Thanks for being a subscriber to my email. I appreciate you. Enjoy the first section of the new book!
“You’re wasting your time. This story isn’t going to save the city.”
The smooth female voice tickled Mencken’s ear, urging him to gaze on its beautiful source, but Mencken resisted the temptation to look up from his crouch. “What’re you getting at?” he said, staring down at the black puddle of thick oil on the sidewalk in front of him.
“All I’m saying is that this is a waste of your time. There’s nothing here. No story.” The enchanting voice belonged to Officer Rosario Jimenez. Mencken knew that if he were to allow himself to look up, he would be trapped, able to do nothing but stare into her deep green eyes. He figured her hair was pulled back in a tight bun, leaving her perfect neck exposed. She was probably wearing those flawlessly fitting slacks and that blouse that always commanded his full attention.
He risked glancing at her shoes. They were white running shoes with pink laces. Just like her, strong and feminine, disarmingly beautiful, but able to run you down and kick your ass if you tried to bolt. This was why, Mencken knew, he could not look up. He could not break his focus, for if he gave Officer Jimenez the smallest amount of attention, she would bewitch him, and his day would be forsaken to dreams about her.
“Where you see nothing, I find truth,” he said, working the oil-like substance between his fingers.
“You’re so full of shit,” she laughed.
Continuing to battle against her charms, he listened to her walk away. Mencken brought his fingers close to his face for a better look. The substance was odorless and sticky. It didn’t look like blood. He considered tasting it, but then stopped; tasting strange substances found on the sidewalks of Baltimore was always a bad idea.
Mencken stood and looked down the street. The beat cops were wrapping up with the two witnesses. He moseyed in their direction, hoping the police would leave soon. He paused after ten yards, and glanced back at the puddle. It had sure looked like a pool of blood from afar. Sliding his arms out of the straps, Mencken shifted his backpack to his front. He unzipped the top and pulled the small notebook from inside. The notebook’s black leather cover was worn and wrinkled. He removed the sharp pencil from behind his ear and made a note about the location of the supposed crime.
Mencken watched as the boys-in-blue got in their cars, and pulled away. The witnesses turned to leave. “Hey,” Mencken shouted across the street. “Hey, hold up.”
The two witnesses stopped and looked at him. The first was as fat as he was tall. He wore a loose-fitting white t-shirt and baggy jeans. A large, orange hair pick protruded from his perfectly rounded afro.
The second was a short, hard-looking, elderly man with a bald head, powerful forearms, squinty eyes, and slight under-bite. He had the smashed face of a boxer who’d never learned to duck. He wore grey sweats and a blue t-shirt with the Greek letters delta, sigma, and theta across the middle. Mencken doubted the old man had ever been to college. More likely, he’d picked the shirt up at the local Goodwill.
“You guys got a second for the press,” Mencken called as he drew closer.
The old man took a pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of his pants. He pulled a stick for himself with his teeth and then held the pack out for the fat man who accepted the cigarette, while producing a lighter from his pocket. Mencken smiled at the coordination. Mencken respected strategic systems when he saw them. It was clear these unlikely partners were united for their mutual survival. The fat man flicked his lighter once with his thumb, then a second time, then rapidly over and over, but there was no spark.
Mencken reached into his pocket and retrieved a silver flip lighter. He didn’t smoke. He carried it because lighting cigarettes for people tended to open them up.
“You don’t look like press,” the old man said, using Mencken’s lighter to start his cigarette.
“Yeah,” the fat man said, taking his turn with the lighter. “Yeah, you got a badge or something? Let us see your badge.”
Mencken sighed. “Journalists don’t have badges.”
“Well,” the fat man said, crossing his arms and tossing Mencken a suspicious look. “You got like a press pass, or credentials, or something?”
“What about a business card?” the old man said.
“Yeah. Yeah. We ain’t saying nothing until you give us a business card,” the fat man agreed.
Mencken reached into his right back pocket and removed his wallet. Digging through it he asked, “Why do you care? I just want to ask you what you saw.” He passed the men two white cards. On each card there were only two words: Mencken Cassie. The men accepted the cards and examined them.
“Looks legit,” the old man said.
“Alright,” the fat man said, putting the card in his pocket. “Let’s talk finder’s fee.”
Mencken sighed and looked into the sky. “You didn’t find anything,” he said.
“Listen up mother-fucker,” the fat man said, pointing his finger in Mencken’s face. “You’ve got to pay for my life story, because it’s a fucking epic of giant proportions. This is Game of Thrones shit here. You got that. Sex. Drugs. Violence. Jail. Drugs. Lesbians. This story is huge, and if you’re going to get famous off my shit, you’ve got to pay.”
“Shut the fuck up,” the old man said.
“What,” the fat man replied, wounded. “I’m just trying to get us paid.”
“I’m not paying you for anything,” Mencken said.
“Come on, man,” the fat man said. “Us brothers got to help each other out. Twenty bucks. Twenty bucks, and I’ll tell you everything. Even the lesbian parts.”
“Gentlemen, I don’t have time for this,” Mencken said, pulling his cell phone from his pocket to check the time. “Do you want to see your name in print or not?”
The two men looked at each other, confirmed, and then looked back at Mencken. “What do you want to know?” the old man said.
“Tell me what happened,” Mencken replied.
“So here’s how it went down,” the fat man began, uncrossing his arms and waving them wildly. “Do you have like, a camera or something? Because you’re going to want to tape this shit here.”
“No. I don’t have a camera. I’m a writer.”
“Ooooh, big, tall, fancy man is a writer,” the fat one mocked.
“Just get on with it,” the older one said.
“Alright. Alright,” the fat man said. “So we’re coming out of a meeting.”
“Are you a part of the Mission?” Mencken asked, nodding toward the old fire house behind them. The building served as a recovery center for homeless male addicts.
“Yeah, yeah. Afternoon meeting. It’s the open one. Anyone can come in for lunch as long as they stay for the meeting. All kinds of weirdos come in off the street,” the fat man explained. “So we was coming out of the meeting for a smoke, and there was this fish with us.”
“Fish?” Mencken asked.
