SPECULATION

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Seconds after stepping off the Metro, under a flickering streetlight, Alexandra feels the skin prickling at the back of her neck.

Ignore it. She stiffens her spine.  Keep moving. Walk with purpose.

The very thought makes her smirk as she approaches the corner guarded by two teenage boys and pauses, her eyes scanning the street for a passing car, knowing that neither a change in her gait nor her attitude will make a difference if she gets in the way of a drive-by in the battles over drug turf that rage day and night. 

For now the neighborhood seems eerily quiet, but she keeps her distance as she passes them, purposefully imagining a future when the Victorian wrecks that line the block will be transformed and the rising tide of property values comes within  selling distance of her own home.

And then she sees another one, stepping out of the alley up ahead, his face shadowed by a black hooded sweatshirt, coming toward her with a slouching stride.

She ignores the impulse to cross the street, but tightens her grip on the strap of her purse.

His pace quickens as he gets closer, his hand moving toward his waistband as the distance shortens to 10 feet, then five –

And passes, without ever meeting her eyes.

She exhales with relief; feels a  flash of guilt over her suspicion –

And feels his hard grip on her shoulder, like pliers on her flesh as he jerks her around.

“Give it up.”

His face is an inch away now, a long, raised scar like a half moon on his cheek.

“GIVE IT UP!”

There’s a hard pressure between her ribs. She looks down. Sees the gun —

And drops her bag. He kicks it to the side and leans down to pick it up, pointing the weapon at her face now.

“Please . . .” she whispers.

Something happens in his eyes, a flicker of emotion as he moves slightly back.

But the gun is still there.

“Take the purse,” she whispers again.  “Just please . . .don’t hurt me.”

He stares at her, the gun quivering in his hand. It’s still pointed at her as he breaks into a sideways run, the hood slipping off the back of his head.

“Next time I blow you away!” he calls out.

She thinks of how easily it could have happened.  Tonight.  Any night.  Less than 20 feet from her front door.

“Next time we gon’ bust you for real!”

* * *

“Here . . .” Enrique hands her a double shot of Booker’s single barrel bourbon in a crystal tumbler. His eyes are reddened by fatigue, and the concern in his handsome face makes Alexandra feel even worse as she lifts the glass and looks at the black police officer who has come to take the report. Officer Whitney Jones is a striking woman with broad hips and shoulders and eyes that remind her of brown velvet. She seems preternaturally calm as she gazes around the living room, with its hardcover classics lining the bookshelves, the three-masted schooner painting above the mantel, the duck and horse prints on the wall. An old money tableau in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city.

“Are you sure we can’t get you something?” Alexandra asks. “Water, or a soda?”

“No,” Jones shakes her head as she meets her eyes again. “But I do need you to try to come up with a better description of this guy. I can’t post a look-out unless I can tell the other officers what to look for.”

She nods, but senses an ironic undertone in Officer Jones’ phrasing, since the assailant is virtually indistinguishable from any of the teens and young men who roam the local streets.

But then she takes a long sip of the good bourbon, and manages to remember: “He was young, 17 or 18 maybe. “

“How tall?” Jones asks.

“I’m 5’7″. He was shorter.”

“Could you guess his weight?”

“He was very thin. 120 or 30.”

She pauses. “What I remember most was the gun. An automatic. A nine millimeter probably.”

Jones’ eyes widen a bit.

“I’ve shot one a few times, in Virginia where it’s legal. My family has a horse farm in Middleburg. I have an uncle who taught me.”

She presses her fingertips against her heart, remembers the boy’s shaking hand as he pressed the gun against her ribs.

“He actually seemed a little scared.”

“Jesus,” Enrique looks towards the bay window, disgust in his eyes. Over and over he had warned her to never walk home alone from the Metro after dark. Now, as the shock begins to subside, she feels guilty. And foolish. And angrier than ever, knowing that the purse and its contents are almost certainly gone for good.

“Are you sure that’s all you can tell me?” Jones asks.

“She said that’s all she remembers,” Enrique snaps.

Jones frowns slightly, and taps her pen against her pocket-sized notebook, then meets her eyes again.

“I want you to try something for me, Mrs. Rodriguez. Close your eyes.  Block the rest of us out.  Put yourself back to when it happened.  Tell us what you see.”

She does as the woman asks, sees the dark street, the boy approaching.  “He’s black.”

Heat rushes to her face.  “I mean it’s not the first thing I see, but . . .”

“Keep going. What’s your first impression?”

“That he’s coming for me.  He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt . . . but it fell down when he ran away. I remember . . . he had tiny braids . . . and a scar on his face.”

Several seconds tick by. Jones is frowning at her when she opens her eyes.

“The scar . . . was it on the right side or the left?”

“He was facing me.  It was on his right.”

Jones nods, and clicks her pen with several rapid, nervous motions. “Think again. Are you sure you’ve never seen him in the neighborhood before?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it possible?”

“Yes.  It’s possible.”

“So what all did he get?”

“My purse. With my wallet and credit cards and some cash . . . and my husband’s birthday present – a pair of gold cufflinks

She feels Enrique’s forearm tense behind her neck, turns around, sees the outright pain in his eyes, then decides to reveal just a little bit more about the other incidents that have put both of them on edge.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve been targeted, Officer Jones. Two months ago someone broke into our house and attacked my husband in the middle of the day. He spent two days in the hospital with a concussion. The police who took the report weren’t helpful at all – said they couldn’t do anything with the description he gave them. It was like they didn’t even try.”

Jones frowns again. “What was that description?”

She pauses, feeling the racial awkwardness at its worst.

“It was a black guy, a teenager, in a hooded sweatshirt.” Enrique answers for her. “He ambushed me when I got out of my car in the alley. Told me to give up my wallet. Then forced his way into the house with a gun at my back.”

Jones winces slightly. “I’m sorry you had to go through that Mr. Rodriguez. I really am.”

