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Peaches and the Gambler 7


  “That’s easy. Start with his wife.”

  **

  Having called Ms. Penny and retrieved Cynthia’s address, Peaches felt bravado leaking from her body quicker than water from a cracked toilet.

  Getting off the couch certainly had its downfalls.

  Buying time, she took the Durham Freeway at a snail’s pace, sticking to the slow lane and ignoring the enraged honks of the impatient driver’s behind her. Exiting at Alston Avenue, she headed to McDougle Terrace, a housing project located a few blocks from North Carolina Central University.

  After her murder accusation, she wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about seeing Cynthia again.

  The GPS told her to make a left. She cut through a residential street lined with small bungalows much like the ones in her father’s neighborhood in Roanoke Rapids.

  Then the street opened up and she was facing McDougle Terrace.

  Raw blocks of sixties era row house’s stretched as far as the eye could see. Bald cement stoops jutted out in the front and rear. Trash was caught in bushes and floated morosely in the trickle of a smelly stream she could see glimmering through scraggly undergrowth. Grass was a rare commodity. In its place were bare dirt plots small children energetically played upon. Though the fiscal budget for the City of Durham had been cut during the past few years, the housing project appeared as though it had been the victim of such cuts for more than two decades.

  Parking a full two blocks away from the address she had written down, she turned the engine off, took a deep breath, and got out of the car.

  A few people wandered about in the murky afternoon sunshine. When Peaches heard what sounded like gunshots going of in the distance, she nearly turned tail and ran. She felt more than a little foolish when the so-called gunshots turned out to be an old tricked-out Chevelle on its last leg.

  Bolstering her courage with a stiff talking to and a harsh memory of smug I-told-you-so’s from Lynn, she squared her shoulders and started walking in the direction of Cynthia’s apartment.

  She had taken just a few steps, tripping over one of the many tufts of crabgrass growing through the sidewalk, when loud music growing steadily louder approached, a vehicle zooming up behind her. The car slowed to a crawl. Peaches, uncomfortable, sped up, not wanting to be bothered by some scrub, hood-dweller who thought he had a chance in hell of dating her.

  “I’d know that ass anywhere,” a voice hollered out the window.

  Outraged, Peaches turned and was staring into the grinning face of her cousin Polo.

  “Peach, what the hell you doin’ in the hood?”

  He parked his van haphazardly at the curb and jumped out, a broad grin on his face.

  Polo seemed shorter than ever. Barely five feet tall, he hopped the sidewalk, rushing to give her a hug. He stood back, bouncing on the balls of his feet and gazing up at her.

  The son of her father’s sister Sophie, Polo was in his late twenties and like his father, was a born hustle man. He could sell you your own burial plot twice and you’d thank him for doing it.

  Peaches hadn’t ever known the fool to have a regular job. And he always had money. Lots of it. He was the only man she knew who owned his house and car before the age of thirty. He had a multitude of tattoos covering his arms, his fingers dressed in more jeweled rings than a decent man should wear. His jeans were sagging and a white graphic tee-shirt was wrapped tight around a squat, muscular torso.

  Like many short men he talked fast, too fast. Another thing about Polo: he cursed like a sailor.

  “What the fuck you doin’ in McDougle Terrace?” Without waiting for her response, he ploughed ahead. “This is my neck of the woods. Out here selling some purses I just bought down from The City.” The City being anywhere between Miami and New York. “Got me a fuckin’ amaaaazing deal from my connect. Got five hundred of them but they only cost me five dollars apiece. What the hell you doin’ out here again?”

  “I’m here to--,” she began.

  “Yo! Yo Charlene!” Polo yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth. The ruby on one of the rings caught the small bit of sunlight peeking through the clouds, effectively blinding her. “Got that hot shit you been beggin’ me fo’! That’s right! That Coach shit!” A far-away exclamation of ‘whoop-whoop!’ followed this revelation from the unseen Charlene. “I’ll be down there later!”

  “So I--,”

  “Hold up just a minute, Peach,” Polo said, beadily eyeing four women walking down the street pushing strollers. “I don’t never leave money lyin’ on the table.”

