The dead man’s mother lives on Castlewood Street, in a battered gray house guarded by a mean echo of “No Trespassing” signs.
“Looks inviting,” John Breit says cheerfully. “Good luck in there.”
I don’t believe in luck.
It’s Monday, the Fourth of July, and the heat index refuses to observe the holiday. The morning temperature is nudging one-hundred degrees when I climb from John’s air-conditioned car, and the humidity hits me like a wall. The sticky southern heat doesn’t shorten my walk to the front door; nor does the expression on the face of the girl who suddenly appears in the doorway. She watches me pick my way down the cracked concrete path, her dark eyes hard as anthracite. When I introduce myself—Raleigh Harmon, special agent with the FBI—she turns without response. I follow her through a living room that smells of grape juice and stale cigarettes. Bernadette Holmes sits at the kitchen table. She is the mother of the dead man.
“Mama,” the girl tells her. “The FBI is here.” Mrs. Holmes takes one look at me, Official Investigator, and starts sobbing. “What happened to my boy?” Her sleeveless housedress exposes large black arms, where stretch-mark deltas flow like sandy estuaries to her elbows. “My good, good boy, he’s gone.”
Two days ago, on Saturday, Hamal Holmes fell seventy feet from a factory roof. So did another man, Detective Michael Falcon of the Richmond Police Department. Both men died on impact with the sidewalk, but exactly how they fell—and why they were on the roof in the first place—is anyone’s guess. No witnesses have come forward, though the police are floating a theory that’s enraged half the city. Yesterday, the mayor called the Bureau, demanding a civil rights investigation. Mr. Holmes was black; the detective was white.
Lighting a cigarette, the girl with anthracite eyes lifts her face to catch a mild draft blowing from the air conditioner hoisted to the kitchen window. I sit down at the table, offer Mrs. Holmes my card—she doesn’t take it—and express my condolences for her loss. Even when I mean it, the words sound lame.
Then I explain how this works: “I’ll be looking into the circumstances surrounding your son’s death and asking a lot of questions. Some of them might be difficult to answer.”
Tears welling, Mrs. Holmes looks at me. “Hamal’s body . . . it’s all broken up, ain’t it? My baby, he’s in pieces.”
Since the Bureau wasn’t called right away, I missed the autopsy. But everybody knows rock crushes bone. When I don’t answer, she sobs even harder. I wait, feeling the usual awkwardness that comes from being able to offer only silence, followed by impertinent questions. “Mrs. Holmes, do you know why was your son was on that roof?”
“Why?” Her voice turns molten with rage. “Because that policeman done chased him up there, that’s why. He chased my Hamal to the roof, then throwed him off! I’m not sorry that policeman’s dead. No, I’m not. God forgive me, but that man deserve to die, killing my boy like that.”
Of course, the police department’s theory doesn’t go like that. They say Hamal Holmes, with his record of breaking and entering, broke into the abandoned factory that Saturday. And the detective, working nearby, spotted him and pursued him to the roof, where a struggle ensued. Both men lost.
The mother scoffs at the idea. “Hamal didn’t need to go breaking into that old factory. Ain’t nothin’ in there. Place’s been closed for years. My son was a businessman, you check it out. Good businessman. He paid all my bills.”
When I glance at the girl, she flicks ash into the porcelain sink. “Are you his sister?” I ask.
“Wife. And my husband wasn’t doing nothin’ wrong. Put that in your little book.” She points the cigarette at my notebook. “You didn’t hear me? He was innocent. Write it down.”
“I know this is a difficult time for your family, but—”
“You don’t know nothin’.”
Actually, this is true. I turn back to the mother. “Mrs. Holmes, I’ll be the agent in charge of the civil rights investigation. Call me anytime day or night, with whatever questions or concerns you might have. If you hear anything that will help the investigation, please let me know.”
She looks at me. “That policeman killed my son.”
“When all the evidence—”
The widow is barefoot. She takes four steps forward, the cigarette held at eye level like a javelin. “We done seen the evidence. It’s in the morgue. My husband? He’s dead. Dead! Dead!”
Mrs. Holmes lets out another wail. In a room beyond the kitchen, children start yelling. The widow hollers for silence; they obey. Turning back to me, she says, “You came here to help the cops. We know how it works.”
“That’s not how it works. The police are conducting their own investigation; it’s completely separate from ours. We’re looking into possible civil rights violations committed by the police.”
“You’re one of them,” she says. “I can smell it.”
I glance at Mrs. Holmes. She stares blankly at a small television on the kitchen counter, its sound turned down, with closed captions running across the screen. Montel, the talk show host, paws his bald head. The text announces today’s topic: I can’t trust you!
“Mrs. Holmes, who told you about your son’s death?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Do you remember what they said?”
She shakes her head.
“Did anyone say why he was on the roof?”
“They said Hamal was dead. After that, my mind went blank.”
Montel gestures with the microphone, swinging it like a wasp is loose in the studio. The audience applauds wildly. I look over at the widow, seeing her compressed dark anger, all that anthracite in her eyes hardened by time and heat and pressure.
“How did you hear about your husband’s death?”
She takes one last drag off her cigarette. “I heard, that’s all.” Then she walks me to the door, wishing me good luck with a voice dripping with sarcasm.
It’s no use telling her: there’s no such thing as luck.