes of race and class, which lend it dimension.” —Lisa Scottoline, The Washington Post
Reporter Sully Carter returns in a thrilling murder mystery of race, wealth, and family secrets
When Billy Ellison, the son of Washington, D.C.’s most influential African-American family, is found dead in the Potomac near a violent drug haven, reporter Sully Carter knows it’s time to start asking some serious questions—no matter what the consequences. With the police unable to find a lead and pressure mounting for Sully to abandon the investigation, he has a hunch that there is more to the case than a drug deal gone bad or a tale of family misfortune. Riding the city's backstreets on his Ducati 916, Sully finds that the real story stretches far beyond Billy and into D.C.’s most prominent social circles.
A hard drinker still haunted by his years as a war correspondent in Bosnia, Sully now must strike a dangerous balance between D.C.’s two extremes—the city’s violent, depraved projects and its highest corridors of power—while threatened by those who will stop at nothing to keep him from discovering the shocking truth. The only person he can trust is his old friend Alexis, a talented photographer and fellow war zone junkie, who is as sexy as she is fearless, but even Alexis can't protect Sully from everyone who would rather he give up the story.
Following the acclaimed first Sully Carter novel, The Ways of the Dead, this gritty mystery digs deeper into Sully's past while revealing how long-held secrets can destroy even the most powerful families.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Neely Tucker is the author of The Ways of the Dead, the first Sully Carter novel, and the memoir Love in the Driest Season, which was named one of the Best 25 Books of the Year by Publishers Weekly. Currently a staff writer at The Washington Post Sunday magazine, Tucker lives with his family in Maryland.
From the Hardcover edition.
SULLY CARTER HAD a pleasant little bourbon buzz going. It was a fine afternoon in the first spring of the twenty-first century. He’d been out on a fast boat in the Washington Channel, taking in the sunshine and the brisk spring breeze and the view of the dead body being pulled from the water. It was all pretty cool and mellow until he decided to go over to Frenchman’s Bend and see if that’s where the guy got popped.
He got there at a little after two in the afternoon, maybe four hours and change before deadline. Stillness. The wind tickling his ears, the sound of water slapping. Closed his eyes and the world was a warm yellow light behind his eyelids. Opening them again, it was almost . . . peaceful. He was walking past the first trees of the Bend, the buds tight along the branches, the faint scent of brackish water in his face, when he saw two enforcers for the drug crew that ran the place coming out of the apartment block to his right.
They let him pass, the little fuckers, let him walk deeper into the park, out toward the open grassy knob that stuck out into the channel like a thumb, and now they were sliding in behind him, cutting off his retreat. He did not have a clear view of either. The shorter figure came in behind him off his right, a too-big hoodie draped over his head. The other, taller, faster, but not in any real hurry, peeled off behind him toward the brick-wall boundary with Fort McNair, coming in off his left.
He could not hear them but didn’t expect to, what with the wind in his face. Their appearance wasn’t unexpected—it was the Bend, after all—but there was going to be some shit. There was going to be some shit now. Slowing his gimp-legged walk, dangling the motorcycle helmet from his right hand, the cycle jacket unzipped and open, doing his best white-man-without-a-clue impersonation. Under his breath, he swore at himself for getting involved in this two-bit homicide because now it was going to screw the entire day. He felt, somewhere behind his eyes, the bourbon beginning to burn off, his senses coming alive, calculating the moves of the men behind him without acknowledging their existence.
This was how your day went south without even trying.
He’d been having lunch with Dave Roberts and his crew from WCJT, having a gentleman’s drink or three at the Cantina Marina, on the waterfront. Dave got a call from the station about tourist boats shrieking to 911 that they’d seen a body floating in the waves. Good people from Iowa come to take a tour of your nation’s capital, starting out from the marina in Southwest D.C., just a few hundred yards from the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin, then heading down to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s place, for a picnic lunch. Then bam, they get a view of how the other half lives. The body was floating just off the tip of Hains Point, at the confluence of the Potomac and the Anacostia, not even three-quarters of a mile from the marina.
The station rented a boat on the fly; Sully bummed a ride because, hell, it sounded like fun. A quick story for the paper and away they went, roaring out into the channel, all boys, giggling that this was a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour, the camera man swaying, trying to get steady B-roll.
Two police department launches were already out there, the station’s boat skittering beyond them so that the camera guy could shoot back toward the city as a backdrop. The body was floating like a cork in a bathtub, tangled up with a clutch of driftwood. The police techs got a net under it and then the winch on the launch’s crane creaked. The net pulled the body up and up until it was in the air, water pouring, long thick hair, dreadlocks falling away from the skull, the corpse in jeans and a jacket of some sort and one shoe. It lay there like a dead cod pulled off the bottom.
“What do you know, we just made the six o’clock,” Dave said.
