Chapter One

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IN LOVING MEMORY: This story is offered in memory of the hardboiled PI writer Robert E. Bailey, without whom it would never have been written. I miss you, sweetheart. MAY IS BRAIN CANCER AWARENESS MONTH. SUPPORT BRAIN CANCER RESEARCH!

                                                                                 ***

The edge of the path around the tiny wooded island tumbled away to the water; jagged rocks covering the shoulder made for some treacherous footing. Detective John Robin steadied himself on a tree trunk and stepped down. At the bottom of the little cliff, an expanse of rock leveled off and stretched toward the James River rapids, beloved by local rafters. A riot of whitewater spray rumbled behind a trail of blood smeared over the rock, unfurling like a red carpet. At the end of it lay a corpse with his nose in a rocky crevice, dirty fingers reaching for the path.

The dead man's dark curls and tall, trim build drew John's attention. Dark blue jacket—Who wears a jacket out when it's almost ninety degrees even after sunset?

"He crawled a long way, up here," said Detective Arlene Johnson, off to his left. Arlene was originally from Queens, New York, and still sounded it. She'd worked the Richmond, Virginia police department's "A squad" for fourteen years. Almost twelve years longer than John; thirteen years and six months longer than red-haired Detective Mike Little.

Mike brushed up beside him, straightening his tie. "You know, Johnny," he said, "why don't I interview these lovely young ladies and give them a ride back up to the squad? Give you more time to check out the scene."

Standing in the trees behind him, the two girls who had called the murder in stood craning their necks to stare, then flinching and looking away. One of them had already puked on John's murder scene. Their jogging shorts revealed muscled, tanned legs; their cropped tops exposed long, lean bellies.

John snickered. "Yeah, sure. Knock yourself out." The gray morning sky drizzled a fine mist that threatened a thunderstorm. Mike turned away and John glanced behind him at Arlene. "I think I'm going to empty his pockets now in case it starts raining harder." He snapped on gloves, hurried forward to slide his hand into a jacket pocket, and got a better look at the face.

And then his voice completely left him, and he knelt down, staring. Finally his throat clicked, and he managed to say, "Arlene."

He felt her hanging over his shoulder, and she said, "Oh, my God."

John glanced behind at her, although he didn't need to; the damp air between them buzzed with recognition, as though lightning were about to strike. Arlene's face said it all behind her glasses: frozen, taut, pale. Every inch of John's guts ached.

Their sergeant, William Pride, whom nobody ever beat in to work, whose clearance record no one could touch, lay before them, dusty and smeared with blood.

Detective Savonn Peters, tall, African-American, impeccably dressed, came up behind and leaned in. "Shh-it," he said. Usually quick with a quip, the best he could come up with was, "I guess we know why he's not in yet."

                                                                                                ***

Bullet wounds had torn through Pride's shirt and into his torso; at least three, several hours before, as near as they could tell. It was good that John had his procedures down cold, because he was stumbling around in a fog—the sort of numbed-down, stupid haze that had hit him the night Ma called and told him his father had died.

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