Dad could have taken the limo home as he sometimes does after a gig but since I was with him, he wanted to walk. And since he was so angry, he needed to talk.
The air at 4 a.m. held a close, almost sweet smell, not like the salty mist that had bathed us yesterday when we'd leaned over the port-side railing of the QE2.
I usually noticed this sweet fragrance after a heavy downpour but it had not rained, at least not since we'd returned to New York.
Late yesterday afternoon we'd stepped from the gangway of a jazz cruise and Dad, after jamming on board and at the Newport Jazz Festival for the last seven days, had grabbed a few hours sleep, then showered, dressed, and left for his regular gig at the Club Harlem.
Music is my father's life but I don't want it to be the death of him. He's in his sixties and I see small nicks of fatigue cutting into the smoothness of his dark handsome face. Lines that weren't there yesterday seemed to have incubated overnight around the edge of his smile. I once suggested (and only once) that he try to slow down, and he huffed and puffed and nearly blew me through the wall.
"Slow down? Hell no. Lionel Hampton's old as water and still moving. Cecil Payne's still blowing baritone and Max Roach's still on the skins. Give me a break, Mali!"
Which I did. And said nothing when he left for the gig, but an hour later, I showed up at the club just to keep an eye on him. At the first hint of exhaustion, I had intended to drag him off stage, even if he killed me when we got home, but he and his guys sailed through both sets, smiled through the applause, and afterward moved easily through the crowd.
"Good show, Anderson," someone called. "You keepin' it real."
"Glad you guys are back, Jeffrey. Now we can hear what jazz is all about."
Dad smiled at this, genuinely pleased. I followed in his wake as he pushed his bass toward the door. Outside the club, the lights lining the canopy dimmed and then went out, bathing the corner of Lenox Avenue and 133rd Street in a mottled gray.
The crowd, reluctant to give up the night, hung tight, looking for other places to greet the dawn. There was more handshaking. And some questions.
"Your man Hendrix was a no-show. So was his daughter. What's up with that? Too much QE2?
"Tired, I guess," my father replied. "Ozzie went to cop some zee's and probably overslept. You know how that is."
His voice was steady but I watched the knot of annoyance taking shape in his lower jaw and I stepped up quickly.
"It was a great trip." I smiled. "Now Dad's gonna lay low for a few days."
"I hear what you sayin'. Gotta git your moves back. Check you on the weekend and hopefully your piano man, too."
Dad smiled wider, a genial, professional, crowd-pleasing beam, but inside, I knew he was steaming.
Ozzie Hendrix, whom Dad had known for nearly forty years, through the blues, bop, and jazz scenes, was the pianist. He and Dad had crisscrossed at cabarets in the Village, studio sessions, Fifty-second Street clubs, one-night stands, and every after-hours joint that had room for a combo. A few years ago, they hooked up seriously when Dad put the ensemble together for the club. Ozzie had amazing technical skill and his fingers on the keys transported a listener to the very soul and center of his music. Dad with his bass set the rhythm and kept the pace, but it was Ozzie with his artistry, his virtuoso technique, who usually brought the crowd to its feet.
We turned off Malcolm X Boulevard and into the quiet of 133rd Street, heading toward Powell Boulevard. We walked slow. Dad talked fast. I tried not to interrupt, preferring to concentrate instead on the delicate 4 a.m. stillness and the wheel of his bass as it rolled over the sidewalk's pebbly surface. At the corner, the silence was fractured by a riff leaping from a passing car radio, muted somewhat because the driver had no one to impress. A transient interruption that instantly faded. Then from behind a fence somewhere came the long, low howl of a dog.
"...When puppy cry, somebody die," Mom used to say, falling into the Charleston-Bajan cadence of her grandmother. My mom died years ago and so had my sister, Benin. After the initial shock and loneliness of losing someone you really love, you learn to listen in the silence and somehow they come back. They come back. Right now I missed Mom more than ever. She could've calmed Dad with a smile.
When I tuned in again, his anger had risen above everything.