  Talking to Polo was like talking to a runaway train with no conductor. Peaches sighed.

  He rushed over to his van, throwing the doors open and exposing an interior filled with neatly arranged purses, belts, counterfeit cd’s and dvd’s, body oils and…condoms?

  “My bestselling item,” he said, dramatically throwing a hand over his heart. “I swear to God! Sell like hotcakes when the club lets out. Everybody need a little somethin’ somethin’ huh, Peach?” A salacious chuckle erupted from his toothy mouth.

  By this point, a small crowd of women had gathered around the van. Within five minutes, he had sold six purses, ten belts and a bottle of baby oil.

  That’s why people that knew him called him the ‘Black Midas’.

  “Now, why you here again?”

  “Well, I--,”

  “Yo, my nig! What’s on and poppin’?”

  A young man with more tattoos than Polo swaggered up, a paper bag covered bottle of something gripped in one thin fist. His eyes were good and red, the strong odor of marijuana wafting from his slim body.

  “You know, just doin’ me. Keepin’ it one hundred.”

  They conversed in hushed code for a few moments, furtively eyeing a cop car that slowly meandered past, before the guy wandered off, disappearing around a corner.

  Peaches was dismayed to see a car carrying Cynthia and her two mutant sons speeding past Polo’s van.

  “Damn it, Polo!” she exclaimed, stamping her foot. “You just made me miss the woman I was here to see.”

  “Why you here again?”

  He wasn’t looking at her, instead focusing on another small group of women on the opposite side of the street.

  “I’m here--,” she said, stepping in his line of vision. “Investigating the murder of a guy I went to high school with.”

  That got his attention.

  “What the hell you talkin’ about, Peach? I thought you was workin’ as a bookkeeper?”

  “Administrative manager.”

  “Same thing to me,” he muttered. “What happened to your other job?”

  “Got laid off.”

  “Damn. You pissed?”

  She shrugged. Honestly, she didn’t know how she felt. She had felt angry and betrayed. Now she just felt empty.

  “And now you’re a private investigator?” He placed a hand on his hip.

  “Sort of.”

  “You either are or you aren’t. Ain’t no halfway.”

  “I’m looking into this murder as a favor to his mom. She feels like the police aren’t moving fast enough,” Peaches said.

  “What? So you ain’t actually a real investigator?”

  “No,” Peaches said. “Just trying to help out.”

  He regarded her without saying a word. Just stood with a hand on his hip, gazing at her as if she had sprouted wings and horns and would at any moment head in the direction of Mount Olympus.

  “On the real,” he finally said. “That’s some of the stupidest shit I done ever heard. You ain’t got no idea what the hell you doin’. This nigga got killed and you wanna put yourself in the middle of it?”

  “Polo,” Peaches said, more than a little aggravated. “I’m just asking a few questions, that’s all.”

  “And who’s this nigga again?”

  “You don’t know him, Polo.”

  “Peach—I know errrybody,” he said, cockily. It was no exaggeration. He did.

  “Lenny Richardson.
I went to high school with him.”

  He thought for a moment, then pointed a stubby finger and said: “Skinny nigga? Like to drink Colt 45 and straight gin?”

  “Don’t know about the alcohol. But, yeah, he’s sorta slim.”

  “He don’t comb his hair. A little tart under the arms?”

  “Polo. I don’t know!” she said, exasperated. “It’s been a while since I saw him.” A while meaning several years. And even then, their only communication had been a quick wave and nod in Wal-Mart.

  “That nigga got a big mole on his forehead?”

  “One and the same.”

  “Used to see him at Satin Doll’s all the time. Told you I knew him,” he stated, smugly. “Couldn’t believe he got murdered. Seemed okay enough as drinkers go. Always hate to see another black man dead in the streets.”

  Polo’s voice faded out as he craned his neck, eyeing another group of potential customers.

  “Stay focused!” she snapped. She had a sudden epiphany. Pulling the tokens and the piece of paper she had found out of her pocket, she held them up. “Alright. You know everything and everybody, so what are these?”

