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BLACKBIRD FAREWELL

The C. J. Floyd Mysteries

Robert Greer

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For Phyllis.

My heavenly darling, forever.

“Pack up all my care and woe,

Here I go,

Singing low,

Bye bye blackbird.”

Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon

Chapter 1

The $4 million Nike athletic-shoe contract in Shandell Bird’s shirt pocket wasn’t about to solve his problem—couldn’t even put a dent in it—and neither would the $3.2 million he expected to start drawing in October, once the NBA season started. All that money, more money than he suspected any human being was worth, would only add to his problem. Somehow, deep down, he’d always known that.

Months removed from being one of the nation’s elite college basketball players, he was now a big-money pro and celebrity, and there seemed to be no way to step away from the limelight. In a sense, he was fortunate that he had to worry about only $7 million and change, not three or four times that, like an NFL draftee. In the NFL the sky was the limit, and salaries weren’t limited as they were in the NBA by a rookie scale that was pegged to where a player had been picked in the draft. Although the money tied to his contract wouldn’t begin to roll in until he arrived at training camp in October, six and a half weeks down the road, he knew there was no way he’d be trouble free by then. Training camp would only serve to magnify his problems.

Amid NBA draft-day pomp and circumstance, the Denver Nuggets had made him the second overall pick in the draft, assuring him that once the ink was dry on his rookie-year contract, which he’d signed only weeks earlier, the dream he’d been chasing since fourth grade would be his.

Jittery and sweating, “Blackbird,” as he was known throughout the sports world, found himself thinking, Money don’t buy you love, as he uncoiled his six-foot-eight-inch, 250-pound frame from behind the steering wheel of the $93,000 Range Rover he’d bought just days earlier. He was about to make the bank deposit of a lifetime.

The shoe-contract money in his pocket, small potatoes in the professional athlete endorsement game, which he’d requested (much to the chagrin of his agent) be issued as a cashier’s check rather than by wire transfer so it could be photocopied and savored for posterity, hadn’t yet arrived when he’d bought the Range Rover. But no one at the dealership where he’d purchased the car—not the salesman, the manager, nor the head of the financial department—had batted an eye at letting him walk out the door a few minutes before closing time into gathering darkness and drive off in the options-loaded SUV. He’d bought the car on the strength of a handshake and the single word “Blackbird” scrawled near the bottom of a hastily drawn-up contract.

For years he’d wanted a white Range Rover, had even salivated at the idea, but his girlfriend, Connie Eastland, had insisted he’d look better in black. “Fits your image better,” she’d claimed. “Gets to the heart of who you are on the court.” Armed with Connie’s advice and the endorsement of his best friend since grade school and his former Colorado State University teammate, Damion Madrid, he’d left the dealership in an ebony metallic Range Rover that screamed to the world, Blackbird here! I’m soaring!

Nike was already well on its corporate way to selling the public the branding package it had developed for him. The image of a soaring raven was emblazoned high on the outside ankle wall of every one of the $180 pairs of sneakers it sold under his name. He was “Blackbird” now, the corporate suits he lunched with never missed reminding him. He was no longer, nor could he ever return to being, the lanky, introverted black kid from Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. It was time for him to play the part, shoulder his share of the load, and walk the walk he’d been paid $7.2 million for. He was destined to become a household name, an eye-level product on Nike and the NBA’s supermarket shelf. He was an energy drink in the offing, a high-end vehicle endorsement—hell, he’d even heard some of the suits whisper that his name could one day be as recognizable as the Coca-Cola brand.

The Nike suits and their NBA counterparts also seemed to enjoy reminding him, and never in a whisper, that they expected him to stay in character at all times. His image, and by inference theirs, would be reflected to the world by his behavior, he’d been told over and over at his Nuggets and his endorsement contract signings. With his head bent low over the signature pages as Julie Madrid, his attorney and Damion Madrid’s mother, and his own mother, Aretha, looked on, he’d never looked up at those signings, thinking that he was selling a piece of his soul. Only Damion, who’d watched from across the room, recognized that what most people would have perceived as a festive occasion was causing Shandell pain.

Stretching and glancing skyward before walking away from the Range Rover, Shandell moved quickly across the always crowded parking lot of the Guaranty Bank in Denver’s trendy Cherry Creek shopping district.

“Got Blackbird in the house,” the guard sitting inside at one side of the revolving door called across the lobby to a line of four instantly attentive tellers as Shandell strolled in.

Shandell nodded at the moonlighting Denver cop, smiled, and tapped his left fist against the bank guard’s. “Ready for training camp?” the cop asked excitedly.

“Yeah,” Shandell responded, heading for the nearest teller.

“Well, give ’em what for. Time to let folks on the coasts know we play basketball out here in the Rockies too.”

“Sure will.” Shandell stepped up to the closest teller and smiled. “Need to deposit this.” He nudged the deposit slip and check across a marble countertop. The thin-faced teller, a dark-haired woman who’d emigrated from Russia five years earlier, eyed Shandell, a bank regular, and smiled back. She’d always liked the aloof African American giant with the shaved head, Dumbo ears, and fuzzy growth of mustache that never seemed to fully take hold. He was always polite in a refreshingly un-American way. He also seemed always frustrated, even sad, as if he were chasing something he couldn’t quite catch, whenever he visited her window. As Shandell leaned down to meet her gaze, she suddenly had the distinct feeling that he was about to confide in her. When, however, he remained silent, she checked the endorsement on the back of the check and, unfazed by the amount, logged in the deposit.

