The following is an unedited rough draft of chapter six from my upcoming novel, Mencken and the Lost Boys. Please excuse all typos and issues. It will get several edits before it is actually published. Enjoy!
The featured image was found at Unsplash.com.
“You ready for this?” Joe asked. She wore black slacks and a black sleeveless blouse. Mencken wondered how she was standing the chilly October evening breeze.
Mencken sighed. “Honestly? No.”
They stood outside the Jonestown Community Association building watching the groups of grieving children and parents stream quietly through the doors. The ancient building with its marble steps six two-story Corinthian columns looked more like a Roman temple than a community center.
“What’s wrong?” Joe said, smiling playfully. “You’ve never been to a memorial service before?”
“It’s not that,” Mencken said with a sigh.
“You can’t handle sad kids?” Joe asked as she watched a group of crying young girls enter the tall double doors of the building.
“It’s just,” Mencken said. “The last time I saw her, Anita Dickson, someone had beat her to hell and she was missing her eyes.”
“Oh,” Joe said looking at Mencken. “Yeah. I bet that haunts your dreams.”
“Every night,” Mencken said.
“Well,” Joe said. “There’s nothing to do with fear but face it. Let’s get in there.”
“Thanks,” Mencken said, looking at her. “That fixes everything.”
“Damn straight,” Joe said with a wink.
The large main room was filled with row after row of folding chairs. As almost every seat was taken, Mencken and Joe chose to stand against the back wall. On the stage was a large picture of Anita Dickson laughing with a group of children. Hanging on the walls all around the room were children’s drawings, paintings, and letters to the school leader.
“Tell me again why you think Legion killed her?” Joe said quietly.
“The Cabal killed her,” Mencken said, correcting his new partner, “because they needed people to leave the neighborhood.”
Three young boys took chairs directly in front of where they were standing. They were each dressed in a button down shirts and ties. They all looked at the floor. One breathed slowly, fighting back tears. Mencken thought it was strange and sad to see boys of that age sitting silently.
“Why?” Joe said.
“Why what?” Mencken asked.
“Why do they want people out of the neighborhood?”
A young girl in a gray dress led her mother by the hand to a watercolor of Anita Dickson that hung on the wall to their left. The mother put her arm around the young girl and squeezed the child’s shoulder. After a moment in front of the painting, the daughter buried her face into her mother’s dress.
“Can we do this later?” Mencken asked.
“No,” Joe said. She was making notes in a small notebook. “How am I supposed to know what to look for if you don’t give me the big picture?”
The woman had joined her daughter in crying. Mencken scanned the crowd. People all over were silently weeping. He looked to the boys in front of them. The one who’d been heavily breathing was rubbing his eyes. “I’ll tell you after,” Mencken said.
“You could have told me in the car on the way here, but you had to ride your motorcycle, so now you have to tell me now,” Joe said, not looking up from the pad she was scribbling in.
“Fine,” Mencken said as he rubbed his head and looked at the ceiling. “The Guilford Development Corporation has purchased every piece of abandon property from here to Old Town Mall. They’re clearly planning something big, but they can’t do it as long as existing families are here. If they want the rest of the houses in the community, they’ve got to get the people out of them first. Step one, terrorize families and wreck the schools. They’ll beg you to buy their house so they can get out of town.”
“I don’t know,” Joe said. “I don’t buy it.”
Mencken shook his head and refused to look at her. “What do you mean you don’t buy it? What’s there to buy?”
“It just feels complicated,” Joe said. “I mean, this neighborhood is already poor. Why not just buy them out?”
“People aren’t just going to sell their houses,” Mencken said.
“Sure they would,” Joe said. “What? You think people live on streets where one out of every three homes is abandoned because they like the peace and quiet?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mencken said defensively.
“I’m just saying. If the Legion,”
“Cabal,” Mencken corrected.
“If the Legion wanted the neighborhood, they’d just buy the neighborhood. Easy-peasy.”
The lights in the room dimmed and people all around the room rushed to finish the conversations they were having. “I’m not debating this with you,” Mencken said.
“That’s because you’re gonna lose,” Joe said with a smirk.
“No,” Mencken said. “It’s because you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Keep telling yourself that,” Joe said as she clapped for the speaker who was taking the stage.
A short squatty woman in a black dress took the stage. Coming to the microphone, she loosened the stand pulled the microphone down to the level of her mouth. It squealed as it moved.
“Hello everyone,” she said, reading from a piece of paper. Sighing, she folded it up and held it tightly in her right hand. Looking at the crowd she said, “Thank you for coming tonight. Sometimes, there just aren’t any words.”
“Who’s that?” Joe asked.
“How am I supposed to know?” Mencken said.
“This is your story,” Joe said. “I thought you’d done your homework.”
“That doesn’t mean I’ve memorized every face involved with the school,” Mencken complained.