Alexandra watches her for a moment longer, and knows the sentiment is genuine. And then she decides to tell her what scares both of them the most.

“There’s also the graffiti,” she says softly. “On the stockade fence behind our patio. It’s like a direct threat.”

“What do you mean, direct?” Jones asks.

“The message – “

She glances at Enrique again, his expression taking her back to the moment the two of them stepped through the gate and saw the bright red letters spray-painted against the weathered wood.

DIE BITCH

“We saw it this morning when we were leaving for work,” she says. “It must have been sprayed on some time last night.”

The mere mention of the graffiti has brought new lines of worry to Enrique’s face. Behind his sadness and exhaustion she detects a deeper sense of fear.

Like the worst-case scenario is actually coming true, she thought. Like it’s suddenly personal.

“I love you,” he says.

“I love you too,” she tells him, wondering once again if it’s going to be enough to get them through.

His shoulders sag as he turns back toward Jones. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

* * *

Three blocks away, alongside a city office building in the final phase of construction, Garrett Fiske sits behind the wheel of his BMW and squints at the screen of his phone. The images of Alexandra and Enrique’s living room are indistinct due to the low-level of light from the tiny lens tucked into the chandelier. Still, he has to hand it to the geek who installed the hidden cameras and the microphones throughout the place during its reconstruction, placing $20,000 worth of clandestine surveillance gear within its walls and fixtures. For six months it’s been easy to tune in, without a single technological glitch, to watch their lives fall apart.

He momentarily sets his phone down on the console of the $150,000 ride, knowing it won’t be difficult to explain his presence if a curious cop comes by and questions him since he owns the company that’s financing the building behind him, already framed and rising six stories into the night sky, the first of many “anchors” that will put the neighborhood on a far more prosperous course.

And then he goes back to the video he shot himself from his car an hour before; watches again as Alexandra moves along the sidewalk 200 yards from her house – watches as the boy as he approaches her, his hand hovering over the gun in his waistband, doing exactly as he was told.

* * *

Three hours into the night, they are asleep and dreaming, Alexandra incapacitated by several more shots of the good bourbon; Enrique in an addled slumber that will leave him anxious and fatigued when the morning comes.

Alexandra’s dream is a series of images that cycle through her mind in some form almost every night. She’s at the party around a dying bonfire on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a dark night – muggy and starless from the overcast sky. She’s sitting on the sand, her arms crossed awkwardly over her chest, avoiding Garrett’s glaring looks but feeling his anger as he waves away the party’s last drunken guests. Fortunately or not she stopped drinking an hour before, right about the time she decided that whatever she and Garrett had is finally over. Since then she’s been preoccupied over how to tell her mother, and her father, thinking of their inevitable disappointment  –

She feels a tap on her shoulder, looks up to see Garrett looking down, a red plastic cup in his hand.

“No,” she tells him, despite the croaking dryness in her throat.

“It’s your favorite Ginger Ale,” he tells her, knowing how much she loves the locally brewed, all-organic soft drink. “It’d be a waste to pour it out.”

She shrugs and takes it; drinks it down, grateful for the cool, sweet taste, then tells him: “I’m turning in.”

“Me too,” he says, with a smile that provides no cover for the lingering anger in his eyes. After two years of conflict over his stifling possessiveness, which has recently morphed into full-fledged stalking, she has made a clear that her decision is final.

But the condescending gleam in his eyes tells her he isn’t buying it.

“I’ll walk you back,” he says.

She shakes her head, her whole body rigid with tension.

He continues staring at her. She wonders if anyone has ever said no to him in his entire life.

“Just go Garrett. Leave me alone.”

He stands over her, saying nothing. And then after a long moment he seems to get the message and heads back through the dunes, his stride slow and confident, as if her decision has made no difference for him.

She stays put for 10 minutes, breathing deep, listening to the surf. But when she tries to stand she teeters on wobbly knees and falls backward, her butt hitting the sand.

She groans, and has a vague thought that Garrett might have poisoned her as a wave of nausea rolls through her stomach. Her eyelids droop heavily, tempting her to simply lie back and let sleep take over.

But then she thinks of the four poster bed in her favorite room in the family house; with its diaphanous canopy and cool linen sheets, and wants nothing more than to be there, right now.

She leans forward and concentrates on her balance as she awkwardly stands back up, more certain now that the ginger ale was laced with something.

And then she heads back, along the slatted path between the dunes, wobbling but determined, until a hard shove from the darkness knocks her sideways, her arms too slow to break her fall as she goes down, face-first on the sand; Garrett’s voice – “BITCH!” – terrifying her as he lands a punch against the side of her head.

And then she feels his hands around her ankles, her body going rag-doll limp as he drags her back into the dunes.

* * *

Enrique’s dream begins in what was supposed to be a happy place: the oak-sheltered driveway aside Alexandra’s parents’ Kalorama mansion, his Ford F10 pickup looking like a vehicle left behind by their cadre of gardeners but  his mind bright and hopeful as he looks down at the glittering diamond on Alexandra’s hand.

But then as always the happy feeling fades when they enter the house to announce the engagement – to Wentworth Bancroft in his artfully distressed leather chair, his Mount Rushmore face clearly revealing his scorn, and to Clarice Bancroft on the edge of her embroidered settee, her thin shoulders quivering as she fights back tears.

“How . . . wonderful,” Clarice responds to their announcement, as if she’s taking her last living breath.

“Yes,” Wentworth says, before a long, impenetrable silence.

Biding his time, Enrique thinks, cognizant even in the dream of the naiveté that led him to think that half of his savings spent on a diamond ring would win them over, now that he so clearly understands the difference between earning money and having money, between working your way up in society and doing whatever the hell you have to do to protect your place in it.

And then suddenly he’s back in the pickup again, looking down at the diamond on Alexandra’s hand, watching it flicker and blur, changing shape into the golden cufflinks that were stolen from her tonight, taking him back to the worst nightmare of all.

