As I exited the double glass doors, my nostrils drank in an olfactory cocktail of exhaust, smog, and hot pavement. Heat radiated from the building walls, and from the brick steps connecting it to a small tentacle of the parking lot.
Hot town. Summer in the city.
A black woman sat in the vacant lot across College Street, back to a sycamore, elephant legs stretched full length on the grass. The woman was fanning herself with a newspaper, animatedly arguing some point with a nonexistent adversary.
A man in a Hornets jersey was muscling a shopping cart up the sidewalk in the direction of the county services building. He stopped just past the woman, wiped his forehead with the crook of his arm, and checked his cargo of plastic bags.
Noticing my gaze, the cart man waved. I waved back.
Slidell's Ford Taurus idled at the bottom of the stairs, AC blasting, tinted windows full up. Descending, I opened the back door, shoved aside file folders, a pair of golf shoes stuffed with audiotapes, two Burger King bags, and a squeeze tube of suntan lotion, and wedged my computer into the newly created space.
Erskine "Skinny" Slidell undoubtedly thought of himself as "old school," though God alone knew what institution would claim him. With his knockoff Ray-Bans, Camel breath, and four-letter speech, Slidell was an unwittingly self-created caricature of a Hollywood cop. People told me he was good at his job. I found it hard to believe.
At the moment of my approach Dirty Harry was checking his lower incisors in the rearview mirror, lips curled back in a monkey-fear grimace.
Hearing the rear door open, Slidell jumped, and his hand shot to the mirror. As I slid into the passenger seat, he was fine-tuning the rearview with the diligence of an astronaut adjusting Hubble.
"Doc." Slidell kept his faux Ray-Bans pointed at the mirror.
"Detective." I nodded, placed my purse at my feet, and closed the door.
At last satisfied with the angle of reflection, Slidell abandoned the mirror, shifted into gear, crossed the lot, and shot across College onto Phifer.
We rode in silence. Though the temperature in the car was thirty degrees lower than that outside, the air was thick with its own blend of odors. Old Whoppers and fries. Sweat. Bain de Soleil. The bamboo mat on which Slidell parked his ample backside.
Skinny Slidell himself. The man smelled and looked like an "after" shot for an antismoking poster. During the decade and a half I'd been consulting for the Mecklenburg County ME, I'd had the pleasure of working with Slidell on several occasions. Each had been a trip to Aggravation Row. This case promised to be another.
The Banks' home was in the Cherry neighborhood, just southeast of I-277, Charlotte's version of an inner beltway. Cherry, unlike many inner-city quartiers, had not enjoyed the renaissance experienced in recent years by Dilworth and Elizabeth to the west and north. While those neighborhoods had integrated and yuppified, Cherry's fortunes had headed south. But the community held true to its ethnic roots. It started out black and remained so today.
Within minutes Slidell passed an Autobell car wash, turned left off Independence Boulevard onto a narrow street, then right onto another. Oaks and magnolias thirty, forty, a hundred years old threw shadows onto modest frame and brick houses. Laundry hung limp on clotheslines. Sprinklers ticked and whirred, or lay silent at the ends of garden hoses. Bicycles and Big Wheels dotted yards and walkways.
Slidell pulled to the curb halfway up the block, and jabbed a thumb at a small bungalow with dormer windows jutting from the roof. The siding was brown, the trim white.
"Beats the hell outta that rat's nest where the kid got fried. Thought I'd catch scabies tossing that dump."
Copyright © 2003 by Temperance Brennan, L.P.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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