  He glanced at the contents in the palm of her hand, then picked up a token. He didn’t bother with the paper.

  “Don’t know what that receipt is, but these are Satin Doll’s Ass Tokens.”

  “What?”

  “Satin Doll’s Ass Tokens,” he said, returning the coins. “Satin Doll’s is a strip club. You use those token’s instead of cash.” Unable to stomach the idea of losing another sale, he shoved past Peaches, removing key items from the van and arranging them decoratively on the hood. “Those tokens are a collector’s item now.”

  “A collector’s item? Why is that?”

  “The owner’s took the tokens out of circulation and replaced them with Satin Doll’s Dollars,” Polo explained. “Seems the strippers was complainin’ that when nigga’s was makin’ it rain, they was gettin’ pelted with the tokens. Dancer like to lost an eye over that shit. They got sued, had to pay out an ass load of money and was forced to change the way they was doin’ business. Glad, too. I can tell you, it was hard as hell to stick them tokens in a stripper’s thong. So I used to just shove ‘em between they ass cheeks.”

  “Really?” Peaches asked, faintly.

  “Yep. Them right there, more likely than not, been between the crack of some strippers ass.”

  “Jesus!”

  Gingerly dropping the tokens and paper back in her pocket, Peaches could swear the odor of some stripper’s butt crack was emanating from her fingertips.

  “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with a little ass on your hands, Peach!” Polo dug around in a plastic bin, then popped up, tossing her a small vial of hand sanitizer, chortling merrily. “That’s on the house.”

  She liberally applied the clear goo to her hands, nearly emptying the small container.

  “Your friend’s murder’s makin’ all us Durhamites look bad. On the news they talkin’ ‘bout we killin’ each other. Durham’s murder rates are higher than the national average. Yadda, yadda, ya.” A couple strolling with a cute baby who was fiercely sucking at a bottle filled with red liquid, stopped to inspect a belt. “The news don’t bother talkin’ ‘bout people like me who’s living right and doin’ they thing.”

  He halted his tirade, avidly eying the girl as she fingered a Gucci knock-off.

  “Well, Polo. I’m gonna let you--,”

  But he had already absorbed himself in the sales needs of the couple. He waved a distracted goodbye and Peaches headed back to her car, thinking hard.

  Peaches walked away, thinking about everything Polo had just told her. The initials S.D. obviously stood for Satin Doll’s. So now she knew two important things about Lenny: he liked to drink and he liked the strip club. Maybe his fondness for one of those things got him killed.

  Even though Cynthia had left, the day didn’t have to be a complete waste of time. She would knock on the doors of their neighbors. In a neighborhood like this they were bound to know something.

  **

  An hour later, Peaches was frustrated and annoyed. The first three apartments she had gone to were vacant; windows broken, old phone books and assorted junk mail sprinkled desolately upon abandoned stoops.

  At the apartments where she did manage to talk to someone, it was always: ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I didn’t know them.’ from stony faced residents who looked like they could care less. The only interesting piece of information she had gotten thus far was that Cynthia and Lenny had the sporadic screaming argument. But that didn’t exactly count as a red flag. What married couple didn’t have the occasional fight?

  About to call it a day and head home, Peaches turned around, heading back in the direction of her car.

  “Pssst! Lady, come over here.” A young man of about fourteen was peeping around the corner of the apartment she had just left.

  She stopped, dubiously eying the young man.

  “Why?” Peaches asked, doubtfully. With his small stature, scraggly growth of facial hair and sagging jeans, he looked like a bizarre cross between a Little Rascal and a catfish. The braces glittering when he smiled encouragingly through the large wad of gum he was chewing made up her mind. A kid with braces had to be trustworthy, right?

  “You was askin’ questions ‘bout the guy that got merked, right?” She nodded her head. “Well, I know something lotta other people don’t.” This pronouncement was accompanied by a supremely sly expression Peaches didn’t trust.

  “Okay? Talk.”

  “Twenty dollars.” His sly expression had turned positively calculating as he thrust his palm forward.

  “Please, fool,” Peaches snorted. The little crook-in-training had some nerve. “You better hope I don’t call the truancy officer on you.”