* * *

The workday starts just before noon for Whitney Jones, in the second week of a diet that aims to shed 10 pounds before her upcoming walk down the aisle, where she’ll finally get the gold ring from Detective Marcus Brown.

Marcus is behind the wheel of an unmarked Crown Vic, holding her left hand and gently massaging the finger where he will place that ring as they drive past the perfectly restored row house owned by Alexandra and Enrique Rodriguez

“I still can’t believe it was our boy,” Marcus says.

The “boy” Marcus is referring to De’Andre Williams, a 19-year-old local who’s become a Confidential Informant on matters related to the deaths of two young women within a two block radius of the Rodriguez home. From his slight build to his braided hair to the half-moon scar on his cheek, De’Andre is a perfect match to the description Alexandra Rodriguez gave of her mugger the night before.

“Yeah me either,” Whitney agrees. De’Andre Williams has a handful of drug arrests that make him well known and unthreatening to the probable murderer of the two neighborhood women. Fortunately or not, De’Andre is also completely terrified of the man, which makes his mental state shaky at best.

But that still doesn’t explain why he would hold up a woman like Alexandra Bancroft Rodriguez.

Someone who actually matters, Whitney thinks, now that she knows a bit more about Alexandra and her blue-blooded family and private school education and the beleaguered path her father took en route to becoming the U.S. Treasury Secretary – from Wall Street wealth to Washington power, somehow getting past the controversies that stood in his way.

She continues to mull it all over as Marcus speeds up, going past the vacant row house where the first victim was shot in the head, then past another property, now condemned by the city, where the second victim had lived as a squatter. Ten minutes later they’re in a far better part of the city, an avenue lined with upscale retail and condos and a McDonalds retrofitted into a corner grocery store built in the art deco style. A regular meeting place for the CI, in a neighborhood where he won’t be recognized.

De’Andre Williams is already inside when they arrive, staring up at the overhead menu showcasing the meal that will be paid for by the Metropolitan Police Department. He sees them, then scans the room, as if there’s any chance an acquaintance from the neighborhood would find him here with a detective and a uniformed cop.

Whitney gives him her warmest smile and the two-handed handshake he’s accustomed to, saying nothing more as he orders the largest and most expensive combo on the menu. But she wastes no time in calling him out the moment they sit down at a booth.

“We know about the lady you stuck up last night.”

His reaction is instant; a quick, nervous blinking of his eyes, a bobbing of his Adams apple from what is probably a dry-mouthed swallow.

“We’re disappointed,” Marcus says. “We never would have expected you’d do something like – “

“I din’t . . .” De’Andre’s voice is between a whisper and a gasp.

She gives him a moment to catch his breath, then calmly tells him, “she pegged you by your hair, and your build, and the mark on your face.”

His eyes take on a mournful shine. She regrets the mention of the scar, but adds, “there’s no doubt she could pick you out of a line-up, so no reason to deny it.”

“So the question is why,” Marcus says.

They watch the slow rise and fall of his chest, and see the look of resignation in his eyes.

“He told me to.”

“He – ?” Marcus frowns.

“Obadu.”

Marcus’ mouth drops, a reaction that mirrors her own. Three months into the investigation, they have no doubt that Simon Obadu, a 35-year-old Nigerian immigrant, drug dealer and wanna-be real estate tycoon, is the killer of the two local women, both of whom were drug addicts without a dime to their names.

“So you’re saying . . . Obadu told you to hold up this white woman.” Marcus’ deliberate tone conveys his disbelief. “To just walk up to her with a gun and steal her purse -“

“No. He told me to kill her.”

Marcus sits back, and frowns, and pauses, waiting for De’Andre to go on. But De’Andre stays quiet, staring down at his Big Mac, still in its paper wrapper. Whitney feels a surprising tinge of guilt, since he’s obviously too upset to eat. She knows he looks forward to this weekly visit to McDonalds for his favorite foods, a bus ride and four Metro stops from the squalid conditions in which he lives.

“Tell us exactly what he said, Dre.” She keeps her voice calm and low, using his nickname to lessen the tension.

He sighs again, his shoulders slumping. “It was yesterday . . . in the afternoon. I went to the stash house where two of his boys was cutting up some rock. They told me he was upstairs. He wanted me to come up there. I thought . . .”

They watch another slow rise and fall of his chest as he looks past them, toward the front of the restaurant.

“Thought what?” she presses him.

“Y’all told me that’s where he killed the second girl, on the second floor of a house he owns. So I was curious . . . and scared . . . his boys were watchin’ me . . . like they was wondrin’ what I was gonna’ do. There was a gun on the table, next to the scale. I thought about how you want me to be – .”

She feels another twinge of guilt as his voice fades. “Go on.”

“You want me to look and act like just another . . . kid on the street. That’s the way it’s ‘sposed to be, right? Peddle this guy’s weed and crack and keep watchin’ him like there’s gonna’ be some sudden miracle clue about what he did.”

He pauses, his unease with the role they’ve asked him to play apparent.

She leans slightly forward, keeping her voice low and calm. “What did he say when he found out you didn’t do what he asked?”

He stares down at the unwrapped burger. “He don’t know yet.”

“So you still have her purse.”

He nods. She wonders if he’s done anything else with the contents: Alexandra’s wallet, her cash, the golden cufflinks.

“It’s in my room at my grandmother’s apartment. I was gonna’ give it up to Obadu today. Tell him I couldn’t do it cause there was cars coming by.”

She looks at the frown on Marcus’ face; knowing his mind is probably three steps ahead now, thinking of how he can possibly avoid arresting De’Andre for what he’s done; thinking of how he can still be useful as an informant.

And then she looks at De’Andre again. “Do you have any idea why he wanted you to do this?”

De’Andre makes a sniffling sound and rubs his nose with the back of his hand as he shakes his head. “No. He just give me two hundred dollars and told me he want it done. Said it was spose to make it look like a robbery.”

“Why didn’t you just say no?”