“Thank you,” she said softly, handing Shandell a receipt. Watching Shandell stuff the receipt into his shirt pocket, she asked sheepishly, “How long before your basketball games start?”

“A couple of months.” His response was mechanical.

“You’ll do good,” the teller said reassuringly as Shandell flashed her a parting smile and pivoted to leave. On his way out, he gave the bank guard a halfhearted high five before stepping out into the bright noonday sun. It was a picture-postcard Mile High City late-summer day, but the undeniable crispness in the air announced that autumn, always a time of renewal for Shandell, and his favorite time of the year, was on the way. For him, fall had always meant a return to school and friends after a summer filled with loneliness, save for his friendship with Damion Madrid and his recent romance with Connie Eastland.

Now, instead of returning to the security of high school or a college campus, he was headed for a grueling job that started in October and, depending on how the Nuggets’ season fared, might not end until the NBA playoffs the following June. A job in which his every action would be scrutinized and his deepest thoughts dissected. He would be talked about and written about, idolized and put down, and regardless of what he’d told Nike and the Nuggets, he wasn’t at all certain how he’d react to that kind of scrutiny. All he could do, as his mother so often put it, was go with the flow. He’d spent most of his twenty-two years climbing a mountain that would have been insurmountable for most human beings, and now that he was at the top, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be in a place where the whole world could see him, and only him.

As he slipped into the Range Rover to head home, he had the feeling that Damion, who’d passed on the NBA to head for medical school and a life away from the limelight, might have chosen the better path. Without Damion there to offer him guidance, he knew that for the first time in a very long while, he’d pretty much be on his own.

Moments after he started the engine, his cell phone chirped out its Connie Eastland-programmed aviary ring tone. “Bird here,” he said, responding quickly.

The person on the other end of the line chuckled. “See you’re at the bank. Puttin’ in or takin’ out?”

“Who’s this?”

“You know who it is, Blackbird. Your guardian angel—and we need to talk.”

Shandell opened his door, stepped out of the vehicle, and looked around only to hear the person he was talking to laugh. “Too late for looking, friend. You should’ve done that long ago.” Still chuckling, the caller added in the singsong voice of a tattletale child, “I know something you don’t know. So when do we talk, Mr. Number-Two Draft Choice?”

With his cell phone pressed to his ear as he continued to scan the parking lot’s perimeter, Shandell weakly asked, “This evening?”

“What time?”

“Seven.” Shandell’s response was a nervous half-whisper.

“Where?”

“The Glendale courts,” Shandell said without hesitation. “Across from the post office.”

“I know where they are, friend. Seven o’clock, then. See you there.”

The line went dead as Shandell stared into the distance, looking flustered. Several heart-pounding moments later, he sighed, gritted his teeth, and slipped back into his vehicle. Almost as an afterthought, he plucked the bank-deposit slip out of his shirt pocket and eyed it briefly before wadding it into a ball and tossing it onto the floor. Backing out of his parking space, he drove out of the parking lot, slipped his cell phone’s earpiece into his ear, and hastily dialed a number. When the person on the other end answered, sounding groggy and half asleep, Shandell said, “It’s showtime. Seven o’clock. The Glendale courts. Don’t be late.” He hung up and sped east on First Avenue, his back to the snow-capped Rockies.

Chapter 2

Rosie’s Garage, a legendary Denver landmark, had been located at the corner of Twenty-sixth and Welton Streets in Denver’s historically black Five Points community since 1972. Roosevelt Weeks and his wife, Etta Lee, had started their gas station and automotive repair business three months after Roosevelt, known simply as Rosie to his friends, had finished his training at the Denver Diesel Mechanics School. At the time, there was nothing on the premises but two aging Conoco gas pumps, an unpaved gravel drive, and a lean-to service hut for oil changes and lubes. A few locals maintained that the business had succeeded on the strength of Etta Lee’s brains and Roosevelt’s back, and when you came right down to it, there was more than a little truth to that statement. But no one, especially Rosie and Etta Lee, was keeping score, and over the years Rosie’s Garage had grown from a run-down eyesore into a substantial enterprise. The now spotless concrete drives sported three service islands with six tall, stately looking 1940s-vintage Conoco pumps identical to those that had come with the place when Rosie and Etta Lee had originally signed on. The original lean-to hut with its grease-monkey pit had been replaced by a modern garage with three service bays, a gymnasium-sized storage facility, and a small business office. Whenever Denver politicians wanted to catalog the black community’s business successes, they never failed to single out Rosie’s Garage.

Every pump at Rosie’s featured full attendant service from a bygone era. At Rosie’s uniformed local high school students or college kids from the University of Colorado at Denver or Metro State still cleaned your windshield, checked the oil, and made sure the pressure in your tires was even all the way around. If they didn’t, they knew they’d have Rosie or Etta Lee to contend with, and although Rosie, six-foot-four with no appreciable neck and massive shoulders that made him appear as if he was always wearing football pads, was generally even-tempered and slow to anger, he could intimidate almost anyone if crossed.

