I stared into Sampson's eyes. I could see sadness and distress there, even more than usual. "What do you want, John?"
"Come down to North Carolina with me. Talk to Cooper. He's not a murderer. I know this man almost as well as I know you. Ellis Cooper didn't kill anybody."
"You know you have to go down there with John," Nana said. "Make this your last case. You have to promise me that."
I LOVED BEING with Sampson. Always had, always would. As we rode through Virginia and into North Carolina the talk eventually turned to other, more hopeful and promising subjects. I had already told him everything there was to tell about Jamilla Hughes, but he wanted to hear more scoop. Sometimes he's a bigger gossip than Nana Mama.
"I don't have any more to tell you, big man. You know I met her on that big murder case in San Francisco. We were together a lot for a couple of weeks. I don't know her that well. I like her, though. She doesn't take any crap from anybody."
"And you'd like to know her more. I can tell that much." Sampson laughed and clapped his big hands together. I started to laugh too. "Yes, I would, matter of fact. Jamilla plays it close to the vest. I think she got banged up somewhere along the line. Maybe the first husband. She doesn't want to talk about it yet."
"I think she has your number, man."
"Maybe she does. You'll like her. Everybody does." John started to laugh again. "You do find nice ladies. I'll give you that much." He switched subjects. "Nana Mama is some kind of piece of work, isn't she?"
"Yeah, she is. Eighty-two. You'd never know it. I came home the other day. She was shimmying a refrigerator down the back stairs of the house on an oilcloth. Wouldn't wait for me to get home to help her."
"You remember that time we got caught lifting records at Spector's Vinyl?"
"Yeah, I remember. She loves to tell that story." John continued to laugh. "I can still see the two of us sitting in that store manager's crummy little office. He's threatening us with everything but the death penalty for stealing his crummy forty-fives, but we are so cool. We're almost laughing in his face.
"Nana shows up at the record store, and she starts hitting both of us. She hit me in the face, bloodied my lip. She was like some kind of mad woman on a rampage, a mission from God."
"She had this warning: 'Don't cross me. Don't ever, ever cross me, ever.' I can still hear the way she would say it," I said. "Then she let that police officer haul our asses down to the station. She wouldn't even bring us home. I said, 'They were only records, Nana.' I thought she was going to kill me. 'I'm already bleeding!' I said. 'You're gonna bleed more!' she yelled in my face."
I found myself smiling at the distant memory. Interesting how some things that weren't real funny at the time eventually get that way. "Maybe that's why we became big, bad cops. That afternoon in the record store. Nana's vengeful wrath."
Sampson turned serious and said, "No, that's not what straightened me out. The army did it. I sure didn't get what I needed in my own house. Nana helped, but it was the army that set me straight. I owe the army. And I owe Ellis Cooper. Hoo-rah! Hoo-rah!
WE DROVE ONTO the sobering and foreboding highwalled grounds of Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The security housing unit there was like a prison within a prison. It was surrounded by razor-sharp wire fences and a deadly electronic barrier; armed guards were in all the watchtowers. Central Prison was the only one in North Carolina with a death row. Currently there were more than a thousand inmates, with an astounding 220 on the row. "Scary place," Sampson said as we got out of the car. I had never seen him look so unsettled and unhappy. I didn't much like being at Central Prison either.
Copyright © 2002 by James Patterson
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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