The camera guy spread his feet and the camera whirred, getting the focus tight, pulling the body into clarity. The police boats had a lot of guys in sunglasses and Windbreakers with DC MPD on the back. Dave talking to the camera guy, “You got the Monument in the background?”
“The money shot,” the man said, nodding.
Cops crowded around the corpse and after a few minutes the huddle broke up. Lt. John Parker, the chief of D.C. Homicide, emerged, walking to the rail, hands on his hips, feet at the width of his shoulders, sunglasses, and a blue-and-black Windbreaker over his suit, glaring at them like they were walking on his lawn.
“Hey John,” Dave called out, cupping his hands into a megaphone. “Any ID on floater man?”
“That thing off?” John yelled back, rolling a hand toward the camera, shades still down, that hard-ass cop look he had.
Dave sighed and nodded and the cameraman flicked the camera off and set it by his feet. The boats idled closer, pulling alongside, the sun splashing on John’s bald head, his sunglasses.
“All off the record,” John said, “and I mean, I don’t want to hear ‘police sources say,’ ‘a source familiar with the investigation,’ no shit like that. All y’all hear?”
Everybody on the boat on the forward rail, leaning to hear him, nodded: Dave, the former Redskins linebacker turned local news personality; Sully, the alleged hotshot for one of the nation’s great newspapers, nodding, yeah, yeah, whatever.
“No I.D., no name,” John said.
“Courageous, taking that sort of bombshell off the record,” Dave said.
“Was he still recognizable?” Sully chipped in.
“Mostly,” John said.
“What does that mean?”
“He still had a face.”
“Jesus,” said Dave.
“Fish, shrimp, crabs get after them when they been in a couple of days,” John said, “so I’m guessing our guy was a recent entry.”
“Cause of death?” This was Sully.
“I’m just a homicide cop, and I just got my body five minutes ago, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the extra hole in his head, entry at his left temple, exit on his right, contributed.”
“That’s actually two extra holes,” Sully said.
“Thank you, Pocahontas,” John said.
“The head shot is on or off the record?”
“Did I stutter?”
“Drugs, guns, pussy, turf,” John said. “Take your pick. Brothers get popped like clockwork around here and you asking me, without so much as an ID, a motive?”
John was somewhere between irritated and angry, so when Dave said they were going to need to back the boat off and shoot some more B-roll, Sully just shrugged. He’d ask John more later, after the autopsy, in private, when he’d cooled off. The boats pushed back and the camera guy went back to filming the police boats at a distance.
Sully killed time by studying the D.C. waterline, about four hundred yards to the north, already having a pretty good hunch where this particular corpse would have come from, and no doubt John Parker did, too—Frenchman’s Bend, which bellied out into the water like a limp dick, like a mini-Florida, about a half mile back up the channel. It was a bullshit city park, scrubby grass and beat-to-shit trees, sitting right before the pencil-thin strand of Southwest D.C. gave way to the brick walls and manicured lawns of Fort McNair, the small U.S. Army base that ran to the end of the peninsula.
From his vantage point, the fort’s long row of precisely spaced waterfront houses seemed so close that you could almost tell if the drapes were pulled. The jonquils and tulips and pansies and begonias were coming up around the porches. The flowers were planted at each house in the same pattern. The exacting nature of this arrangement, replicated at house after house, made the fort appear monotonous if not robotic. And yet it was those startling bursts of red and yellow and pink and white that made the protruding knob of the Bend so identifiable and desolate by comparison: brown dirt and weeds too dumb to die and scraps of paper and brightly colored plastic bags, trash flitting across the scrub. No wonder there was a seven-foot brick wall running between the fort and the neighborhood.
The Bend, meanwhile, wasn’t on any tourist map and was scarcely acknowledged by the city itself. It had been the District’s most notorious antebellum slave market, its chattel packed into long-gone wooden pens, slaves brought from the farms lining the Potomac or the Anacostia, put on a platform, and sold off onto ships bound for cotton plantations down south. It had opened long before Washington was the capital but stayed in business for decades, the shame of the city, slaves force-marched through the streets in neck shackles.
Its stigma was so great that the land had never been built upon, not in the late nineteenth century when Southwest was a working-class address of the Irish and Germans, not later when it became a warren of blacks and Jews, not even in the post–World War II razing and building boom in that quadrant of the city.
For the past thirty years, it had been a yellowish scab, a drug park run by one crew or another, and nobody really seemed to give a good goddamn. If Sully hadn’t been raised in Louisiana, an entire state of a yellowish scab still haunted by slavery, he might have thought the Bend was poisoned or cursed or defiled, a city block of malignant soil so infected by the sins of its past that it seeped into the souls of the living.