During Rosie’s ownership, the garage had become more than a tourist attraction and community gathering place. Its back storage room, known throughout much of Denver simply as “the den,” was a place for locals to not only hang out and shoot the breeze but gamble, play the numbers, and buy liquor on Sundays, a transaction that was still against Colorado law. Rosie didn’t mind folks hanging out, since they accounted for a large amount of his business, but if he caught anyone cursing in front of a female customer, or if a poker game turned sour and ended in a fight, he’d send them all packing, often with a lot more than a simple nudge. Although local politicians, prosecutors, and cops knew what went on in Rosie’s back room, it rarely got a mention at the precinct station, in the newspapers, or at City Hall, largely because Etta Lee knew the right palms to grease—and as she’d once commented boldly during a radio interview, “White folks ain’t interested in black-on-black crime.”

The morning had been slow, and Rosie had his head under the hood of a Jeep Cherokee in the first bay, socket wrench in hand, doing what he did best, as the SUV’s owner, Damion Madrid, looked on. Looking perturbed, Rosie stepped back from the vehicle he’d kept in running condition during Damion’s college years at CSU, set the wrench on a shop table, shook his head, and said, “If you’re gonna keep this struggle buggy runnin’ another four years, Damion, you’re gonna have to treat it with a little more tender lovin’ care. Hell, you coulda been drivin’ yourself a brand-new Range Rover like Shandell’s, ya know.”

“Don’t start, Rosie,” Damion said, sounding irritated. “I hear enough about my stupidity from strangers. No need hearing it from family.” Although Rosie and Damion weren’t related by blood, they were indeed family, united by their common bond to CJ Floyd, Rosie’s lifelong friend, and Damion’s mother, who’d once been CJ’s secretary. Julie Madrid had spent three years working her way through law school at night while working days on Denver’s famed Bail Bondsman’s Row as CJ’s secretary. Now she was a successful criminal defense attorney and in large measure the person who kept Rosie, and more importantly the den, out of the newspapers and the limelight.

“I ain’t startin’ nothin’, Damion. Just reflectin’ on the truth. Hell, the Trailblazers were ready to snatch you up like a hot biscuit right after Blackbird if you’da decided to go on playin’ basketball instead of wantin’ to become a doctor. Their GM said so.”

“I know, Rosie. I know.” Damion sounded exasperated. He’d heard the same comments scores of times. He’d heard the Five Points trash talk—the claim that he didn’t have a champion’s heart—and he’d put up with the criticism of people he respected, people he’d known and looked up to all his life, as they were quick to remind him in supermarkets and 7-11s that he was crazy to pass up a sure $3 million for an MD.

“People gotta do what’s best for ’em, I guess,” Rosie grumbled as he grabbed one of the six quarts of oil he’d lined up on a workbench earlier. “Shit, CJ and Mavis just proved that,” he added with a smile. “The two of ’em smokin’ outta here for Hawaii and gettin’ hitched without so much as a peep to none of us. You can’t top that.”

“Have you heard from them?” Damion asked, hoping to steer the conversation in a new direction. Hours earlier, just like Rosie, he had learned that CJ and Mavis Sundee, the soft spot of feminine sweetness in CJ’s otherwise hard-edged life, had run off to the Big Island of Hawaii and gotten married, and he too was sorry he’d missed the chance to celebrate with them.

“Nothin’ but a phone call from CJ yesterday sayin’ they were married and they’d be gone for the next few days. You know, Etta Lee’s really pissed.” Rosie broke into a toothy grin. “The woman’s been lookin’ forward to bein’ maid of honor in that weddin’ for years.”

Sympathetic to Etta Lee’s disappointment, Damion nonetheless found himself thinking, Good for them. He was thrilled that CJ, after two tours of Vietnam and more than a three-decade career as a bondsman and bounty hunter, and the woman who’d stood by him all that time had tied the knot—happy that they’d finally made their vows before some disgruntled bond skipper or deranged cokehead ended up taking CJ out for good.

“Your mom knows all about it, don’t she?” asked Rosie.

“Yeah. She’s the one who told me.”

Rosie shook his head and grinned. “Guess this could get CJ off the streets for good, ’cause Mavis, now that she’s Mrs. Floyd, ain’t about to let him risk life and limb runnin’ down a bunch of bond-skipping pond scum. Hell, he needs to slow down anyway,” Rosie said with a snicker. “The brother’s damn near fifty-five years old.”

Damion nodded in agreement. “And it’s not like he doesn’t have Flora Jean to take up the slack,” he said, aware that CJ’s partner, Flora Jean Benson, a six-foot-one-inch Las Vegas showgirl–sized former marine, had been trying to get CJ to cut back for the past five years.

“I wouldn’t mention nothin’ to CJ about slowin’ down, though.” Rosie crossed his lips with a forefinger. “He might take it the wrong way. Besides, you’d be surprised how quick us old men can be,” added the 260-pound onetime college football prospect who’d been forced to choose mechanics school over the University of Nebraska’s football program the summer after finishing high school because he’d blown out his right knee in a motorcycle accident.

Damion simply nodded and smiled. Although he was an inch taller than Rosie, he was a good twenty-five pounds lighter. He’d seen Rosie and CJ toss knife-wielding drunks, gang-bangers, and disgruntled gamblers out the back door of the den into the adjoining alley more than once. There was no question in his mind that even five years hence, both men would still be able to do the same thing.