He meets her eyes, and absently touches the scar on his cheek. His shoulders quiver, revealing the same fear she saw months earlier when Marcus approached him with the idea of being an informant. There were obvious benefits – mainly the charges that would be removed from his record – but there was no disputing the danger he’d face in the bargain.

“We can’t pretend we don’t know that you did this,” she says. “You’re going to have to give us a statement – everything on the record.”

She watches as the quiver in his shoulders travels all the way down his arms; feels her own chest tighten at the thought of him being identified as a snitch, with a price on his head, once Simon Obadu is charged.

She’s still thinking about how it might work when Marcus asks him:

“What about the graffiti?”

De’Andre looks blankly back at him.

“On the fence, behind the lady’s house,” Marcus clarifies. “Did Obadu tell you to do that too?”

The blank look stays on his face as he shakes his head. Whitney feels a slight sense of disorientation – ever since she called Marcus and told him about Alexandra and her description of De’Andre Williams as her attacker, she has assumed De’Andre was also the tagger.

“Tell us the truth, Dre,” she says, using his nickname to lessen the tension. “Did you paint that message on those peoples’ fence, or do you know who did?”

He shakes his head again with a slight frown, and mutters, “No, I don’t know nothin’ about a fence.”

She knows him well enough to tell the confusion is genuine. He doesn’t have a clue.

After a moment her thoughts go in a different direction.

“So tell us what you know about the woman you held up,” she says. “Did you or any of the other guys who work that corner have any interactions with her before?”

He shrugs and stares back down at his untouched lunch.

“You ever even speak to her before?”

He looks up. “What for?”

“Well, you live a block away. And you’re selling drugs for Simon Obadu right on the corner in front of her house. So it just seems like you might have passed each other by.”

His eyes glaze over as he looks past her, toward the front of the building. She thinks of the two of them: Alexandra in her perfect house in the middle of an urban mess; De’Andre on the corner, who probably looked to Alexandra like just another neighborhood boy, dealing drugs.

Both of them aware of but kind of invisible to each other.

She sits back, feels the top of the booth at the back of her neck, thinks some more about Simon Obadu and all the reasons his public profile has so far made him virtually untouchable.

Thinks about his wealth, and his power.

And of how it might have all gone down.

* * *

Alexandra is in the stockroom of Sunny Day Style when the teenaged girl she’s hired straight out of the National Cathedral School brushes the curtain aside and announces there’s a woman police officer there to see her.

She has a feeling it’s Officer Whitney Jones and takes a moment to compose herself – her fingertips massaging the hangover back from her temples, a brief fluff of her honey-blonde hair in front of the antique gilt-mirrored frame on the wall – before stepping out into the store to greet her.

Officer Jones is waiting in one of the two smaller rooms of the store, this one showcasing the late summer collection on white shelves mounted on the Kelly Green walls. Her uniform makes it clear it’s an official visit, even though her smile is genuine and friendly, as if they’re old friends.

“Officer Jones – hello.”

“Hello Mrs. Rodriguez.”

“Call me, Alexandra, please.”

Jones’ smile widens a notch. “If you’ll call me Whitney.”

“It’s a deal.” Alexandra smiles back, trying to remember if she told Whitney about where she worked the night before.

“How did you know about my store?”

“The story in the Style section of the Post, from last year. I read it online last night, after I typed up the report.”

Alexandra thinks about the article, a profile that was practically obligatory given her father’s position. The narrative had been flattering enough, with details about her personal investment in the place, which inferred, correctly, that family money had nothing to do with it. But it also accentuated her privileged background, which might explain why she warrants a personal visit less than 12 hours after the robbery.

“It’s very nice,” Whitney says.

She nods and says “thanks” but feels a familiar sense of depression as she glances around at the showroom, decorated “cottage style” and offering preppy high-end sportswear at roughly twice what women would pay at a J. Crew in a mall – so far a failing gamble that shopping in the quaintness of Georgetown would be worth the cost.

She turns her attention back to Whitney Jones. “So . . . do you have any . . . news or whatever?”

Whitney reaches into the shirt pocket of her uniform, pulls out her phone and taps the code into the screen and stares at it for moment before responding.

“Well we know who held you up.”

Alexandra feels a catch in her breath, waits for more.

“He’s a neighborhood kid. One of the brighter ones, and one of the luckier ones too, until last year, when he got arrested for selling weed twice in one month, right after he turned 18. A couple weeks later a friend of his who happened to have a pretty bad drug problem was murdered.”

Murdered . . . “Alexandra mouths the word but makes no sound.

“We’re about 99 percent sure we know the guy who did it. Who he is and how he operates. Unfortunately we haven’t had any luck in putting him away.”

Whitney hands her the phone. On the screen is a Web site story from a local television station, with a headline: “Obadu Wins Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Seat.”

The image is of a heavy-set black man in a white linen shirt and pants and a wide-brimmed Panama hat He’s surrounded by a throng of people carrying protest signs.

“Does he look familiar?” Whitney asks.

She looks closer at his scowling face, and shakes her head.

“He’s been a fixture on the local political scene for a long time. Owns about a third of the properties within a block of your house. Most of them are the drug houses and vacant buildings. We’re pretty sure he’s also got his hand in quite a few criminal activities – drug distribution, loan-sharking, possibly prostitution since both of the dead women were working girls with drug problems. A regular Ghetto Godfather if you want to look at it that way. The detectives who are working the murders pegged him as the killer a while back, but they didn’t have enough evidence to arrest him, and were threatened with all kinds of lawsuits and bad publicity just for questioning him. So they enlisted the boy who held you up to keep an eye on him on his own turf.”

Alexandra hands the phone back, and asks the obvious question. “What does this have to do with me?”

Whitney looks at the screen a moment longer, then rests it on her thigh. “There’s a direct and an indirect answer to that question. The direct answer is that the young man who held you up tells us Mr. Obadu paid him to do it – except that he wasn’t supposed to just take your purse. He was supposed to kill you.”

Alexandra feels a tightness in her windpipe as the words hang in the air.

