Read The Stones Cry Out Online
Authors: Sibella Giorello
Tags: #Mystery, #Contemporary, #Mysteries & Thrillers
The Stones Cry Out
by Sibella Giorello
This book is dedicated to my uncle, Fred Danz, the man who said with a smile:
"Some of life’s best gifts come with obligations."
The dead man's mother lived in a battered gray house on Castlewood Street surrounded by a mean echo of No Trespassing signs.
My partner for the day Special Agent John Breit took one look at the place. "Good luck in there."
I didn't believe in luck. For one thing it was Monday, the Fourth of July, and the heat index wasn't observing the holiday. The morning temperature was nudging one hundred degrees and when I climbed out of John's air-conditioned Cadillac, the humidity hit me like a wall. The sticky southern heat only lengthened my walk to the front door. So did the expression on the woman's face, suddenly appearing in the doorway. Her dark eyes hard as anthracite, she watched me pick my way down the cracked concrete path to where she stood. I introduced myself—Raleigh Harmon, special agent with the FBI.
She turned without response.
I followed her inside, closing the door behind me. The living room smelled of grape juice and stale cigarettes, and in the small kitchen beside it, Bernadette Holmes waited at a gray Formica table.
The mother of the dead man.
"Mama," the younger woman said. “FBI's here."
Mrs. Holmes looked at me. The Official Investigator. Her brown face was salt-stained from crying, and a sleeveless cotton housedress exposed her heavy arms where a delta of stretch marks flowed in sandy estuaries to her elbows.
"What happened to my boy?" she said. "What'd they do to my boy? My good, good boy -- he's gone!"
On Saturday her son Hamal Holmes fell from a factory rooftop. Another man also fell, Detective Michael Falcon of the Richmond Police Department. The seventy-foot drop to the sidewalk killed both men on impact, but exactly how they fell—and why they were on the roof—was anyone's guess. In the two days since it happened, no witnesses had come forward, though the police had already floated a theory that enraged half the city. Mr. Holmes was black; the detective was white. The police claimed the officer was assaulted. Yesterday, the mayor called the FBI, demanding a civil rights investigation. And now, here I was. Official Investigator. The only agent available on a city, state, and federal holiday.
Me and John, who stayed in the car.
Lighting a cigarette, the girl with the anthracite eyes lifted her face, catching a mild draft that blew from an air conditioning unit hoisted to the window above the sink. I sat down at the small table next to Mrs. Holmes and offered her my card. She didn't take it. I expressed my condolences for her loss, which she also didn't take, and I didn’t blame her. Even when I meant the words they sounded hollow.
Finally I explained how the civil rights case would work:
"I'll be looking into the circumstances surrounding your son's death. I'll need to ask you a lot of questions. Some of them might be difficult to answer."
Tears welling, she said. "Hamal's body. It's all broken up, ain't it? My baby, is he in pieces?"
Since the Bureau wasn't called right away, I missed the autopsy. But everybody knows rock crushes bone. When I didn't answer, her sobbing grew louder. I waited, feeling the usual awkwardness, since I could offer only silence, followed by impertinent questions.
I opened my notebook. "Mrs. Holmes, do you know why your son was on that roof?"
"Why?” Her voice turned molten with rage. "Why? Because that policeman done chased him up there, that's why. He chased my Hamal to the roof, then throwed him off! God forgive me, but I'm not sorry that policeman's dead. No, I'm not. That man deserved to die. Killing my boy like that."
The police department, naturally, had a different theory. As a young man, Hamal Holmes built a solid record of breaking and entering. Though he'd apparently changed his ways in recent years, the cops trotted out their claims:
Holmes broke into the abandoned factory Saturday morning. The detective was working nearby and spotted him, pursuing him to the roof, where a struggle ensued. The only thing everybody agreed on was that both men lost the fight.
Mrs. Holmes scoffed at the theory.
"Hamal didn't break into that place. Ain't nothing in that old factory. Been closed for years. My son was a businessman. A real good businessman. Paid all my bills. He didn't need to steal nothing from nobody."
I glanced at the girl, still smoking at the sink. She flicked her ash, returning my gaze.
"Are you his sister?" I asked.
"Wife." She pointed the cigarette at my notebook. "You can put this in your little book: My husband didn’t do nothing wrong.”
I didn’t move.
“You deaf? I said, write it down."
"I know this is a difficult time for your family but when—"
"You don't know nothin'."
Actually, that was true. I turned back to the mother, once more sliding my card toward her. "Mrs. Holmes, I'll be the agent in charge of the civil rights investigation. Please feel free to call me anytime, day or night. Any questions or concerns, let me know. And please call if you hear of anything that might help our investigation."
But she wasn’t looking at me. She stared across the table to a small television. Sound muted, closed captioning ran across the bottom of the screen. "That policeman killed my son."