“Yeah, yeah. Fish. Like fresh fish. Like a new guy.”
“So the fish was all asking us for a smoke, because we all need a little pick-me-up after Kevin shares. He talks about the most boring shit. Going on and on about how his grandmother died when he was just a kid. Oh it’s so sad. My poor Mammy.”
“Stick to the story,” the old man grunted.
“Alright. Alright,” the fat man said, frustrated at being reigned in. “So the fish was here and then the other two fish came up on us.”
“Other two?” Mencken interrupted again.
“A man and a boy,” the old man said.
“He wasn’t a boy,” the fat one said. “He was a like a teenager.”
The old man snorted with indifference.
“So they came up on us,” the fat man continued.
“Wait, wait,” Mencken said. “Were they in the meeting?”
The two men looked at each other. “Why not?” the fat one said. “Sure. Yeah. They were in the meeting.”
Mencken shook his head and looked at the sky again. It was getting dark.
“You want this story or not, cuz I can call other papers, you know. People going to compete for this,” said the fat man, moving his hands down his body as if that was what was being sold.
“I’m sorry,” Mencken said. “Continue.”
“So they came up on us. And the fish was like, ‘Just leave me be. I ain’t done nothing.’ And the other fish was like, ‘You’re here. That’s enough.’ And the first was all, ‘Why you got to be like that? You don’t have to do this. I’m not hurting anyone.’ And then the teen was all, ‘You ain’t supposed to be on this side.’”
“This side?” Mencken asked.
“That’s what he said,” the old timer replied.
“And then the first fish was like, ‘I’ll leave. I’ll get a coin and leave.’”
“I don’t know,” the fat man said, angry at being interrupted again. “Maybe it was for the fucking bus. Do I look like a street interpreter or something? Zing-a-zang-a Whack-a Whack-a. That means ‘let me finish my fucking story’ in Street.”
“Please, go on,” Mencken said.
“So then the kid,” the fat man said.
“You mean teen,” the old man said with a grin.
“You mother-fucker,” the fat man yelled. “Interrupt me again and see what happens. Just watch. I’ll pound your old stupid ass.”
The old man laughed.
“So the teen says, ‘You don’t have one. Even if you did, we couldn’t let you use it.’ Then the scary fish says, ‘Enough talk. Finish it. But watch out for the tail.’ Then the teen was like,”
“Watch the tail?” Mencken asked.
“Yeah,” the fat man said. “That’s what he said. ‘Watch the tail.’ You’d understand if you let me finish. Shit.”
“I’m sorry,” Mencken said again. “Go ahead.”
“So he’s all, ‘Watch the tail.’ And the kid does this roundhouse kick. Wham!” The fat man swung his foot in the air to demonstrate. “Then he punched the fish in the face. Za-cow!” The fat man swung wildly in the air with his right fist. “Then we was all like, ka-pow! And boom-boom!” the fat man exclaimed, kicking the air again with one foot and then the other. “And the fish was bleeding this black stuff all over the place. But then the fish, like, spun and lashed out with his tail.” The fat man demonstrated, spinning in circles. “But the kid like, ran up his tail, using it like a step, and then he grabbed his chin, and snapped his neck. Wha-pow!” The fat man pantomimed snapping a man’s neck with both hands. “And the fish went down. And all this black blood came out his mouth. But then the two fish grabbed the first fish’s body, threw him in the trunk of the car, and drove off.”
The fat man put his hands on his knees and sucked air in and out with desperation. “Phew,” he said between breaths. “That’s, um. That’s how it happened.”
“A tail?” Mencken replied.
“The cops didn’t believe us either,” the old man said.
Mencken looked over what he’d just jotted down in his notebook. “I don’t know. A tail? You sure it wasn’t, like, a crowbar or something? Maybe it just looked like a tail?”
“It was a mother-fucking, giant-ass, rat-looking tail, damn it. I said ‘tail’ and I meant a mother-fucking tail. So when you going to put us in the paper?” the fat man demanded.
“I don’t think this one’s going to make it to print,” Mencken said, rubbing his shaved head with his right hand. “I don’t think anyone is going to buy this karate-kid-versus-the-rat-man thing. But, I tell you what. I’ll type it up and put it online.”
“Teen,” the old man said again, with a laugh.
“Fine, karate-teen-versus-the-rat-man,” Mencken replied. “Like I said, no one’s going to print it, but it should get some hits online. Can I use your names?”
“Sure,” the old man said. “They call me Popeye.”
“Of course they do,” Mencken said, making a note in his book.
“And I’m Sexy Tony,” the fat man said. “That’s Sexy Toni with an ‘i’.”
“Where does the ‘i’ go?” Mencken asked.
“Where ever you want to stick it, baby,” Tony said, with a seductive smile.
After thanking the two men, Mencken returned to his bike. He took the black helmet off the back, strapped it on, and swung his foot over the beast. He’d found the wrecked 2003 Dyna Super-Glide in the back of a used car lot ten years ago. It had taken him most of his junior year of high school to restore it. It was perfect for getting through the crowded streets of Baltimore. He revved the engine, soaking in the powerful growl of the monster.
Before pulling off, he glanced at his phone, thumbing through his Twitter feed.
@BmoreVoice, shots fired at harlem deli, monroe and harlem. no cops yet
That sounded promising, Mencken returned the phone to his pocket, and pulled onto the street in search of a real story.
Mencken pulled the heavy doors open with both hands. The glass of the doors and the four adjacent seven-foot windows was thick and textured, allowing pedestrians to see the presence of patrons without recognizing individuals. It was a perfect entrance to the double wide, three story rowhome that was Imani’s Place.
Ignoring the “Please wait to be seated” sign, Mencken marched across the room and took up his normal table in the back, directly across from the doors. Five twenty-somethings lingered at the bar, laughing together. Of the twenty tables, only three were filled, each by a couple, eating and talking together. As always, Mencken took up residence in the chair with its back to the wall, giving him a full view of the space.