“The indirect answer,” Whitney says, “Is why.”

“I . . . have no idea.”

Whitney crosses her legs and drums her fingers on her knee. “Unfortunately I don’t either, but there are a few things that come to mind. You said last night that you’ve made a lot of calls to the police about drug dealing on your corner.”

“Yes,” she says. “Although it obviously didn’t make a difference.”

“And your husband was jumped in the alley, by a guy who forced himself into your house and beat him up. So it might be that you’re threatening his territory, so he’s sending the local troublemakers to threaten you, hoping you’ll give up and move away. Although the graffiti makes me wonder . . . could it be more personal?”

“Personal.”

“Based on what it says.”

Alexandra stares back at her, truly understanding the word dumbfounded for the first time in her life.

When she doesn’t respond Whitney leans forward slightly, as if they’re about to share a confidence.

“It actually seems a little over over-the-top, Alexandra. I mean . . . Die . . . Bitch . . .

Her whole body tenses at the sound of the words, spoken aloud.

“I see it differently,” she says.

Whitney tilts her head, as if urging her to go on.

“We do feel like targets, based on the glares we get from the drug dealers who are in front of our house at all hours, the break-in and what happened to Enrique. I know it’s politically incorrect, but that’s the way it is.”

Whitney stays quiet for a moment, then nods. “I guess I can understand that. But you have to know I’m wondering, how did you even up there, Alexandra? In that house. That neighborhood?”

A voice in her brain tells her the question is too personal, and maybe unprofessional. Yet she feels a strange sense of calm with the invitation to talk; to tell Whitney Jones about the incidents that brought her to this moment. About stumbling away from the dunes bruised and battered two years ago. About her assumption that Garrett Fiske would be arrested and exposed for what he did. About her parents’ ardent request for her to pretend it never happened, given the precarious nature of her father’s confirmation and the ability of Garrett’s father, Lleyton Fiske, to derail the whole thing. A betrayal that pushed her out of the nest and into the world on her own terms, even if it didn’t stop Garrett’s obsessive attachment, or his outright threat to never let her go.

But then she thinks about the underlying assumption in the question, which is that it’s just too hard to believe someone from a family like hers could end up where she is.

Time to set that record straight,” she thinks, and tells Whitney Jones everything she might have mentioned the night before.

“Regardless of what you might know about me, Whitney, my husband is a construction worker who comes from nothing. We were married last year, shortly after I kind of . . . separated myself from my family. We’ve renovated every square inch of our home and right now we’re working on four others within a couple of blocks. We couldn’t have bought property anywhere else. It was what we could afford. We’re struggling like plenty of other people, just trying, on our own, to survive.”

Whitney sits back slightly, as if she needs a moment to take that in, then says:

“But ultimately you’re banking that gentrification that Mr. Obadu wants to keep at bay.”

She stays quiet, given the significance of such a loaded word.

“It’s all right Alexandra, you can say it.”

“Yes, we were expecting that people would want to move into the properties Enrique is renovating. And that he would make a profit. Because regardless of the way we might look we’re just two people trying to make a living. I grew up with privilege but I don’t have it now – not one bit.”

It feels like an outburst, thanks to the uptick in her heart rate and shortness of breath, but Whitney Jones simply nods, with no apparent judgment, and then tells her:

“The boy who held you up can’t get away from there either. He’s living in a drug house, and working for us mainly to get revenge.”

“Revenge.”

“Against Mr. Obadu, who cut up his face.”

Alexandra absently touches her cheek, her mind going back to the sight of the scar, a curved line of raised flesh.

“It happened six months ago. A dispute over cash from the sale of some weed, or some other trifling matter along those lines. As I said, your neighborhood is my beat, and the boy was familiar enough to me. I guessed what had happened but wasn’t really able to do anything about it. On the other hand, my fiancé is an MPD detective. It was his idea to turn the boy into an informant, but it made great sense to me too. But instead of coming to us when Obadu told him to kill you, he almost went ahead.”

“Almost.”

“You might say he chickened out but I honestly think it was a matter of conscience, Alexandra. Unfortunately he’s in a really bad place now. He needs protection.”

“What kind of protection?”

“If we arrest Simon Obadu for ordering your murder we’ll have to identify this young man as the person who brought him to our attention. That means there’ll be a price on his head. Detective Brown can request federal protection but there’s no guarantee he’s going to get it. But if your family were to get involved . . .“

Whitney sounds as if she’s intentionally leaving the question hanging, but the message is clear.

“This guy’s gotten away with murder twice, mainly because the women didn’t matter much,” Whitney says. “I think the situation’s different now, don’t you?”

* * *

Garrett is reviewing a site plan that will be presented to his lead investors when the call from the “banker” comes in. As directed, the banker is using a burner phone to minimize the chance they will ever be connected. As usual, he talks in a breathless, too-fast tone as he describes the DC police car parked in front of Alexandra’s store and the sight of the woman cop coming out. It’s a sight the banker probably wouldn’t have seen from his desk off the lobby, where he talks with customers about their loan applications. But a side effect of the man’s various addictions requires a 10 minute smoke break every hour, taken habitually in the alley alongside the bank, which has a direct view of Alexandra’s Sunny Day Style.

“The cop’s back in her car, talking on her phone . . . nodding. The cop car’s illegally parked. The bitch would’ve given me a hundred dollar ticket for that. Now Alexandra’s standing at the door, watching her . . . she just looked up and saw me. She’s going to recognize me but I don’t think it matters. She probably doesn’t even remember the day we met about the loan. Never says a word to me on the street.”

Garrett almost tells him to stop with the random details but has to be careful about ruffling feelings. Up until now the banker, who Garrett alternately refers to as his “cokehead connection,” has given him the inside information he needs.

“Thanks for letting me know,” he says instead. “Really, I’m grateful.”

“So I’m done now, right?”