“For those who don’t know me,” the short woman said, “I’m Sarah Meir. I was Anita’s advisor for her Ph.D. work, her mentor when she launched the school, and friend.” The woman paused, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “I wrote a speech,” she said holding up the paper in her hand. “It’s something I used to tell Anita. ‘Always be prepared. Amateur’s wing it.’” Sarah paused again and took another deep breath. “Tonight,” she continued, “we honor a dear friend who was stolen from us. We’ve asked some of her students, teachers, and closest friends to each come and share their memories of her. To start things off, I’d like to welcome representatives from the fifth-grade class who have written down things they hope we will remember about Anita.”
Seven children dressed in their Sunday best took the stage and lined up behind the microphone. Each child had a short essay prepared. They shared about how their principal would give them sage advice in the hallways or sit next to them during lunch in the cafeteria. One girl with braids in her hair shared through tears about a time when Principal Dickson had let the girl live with her for two weeks when the girl’s grandmother got sick. Another boy in black tie spoke about how Principal Dickson drove him to Philadelphia one weekend so he could compete in a spelling bee.
After the fifth-grade children came teachers who spoke about how Anita had coached them and encouraged them and been their rock through the building of the school. After the teachers came Anita’s friends and family members who gave a more personal face to the legend. They spoke of her struggle in school and her fight to achieve her dreams.
Between each speaker, Sarah Meir again took the stage to introduce the next. It was clear to Mencken that this woman was the most devastated by the loss of her mentee and friend, probably, Mencken thought, because the loss of Anita for her represented an inability to change the decline of a city.
The stories continued on for hours, and while they were all moving and inspirational, nothing shed light on why Anita Dickson had been murdered. Mencken silently worried that the evening would produce nothing more than a beautiful portrait of a leader who died too soon. A story that would be read by Baltimore Star subscribers and then placed on the cultural pile of what-might-have-been’s, just another tale of how the city of Baltimore was destroying itself from the inside out; but Mencken’s worry was proved false when the final speaker took the stage.
Once again, Dr. Meir took the stage and spoke into the lowered microphone. “And now,” she said sporting her first warm smile of the evening, “it is my pleasure to invite to the stage a good friend of mine who I know everyone in this room is familiar with.” Sarah paused and motioned to the front row. “Anthony, please,” she said. There was a familial warmth in her voice as if she were speaking to a beloved brother.
A tall, slender, African American man in a black suit who was seated on the front row stood and walked onto the stage.
“Oh shit,” Mencken said.
Looking up from the note pad she’d been doodling in for the past hour, Joe said, “Is that?”
The man’s suit was perfectly tailored to fit his muscular and lean frame, allowing him to effortlessly bend down to give Sarah Meir a hug.
“That’s fucking Agamemnon,” Mencken said, his mouth hanging open. “What’s the king of a drug empire doing here?
“This shit just got interesting,” Joe said.
With her arm around Agamemnon’s waist, Sarah explained to the crowd, “This man. There aren’t many like this man. I first met him when Anita was a student. She raved and raved about this wonderful man who had plucked her from a rough neighborhood, paid for her education, and given her the freedom to dream and create. And then,” Sarah laughed, “when she came to me with those wild and hopeful eyes.” Sarah paused to push back tears and Agamemnon gave her another warm hug. “When she came to me to talk about building this amazing school that would resurrect the neighborhood she’d grown up in, I took my checkbook out to give her whatever I could, but she told me, ‘Oh, I don’t need that. Anthony beat you to it.’”
Mencken, mouth still hanging open, could not compute the image in front of him. He scanned the room. It had seemed to lighten, as if the criminal mastermind on stage had brainwashed everyone to thinking he was some sort of messiah. “What in the fuck is going on?” Mencken said quietly.
Joe laughed and shook her head.
After Sarah said a few more words of praise for her friend, Agamemnon gave her another large hug and then bent down to speak into the microphone. “Hello, everyone,” he said. Watching him duck to speak could only be described as charming.
“Sorry about that,” Sarah said as she readjusted the microphone stand for Agamemnon.
Now with the microphone at a more appropriate height, Agamemnon stood behind it and, motioning to the short woman, said, “Thank you, Sarah. The real truth is, both Anita and I would be completely lost without Sarah’s guidance and wisdom.” He paused and looked at the floor. “Anita would have been lost, that is. Would have been.” He sighed. “For those of you who don’t know me. My name is Anthony Robertson and I grew up a few blocks from here. It was a difficult neighborhood then, but we had safety nets. Pastor Johnson was always around and the church door was always open, there was a mom on every stoop ready to knock us back into line when we started screwing around, and schools were places where we actually went to learn. Not like today. Pastor Johnson died decades ago, the church is closed, moms on stoops were replaced by homeless addicts squatting in vacant houses, and schools were robbed of their resources by corrupt politicians turning them from places of inspiration to overcrowded waiting rooms.”
There was agreement around the room. People were nodding and muttering affirmations to themselves.
“And this neighborhood seemed hopeless. That is, until Anita had a vision. She imagined a school where kids from the community who wanted to learn would be given the opportunity, where they would be challenged to think and dream and create, where they would be free – free to have visions of their own.”
Pulling a white handkerchief from his back pocket, Agamemnon paused to blot his eyes.
“Is he fucking crying?” Joe said.