Securing a quart of oil into place to let it drain down into the engine, Rosie dusted off his hands. “Your boy Blackbird ready to start the season?”

“He says he is.” Damion glanced across the garage bay toward the gas pumps outside to see a high school kid race toward a waiting car. Smiling and thinking that he’d made hundreds of similar runs as a high schooler, he was about to ask Rosie the kid’s name when he realized who the car that had pulled in belonged to. “Shit! Old man Wilhite just drove up.”

Rosie slipped his head out from under the hood and tossed the now empty quart of oil into an open 90-weight oil drum. Looking at Damion and shaking his head, he said, “Uh-oh. This should be good. You runnin’ or stickin’?”

“Stickin’,” Damion said defiantly.

Seconds later, Theo Wilhite strolled into the garage. He paused just inside the middle bay and scanned the place, looking as if he expected anyone within earshot to run for cover. A well-chewed two-inch cigar stub poked from the right corner of his mouth as, grinning ear to ear, he continued walking toward Damion and Rosie. Seventy years old and amazingly fit, with only the barest hint of a paunch, Wilhite, at just under five-foot-six, had spent a lifetime using his booming baritone voice and unbridled pushiness to make up for his diminutive stature.

“Well, well, well.” Wilhite’s words echoed off the walls as he slipped the cigar stub out of his mouth and stopped a few feet short of Damion. “If it isn’t the wonder boy they call Blood and his faithful auto-mechanic companion. Hell, I decide to stop in for some gas, and lookie here, got me a twofer. Never figured on strikin’ gold.” He looked at Damion and chuckled. “No Blackbird here with you two boys to make it a triumphant kinda day?”

Damion, whose nickname (short for Blood Brother) had been bestowed on him in high school as a badge of honor by a cadre of black friends despite his Latino roots, remained silent.

“Hell, I’m surprised. No Blackbird!” Wilhite shook his head in mock amazement. “But then again, why would Shandell be here? No reason for a future NBA superstar to be hangin’ out with a sparkplug jockey and a would-be doctor.” He flashed Damion a sly, toothy grin. “How’s life been treatin’ you, Blood?”

“Fine,” Damion said, starting as Rosie slammed the Jeep’s hood and flashed Wilhite a look of pure disdain.

“And that’s as it should be, son. Fine. Especially with you bein’ all primed to head off to medical school here shortly and your sidekick Blackbird financially set for life. Things couldn’t be nothin’ but fine.” Wilhite eyed his cigar stub. Wet with saliva, the stub came close to matching the mocha color of his skin. “Now, as for ol’ Theo here, things aren’t quite so rosy.”

Damion, who’d heard Wilhite’s long-standing gripe about losing a good sized bet he’d placed on CSU to win the final game of the NCAA basketball tournament the previous March, only to see them lose in the final seconds, tried to ignore the comment. Turning to Rosie, he asked, “We done here?”

Rosie nodded. “Yep.”

Wilhite, who normally let things go after issuing a backhanded swipe or two about either Damion’s or Shandell’s play in the championship game, seemed more bent on confrontation than usual. “Ignore me if you want, Dr. Madrid, or should I say Dr. Choke, but …”

Before Rosie, who was hoping to put a quick damper on things, had a chance to respond, Damion stepped to within inches of Wilhite. Hovering over the smaller man with his jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed in anger, Damion said, “You’re pushing your luck, old man.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Sensing that if things continued to escalate, Damion, known to be hot-tempered in the face of confrontation, might do something he’d be sorry for, Rosie stepped between the two men.

Shaking his head in protest, Wilhite eyed Damion. “Choker.”

Seething, Damion cocked his arm and launched a right cross at Wilhite’s chin. The punch was halfway home when Rosie hooked his own right arm under Damion’s left shoulder and yanked him back into the Cherokee’s fender as if Damion were anything but a six-foot-five-inch, 235-pound man. Pushing Wilhite, whose eyes were suddenly silver-dollar-sized, aside as if he were a rag doll, Rosie yelled, “Get the hell out of here, Theo!”

Surprised by Damion’s reaction, Wilhite began backpedaling. “Touched a nerve there, did I?” he said, beaming from ear to ear as he increased the space between him and the angry-looking Damion. “Ain’t good for a doctor to come all unglued like that, Madrid. No way losin’ your cool like that could ever be good for a patient. I’d say you need to practice up on your bedside manner some, son.”

Still locked in Rosie’s grasp, with his upper lip quivering and his right arm still cocked, Damion had the uneasy feeling that Wilhite might be right. Maybe he did need to practice grinning and bearing it. Perhaps he did need to slap a governor on his often overly competitive spirit. He was still second-guessing his actions when Wilhite erupted with a booming laugh, pivoted, and walked out of the garage.

“Don’t give Wilhite no never-mind, Damion,” Rosie said, watching Wilhite swagger across the service drive toward his car. “You did good just to keep from cold-cockin’ him. I woulda sure enough kicked the little runt’s ass when I was your age. But ain’t no way a doctor can do that.”