There’s an edge of desperation in the guy’s voice. From the beginning the banker was uncomfortable with the bargain – a two-month supply of blow in exchange for running reports on the state of Alexandra and Enrique’s finances once they were turned down for a loan.

“Yes, I’d say we are,” Garrett tells him, without really meaning it, because he’ll still need a direct line to their financial dealings as the screws tighten even further, and because he knows his easy supply of drugs will make it easy to pull the banker back in.

All according to the plan, he thinks, except for the fact that the boy didn’t kill Alexandra, and except for the extra attention from the cop, proof that Alexandra and Enrique are being watched more closely, and that anything that happens to either one of them will be intensely investigated.

Which brings him back to Simon Obadu, and the probability of more violence to come.

* * *

The place Detective Marcus Brown calls his “man-cave” is actually four rooms in the basement of his nice big house. The walls are cement, with small windows at the top, and it has soft couches and carpets and one of the biggest TVs De’Andre has ever seen. Detective Brown – who he calls “Marcus” now – is hiding him here because he’s promised to admit Simon Obadu told him to kill the white lady, which guarantees Obadu will go to prison, even if it isn’t for killing the other two girls.

But Marcus has left him alone now, letting him feel like he’s living there in the man-cave for good, with the TV and sound system in the room with the couches, and what Marcus called a “kitchenette” with a refrigerator full of food. And even a computer, although Marcus told him he’ll shoot him himself if he posts anything on Facebook or Instagram or anywhere else online.

But that doesn’t stop him from looking back at the picture of the first girl who was killed by Simon Obadu, in the online version of their high school yearbook. It was taken when they were both sophomores, before she got on the pipe and dropped out. Her name was Sheryl and she had a nice smile for him when she saw him in the neighborhood and at school. She was shot in the head in an alley two years later, but by then she never smiled.

Rumors said she was going to snitch on Obadu for killing another girl. De’Andre knew it was true every time he reached up and touched the curved scar on his face. Obadu did it with a switchblade while two other boys held him down. Said it was because he came up short on money after working the corner all night, but made like it was mostly a warning to everyone else on his crew.

Everything got worse after that, when he stopped going to school and started spending most of his time on the street, ignoring the questions from his grandmother when he went back to the apartment to eat or sleep, but always knowing from her eyes that she knew what was happening.

Bein’ everything she didn’t want.

He wonders what she’s thinking, now that he’s disappeared with just a note about “going away to be safe.” Wonders if Officer Whitney Jones or Detective Marcus Brown paid her a visit and whether they would have told her about the weed and other drugs he’s been selling for Simon Obadu, or about he almost did to the white lady or about their promises that he’s going to be safe for his testimony that Obadu told him to kill her.

It’s all so messed up. The offer to work for the police, but to do it selling drugs, pretending or just being the criminal they said they didn’t want him to be.

Even though they act like you’re their friend.

His mind goes back to the McDonalds he goes to with Marcus and Whitney every week, sitting down and eating and talking about what he might be able to do some day. A “GED.” Learning construction. Renovating buildings in the neighborhood.

And then he thinks of the robbery and how stupid it was. Stealing the lady’s purse with the little gift wrapped box and the wallet and money inside of it. It’s still under his bed at his grandmother’s apartment but Marcus told him they’re going to send the police over later to get it and give it back.

He imagines the lady standing at the door of her house, taking the purse, remembering him, and realizes everything Whitney and Marcus told him about the lady wanting to “protect” him probably isn’t going to happen.

His eyes sting as he touches the raised skin on his scarred cheek and thinks of the other people Simon Obadu has messed up. The boy with the broken arm that never did look normal again. The dude he shot in the face in front of two other boys who work on the corner. The dead girls.

He starts to cry, feeling like a stupid little kid. After a moment his hands become fists, pressed against his forehead as he leans forward on the big soft couch. Until suddenly he feels mad; seeing himself beaten up and wounded and weak.

But now you got a gun.

The thought comes in a flash, and with it a memory of the semi-automatic pistol that Obadu gave him, now wrapped in a pair of jeans in the dresser at his grandmother’s house.

And then he starts thinking of revenge, and murder, and ending it all for good.

* * *

Alexandra sends her clerk home and puts the “Closed” sign on the door and retreats again to her tiny office, where she takes a series of deep breaths and tries to summon the kind of calm that occasionally comes after yoga and spinning classes.

It doesn’t work – all she can think about is the boy’s scarred face and the gun against her ribs and the fact that someone she’s never met wants her dead.

She powers up her computer and Googles him by name. Several stories in the weekly paper that chronicles DC politics comes up. Simon Obadu is indeed a low level politician and an adept race-baiting rabble-rouser when it suits him. One of the more enterprising reporters has done a story on his surprisingly large real estate holdings, all of which are, as Whitney told her, within a few blocks of their home. They include two large government-subsidized apartment buildings, corner stores that profit mostly on sales of liquor and lottery tickets, and more than a dozen row houses and vacant lots.

The story focuses on complaints of his tenants and citations from the city but mostly on the money he’s earning in a neighborhood full of the “downtrodden and poor.” So it isn’t hard to read between the lines of what Whitney Jones has told her – renovated homes that bring wealthier residents will undoubtedly make it more difficult to make money in illegal drugs or prostitution or whatever else Simon Obadu is guilty of. But her heartbeat quickens as she thinks through the deeper implications of what she’s reading: the fact that the neighborhood’s future isn’t completely controlled by Simon Obadu, because there are other forces at play.

She searches for Garrett Fiske and CED Enterprises next, scrolls through the same stories she’s seen so many times before. A dozen years of astonishing success in some of the region’s biggest building projects, backed by an international company that’s always been smiled upon by Wall Street, thanks in no small part to the expertise of his father, Lleyton Fiske.

Garrett’s properties dominate the edge of the neighborhood. She knows for a fact they include a large condominium and office park – properties that will likewise bring in a better class of people.

Like us, she thinks, almost . . .