"Never again, dammit! That's the last time I do anybody a favor. Don't care how tight we are. Give 'em a break and get screwed every damn time. And his daughter was supposed to be there tonight. The featured singer. Damn picture plastered on every poster in every store window in Harlem. And not only didn't she show but neither did he. And not a word. Least they coulda done was get on the drum. This way, the rest of us woulda known what we had to do!"
I breathed deeply and offered no comment as we turned into 139th Street, between Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Strivers Row, as folks called it. A block of three- and four-story neo-Italianate and Colonial revival rowhouses adorned with wrought-iron balconies and French windows that were now closed against the humid night air and, hopefully, the sound of Dad's anger.
We walked past 221, home of Vertner Tandy, the African-American architect who designed St. Phillips Episcopal Church and Madame C. J. Walker's mansion in Irvington-On-Hudson. I counted the doors until we passed number 228, where Fletcher Henderson, the bandleader, once lived. While living here he was able to walk to his gigs at the jazz clubs just as Dad does now when he doesn't feel like calling for the limo.
Exhaustion hit me like a brick. Suddenly, seven days of tapping my foot to the beat of Aretha, Lou Rawls, Branford Marsalis, and Ruth Brown, and lounging in deck chairs until my skin was fried two shades past midnight, and each night wrapped in Tad's arms and rolling to his private and indescribable rhythm, and then rising to jog around the deck with him in a 5 a.m. fog, all had finally caught up with me. My eyelids felt like a sandpit. I was ready to tell Dad but he was still swimming in a current of anger.
"The last thing Ozzie said when we left the ship was 'See you tonight. Starr'll be there. I really appreciate what you doin' for her.' And neither one of 'em bothered to show. What the hell is that about? At this stage of the game, I damn sure don't need no half-steppers!"
I knew how Dad felt. If he was able to drag himself out of the house, then everyone else should've done it also. Or at least call. Luckily, a jazz pianist from Brooklyn was in the audience and was more than happy to sit in. And he was damn good. I listened and wondered how a musician -- who had never played or practiced with a particular group -- could simply walk on, take a seat, and blend so seamlessly with the rhythm, strike the notes as cleanly as if he'd gigged with the band for years.
I heard the ringing above Ruffin's bark as I put the key in the door.
"Maybe it's Alvin," I said. "You know we promised to call as soon as we got back."
"Or could be Ozzie," Dad said as he propped his bass against the sofa and rushed to the phone before the machine kicked in. "If it is, he better have a damn good--"
A second later, I watched the annoyance drain away and his face change to blank surprise. His hand shook violently and he tried twice before finally hitting the speakerphone button.
Ozzie's voice cracked through the silence like an electric charge. "Bad news, man. Bad, bad. Starr's dead. My baby's been murdered."2
It didn't take long to get over to Starr's place, a four-story apartment building on 122nd Street overlooking the grassy knoll of Marcus Garvey Park. Her apartment was on the second floor and at first, we were not allowed in the building.
The area had been secured and homicide detectives, crime scene technicians, and a photographer were present, as well as several uniforms trying to control the crowd milling around and adding to the confusion.
One homicide detective with the improbable name of Holmes moved through the lobby toward the door and recognized me from my time on the force. My tenure had been brief but memorable, like one of those meteors that appear out of nowhere, cause tremendous upheaval, and then exit into another orbit. Except that I hadn't exited altogether, as the mayor, the commissioner, and the precinct's captain had wished. I was still here, alive and well and still mad as hell.
"Your boy's upstairs," Holmes whispered, nodding his head toward the steps. He saw my hard stare and quickly understood that I was not acquainted with any forty-two-year-old "boys."
He also knew my history; knew I'd gotten fired for punching out a racist cop and that I'd sued the NYPD for wrongful dismissal. In the process, some rocks had been overturned at the precinct and more than one secret had been exposed to the light of day. Drug dealing, murder, and bribery headed the list. I had blown a hole in the setup and nearly brought down the entire precinct. When the smoke cleared, the cop I had punched was dead but my lawsuit continued. Now, to prevent me from testifying and bringing up all that unpleasant stuff, I was being offered an out-of-court settlement. Reinstatement at the rank of detective sergeant and immediate retirement on ninety percent disability. How could I refuse?