The restaurant sat in the midst of a residential block on the east side of the city. A hundred years ago, the place had been a famous haberdashery. For the past fifteen years, it had been owned and operated by the strong and beautiful Imani Douglas. That’s how Mencken had described her in a review he once wrote for the City Paper, “strong and beautiful.” Although she was only in her early thirties, Imani served as the unofficial matriarch of the community. It was not unusual to see her counseling couples, giving career advice, or serving as a mediator in civic feuds.
In the morning, Imani ran her establishment as a coffee shop that served hot breakfast. The spot closed at eleven, and then reopened at three as a bar and grill. What made the restaurant especially unique was Imani’s policy to never refuse anyone breakfast. Imani didn’t care if her patron was homeless, or an addict who used all his last dollar on his last fix, or simply a freelance reporter scraping by with nothing, it didn’t matter. Imani would give them a mug of coffee and something to eat. She simply ask that they pay when they were able. Socially conscious millennials loved the policy; often they would pay for their meal twice so they could make a difference with their pancakes.
Mencken pulled his laptop from his backpack and opened the machine on the table. He glanced at the time in the bottom right corner. It read 7:20pm. His first appointment would be there in ten minutes. He had two meetings lined up tonight. He thought of Imani’s as his office. It was relatively quiet, close to his apartment, and well-known, even to those who didn’t live on the east side. It helped that Imani didn’t seem to care.
The restaurant’s interior was simple. The walls were dark wood paneling on the bottom half, and scarred drywall on top. The floors were unpolished hardwood. To Mencken’s left was a long bar that ended in a cash register. Behind the bar was a large assortment of drinks and a big, black griddle. Imani’s cuisine wasn’t fancy. If it couldn’t be made on the griddle or in the deep fryer, then she didn’t serve it. The only strange addition was the large, wooden circle that hung above the bar. Measuring four feet in diameter, it was cracked and old. Carved into the middle was a large lower case “g” with the word “home” underneath. When asked, Imani would simply explain that it was a family heirloom.
Mencken opened his browser, logged into his blog, and looked at his stats. His afternoon post, “Popeye, Sexy Toni, and the Lizard Man” received 135,000 hits. He tried to calculate in his head how many advertising dollars that would pull from the ads that ran next to the story, but math had never been his thing.
“Always with your face in the computer,” Imani said, placing a heavy, glass beer mug in front of Mencken. She took the seat across from him, leaned back in her chair, and stretched her arms out across two chairs from the empty table behind her. Her biceps were lean and defined. She wore a black tank top over a grey tank top and camouflaged cargo pants. The outfit in combination with her super-cropped afro and captivating brown eyes gave her the look of a warrior princess.
“You look ready for battle,” Mencken said, peaking up from his laptop.
She laughed and teased, “Every day’s a struggle, until you come in the room.”
Mencken took a sip of the beer. It was light, but had bite. “I’ll be able to pay you in about an hour,” he said, putting the mug back down.
“You know family eats free,” she said.
Mencken snorted at the word “family.” She knew barely anything about him. Sure, he used this back table as his office every night, and yes, he’d been doing so for at least two years, but what did she know about him? If the shoes were switched, he wouldn’t be handing her free beers.
She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “You catch any big stories today?” she asked.
“Not really,” he replied as he wrote a reply to an email.
“Come on,” she said, pushing his knee. “I’m trapped in this place all day. I don’t get to see anything fun. Spill.” Mencken knew Imani wasn’t exaggerating. She lived in the third-floor apartment above the restaurant. She usually worked both breakfast and dinner. He suspected the only time she left the place was to go shopping during the lunch break.
Mencken sighed and looked up from the screen. “There was a robbery over in Sandtown today.”
“Boring,” she said. “When is there not a robbery in Sandtown?”
Mencken grimaced. It was okay if he called his stories mundane, but not if someone else did. He looked back at his laptop, opening the articles he’d written recently. “Oh, here’s one you’ll like,” he said, stumbling on a quirky story he’d written last night.
Imani cocked her head and smile with anticipation.
“The city fined a man in Belair Edison for keeping an illegal number of cats in his house. Something about that many cats being a health hazard.”
“How many cats does it take to rack up a felony?” she asked, intrigued.
“Not sure. But he had over four hundred living with him in his two story home.”
“Oh shit,” Imani exclaimed.
“You better believe it. Everywhere,” Mencken teased.
“You dig anymore into your Cabal theory?” she asked with genuine interest.
Mencken was put off by the word “theory.” It wasn’t a theory. It was real, and he was going to prove it. Whenever she asked, he regretted letting her in on his secret. He’d had too many free beers and had become too loose-lipped. He wished she’d forget he’d ever said anything. “Nothing I’m willing to share,” he said, going back to his email.
“Alright,” she laughed, standing. “I get it. I get it. You need to keep your cards close to your vest.” Before returning to the bar she added, “If you want any food, just wave. We’ll hook you up.”
“Thanks,” Mencken replied, but he didn’t plan to stay long enough to eat.
As Imani walked away, the front door swung open. In walked Richard Winchell, a short, round man in his early sixty. He wore a rumpled, brown suit, with an unmemorable tie, and horn-rimmed glasses that looked like they’d been teleported onto his face from the 1950s. Whinchell wanted nothing more in life than to retire, but his divorce left him financially strapped. He often joked that he would drop dead at the paper. He was the senior editor of the Baltimore Star. Once upon a time, the title carried weight and glamour. Now it was little more than a reminder of what the industry use to be.
The Star had been racked by waves of layoffs as subscriptions continually decreased. Winchell hated turning to freelancers like Mencken. He longed for the old days when the news room was full of Menckens, all chasing the next story, all competing for the front page byline. Now the crime desk consisted of two reporters.
Winchell made his way across the room to Mencken’s usual spot. He took his coat off and sat down across from Mencken. “Alright kid,” Winchell said in his grumbling, don’t-waste-my-time voice. “What do you have for me?”
Mencken closed his laptop. “I got a seven-hundred word interview with the shop owner who was robbed at gun point in Sandtown this morning. I’ve got a fifteen-hundred word write up of the shooting last night outside the Hopkins Homewood campus, including quotes about ‘safety’ from bystanders. And I’ve got a three thousand word piece on the skyrocketing murder rate, correlating the rise in violent crime with the decreased police presence in impoverished neighborhoods.” Mencken leaned back and interlocked his fingers behind his head.