"When all the evidence is—"
The widow took four steps forward. She was barefoot and held the cigarette like a javelin, poised to throw. "We done seen the evidence. It's in the morgue. My husband, he's dead. Dead! Dead!"
Mrs. Holmes released another wail and somewhere beyond the kitchen, children began yelling. Their voices came through the walls, but the widow raised her head and hollered back, demanding silence. They obeyed. She turned to me.
"You came here to help the cops. We know how it works."
"That's not how it works. This is a civil rights investigation. The FBI is investigating the police for possible violations. They are completely separate from our work."
"You're still one of them. I can smell it."
I glanced at Mrs. Holmes, still staring at a small television. Montel, the talk show host, was pawing his bald head with one hand, swinging the microphone with the other. The text announced today's topic: "I can't trust you!"
"Mrs. Holmes, who told you what happened on the roof?"
"I don't remember."
"Do you recall what was said?"
"Did anyone tell you why Hamal was on the roof?"
"They told me Hamal was dead. After that my mind was gone."
Montel batted the microphone through the air like a wasp was loose in the studio. The camera panned to the audience. People applauding. When I glanced back at the dead man’s widow, her deep reserves of anger had compressed even further, all that hate-fueled anthracite hardening with heat and pressure.
"How did you hear about your husband's death?"
“I heard.” She took the last drag off her cigarette and tossed it into the sink. It sizzled. “And I heard it’s time for you to go.”
Her motherin-law nodded absently, and I followed the widow to the front door.
Holding the door open, she wore the same expression as when I arrived, but now as I walked past she wished me good luck. Her voice dripped with sarcasm.
And I decided there was no point telling her: Luck didn't exist.
The white Cadillac was still parked at the curb with the engine running and the air conditioner set to arctic blast. When I opened the door, John was closing his cell phone.
"I’ll bet they were happy to see you,” he said.
"Complete and total cooperation."
He grunted knowingly. But his bloodshot eyes kept flicking to the rearview mirror. Sitting down, I turned around and looked through the back window. An emaciated man stood on the sagging wooden porch next door, the platform jutting over powdery brown soil. His fingers were lashed around one of the columns, holding tight. Even from here I could see his sunken eyes. They were full of curses for the fancy white car and the fat white man tucked behind the wheel. More disturbing was an object laying in the dirt below, like something dropped from the sky. A small pink bicycle.
"The bike," I said. It was a girl’s bike. A little girl's bike. “Did you call the second precinct?"
"Oh, yeah, Raleigh. First thing. I called the cops and told them to do their job. Give me a break. There’s enough animosity out here—on all sides—to last another hundred fifty years."
When he pulled away from the curb, I was still looking out the back window. The stick figure staggered forward, latching the spidery hands over the next porch column. I took one last look at the pink bike, then turned around.
"Don't look so upset," John said. "Child Protective Services just got a call. Anonymous but urgent."
"That's who you were calling?"
He took a right on Hull Street, refusing to answer. Refusing to let me see his beating heart. I stared out the window, squinting into the sunlight. This close to the James River, the summer light cast hues that seemed different from the rest of Richmond. Brighter, harsher, the white light exposed every ravaged bit of this riverbank south of town. All the abandoned mills. The worn-down factories. The brick buildings standing tall and empty and proud, like old ladies dressed up for a dying church.
But once upon a time, despite formal rules of segregation, white and black families lived and worked together in relative peace on Southside. Days in the factories and mills, nights in the neighborhood bars or the tidy asbestos-wrapped houses that camped like tents on field grass. But that well-intentioned idea of desegregation changed everything. Richmond suffered massive “white flight” during the 1960s, leaving the city desperate for tax revenue. The metropolitan area soon incorporated land to the south, swallowing up the working class neighborhood and spitting out this weird netherworld of abandonment. What was once a self-contained town turned into a dumping ground for industrial warehouses stuffed with Philip Morris leaf tobacco and public housing projects that bred poverty, addiction, and violence.
But in recent years Southside residents had started asking for some changes. Two days ago on that fateful Saturday, six hundred people had marched down Bainbridge Avenue, circled Hull Street and cut over to Decatur, all the while chanting slogans and raising fists for a protest that was billed as "The Parade for the People." Near an empty factory that once produced Fielding Felt Hats, the crowd stopped near the impromptu wooden stage. Later, on the six o'clock news, the tape would show a crowd that swelled through the streets, waving angry signs, and clapping for Mayor Louis "LuLu" Mendant. The mayor stood on stage and blamed the neighborhood’s bad schools and vicious crime rate and soaring unemployment on white people. And money. Specifically, white people who didn't pay their taxes. The mayor said he needed that money to fix these problems.
"These old buildings don’t do anything!" the mayor yelled from the wooden stage. "And these white slumlords say that’s why they don’t have to pay their taxes! But I’m telling you, that money belongs to you! It belongs to you--and you! And you!”