  “They ain’t got them here. Only up North,” he stated, knowledgeably. He popped another bubble, palm still out. “You want the information or not?”

  “Not that badly.” Peaches put a hand on her hip, badly wanting to rattle the braces out of the boy’s mouth for being so impertinent. Whatever happened to helping your fellow man? Evidently this boy had never heard of such a novel idea. In his home he was probably being trained on the finer points of playing cards, rolling dice and shaking down unsuspecting citizens in the streets.

  “Alright,” he said, casually popping a bubble. “Good luck, lady. Cause ain’t nobody gonna talk to strangers ‘bout people getting’ merked from around here,” he said, arrogantly. He began to walk away, hands stuck in his pockets.

  “Oh, alright!” Peaches growled, caving. She dug down in her handbag, pulling her wallet out and extracting a twenty. She held it out to him as he came closer.

  “Price just went up.”

  “What?” Peaches squeaked, irate.

  “Thirty dollars now. My time is sorta valuable, ma’am,” he said politely.

  Peaches struggled, tempted to grab him by one of his rather large ears, drag him to where ever he lived, and have a stern talking-to with whatever adult presence was in his household at this hour.

  “Tick-tock, ma’am,” the boy said, starting to edge away again.

  Gritting her teeth, Peaches dug in her wallet once again, adding a ten to the twenty she had been holding out. This was unbelievable.

  “Information first. Money second,” she said, holding the bills just out of his reach.

  He considered rejecting that idea, then his greed got the better of him and he settled his heels in the dirt and finally started talking.

  “Saw a guy come out of that dead man’s house a few days before they found his body.”

  “How did he look?”

  “Like he won’t from around here,” he said, popping another bubble and digging his hands deep down in his pockets. “Dressed real nice. Phat watch. Looked like a Breitling. I know Breitling’s cause that’s what I’m’ll buy when I make my first mill in the rap game.”

  “That’s not really telling me how he looked
,” Peaches said, impatiently. She shook her head. Every young man in the hood thought they could make a million dollars rapping. Why didn’t somebody tell them that only 1 out of a million ever made it to a million bucks? He was better off dreaming of going to college and getting a real job. Then again, Peaches thought, wryly thinking of her own unemployed status, maybe that dream was getting a little impossible, too.

  “He was a really big dude. Sorta tall, too. Not somebody you wanna come up against in the dark. Know what I mean? Look like he could’ve easily played professional ball or somethin’.”

  “Anything else?”

  “Yeah. There was another huge dude sittin’ in the SUV he was in. Mean lookin’ muther fu—dude,” he said, adjusting his language at the severe look of disapproval Peaches was shooting his way.

  “So there were two guys?”

  “That’s all I saw.” He held out his hand again.

  “Nope. One more question: what type of car were they driving?”

  “That I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “I just know it was a darkish SUV. Now, I think I earned my money.”

  “What apartment do you live in?” she asked, still holding the money just out of reach.

  “Don’t live around here,” he said, smiling mysteriously.

  “So how do I know you even know who and what I’m talking about?” Peaches demanded.

  “I saw the dead guy on the news and I saw him come out on his porch a few minutes after those two guys left. Common sense, ma’am,” he stated in a matter-of-fact tone that made Peaches want to throttle him all over again.

  “I need to know where you live in case I need to ask you any more questions,” Peaches said, stubbornly.

  “I live at 1456 Sycamore—,”

  “I.D. please.

  “But--,” he protested.

  “I don’t know you from Adam. You could be lying. If you want this money you give up your address,” she said, using the same tone she used when she was talking to Nina and Sly.

  He sulkily handed her his I.D after digging it out of his back pocket.

  “So I see you were lying,” Peaches said, accusingly.

  “Hey—I don’t know you either. You could be crazy. You could like teenaged boys,” he said, glancing hopefully at her boobs.

  “Anyway, Anton Farris--,” Peaches said, ignoring his last comment. After scribbling down his name and address and handing back his I.D. He was actually seventeen, not the fourteen she had initially taken him to be. “A deal’s a deal.”