“You got a City Hall source on the correlation?”
“Not a source, per se,” Mencken said.
“You at least got a quote? Don’t tell me you’re just making crap up now.” Winchell looked at his wristwatch and yawned.
“I’ve got a cop confirming they’ve decreased their presence in rougher neighborhoods since the riots.” It had been a difficult six months for Baltimore. The mayor claimed the riots would relieve tension and that the city would go back to normal. It hadn’t. As the police had grown gun-shy, gangs had started to vie for power in the streets, causing the number of violent crimes and the murder rate to skyrocket.
Winchell crossed his arms with suspicion. “Cop let you use his name?”
“No,” Mencken said, with frustration. “But the quote’s real.”
“Fine. Email me two and three. I’ll run them tomorrow.”
“What about the robbery?”
“Listen kid, no one cares about a liquor store in a horrible neighborhood being robbed. It’s like saying, ‘Teenage girl has bad attitude.’ Or ‘Stupid cat videos go viral on the internet.’ Or, ‘In face of crisis, City Council doesn’t do shit.’ It’s not news, kid.”
Mencken looked down in his lap. He wouldn’t admit it, but he longed for Winchell’s approval. In his day, Winchell had been a force to be reckoned with. His investigative work had brought down city council members. He’d exposed the misuse of campaign funds by a mayoral candidate. He’d uncovered a conspiracy in the 80s to keep African Americans from buying houses in an affluent neighborhood. A series he’d written on immigrants in Baltimore had even been nominated for a Pulitzer.
Winchell slid two envelopes across the table. “Normal rate?” he said.
Mencken took the envelopes and thumbed through the cash. It wasn’t much, but it was something. “Looks good,” he said.
“Alright,” Winchell said standing. “Email me tomorrow by six if you’ve got anything else worth reading.”
“Will do,” Mencken said.
Winchell stood to leave. “Keep at it, kid,” he said. “You’ll break something big eventually. It’s just about time and patience.”
Mencken watched him leave with admiration. Although he’d never admit it out loud, Winchell was the type of old-world journalist Mencken hoped to become.
Mencken waved to Imani. Seconds later a plate of fries was delivered by a short, thin twenty-something in a Pacman t-shirt. Mencken took a bite. They were crisp, seasoned with Old Bay and vinegar, just like he liked them.
The door opened again. Mencken’s second appointment had arrived. More professional looking than Winchell, Sam Dandrip was a radio show host, podcaster, columnist for the Star, and figurehead of the Baltimore Magazine – a monthly publication that confused Mencken. Copies of it were everywhere, but he’d never actually seen anyone reading it. He wasn’t sure how the journal kept going, much less how they paid writers like Sam.
“Damn it. Not elbow patches,” Mencken mumbled under his breath as Sam approached. Tonight Sam was dressed in pressed blue jeans, gleaming-white tennis shoes, a blue button down, and a brown sport coat with patches on the elbows. The pretension of the patches made Mencken’s head pound.
Unlike Winchell, Mencken had little respect for Sam. The man was a decent enough writer, and he worked hard – hard enough, anyway. But Mencken didn’t see anything extraordinary. Rather, Mencken believed Sam had simply been in the right place at the right time. Sam had come along at the climax of the newspaper age. He’d gotten a job as a columnist at a time when they were handing those positions out to whomever wanted one. He’d started a radio show after others had paved the way, and now that podcasting was booming, he was jumping onboard. Sam was the opposite of an early adopter. He consistently rode the final wave, coasting through right before the door of opportunity was slammed shut.
“Mr. Cassie,” Sam said, taking the seat across from Mencken and extending his hand.
“Mr. Dandrip,” Mencken said, returning the gesture. The two men shook.
Sam motioned at the bar for a waitress. “What do you have for me this week?” he said with a smile.
Imani arrived at the table with a light colored local beer in a frosty mug and a plate of cheese fries. “How are you tonight, Sam?” she said, placing the food in front of him.
“You are God’s gift,” he said to her with a smile. “I mean it. You are the absolute best. All the people coming in and out of here, and you remember my order. Thank you.”
Mencken snorted at Sam’s overly genuine tone.
“Thank you, Sam,” Imani replied, shooting a glare at Mencken. “It’s nice to be appreciated.”
The only son of a surgeon and a news anchor, Sam had gone to the best high schools, which in turn had propelled him to an Ivy League university. He had started at the news desk at the Star because a university professor who enjoyed Sam’s humor in class had friends at the paper. After a few years, Sam had been given his own column because he was safe. He never took risks. He never offended. He never stood out. He kept it all vanilla, and in a world of chaos, vanilla is comforting. In the wake of Rush Limbaugh’s rise to glory, Sam had been offered a day time talk show on the local NPR station, to bring moderate balance to the conservative hurricane.
Mencken could not be more different. The third son of divorced parents, raised by a single mom who worked late shifts as a nurse, Mencken had fought and scrapped for every inch of success. It had taken him six years to graduate from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, because working full time had kept him from taking full class loads. When he had finally received an English degree, he’d spent a month looking for a newspaper job, but there were none to be had. They were already filled by the Sams of the world.
Mencken had saved money living in his mother’s basement. By day, he had worked minimum wage jobs. At night, he had built a following of devoted Baltimore readers, giving them insights and stories the established papers deemed too risky to print. When he could, he’d sell a piece of writing here or there. At first, seeing his name in print had been a thrill, but soon he’d grown to realize that what the local news organizations were really buying was his reputation. His readers were more loyal than theirs. When they ran his stuff, his readers showed up. Mencken didn’t resent this; rather, he saw it as a strategic solution.
“Let’s get this done,” Mencken said as Imani left. “I’ve got five for you this week.”
Sam pulled a gooey fry from the mound, stretching out the cheese until it broke. He held it high above his head, letting the long string of cheese enter his mouth first, then consuming the fry. “Have you had these? You really need to try them,” Sam said as he chewed. “Seriously, I’m not going to eat them all.”