She thinks back to the night she introduced Enrique to her parents; remembers the way her father looked at him from across the garden at their annual Middleburg Hunt Party. Enrique with his light brown skin and ill-fitting suit, struggling to make conversation with a crowd of people bound together by old families and good schools. Her father, so clearly troubled that she had fallen in love with someone who would never be one of them.

Which was pretty much the point. Because she married for love and not money, certain that they would survive and thrive even with her declaration of independence from her parents and their expectations.

And then she thinks about Whitney’s request – to tell her parents that Simon Obadu tried to get a teenaged boy to kill her, with the hope that her father’s power will ensure the boy is protected until they can convict Obadu for ordering her death. Which makes her wonder how much Whitney has found online about about her father and the controversies that came up after his nomination. His role as a board member of the investment bank that made billions peddling bad debt during the last real estate crisis. The millions that were rumored to be in offshore accounts that he refused to disclose. The refusal of Lleyton Fiske, a fellow board member who had all the dirt, to answer any of the hard questions during his grilling during the confirmation process.

None of it should matter, she thinks, because most of it didn’t technically rise to the level of criminality. And it shouldn’t have been relevant to the danger they are in now –

Except that it is. Because she had been well aware of Garrett’s real estate holdings and the probability that property values around them would rise sharply when she convinced Enrique that he should stake his own claim in the neighborhood as it developed. Convincing him that they could make money without the help of her parents. Pretending that it didn’t break her heart to hear him joke about trading in his Carhart working gear for custom-made suits and “cufflinks” once that happened. Believing that Enrique, who graduated from a city high school, could somehow share in the wealth that Garrett was bound to create.

She sits back from the computer in the tiny office, knowing it isn’t going to happen; knowing there’s only one way to get out.

Desperate measures for a desperate time. She thinks for just a moment of what could happen if she is prosecuted for what she’s about to do; thinks of the headlines that her family has taken such pains to avoid, then dismisses the possibility outright as she calls Enrique to give him the news.

* * *

Enrique swallows two Valium taken from Alexandra’s pillbox and stares into his laptop at the granite breakfast bar, thinking of ways to transfer overrun costs from one project to another as the call comes in from Alexandra.

He answers with a dispirited “hey.” It’s all he can say before she launches into a frantic monologue about the threat on her life and the story of the boy who nearly shot her and her certainty that they have no choice but to “get the hell out of there.” Telling him then that she’s going to rent a place somewhere in the far northwest quadrant of the city for them to live in, and that she can pull together a sizable sum of money to pay off some of their debts, either from the untouched trust left by her grandfather and possibly from “other money” that’s being hidden by her father.

Because there’s always money in families like hers, he thinks. Squirreled away in “investments” where it’s leveraged to make more.

There’s a long pause when she finishes, nearly breathless, waiting for him to respond. He tries to think of a way to tell her that none of what she has offered is going to matter, and feels more helpless than ever as he sees a shadow against the glass of the back door.

* * *

The video feed from the camera hidden in the speaker situated just under the ceiling of Enrique and Alexandra’s kitchen records the scene as it happens, the angle of the tiny camera making Simon Obadu look even more monstrous as he steps through the glass door that’s opened by Enrique.

Garrett watches as Obadu fires a taser at Enrique’s chest. Enrique’s torso lurches upward for an instant before his body drops, rag-doll limp, to the floor. Then Obadu kicks him – a hard strike at the side of Enrique’s face.

Enrique is now completely still on the marble floor, maybe even dead, Garrett thinks, as unlikely as that is. Obadu stands over him like a boxer who’s just knocked out an opponent, then reaches into his pocket, and pulls out a knife.

* * *

Whitney’s waiting for additional information from Marcus’ meeting with the Office of Taxation when the call from De’Andre comes in. He’s using the throwaway phone Marcus bought for him at the corner store, and she can only hope that he’s staying away from the neighborhood and out of site of anyone who might report back to Simon Obadu.

But then he tells her he isn’t. In fact he’s right back in the alley behind Alexandra and Enrique’s row house, and calling to tell her that Obadu has just stepped through the back gate.

* * *

Alexandra stays at the office inside her store long enough to make the call to the broker who manages the trust fund, and verify that she can still access a good bit of the money that her father thinks he has hidden away. Until now she’s just barely imagined the possibility that she might steal some of it at some point – it’s been nothing more than a fantasy of revenge. But then she thinks, the time is nigh, as the saying goes, and determines roughly how much she will arrange to have wired to her own offshore account. Within an hour his broker will learn about the theft, but they may never know exactly who’s responsible.

She drives dazedly through the late day traffic as she heads home, her thoughts focused on how quickly it will take them to pack overnight bags for the three days they’ll spend in a hotel before signing the lease for the new apartment she has rented, sight unseen, based on an online listing and recommendation from a realtor friend. A place where they’ll be safe while waiting for all of Enrique’s properties to sell, even if it’s at a loss.

She’s still thinking it through when she pulls into the alley, drives past the two burned out shells that Enrique purchased months ago, past the crack house that’s become a fire hazard, past the overflowing garbage cans the city practically ignores.

She parks her Audi carefully in the narrow spot alongside the back of the six-foot tall stockade fence, glances briefly at the graffiti, and then notices that the gate is open.

And then she sees the dent in the lock, which looks like it’s been battered by a hammer.

She steps back, once again feeling the tingling sensation in her neck, thinks of the assault the night before – the boy’s scarred face; the gun against her ribs

And then she hears her name, spoken in a faint voice.

It’s Enrique, calling to her from inside the yard. She knows he’s been hurt even before she steps through the gate and sees him, leaning against the fence. There’s a huge white bandage on his left cheek but it isn’t stopping the blood that has soaked through. His left eye is black and swollen shut.

The moment she steps toward him he pulls a gun from the pocket of his jacket.

And points it at her face.

Her eyes widen with the shock of it, seeing it but not yet believing it as the gate behind him is pushed back open.

Whitney Jones steps from the alley into the backyard, her gun aimed in a two-handed firing grip.