Now, twenty minutes after Dave had dropped him back at the dock, Sully was walking across this sorry expanse of real estate, seeing if there was anything that passed for a connection to the body in the water. The giddy high of the bourbon and fucking around with Dave’s crew was fading into a headache and a slow burn. John Parker was right. This was going to turn out to be another drug shooting in a city that had averaged almost a homicide every day of every week of every month, all year round. For John, that likely meant another unsolved killing. For Sully, it translated as a fuckall story that was going to take too long and add up to not much.
He stopped a few feet from the water. He slid the backpack off his left shoulder, pulled the notebook out of the backpack, and then reached around inside it, looking for a pen. When he found one, he set the helmet and the backpack down, flipped open the notebook, and started writing down the basics of the park. No relevant details as to floater man jumped out at him, but he was after scenery, not specifics. The main atmospheric—the big picture that gave the place its sense of foreboding, even in the daylight—was the dearth of anything anyone would want. Across the channel at Hains Point, East Potomac Park looked like an emerald idyll, bike paths and the golf course and manicured roads. Over here, on the wrong side of the water, it was all packed dirt and broken glass and the hard hustle.
“Not buying,” he said loudly, still writing, not looking up.
The footsteps behind him paused, then resumed and stopped again. He kept writing, idle observations about the desolation of the place and the meanness it gave off, like the scent of blood in a coroner’s office. He had been here once or twice at night on crime scenes and thought it depressing and mean. The fresh spring disinfectant of daylight and a good breeze didn’t do much for it.
“Working on a story,” he said, still writing, but turning around, “about this guy who wound up in the channel last night? Shot in the head.”
He looked up. Didn’t recognize either of them. Foot soldiers. It wasn’t like the Hall brothers, the identical twins who ran this turf, would stoop to checking out the loco paleface wandering into the Bend in the middle of the afternoon.
The one on his left, he dubbed him Short Stuff, the hoodie still pulled over his head. That tall drink of water on the right, he’d go with Lanky Dreads as a nickname, at least for now. They both had their hands in their pockets and regarded him with the dull, flat glares that a nobody like him warranted.
“Probably military,” Sully continued, making it up as he went, selling it, gesturing off to his right, “from the fort? But it turns out you can’t get in there. So I stopped off here to look around.”
He’d never been to the fort in his life and had no idea of the entrance requirements, and he was guessing the same applied to these two halfwits, so it wasn’t like they were going to be reciting U.S. military protocol to him.
“Man dead in the channel?” This was Short Stuff, his voice deeper than Sully would have thought, and he moved his guess on the man’s age from eighteen to twenty.
Sully nodded, yeah yeah, sure.
A shake of the head. “Reporter.”
Lanky Dreads, the tall one on his right, shifted his weight to his back foot, eyeing him, Sully recognizing the long gaze on the scars. Then Lanky Dreads said, “The fuck’s with your face?” his voice raspy, like a grate, like somebody sandblasted his vocal cords when he was three. Short Stuff laughed. It sounded like a bark.
“It’s a shrapnel tattoo,” Sully said.
“It looks like shit.”
“Good thing I got it for free.”
The same dude, flicking a wrist forward at him. “Whyn’t you walk right?”
“It hurt a lot?”
“Until I passed out.”
“You military?” This was Lanky Dreads again, but Short Stuff flicked a glance over at his partner, irritated, not hiding it.
“Nope,” Sully said, cutting his eyes between them, trying to figure out who was in charge. “Reporter, like I said. I was in Bosnia. The paper? Sent me over there. They had a war going on. I got blown up.”
“They get the guy?”
“That fucked you up.”
“It was a grenade. There wasn’t any guy to get.”
“So why you down here?”
“Curious,” said Short Stuff, flicking that glance at his partner again, “cut that shit out.”
Lanky Dreads blinked, three, four, five-six-seven times, like he was processing the interruption, but he did not take his gaze from Sully. “Brothers get capped on the block all the time,” he said, defensive, like he was justifying the line of inquiry. “Ain’t no reporters show up.”
Sully shifted his weight, time getting short. You could only talk to dickheads like this for so long before it got ugly, and the clock was about to strike half past. “I already done said. This dude floating out there in the channel? Had six holes in his head instead of the usual five. Seven, you want to count the exit wound. Tourist boat spotted him riding the waves, they freaked, so now it’s all over television. Police? They figure he’s military, went in the water off the fort over there. Turns out you got to have a pass to get in. Which I don’t got. Like I said.”
“Whyn’t you think he didn’t fall off a yacht?” Yat.
“’Cause that’s not what MPD thinks.”
Short Stuff snorted like he was about to hawk up a wad. “Like they know shit.”
“John Parker,” Sully said, cutting his gaze back to Shorty. “When I say MPD? I’m meaning John Parker.”
He threw the name out there—the head of D.C. Homicide—to show he wasn’t a fuckhead, right, and to see if they knew the name, to get a gauge of what level of the crew he was dealing with. Short Stuff clocked his head a quarter turn.
“Hey, Parker? John Parker? Hey, fuck him, f...
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