Sam made this same offer every week. Each time he made it, it was as if he were making it for the first time. It was another thing about meeting with Sam that drove Mencken insane with frustration. “No. Thank you. I’m fine,” Mencken said. “So, five stories for you this week.”
Sam repeated the action with another fry and then took a long swig of the beer. “Okay,” he said. “I’m ready. Hit me with them.”
Putting respect to the side, Mencken’s relationship with Sam was different than his relationship with Winchell. Sam never put Mencken’s name on anything. Mencken was Tabasco. If applied directly to Sam’s empire, Sam’s vanilla-loving followers would fall away.
Rather, Sam paid for Mencken’s eyes and ears on the street. Sam was thought to be “a man of the city,” that’s what his marketing campaigns said anyway. Unfortunately for his publicist, Sam hadn’t lived in the city for nearly two decades. He owned a small farm forty minutes north of the beltway on the Mason-Dixon Line. The rustic homestead was complete with a large garden, horses, and chickens. To maintain his authentic connection to the city, Sam paid Mencken. Mencken gave Sam stories. Sam rewrote them in his own voice or shared them on his podcast.
Mencken began running through the stories he’d prepared. “Over in Locust Point, a one-hundred-and-two-year-old woman has a birthday next week. I’ve got a four thousand word interview with her. And yes, she said she’d be open to come on the radio show if you want her. She’s a big fan.”
Sam smacked the table with excitement. “Wow, a hundred-and-two? What is that? Nineteen? Um. Nineteen-ten? Nineteen-twelve?”
“She was born November second, nineteen-thirteen,” Mencken corrected.
Sam ate another fry. “Both World Wars. The Depression. McCarthy. Kennedy. I bet she can talk about all of it. How sharp is she?”
“She’s pretty sharp,” Mencken said, checking the time on his cell phone. He didn’t have anywhere to be; he was just curious at how much time had passed. “She’s more interested in talking about how Locust Point used to be all white.”
Sam laughed, took another drink, and stuffed a mound of fries in his mouth. “Old people, right?” he said with a full mouth. “That sounds amazing. Good work.”
To his credit, for the two years they’d been doing this dance, Sam had never plagiarized Mencken. He always rewrote Mencken’s work in his own voice, adding his own moderate political thoughts when he could. If he told a story on the radio, he would quote an “unnamed source.” Occasionally, he’d even refer to Mencken as “a member of my team.” Mencken knew Sam didn’t have to do that. He’d paid for the stories. Mencken had signed a non-disclosure agreement. Sam could take the stories and pretend Mencken never existed, if Sam wanted. Mencken appreciated the man’s integrity. Sam wasn’t going to take credit for something that wasn’t at least partially his.
“Second story,” Mencken said, moving on, “is a pair of twins in Towson. They both play tennis – doubles. They’ve received scholarships to the University of Maryland. I wrote it up in fifteen-hundred words.”
“Awesome,” Sam said. “Perfect for the show. Great stuff.”
“Next,” Mencken said, looking at his lap top for a refresher, “I’ve got an interview with a couple that just opened an organic market in Hampden. They only sell locally sourced produce.”
“Ooo,” Sam cooed, eating more fries. “That sounds great. How long?”
“About three thousand words.”
“That’s perfect. I’ll use it as the basis for the column next week. People are really hungry for stories like that.” Sam smiled and nodded, waiting for Mencken to acknowledge the pun.
Mencken didn’t respond.
“Come on,” Sam pleaded. “Hungry? They’re hungry for the organic food. Huh? Huh? It’s funny.” Sam took another drink. “You play it cool, but I know you’re laughing on the inside.”
“I’ve got a story on the sixth graders from City Neighbors Charter School. They did a reenactment of a sit-in at a pharmacy on Lexington Street.”
“Read’s Drug Store?” Sam replied, seriously. “Nineteen-fifty-five. That maybe the column. That’s important history. Great work snagging that story. I don’t know how you find all of these. What do you think? Is this a radio piece or a column?”
“The teacher said he’d bring some of the kids on your show to talk about the experience, so I’d go with radio. Here’s his number.” Mencken pulled a business card from his backpack and passed it across the table.
“Excellent,” Sam said, putting the card in his wallet.
“The last one is a three thousand word piece on the arrival of tiramisu in the States. First place to serve it in the US was a small restaurant in Little Italy in the sixties,” Mencken continued.
“Is that true?” Sam said. He swirled a fry in the grease pooling on the plate and then popped the fry in his mouth.
“Seems to be,” Mencken said. “One of the pastry chefs over a Vaccaro’s makes a strong case for it.”
Sam finished his beer in a final swig. Wiping his mouth with his sleeve and then smacking his knees with both hands, he said, “You know, I only really need four, but all five of these sound amazing. And I know your background work is impeccable. I’ll take all five. We’ll use all of them somewhere. Thank you so much. You do such great work. I’m amazed. Truly. Amazed.”
Mencken took a final drink of his beer and started packing up his laptop.
“Standard rate per piece?” Sam said with a smile.
“Sounds good,” Mencken replied. He stood and stretched.
Sam removed a checkbook from the inside of his coat. As he wrote out the check, he asked, “So how is your mom? Is she still taking shifts at Hopkins?”
“Yep,” Mencken replied, impatiently tapping his foot.
“That’s great. To raise someone as talented as you, she must be really special.” Sam tore out the check and handed it over.
“Thanks,” Mencken said, taking the check, reading it, and sticking it in his back pocket.
“Same time and place next week?” Sam asked with a smile.
“Sounds good,” Mencken said.
“Same bat time. Same bat channel,” Sam said to himself with a grin.
Mencken gave a half-hearted nod and headed for the door. On the way out he waved to Imani.
“See you tomorrow,” she called after him.
In the mist outside of Imani’s. Mencken allowed the wet breeze to wash his face. It had been an unusually warm September. The damp cold snapped at his throat, sending a spark down his spine, renewing his energy.
Mencken crossed the street, turned the corner, and unlocked the door on the side of a corner rowhome. He stepped inside the small entry hall, and glanced at the thin, black mail box on the wall with his last name written in white chalk. It looked empty. He decided not to check. Instead, he climbed the stairs to the third floor and unlocked his door.
