Monday Night - Washington, DC
The corpse was well dressed. Washington Post reporter Joe Potamos looked down at the body behind a bench in the pocket park in front of the hotel at E and K Streets, on the eastern edge of Foggy Bottom. The victim was a white male with neatly trimmed and combed salt-and-pepper hair. His suit was blue, shirt white, tie gray with small red-and-white flags.
“Canadian,” Potamos said to a tall, boxlike man writing in a small notebook.
“Huh?” Peter Languth muttered as he continued to write.
“Canadian. Those little flags are Canadian,” Potamos said. “The red maple leaf in the middle and those red blocks on each side. You don’t know that?”
Homicide detective Languth stopped writing and turned to look down at Potamos. Languth was six feet four; Potamos topped out at five-eleven. “You get off on flags, Joe?”
Potamos shrugged and started writing in his own long, slender, spiral-bound notebook. Uniformed officers stretched yellow crime-scene tape around the scene. A late-arriving EMS team knelt next to the body. Pressing in for a closer look were a half-dozen homeless men for whom the park passed for home in summer. One of them had alerted a passing squad car to the dead man’s intrusion.
“Get back,” Languth growled at them. In the humid atmosphere of the nation’s capital, the heavy air pressed down like a rubber blanket, capturing the men’s pungent body odor. “You guys ever hear of a shower?” Languth asked, wrinkling his bulbous nose.
“The hot water stopped working in my mansion,” the youngest of the homeless men said. “Call a plumber,” Languth said.
Potamos hoped he wasn’t contributing to the bouquet of the moment. He’d been wearing the same blue chambray shirt two days in a row, and hadn’t gotten around to getting last summer’s lighter-weight clothing back from the cleaners. He itched under the weight of his gray tweed jacket.
“Sit over there till I want to talk to you,” Languth told the odd assortment of men, pointing to a bench a few feet away. To a uniformed cop, he said, “Make sure nobody leaves.”
Potamos arched his back against stiffness and yawned. Eleven-twenty. He’d dozed off in front of the television set in his one-bedroom condo in Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the Potomac from the District, when the call came from his editor telling him to get to the park. Such a call wouldn’t have been made a few years ago, when the State Department was his beat, and crime reporting was only a memory. But that was then.
“Whadda you see?” Languth asked one of the EMS technicians who’d left the body to come to where the beefy, balding detective stood with Potamos.
“Something in the ribs, right side.”
“No weapon?” Potamos asked.
Languth scowled. “You see any weapons, Joe? You see something nobody else does? Except flags?”
Potamos nodded at the bench where the vagrants had gathered, smoking cigarettes and passing a brown paper bag among them. “You check them out?” he asked.
“Joe, write your goddamn story and leave the investigation to me.”
“Just asking. I thought I’d let a few facts slip into the story.”
“Well, don’t. How’s it feel getting down and dirty, Joe, hanging around real people after being a media star? You used to cover this neighborhood, right?”
“Don’t start with me,” Potamos said, feeling the familiar anger bubble up inside. He visualized a tranquil, sun-drenched beach and drew slow, even breaths, the way he’d been taught in the anger-management course he’d been forced to take after the incident that had cost him his State Department assignment. And the inherent perks and prestige that went with it. State wasn’t exactly the White House, where something big seemed to be popping every day, but some of the stuff was important. A real story broke now and then—Bosnia, Israel, Rwanda . . .
“Hey, you, get over here,” Languth yelled at the homeless men.
Calmer now, Potamos listened as they gathered around the detective, who said, “Okay, what’d you lovely ladies see here tonight?”
Twenty minutes later, after it was clear that the men were hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, the well-dressed body was removed. Photos of the body had been taken from many angles; the homeless men had given their nonstatements, names, and addresses—“Bench Number Three,” the young wise-guy vagrant cracked—a search of the immediate area had been conducted; and the crowd that had gathered had wandered away.
“Buy you a drink?” Potamos asked Languth.
“Suit yourself. What was in the deceased’s wallet?”
“Money, credit cards.”
“So, it wasn’t a robbery gone wrong.”
“Who is he?”
“Ever hear of next of kin, Joe?”
“I’ll hold it until you say it’s okay.”