“He’s fucking crying,” Mencken affirmed, his mouth still hanging open.
“Anita was,” Agamemnon continued, pausing to think. “She was the best of us. Sarah said that I gave Anita opportunity, but that’s not true. Anita was the one who gave to me. She gave to us. She gave us hope. Hope that this neighborhood could live again. And she gave us opportunity. She gave us the opportunity to join her. Giving to her dream was a pleasure. And now, those of you who know me, know that I could afford to send my daughter, Electra, to any school in the city. But I send her here, to Anita’s school. Why? Because I believed in Anita and in her dream for this neighborhood. And because it was a privilege to participate in what she was doing.”
There were claps around the room. Affirmations grew in volume.
“So I’m here tonight to make two promises,” Agamemnon said. “First, I promise that Anita’s school will continue. Sarah and I are both committed to put all our resources and energy behind Anita’s dream to ensure that it succeeds.”
Applause rose from around the room. Even the boy who had been fighting back tears in front of Mencken was now sitting up straight and clapping.
“So much for your theory about the Legion wanting to kill the neighborhood,” Joe said.
“And here is my second promise,” Agamemnon said into the microphone. “Working with some friends, I’ve launched and endowment. It’s called the Anita Dickson Scholars Fund and it is large enough to ensure that any child from this neighborhood who wants to go to college will be able to go to college.”
Applause again filled the room.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Mencken said.
“That’s right, kids,” Agamemnon said. “If you make the grades, money will not stop you from chasing your dreams. That’s my promise to you. And that’s my promise to Anita. We must never forget her. We must never let her vision for this community to die. As long as her dream is alive, than she is alive.”
Mencken was stunned and confused, unable to more, unsure what this all meant. He watched, speechless, as Sarah Meir and Agamemnon thanked everyone for coming.
Finally, as the room began to clear, Joe broke the silence. “Maybe it’s all bullshit?” she said, biting the end of her pen.
“That’s a lot of money to promise for a bluff,” Mencken said.
Nudging Mencken with her elbow she said, “Let’s go talk to him.”
Mencken rubbed his neck and remembered what it felt like to have Agamemnon crushing it. “Let’s just stay out of arm’s reach.”
Slowly, the two reporters pushed against the flow of traffic, making their way to the front of room where Agamemnon was shaking hands and reminiscing with friends. Standing off to the side, they quietly waited their turn for an audience. As a weepy teacher finished thanking Agamemnon for his kind words, Mencken saw an opening. Stepping forward he said, “Excuse me, Mr. Robertson. Mencken Cassie with the Baltimore Star. Could I have a moment?”
Agamemnon laughed and turned to face the two reporters. Buttoning the top button of his suit coat, he said, “I appreciate you not showing up on my front porch this time Mr. Cassie. Even so, this isn’t the best time for an interview. We’re here tonight to mourn a dear friend. If you would like to interview me, try to make an appointment during business hours.”
“Mr. Robertson, Josephine Weld here. Just a quick question. Are you concerned that the charity you are displaying on this community will be jeopardized by your reputation as a gang leader?”
Agamemnon pinched his eyes together and rubbed his forehead with his right hand. “First off, Ms. Weld, I’ve never been convicted of anything. I’m an upstanding entrepreneur and citizen of Baltimore who cares deeply about this community. I’d appreciate you refrain from slandering me in public. Second, when I was growing up, there weren’t cushy reporter jobs available for people of our skin tone, so we had to make a living however we could. So even if I was guilty of whatever false accusation you chose to label me with, you should think twice before you judge me, because my fight for respect made your smooth ride to the top possible, young lady. Didn’t anyone ever teach you to respect your elders?”
“Is there a problem here Anthony?” Sarah Meir said as she came up behind Agamemnon and took his arm in hers.
“Just reporters,” Agamemnon said.
“Reporters?” Sarah said with a look of surprise. “Are you here to write about Anita?” she asked Mencken.
“No,” Agamemnon said.
“Just one last question,” Mencken said. “Do you have any idea who might have wanted Ms. Dickson dead?”
“Anita was a beautiful, talented, leader. Whoever did this should pay with their lives,” Sarah said as tears escaped her eyes. “A great light has gone out in the world,” she said, crying. “A great light.”
“Why don’t you give us a moment, Sarah. I can finish this. I’ll meet you at the car, okay?” Agamemnon said, squeezing his friend’s arm.
“I need to go to the lady’s room anyway,” Sarah said, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, smearing her mascara.
After she left, Agamemnon looked to Mencken and Joe, sighed, and looked at the floor. “Anita had no enemies. Everyone loved her. Sadly, that is not true of me. I will deny saying this, but off the record, I fear she was killed to get at me. Someone is trying to destabilize me. Anita was a tragic casualty.”
“Any idea who would want to see you destabilized?” Joe asked.
“That is an unending list,” Agamemnon said. “Everyone wants to be king,” he said as he flashed a smile. “Now, if you’ll excuse me. I need to go and mourn with my friends.”
As they watched the gang leader walk away, Joe said, “What in the hell have we gotten ourselves into?”