I was in the final stage of negotiations and I assumed Holmes did not want me running back to my attorney for a bonus. I stared at him and he promptly corrected himself. "I mean your ... your guy, your friend is upstairs."
I did not reply and so to make further amends, he cupped his hand to his mouth, leaned on the banister and called, "Yo, Honeywell! Got a minute? Somebody's down here!" Then he clamped his jaw as if he were nursing a toothache and strode out toward the crime scene van.
Dad and I exchanged a look. Tad Honeywell. Tad was here. I couldn't believe it. We had been exhausted when we left the ship and he was going home to crawl under the covers. Then again, that's also what I'd planned to do, but Dad's gig had somehow gotten in the way.
I heard Tad's voice at the top of the stairs but on the way down, the medical examiner intercepted him and he turned and retraced his steps.
Up on the landing, a neighbor's door eased open and Ozzie, moving like a shadow, walked downstairs toward us. He and Dad were about the same age but whereas Dad was tall and thin, Ozzie had the hard, ageless physique of George Foreman. His sharp features now seemed melted in grief and his clean-shaven head glistened with sweat under the fluorescent hall light. He moved slowly, measuring each step like a man newly blind, fearful of stumbling into something unknown.
"I don't want to go too far," he whispered as Dad took his arm and we walked outside. Up close, I saw that his skin had lost the sun-deck, cruise-bronzed coloring and an ashen tinge had broken through.
"I don't want to go too far," he whispered again. "Don't want to leave her like that. She..."
We guided him across the street to a bench near the park. He held his head and we listened to his halting breath in the silence. Finally, he looked up and stared across the street. He gazed at the small crowd, the crime scene van, and the squad cars with their rotating lights disturbing the gray morning.
"You know, Jeffrey, I shoulda brought her on the trip. Just had her pack a bag and come on with us. This woulda never happened if she hadda been with me..."
"How did it happen?" I whispered. "Was it a break-in? Was she robbed?"
He hunched his shoulder and shook his head at an angle, as if a weight held it to one side. "Can't tell if anything's missing. Didn't have time to look. I went to use the key she gave me, but the door was unlocked, closed but unlocked. Something was behind the door when I pushed. It was her, laid out, throat cut ear to ear."
He drew a deep breath and seemed to stop breathing for a second before he continued.
"She shoulda came with me. But no. Said she had to be here. Had some business she had to take care of. And look what happened. Look at what happened."
Look at what happened ... He closed his eyes and repeated this slowly, as if in the repetition he might uncover some mistake, some error of the eye that would self-correct -- she'd only been sleeping after all and eventually would awaken and make things whole again.
"I called her, soon as we cleared the deck," he continued. "No answer. Machine didn't kick in and I thought she mighta been in the shower or something. So I came straight here. Knew we didn't have much time and I wanted her to be ready for this gig. Especially for this gig. And I found her layin' there. Don't know how long she been dead. God, if I'd only been here. If I'd only..."
I glanced over his shoulder and caught my father's eye. His expression seemed to say, "Don't ask any more questions. Not now. He's not up to it."
I nodded and pointed toward the building, then left them and walked across the street. I eased around the crowd again, smaller now that most of the onlookers, disappointed that the body was not forthcoming, had wandered back to the double- and triple-locked security of their own homes. Some of the cruisers had also dispersed, leaving two cars to flash on the remaining spectators clustered in tight whispering knots.
Tad stood in the doorway of the building, talking in a low voice to one of the identifying technicians. I waited until the tech disappeared inside again before I signaled. Tad's face, when he approached, was like stone. His mouth was a fine, thin line and his eyes, usually pools so calm and deep I wanted to dive into them, were now narrowed and focused like a laser on this latest circumstance.
Excerpted from Do or Die by Grace F. Edwards. Copyright © 2000 by Grace F. Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Crimeline, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.