“You know who you remind me of, Pete?”
“Death of a Salesman. Maybe just death. You ever see it?”
“No. Is it out on video?”
“Thanks for the usual wholehearted cooperation, Pete.”
“Always a pleasure, Joe. How come you never offer to buy me a drink when I’m off duty? Say hello to your buddy Bowen.”
The anger welled up again as Potamos watched Languth slowly walk away, big body moving side to side beneath his black raincoat, like an aging waiter with aching feet after a long shift. He went in the Lombardy, ordered a drink at the small bar, and made a few calls from his cell phone in search of additional information, including one to the Canadian embassy: “This is Joe Potamos from the Post,” he told the night-duty officer. “There’s been a murder in the park across from the Lombardy Hotel; looks like the victim might be Canadian. What? No, I don’t know who the victim was but I figured maybe somebody from your embassy was supposed to be there tonight but didn’t show up and . . . Huh? A man, middle-aged, nicely dressed, wore a tie with little Canadian flags on it and . . . Huh? No? I just thought I’d give it a try. No, I don’t know his name. Yeah, thanks.” He tried to reach a contact in the coroner’s office in the hope of getting an ID on the deceased but was told he was away on vacation. He silently cursed Languth for not at least giving him a name, then filed the story, what little there was of it, and went to his condo in Rosslyn, where Jumper greeted him as though he were a raging success. He called Roseann at her apartment on Capitol Hill. Most nights, Potamos and the dog stayed there. But Potamos had kept the condo in Rosslyn as a gesture of independence, and as a refuge, especially when anger and frustration got the better of him, and Roseann, knowing how volatile he could be, never urged him to give it up. Smart girl, Ms. Blackburn. When he got in these moods, which she called his “vapors,” he wasn’t fit company for anyone, except the dog. It was the other times that had attracted Roseann to him, times when he could be tender and loving and funny and . . .
This was definitely a night full of vapors.
“I tried you earlier,” she said.
“Everybody was trying tonight, it’s a trying night out there,” he said. “I was on a story. A homicide.”
“That park in front of the Lombardy Hotel. How was your gig?”
“All right.” She worked Washington’s upscale rooms and private parties, with an occasional real gig when one came up. Jazz was her love; playing show tunes on the piano at fancy affairs was her income. “You okay, Joe?” she asked, knowing he wasn’t.
“No, I’m not okay, Roseann. Instead of covering a murder, I’d rather commit one. Pete Languth was there.”
“Your dear friend from law enforcement?”
“My fat cop friend.”
“You don’t want to kill a cop, Joe.”
“How about Bowen? Anybody knows him’d give me a medal.”
“You shouldn’t say such things on the phone. It might be tapped. This is Washington.”
“I hope it is. Tapped, I mean. Hey, anybody listening, I would like to kill George Alfred Bowen. Slowly.” He sighed, said to her, “Ah, you’ve heard all this before. Potamos, the original broken record. Oops, CD. Show-ing my age. Sorry I didn’t call before I went out. See you tomorrow?”
“If Jumper lets you.” She often said he liked the dog better than he liked her, which he had to admit was occasionally true; not just better than her, of course, better than the whole human world at large.
“I’ll talk to her about it. Look, Roseann, sorry that I’m down. Sometimes—well, sometimes it seems to pile up, you know? I’ll get over it, always do, huh?” He laughed. Roseann smiled on the other end of the phone, seeing his face, the crooked grin, healthy white teeth made whiter against his dusky complexion, knowing he was feeling sorry for himself and that he disliked people who felt sorry for themselves, and feeling a little foolish for whining and wishing he hadn’t.
“Joe, I understand. I really do. And excuse the comment about Jumper. Just kidding.”
“Yeah, I know you were. I’d come over but it’s late and—”
“Get a good night’s sleep, Joe. I love you.”
“And I’m glad you do. Good night, Roseann. See you tomorrow.”
Roseann hung up, sat back on the couch, and absently played with an errant strand of her lustrous hair. Her feelings at the moment were ambivalent; Joe was good at creating mixed emotions.
Excerpted from Murder in Foggy Bottom by Margaret Truman. Copyright © 2002 by Margaret Truman. Excerpted by permission of Fawcett, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.