“Police,” she says. “Put down the gun Mr. Rodriguez.”

For a long moment Enrique stands still, the gun quivering in his hand but still aimed at her. And then there’s a slight drop in his shoulders, a look of pained resignation in his face.

“I said drop it,” Whitney’s voice shakes. “Now.”

Instead of lowering it he turns quickly around; aims the gun at Whitney. They stare at each other for a matter of seconds before his shoulders tense again and Whitney fires – once and then twice more when the first shot doesn’t take him down.

He drops to his knees, and then falls forward, face down on the ground.

* * *

Two months later it still feels surreal – the stuff of bad dreams that come too often during the day. Flashbacks that make her feel foolish and regretful but enormously grateful to be alive.

“But the point is, you’re healing fine, no doubt about it,” Whitney says, on the evening before her wedding day, in the small cinder block conference room at the police station.

“Yes,” she says, wanting it to be true. “Which means I’m ready for the news.”

Whitney holds her eyes for a long moment, as if she needs to believe it for  herself. She has promised to reveal everything about Marcus’ investigation of Simon Obadu and her dead husband and warned her it won’t be easy to hear.

Marcus is sitting next to Whitney. He nods and types a few keys on his laptop and then turns it around. An overhead shot of her own kitchen fills the screen, the angles warped, as if she’s seeing it through a funhouse mirror. Enrique is sitting at the counter, talking on his cell phone, his left hand spread palm-wide on the top of his head.

Alexandra recognizes the gesture. She’s seen it in the past, in times of distress.

His voice is hushed but just loud enough for her to hear: “Yes, the policy is for half a million.”

There’s a pause. His hand comes down, becomes a fist at his side. “Just do it.”

Marcus turns the laptop back around and stops the feed. “We’re certain it was Simon Obadu on the other end, and that that’s when your husband okayed the hit, which as we know now would have given him a good sized payoff from your life insurance.”

She presses her fingertips against her forehead and feels a chill down her back.

“This footage is on the same tape the District Attorney received in an unmarked package. There weren’t any fingerprints or any other way to trace where it came from. The disc also included video of Simon Obadu forcing his way into your house and assaulting your husband, first in the beating that he claimed was at the hands of a teenager, then again on the night your husband died.”

She takes a deep breath, puts her hands palm-down on the tabletop, and looks at Whitney again.

“You told me you suspected Enrique from the beginning. Why?”

“Not the very beginning – at least not the night it happened. But the next day Marcus and I talked with the boy who held you up and it was clear he didn’t know anything about that message on your fence. Plus it seemed – like I said to you – just a little over the top. I mean, die bitch. It was just too overt. So then I started thinking about how your husband had renovated a bunch of houses in the neighborhood. Marcus checked the property records and found out Enrique had bought them from Obadu. It took a few more hours to run your credit and learn that the purchases were owner-financed by Obadu, at ridiculously high interest rates. We guessed then that your husband was in way over his head, and that Obadu was getting violent in the hope he’d find a way to pay. That made us think of the possibility that you were targeted by your husband, who might have also tagged the fence to shift suspicion to the neighborhood guys.”

She nods absently, thinking of Enrique’s attempts to get the construction loans on his own, and how cryptic he had been in his description of how he finally succeeded in getting financing. Telling her that keeping his business finances separate was a matter of personal pride. It had sounded good enough at the time.

And then she thinks of the way he looked on the night he almost gunned her down.

“His face was bleeding . . . that night.”

“Obadu did it – it’s in video that we are not going to show you. I suppose he was sending another message, wounding your husband so he’d be left with a scar, so similar to De’Andre’s. Just a little extra evil on his part. He didn’t have any way of knowing De’Andre Williams was also in the neighborhood that night. And once it happened your husband probably thought that his wounds would enable him to tell some crazy story about some crazy guy coming after you both after he shot you himself.”

Her stomach clenches at the thought of everything else they’ve told her about the boy’s sudden decision to go after Simon Obadu on his own – to shoot him dead with the gun Obadu gave him. A decision that took him back to the neighborhood that night, where he saw Obadu stepping out of the alley behind the house, and then called Whitney to let her know.

She looks at the laptop again. “Do you have any idea how this camera was installed?”

Marcus clears his throat, his furrowed brow making it obvious he has more bad news. “Had to be while the renovation was underway. The whole house was wired with this stuff – cameras and mikes in every room, Alexandra. I’m sorry. The technology’s available to anyone with a lot of money. Since we got all of this stuff Obadu did on tape we have to guess it was done by someone who would gain a lot if he was sent to prison, which is what’s gonna’ happen.”

Alexandra looks past them, toward the closed door, thinking of the obvious answer, feels the heat rise in her face as she thinks of Garrett spying on everything that happened in her home. Garrett, who will undoubtedly realize an even greater profit as the neighborhood develops in a more prosperous direction, with Simon Obadu locked away.

She sighs, thinking for just a moment of Garrett’s victory, and how long it’s going to take to divest herself of all of the properties. It’s going to be difficult but not impossible, now that she’s getting help from her family’s financial advisors. A benefit now that they’re once again on speaking terms.

But not the best benefit, she thinks.

“Thanks for filling me in on all of this,” she says. “Now can we please talk about something happier. Like what’s up with De’Andre and this wedding?”

* * *

Twelve hours later she’s at that wedding, seated next to her parents, there out of gratitude for the police officer who saved her life. There’s still a distance between them but she’s learned to manage their guilt well enough to get what she wants. For now it’s full tuition for De’Andre at a construction trade school, plus his rent, a grocery allowance and commuting costs from his apartment in a good neighborhood far from where he grew up.

In the end she knows they’ll be gratified, if only for the opportunity to tell stories about their deep sense of noblesse oblige, the best of which is taking place at this very moment, as the sun streams through the stained glass windows and as Whitney Jones is walked down the aisle by Best Man De’Andre Williams, decked out in his tux and tails, his gold cufflinks glinting in the beautiful late afternoon light.

# # #