“You would’ve, and I still might,” Damion said, twisting out of Rosie’s grasp. Boiling with anger and shaking his head, he walked across the bay to watch Wilhite slip into his car. As the self-satisfied-looking Theo Wilhite drove away, Damion shook his head, wondering what Shandell would have to say about Wilhite’s comments when they met for their weekly three o’clock scrimmage at the Glendale basketball courts.

The Holiday Inn Express just off Pena Boulevard, six miles west of Denver International Airport, was several steps up from the kinds of places Leon Bird usually found himself staying in. So, as he lay stretched out in his underwear on a king-sized bed in a room he was shelling out $109 a night for, he planned to enjoy every second of his stay. He was in town, after all, to do a little extra father-son bonding with his future NBA superstar son and further cement the relationship he’d worked so hard at fostering the past year.

It hadn’t been hard to get inside Shandell’s head during that year, or to convince him on visit after persistent visit that what he needed was for his long-absent and worldly wise father to run interference for him in the treacherous world of superstardom. Shandell had been a docile, willing recipient of Leon’s scheming and scamming, even in the face of Aretha Bird’s protests.

Leon knew he had to be vigilant and above all careful if he expected things to play out his way. He’d have to milk the father-son reunion for all it was worth and uncork his bunco-artist best if he expected to finesse the whole rebonding con down a road that would reap him the ultimate payday. One false step and things could turn on a dime. Shandell would almost certainly recognize him for what he was, and the two overly protective she-devils who ran interference for Shandell—Aretha, whom Leon had left behind to fend for herself sixteen years earlier without so much as a “fuck you,” and Shandell’s big-titted piece of white pussy, Connie Eastland—would surely finish him off. Aretha he could deal with. He’d whipped her ass scores of times before. The Eastland woman was another story. One he was currently working on solving.

Personally, he’d never seen any percentage in screwing around with a white woman. Getting tangled up with them was the equivalent of giving some redneck cop an excuse to crack open your head. Or a reason for a car full of tanked-up white boys, out looking for trouble, to kick in your teeth. He understood his son’s infatuation with the Miss Annes of this world, but he couldn’t fathom why Shandell would take such a risk.

He’d often wondered how much Shandell had told the big-titted shrew about him. Wondered if Shandell had ever spilled his guts to her about his worthless, wife-beating, son-abandoning father. He had no real way of knowing whether he had, but he had Connie Eastland pegged. The dollar signs in her eyes when he’d had occasion to talk to her told him everything he needed to know. They also told him that if worse came to worst, he and Connie might be better off as partners than adversaries.

He’d made it a point during his last two visits from the Midwest to let Connie know he was onto her game. He’d clued her in on the fact that blood was thicker than water and that he would be the one to milk this cow. She’d seemed unfazed by him, however, standing her ground, even telling him once in a guarded telephone conversation that if push came to shove, Shandell would stand by her.

The air of certainty in her statement had grabbed his full attention, causing him to wonder what she had on Shandell and whether she really could derail his gravy train. But in the end, he’d decided that she was simply a passing fancy. The kind of fancy he might have to negotiate with or maybe even cancel out in the end, but a fancy nonetheless. He, on the other hand, was blood, the man who’d passed Shandell’s athletic gifts on to him by virtue of his semen. There was no way he intended to let either his ex-wife or Connie Eastland stop him from reaping what was rightfully his.

Chapter 3

Damion and Shandell had been playing their weekly one-on-ones at the Glendale basketball courts, courts long favored by high-profile college and high school ballplayers, since the fifth grade. Over the years, Glendale, surrounded by an ever-enlarging Mile High City, had defied encroachment to remain an independent village, known for having a lower sales tax than Denver and for being home to the notorious Colorado Boulevard strip joint Shotgun Willie’s. Glendale and the courts that pro basketball scouts often frequented seemed to chug along in a surreal zone of their own.

Years earlier, as grade schoolers, Damion and Shandell had sneaked onto the brightly lit courts at night after the big-time ballplayers had left to spend an hour or two with the courts all to themselves. They’d practice their ball-handling skills—bounce pass, shovel pass, pick and roll—or engage in a round robin of perimeter shooting until one or both of them gave out, it got so late they figured they’d better head home, or the big boys returned for a late-night scrimmage and ran them off. Now, instead of watching the big boys and waiting for court time, the courts were theirs for the taking and folks, big and small, gathered to watch them.

A crowd of nearly forty people, aware of Damion and Shandell’s weekly ritual and unfazed by ominous-looking thunderheads to the west, stood behind the chain-link fence that surrounded the main Glendale court, prepared to take in a dose of Blood and Bird. Shandell stood at midcourt with a basketball tucked under his right arm. Looking briefly to the east toward Glendale’s two most prominent municipal structures, the post office and the police headquarters building, he winked at Damion and put the ball into play. Bursting from the top of the free-throw circle with a high left-hand dribble, he powered to the right baseline before methodically working his way back toward the right side of the key. Fifteen pounds lighter and three inches shorter than Shandell, Damion stuck with him on every move. Each time the ball bounced off the court, its high-pitched ring seemed to announce to the onlookers that they were privileged to be watching. Stopping his dribble and leaning into Damion, Shandell pushed off Damion’s right shoulder, faded back, and released an off-balance eighteen-foot jumper into the air, popping the net.