His apartment consisted of one room. To the far left of the front door was a white sink framed by brown wooden cabinets. The countertops were faded green and covered in knife scars from decades of tenants use. Past the kitchen was a bathroom with a standing shower. To the right, against the wall, was a single bed. There was no frame, just a box-spring and a mattress. A folding chair and card table dominated the center of the room. The flimsy table was littered with art supplies. But a stranger visiting Mencken’s apartment for the first time would miss all of these things, because everything in the apartment was overshadowed by the wall across from the front the door.
The white wall had a floor-to-ceiling map of Baltimore drawn on it. Mencken had painstakingly traced the map on the wall with various colored Sharpies, an old overhead projector, and transparencies printed from Google maps. Covering the map were multi-colored Post-It notes. In Mencken’s system, there were three different colors of notes, each with a specific meaning. Blue notes were events or crimes which Mencken felt bore no relation to his larger investigation. They were scattered all over the map. The Yellow post-it notes were for events or crimes Mencken suspected might be connected. These also were spread out all over the map.
The red notes were the important ones. These were the ones, Mencken believed without a shadow of a doubt, were directly connected to his investigation. These notes were concentrated in five areas: the south Baltimore peninsula, where the wealthy people lived; the northeast corner of the city, where suburbia and the city blurred; a strip down the middle of the city following North Avenue; a spattering on the northwest side of the city; and a large grouping by the waterfront on the southeast side of the city.
Mencken sat down in the chair, removed his notebook from his backpack, and began making new post-it notes. A high-school kid shooting at another on the west side was blue – a natural byproduct of generational poverty and teenage hormones.
The finalization of an elementary school closure in a northern neighborhood – again blue. At the Royal Farms store down the street from the school, Mencken had been told by the cashier that the school’s administration had been underperforming for over a decade.
The purchase of three rowhomes just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital by the Baltimore Development Corporation got a yellow post-it. Why those three houses? They’d been abandon for years Residents were fleeing that neighborhood, not seeking to move in. Was the purchase some kind of favor to a city council member? Was the Baltimore Development Corporation planning some kind of crazy new construction there? Or, as Mencken really suspected, were the houses purchased by the Cabal to ensure they would stay vacant, so the property values would not improve, putting pressure on incumbent the city council members so they could be challenged in the next election?
Mencken stood and secured the first three Post-It notes on the wall with thumbtacks. He had close to thirty more to finish before he would allow himself to sleep. After securing the notes, he turned to face the opposing wall. To the right of the door, three years ago, Mencken had used drywall glue and massive sheets of porcelain steel to create a large, floor-to-ceiling whiteboard.
When Mencken had begun to suspect that factions in the city who shouldn’t work together were moving in orchestrated harmony to produce profitable outcomes. A street gang would increase drug sales in a neighborhood, causing an increase in crime. As housing prices plummeted, and the number of vacants skyrocketed, one of many legitimate development corporations would sweep in and start grabbing all the cheap real estate. At some point a switch would flip, and the police would increase their presence. Crime statistics in the neighborhood would drop as gangs moved on to another section of town. At the same time, the elementary school would be awarded a game-changing grant by a philanthropic organization. Then in unison newly renovated houses would hit the market for purchase or rent, and retail organizations would announce their intention to establish a renewed presence in the neighborhood. Then, often, there was a new contender for the city council member of that district, or a neighborhood meeting would be held at which people would demand millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements, or public transportation was rearranged to accommodate the growth and millions in contracts went to subcontractors to handle the increase in travel.
Mencken had tracked the cycle nine times in the past five years. The chess games took years to unfold and ran concurrently. Sometimes they encompassed a few blocks. Other times it led to major public works projects that spanned the city. Mencken was certain that was where the real money was – state-funded public works projects. It always seemed to be the end goal. Money would pour in, and while some of it would sprinkle over its target, much of it seemed to leak down unseen gutters.
The mystery that currently eluded Mencken was: who had the power to orchestrate all the needed moving pieces? Was there a single mastermind, or a committee of gang leaders, or was it just rich guys on their roof decks plotting world domination over cigars and brandy? Mencken had begun to sketch it out on the homemade whiteboard glued to the wall. He called the invisible hierarchy “the Cabal.” He knew that without proof of these power holders, there was no story, there was only speculation and explainable trends.
At the bottom left of the whiteboard were the names, and occasionally pictures, of gang leaders. Each was marked with the name of the gang they oversaw and the neighborhood where they were based. If Mencken didn’t have the leader, he had the name of the gang with a question mark over it. Next to the gangs were the crooked cops. The more senior the officer, the higher they were on the wall. Next to the cops were politicians and bureaucrats who were on the take. A few years ago, Mencken had been looking into the finances of lifelong City Hall workers – those middle managers that stayed when administrations changed. He found several with nicer houses and cars than they should have. Following campaign donations, Mencken had found that nine of the fifteen city council members were almost entirely funded by the three Baltimore-based development companies: Baltimore Development Incorporated, Rebuild Baltimore, and the Gilford Development Corporation. Mencken was increasingly becoming convinced that the mayor was paid as well, but he couldn’t prove it yet, so her name wasn’t on the wall.
Above these three groups were the names, occupations, and pictures of the people he believed were either sitting at the table of power, or close to it. There was an old gangster who went by the title “Agamemnon.” He lived in a nice suburban neighborhood west of the city and had managed to remain untouchable for over a decade. There were also the heads of the three major Baltimore-based development firms. These CEOs stood to earn more from the Cabal than anyone else. And a certain hotel owner who was also the primary investor in the new Harrah’s casino, recently constructed on the southwest side of downtown. Mencken suspected he was a new player in the game.
Above these names, at the very top of the board, were two question marks. Mencken didn’t believe any of the names and faces on the board had the drive or patience to organize a system of power so massive and secret. They were all too public, too polished, too easy to find. He believed there had to be someone else. Someone with his or her feet in both the business and criminal worlds – a boss. The first question mark was for the boss.