Damion shook his head as the crowd chanted, “Bird, Bird, Bird.” Still shaking his head, he chased down the ball, grabbed it just before it rolled to the edge of the court and into the fence, and tossed it back into play. Moving swiftly across the court and seeming to glide on air, he dribbled straight to the free-throw line and fired up a jump shot. The ball bounced high off the front of the rim as Damion, a step quicker than Shandell, skied for the basket and slammed the errant shot home. The response from the crowd was a lingering Aaahhh.

“Dr. Blood,” Shandell yelled in admiration as the ball slowly rolled back toward them, “nasty!”

“Ball’s all yours, Mr. Blackbird,” Damion said, tipping the ball up into his right hand with the toe of his sneaker and handing it to Shandell.

Shandell palmed the ball but suddenly appeared to Damion to be daydreaming. It was a transitory habit he’d never been able to kick even when the game was on the line. When Damion yelled, “Get your head back in the game, Blackbird,” Shandell began a slow waist-high dribble toward the basket. On this day, his mind was on more than mere daydreams.

With Damion glued to his side and storm clouds gathering, Shandell was thinking not about the millions of dollars he’d soon be earning, or even his meeting later that evening with the person who’d called him as he’d sat in his SUV in the bank parking lot that morning. What he found himself thinking about, of all things, was his father—a man who had caved in to his drinking and gambling urges before Shandell was four, and who’d deserted him and his mother to head for Chicago and fail in the record industry when he had a family in Denver to feed.

Not wanting to end up like the father he’d basically never known, Shandell had given himself over completely to his mother’s stern, God-fearing guidance at an early age. In many ways he’d become her obvious reflection, and the scores of greedy sports agents, money-grubbing women, and out-and-out ne’er-do-wells she’d shooed away from him over the years had earned Aretha Bird the nickname “Scarecrow.” Shandell’s perseverance had emanated from her, and it was largely because of her that he’d always been a loner, an introverted giant who was clumsy with words, slow to make friends, and distrustful of relationships. Only Damion had been able to break through Shandell’s protective coat of armor to become a lifelong friend.

With thunder rumbling in the distance, the game seesawed back and forth until, with Damion leading 38 to 30, the sky opened up. As everyone, including Damion and Shandell, raced for cover to escape the downpour, Damion yelled, “What the hell was up with your game out there, Shandell? Half the time you seemed to be sleepwalking. You should’ve been killing me, man. Hell, you’re on your way to training camp in a few weeks, and I’m out of shape. What gives?”

“Nothing.” Shandell flipped his sweatshirt hood over his head. “Just thinking through a problem.”

“Must be a doozy. Anything I can help with?”

“Nope.”

“You sure? No problem with Connie, is there?” Damion asked, aware that Shandell and Connie Eastland’s relationship was often volatile.

“’Course not.”

All but drenched as they jogged toward their cars, and still confused over Shandell’s lackadaisical play, Damion called out, “I’ll meet you at Mae’s.”

“I’ll be right behind you,” Shandell yelled back, sounding strangely dismissive.

As he slipped into his Jeep to head for Mae’s Louisiana Kitchen, the Five Points soul-food restaurant that had been owned by CJ Floyd’s new bride, Mavis Sundee, and her family for more than a half century, Damion peered through the Jeep’s rain-splattered rear window to see Shandell standing in the pouring rain next to his Range Rover, looking less like a future NBA superstar than a lost, frightened child. When Shandell realized that Damion was staring, he ducked his head and slipped into the vehicle. As he cranked the engine and pulled away from the curb, knifing ahead into pelting rain, Shandell had the strange sudden sense that he was trapped inside a chunk of black granite that was starting to sink at sea.

Shandell and Damion’s dinner at Mae’s turned out to be a heartbeat above morbid, and an hour after the meal of fried catfish, collard greens, sweet corn, and buttermilk biscuits, Shandell found himself saddled with a severe case of indigestion. His gastric distress was brought on not by the heavy meal or the feeling that he’d somehow strained the bond of friendship between him and Damion but rather by the knowledge that his 7 p.m. meeting at the Glendale basketball courts, which he’d been dreading all day along with being dogged by thoughts of his father, was at hand.

As he pulled his Range Rover to a stop on Kentucky Avenue just west of the Glendale main court, he thought about the strangely awkward meal he and Damion had shared. There’d been the usual small talk at first, and they’d even briefly slipped into their familiar banter about who had the best perimeter jumper and which of them was the better rebounder. But things had soon turned silent, and when he’d stared blankly into space after Damion had asked him for the fourth time if anything was wrong, the dinner and the evening had disintegrated.

Their only other real conversation during their meal had come when Connie Eastland had called his cell phone. His responses to her questions, responses he now regretted, had been terse. A mere “Yep,” “Nope,” and “We’ve already discussed that” were all he’d said before hanging up. As he’d slipped his cell phone back onto his belt, he’d eyed Damion and said with a shake of his head, “Women. Can’t live without ’em; can’t live with ’em. What kinda choice is that?”

Damion’s response had been a noncommittal half-nod. Moments later, they’d each packed up generous slices of sweet-potato pie, Mae’s signature dessert, scooted from behind the table, and, tapping clenched fists together as had been their custom since their early teens, headed for the exit.

When Damion had indicated that he was heading across town to his girlfriend, Niki Estaban’s, apartment to spend the night, Shandell had sighed and said, “Like I said. With ’em or without ’em,” before adding with a hesitant shrug, “Guess I should go over to Connie’s and patch things up.”

They’d said their good-byes with Damion convinced that the reason for Shandell’s meal-time despondency and earlier lack of effort on the court had been initiated by Connie Eastland and Shandell trying his best to remember the last time he’d flat-out lied to his best friend.

Twilight was fading when a jittery Shandell slipped out of his Range Rover and punched the door-lock button on the keyless remote. The remote’s chirp seemed to further unsettle him. The forlorn-looking courts, still wet from the earlier rain, were empty, and there was no one in sight. Taking that as a good sign, Shandell walked east on Kentucky Avenue toward the courts with a renewed sense of calm, feeling that he had nothing to fear—that it was the man he was meeting who should be afraid. After all, it was that person who had started the cascade that had led them to the current showdown.

As he pulled back the sleeve of his Windbreaker to check his watch, he realized that it was already ten minutes past seven. He thought about making a phone call to see if the other man had backed out, but before he could reach for his cell phone, he saw someone step out from behind the court’s north-facing backboard support.

“SOB showed,” he muttered.

The person awaiting him was a small wisp of a white man with thinning hair, bulging eyes, and the vaguest hint of a mustache. He was dressed in a rumpled light-beige summer-weight suit with an unmistakable mustard stain just above the buttonhole of the right lapel. The most remarkable thing about the man, at least in Shandell’s eyes, was the fact that he was wearing, as was his custom, not dress shoes but black high-top “old-school” Chuck Taylor Converse All Star sneakers.

“Shandell, my man,” the man called out, moving away from the backboard support and walking toward center court, “always good to see you.”

Shandell slipped his right hand into the back pocket of his warm-ups as the man approached. His response, continued silence and a nod, was the only acknowledgment Shandell offered as, now standing less than ten feet away, he adjusted the snub-nosed .38 in his right hand until the barrel was aimed directly at the man’s belly.

The person watching Shandell and the man in the Converse All Stars converge at center court stood eighty yards away, peering down on them from behind a three-foot-high concrete wall rimming the third level of the garage in which Murray Motor Imports, Denver’s oldest Mercedes-Benz and BMW dealer, housed its new cars. A .30-06 rested on the concrete floor inches from the wall. The north- and east-facing third-floor level of the garage, which stood catty-corner from the Glendale Post Office and across the street from the Glendale police station, had unobstructed views of the basketball courts.

It hadn’t been difficult for the rifle-toter to gain access to the garage. An easily scaled rickety wooden fence had been the only impediment. It had been simpler still to walk up the garage’s northeast stairwell from ground level to the third floor. The only remaining problem had been the gathering darkness, which would have interfered with the assignment if the rain hadn’t stopped, leaving a picture-perfect twilight.

The spectator watched Shandell and the other man move closer to one another before extracting a pair of form-fitting athletic gloves from a back pocket, dusting them off, slipping them on, kneeling, and reaching for the rifle. The words like ducks in a pond wove their way through the shooter’s head as the barrel of the .30-06 peeked over the wall.

“I’d put that toy away if I were you,” the small man demanded, looking more annoyed than intimidated by the gun in Shandell’s right hand. “Unless of course you intend to use it. And you know what? I don’t think you have the guts.” The man stared at the gun, unfazed.

“Don’t fool yourself,” Shandell said with a sneer. “You’ve chipped away at me long enough. I’m done with your threats and your shakedowns. More important, I don’t give a shit about any more muckraking you got planned. So go fuck yourself!”

“I see.” The man smiled. “Well, it is what it is, Mr. Blackbird. You’re the one who made your bed—time to lie in it. But just for the record, I think you’re making a real bad choice.”

Shandell raised the barrel of the .38 and took point-blank aim at the man’s chest.

The man continued to smile. “You ain’t got the balls.”

Shandell flashed a broad grin. “Watch me.”

A split second later, a loud crack echoed in the background and Shandell’s grin turned into a contorted look of pain as the bullet from the .30-06 penetrated his left temporal bone.

The man in the high-tops barely had time to open his mouth and scream, “What the …” before a second bullet pierced his left eye socket.

Shandell dropped to one knee as the .38 he’d been holding skated across the court. He reached for his head in agony as the man in the high-tops urinated on himself before sprawling dead on the playing surface. As Shandell slumped forward onto the court, gasping for air, gurgling his final breath through a mouth that was filled with blood, the last thing he saw was the center-court stripe. The strip appeared to him to suddenly float above the playing surface on a sea of moist late-summer air before disappearing, just like his killer, into the Mile High City twilight.

Chapter 4

The coroner’s wagon carrying the bodies of Shandell Bird and the other Glendale court murder victim drove off into the foggy darkness two and a half hours to the minute after the double homicide had occurred. Aretha Bird had arrived on the murder scene hysterical and disheveled less than forty-five minutes after two seventh graders, eager to hone their basketball skills on the same courts a future NBA superstar played on, had found the two dead men. Aretha had been watching TV when a news reporter on scene had broken the story before the Glendale police could notify her that her son had been murdered. In the hour since she’d arrived, she’d calmed down to the point that she could carry on a conversation without shaking violently, but she was clearly on the brink of collapse. Her eyes, swollen almost shut from crying, were dark, puffy, silver-dollar-sized circles, and her nose wouldn’t stop running.