The second question mark was new. Within the past year, two community organizers had disappeared, a city council member had been killed in a hit-and-run, and a lawyer who’d been chasing members of the Cabal for fraud, had been gunned down in the Inner Harbor. These crimes were too perfect, too precise. Under the question mark, Mencken had written the word “Hitman?” He felt absurd every time he looked at it, but he couldn’t put the pieces together in his head without a professional killer in the mix. Gangs and thugs just couldn’t pull off the things the Cabal needed.
Mencken’s eyes ran over the board. There were lots of holes. He still didn’t understand how the whole system held together, how they communicated, or what their end goal was. There was so much he didn’t understand. Did they have meetings? Were they even aware of each other? Or were they all just minions of the question mark at the top? He just didn’t know – yet.
There were footsteps on the stairs. Mencken immediately knew who it was. His downstairs neighbor came up to try and distract him at least three nights a week. He considered turning the lights out and pretending he wasn’t home, but he knew it wouldn’t do any good. If she wanted to come in, she was coming in. Mencken turned his chair to face the door, and sat down to wait.
The footsteps came to a stop in front of his door. He watched his door knob jiggle, then, the lock turned, and the door opened. Officer Rosario Jimenez stepped into the room. Her soft brown hair was pulled back in a pony-tail. She wore loose fitting, grey sweats, yellow flip flops, and a forest green t-shirt that made her emerald eyes glow. She smiled, and Mencken’s heart stopped, but his exterior remained stoic.
“You need to stop picking my lock. You do know it’s against the law, right?” Mencken said, his arms crossed in defensive disapproval. “I should call the cops and have you arrested.”
Rosie smiled. “Go ahead. Call 9-1-1. See how that works out for ya,” she said as she walked over to his sink, opened the cabinet on the left, and took out a dusty glass. She cleaned the inside of it with the bottom of her t-shirt. “Oh, when you call, ask for Robert and Owen. Owen owes me ten bucks. The dummy can’t help but bet on the Ravens, doesn’t matter how bad they look. Also, I bet he’d love to see the picture you have of him on the bottom of your wall-o-evil over there.” She motioned to the whiteboard with her head, and then inspected the inside of the glass. Satisfied, she filled the glass with water from the tap.
Mencken turned his chair around and started working on another post-it. “I’m busy. What do you need?” he said, his head buried in his journal. There was nothing more he wanted than to give into whatever whim had brought her over, but he couldn’t afford the distraction. He needed to finish this. The city needed him to finish it. The Cabal didn’t rest, so neither could he.
Rosie sat on the floor next to him, looking up at the map on the wall. “Did you get the robbery in Roland Park?” she said, reaching up and stealing a pen from the table.
Mencken sighed. “That was yesterday,” he said, not looking up from his journal.
“Give me a yellow,” she said.
He looked at her with a belittling stare.
“Please,” she said. “As if your little art project here is so hard to figure out.” She reached up and grabbed one of the yellow pads. After a few seconds of scribbling, she put the note in the left center, a few blocks west of a blue one. “There was a second break-in today. Broad daylight. A moving truck backed up to a lawyer’s front door. Clean the entire house out and drove off.”
“I don’t know,” Mencken said. “I get that there are two, but what’s so important about Roland Park? It should be blue. Blue is just regular crime.”
“I know what blue is,” she said raising an eyebrow at him.
In truth, although Mencken would never admit it, about a third of the notes on the wall were hers. She’d been doing this dance with him for almost a year now. He knew it frustrated her that he still treated her like an outsider. He wished he had the time a woman of her caliber deserved, but he didn’t. His mission came first.
“This one’s not about where, it’s about who,” she continued. “Both houses belong to lawyers at the firm of Dalton and Dalton.”
Mencken looked at the ceiling. The name was there, in his head, somewhere. He just couldn’t land it.
“Should I wait for you to get there on your own,” she said with a grin.
“Just tell me,” he replied, flipping through his notebook.
“Dalton and Dalton is the firm commissioned by the governor to look into the legal ramifications of adding to the subway system.”
“I knew I knew that name,” Mencken said.
Rosie looked at the wall again. “I bet the robberies weren’t about money. I bet they were looking for something on the subway system.”
Mencken nodded, seeing it now. “Yeah,” he said. “Maybe.”
Rosie shook her head and rubbed her forehead in exasperation. Then she turned to face him.
Mencken swallowed. Fighting back the urge to be overcome by her beauty.
“So what do you say you give this a thirty minute break? I made tamales and rice. I’ve got a plate downstairs with your name on it.”
“I can’t,” he said, looking back into his book.
She sighed. “You know both my parents were Mexican, right? So when I say I made tamales, I’m not talking about some frozen, prepackaged shit. I’m saying I made tamales.”
Mencken’s heart screamed from inside his chest, demanding he follow the amazing woman, the perfect woman, his perfect woman downstairs to her apartment, but his mind silenced the cry. There was work to do. He refused to look up from his journal. “I can’t,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Fine,” she snapped back. “Fine.” She marched toward the door. Grabbing the handle, she turned and said, “I’ll just go find someone else to share my tamales with.” She slammed the door so hard, the post-its on the opposing wall shook.
Mencken listened to her storm down the stairs. He heard her door slam. He breathed deeply, calming the fire of regret raging in his stomach. He looked back at the wall, then down at his notebook. Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply a second time, and then he went back to work.
“What has been accomplished here is a remarkable phenomenon,” Michelle Drake said with pride. The District Five City Councilwoman stood on makeshift platform and spoke through a megaphone to a crowd of neighborhood residents and members of the press. The red, shiny megaphone was her trademark. It went with her to every public appearance, even if the appearance was indoors and the megaphone was unnecessary. It was a callback to her start in politics when she, a lowly Morgan State student, had led a protest at a school board hearing. When the board had moved into a closed door session, she had taken up a bullhorn in the lobby. The elementary school on the chopping block was saved, and the political career of Michelle Drake had begun.
“These residents have taken a dilapidated representation of malfunction in our city, and made the dying domiciles a symbol of the vivaciousness of which we are capable,” Drake said. She wore a red Under Armour running suit that matched her megaphone.