Moments after the coroner’s wagon had pulled away, a Glendale detective escorted Aretha into one of the police station’s interrogation rooms, along with Damion and Connie Eastland, who’d arrived fifteen minutes after Aretha’s frantic call to them. The displeased-looking Detective Sergeant Will Townsend, a bony man with curly brown hair and angular features, sat across from Aretha in the room that had the ground-in-sweat smell of a gymnasium. Townsend sucked a stream of air between the gap in his front teeth, sat back in his chair, and looked directly at Damion, who seemed to him to be in as much pain as the victim’s mother and girlfriend.

Damion and Townsend had crossed swords earlier, just as Connie Eastland was arriving. When Damion had pleaded for a look at Shandell’s lifeless body, having been told what had happened by a boyish-looking cop guarding the crime scene, Townsend had shunted Damion away, saying simply, “Nope, can’t okay that.” Damion had watched two crime-scene technicians from the Denver County coroner’s office struggle to load Shandell’s body into the back of their vehicle, telling himself, This has to be a dream. But he knew it wasn’t. Connie had cried until she couldn’t cry any longer, but she hadn’t reached the near catatonic state that Aretha Bird was in. Now, after temporarily swallowing his emotions in an attempt to remain at least outwardly calm in the face of his overwhelming grief, Damion was utterly numb.

Glancing from Damion to Connie and finally Aretha, Townsend, a twenty-two-year veteran of the Glendale force, sucked another stream of air between his teeth. “So all of you are in agreement? Shandell had no real enemies?”

Only Damion looked up at him.

“You got a different take, Madrid?” Townsend asked.

“No enemies to speak of, but I do know of one person who was, how can I put this, well … upset with him.”

Damion’s answer caused Connie to raise her head and look at him, but Aretha remained silent and motionless with her head bowed.

“And who was that?”

“A man named Theo Wilhite. But he’s an old man who’s spent most of his life complaining.”

“There ain’t any age restrictions when it comes to murder, son. What was Wilhite’s beef with Shandell?”

Damion hesitated before answering, uncertain whether Aretha and Connie were aware of Wilhite’s complaint.

“Spit it out, son. We’re dealing with a double homicide here.”

Choosing his words carefully, Damion said, “Wilhite claims to have lost ten thousand dollars wagering on the NCAA championship game last spring, and he thinks Blackbird and I had something to do with him losing that money, Shandell in particular. He thinks Shandell may have missed what would have been the game-winning shot on purpose.”

“So he thinks you or Bird were shaving points?”

“Something like that.”

“Either you were or you weren’t.”

“We weren’t!”

Townsend began entering the name Theo Wilhite into a Black-Berry that sat in front of him on the conference table. “Wilhite with one L?”

When Damion nodded, Townsend asked, “Do you know where Wilhite lives?”

“Somewhere in Five Points. I don’t know his address.”

Entering “pull address” into his BlackBerry, Townsend asked, “Anybody else you think might have had a grudge against your friend?”

When Damion shrugged and said, “No,” Townsend eyed Connie and then Aretha.

Too grief-stricken to answer, Aretha continued to stare at the floor. Connie simply shook her head.

Deciding to change the direction of his questioning, Townsend asked, “Did your boyfriend generally carry large amounts of money on him, Ms. Eastland?”

“No.”

“That’s strange. My crime-scene boys found a little over three thousand dollars in a pocket of his sweatpants.” Failing to mention that they’d also found a snub-nosed .38 inches from Shandell’s right hand, Townsend stroked his chin thoughtfully and entered the words “three grand” into the BlackBerry before asking, “Any of you know the other victim, Paul Grimes?”

Damion and Connie shook their heads.

“Mrs. Bird?”

When Aretha Bird failed to answer, Townsend, his tone suddenly insistent, asked, “Mrs. Bird, did you know the other victim?”

Aretha Bird’s response was a barely audible, confused-sounding “No.”

“Who was he?” asked Damion, attempting to run interference for Aretha.

Townsend paused briefly before answering, as if trying to determine whether or not Damion deserved an answer. Deciding that revealing a little about the second murder victim might help his investigation in the long run, he said, “His name was Paul Grimes. He was an investigative reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. Had a real bulldog hell-bound-for-glory kind of rep. Could be he wanted to talk to Shandell about the same thing your Mr. Wilhite was interested in.” Townsend eyed Damion and Connie, looking for any hint that one or both of them might have known Grimes. But all he got were looks of surprise. “And Grimes never had occasion to talk to any of the three of you?” Townsend asked, hoping to get a response out of Aretha. As Connie and Damion shook their heads in unison and Aretha remained silent, Townsend said to Damion, “So Grimes never hit you up with accusations of point-shaving similar to Wilhite’s?”

Having been raised by a mother who was a criminal defense attorney and schooled by her and CJ Floyd in the ways of inquisitive cops, Damion recognized that Townsend had just asked him the same question in three slightly different ways. Deciding it was time to bring that line of questioning to an end, he said, “We’ve told you, Sergeant, none of us knew Grimes. Want to move on?”

Townsend smiled, aware that he was being challenged by someone who understood the game he was playing. Telling himself he needed to check out Damion’s background more carefully, he said, “A little touchy, aren’t you, Madrid?”