“They have taken something uncultivatable, something uninhabitable, something unprofitable, a pestilence on our polis, and they have resuscitated it, revitalizing the temperament of our citizenry.”
Even though the neighborhood residents didn’t fully follow the speech, they clapped in appreciation when she paused.
The effort had been remarkable. Residents of the Pimlico neighborhood had taken it upon themselves to demolish two abandoned homes, dispose of the rubble, and turn the double-wide, empty lot into a free community garden. The work had taken four months. No city funds had come to their aid. No outspoken politicians had called for demolition. No one outside of the neighborhood had known the project was happening until it was done. But now that it was done, Michelle Drake wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to capitalize on the work.
“This paragon must be perpetuated,” Councilwoman Drake continued. “It is an illustration that must be drawn again and again. This is what happens when assiduous citizens come together to build a commendable society. It was not our ineffectual State Representatives in Annapolis who did this. It was not our lethargic governor who did this. It was not even our unindustrious mayor. No. This splendiferous farm isn’t the work of the legislature. It’s the work of our neighborhood, the work of our hands, and the city must diagnosticate their disease in contrast.”
The crowd clapped again.
“Now, I will be taking questions from members of the press,” Councilwoman Drake said. “So ask away.”
Hands shot up throughout the audience.
“Yes, you sir,” the councilwoman said, pointing.
“Hello ma’am,” a well-dressed reporter said. She had a large microphone in her hand, and a camera man at her side. “I’m Cheryl Madden, WBAN-TV. What kind of crops will be grown on this farm? And who will be responsible for the upkeep?”
“Well, now,” Councilwoman Drake said with a smile. “Why don’t I bring the farmer himself up? Bill? Where’s Bill?” she said scanning the crowd. “Bill. Bill Moss. Come on up here.”
A short, but large-shouldered man in jeans and a black t-shirt stepped toward the platform. He walked with his head down. He was bald, with a thick mustache. Mencken guessed he was in his mid-fifties, but it was hard to tell.
“This, everyone, is Bill Moss. Bill is the virtuosic facilitator behind this unprecedented effort,” the councilwoman said. Bill waved to the crowd. Neighbors cheered.
Cheryl Madden jumped in. “Mr. Moss, how did you get this idea to farm the land? And what do you plan to grow?”
Michelle motioned for Bill to speak. The older man cleared throat and said, “Well, my, um, my family sent me to a rehab facility in upstate New York.”
He was difficult to hear without the megaphone. The crowd pressed in. An unnamed woman yelled, “We love you Bill!”
Bill looked up and smiled. “Anyhow, um, while I was there I got my shit together. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t say shit. I, um, I got my stuff together, and I learned a few things. I, um. I always liked planting stuff. Even as a kid. So when I came back, this here just made sense to me. I mean, those houses been vacant since I left. Nobody wanted ‘em.”
“And that’s how neighborhoods metamorphize,” Councilwoman Drake interrupted with her megaphone. Bill winced at its volume so close to his ear. “Bill here is a paladin, an exemplar, a champion of our metropolis.”
“Excuse me,” a man in a suit said. He also held a microphone in his right hand, and had a camera man on his hip. “I’m Ernest Cartwright of WJY Morning Edition. Mr. Moss, will spaces on the land be leased to individuals? Or will people in the neighborhood buy shares of the produce?”
“I, um,” Bill stumbled. “I just figured we’d start with some simple stuff? Maybe some tomatoes and zucchini? It’s a good spot for tomatoes. And I just figured I’d grow ‘em. Whoever wants ‘em can come and pick ‘em. As long as they don’t go to waste.
“And that,” the Councilwoman interrupted again with her megaphone, “is the epitome of authentic earnestness.”
“Excuse me,” Mencken called from the center of the crowd. “Mencken Cassie, The Baltimore Star, here. Ms. Drake, isn’t it true that the two lots in question are owned by the Gilford Development Corporation? As this neighborhood’s councilwoman, have you made arrangements with them to protect this land from development?”
“While I don’t personally associate with persons at the Gilford Development Corporation,” the councilwoman replied, “I’ve been assured that they are planning to maintain the site for the farm. Are there any other questions?”
“Ms. Councilwoman,” Mencken yelled. “One more question, please. I find it odd that you say you don’t know anyone at Gilford Development since their COO was your largest campaign donor in the last election. Will he also be supporting your run for mayor in two-thousand-sixteen?”
“Mayor, well, I don’t know about that,” she said through her megaphone, feigning embarrassment. “I try not to give credence to donators. It makes me less susceptible to lobbying interests and corruption.”
“Very admirable Ms. Councilwoman,” Mencken shouted. “In that spirit of transparency, I’d like for you to address the paper I obtained from the city permits office. It’s a permit for construction on this site for a convenience store.”
“I’m not sure what you are referring to, sir,” the Councilwoman said, still through her megaphone. “Now if there are any other questions, I think we’ve-”
“Ms. Councilwoman, I have another question.” The blue megaphone Mencken held increased the initial volume of his voice tenfold. “I have it on good authority that at the last council meeting, four days ago, you supported the rezoning of these two lots from residential to commercial properties. If ma’am, it is as you say, and you do not know the owners of these lots at Gilford Development-”
“I won’t stand for these slanderous insinuations! This is nonsense! Pure nonsense!” the councilwoman yelled through her megaphone.
Mencken yelled back through his own, “If you do not know them, and this community farm is to be free, why then are you having the rezoned, ma’am? Why are you-”
“I will not tolerate this kind of-“
“Answer the question, Ms. Drake.”
“I will not stand for this kind of interruption! You’re a disgrace!”
“Answer the question, Councilwoman!”
Councilwoman Drake prepared to retort, but a gentle, large hand pushed the megaphone down. Bill Moss looked the councilwoman in the face, and said with sorrow and defeat, “Please, ma’am. Just answer the man’s question.”
Although the councilwoman continued to speak, her words were drowned out by the frustrated roar of the crowd. The neighbors screamed in disgust about betrayal and lies.
Mencken packed the blue megaphone in his backpack. With a grin of satisfaction at a job well done, he turned and left.