Cold Springs

Page 31

Race yelled, without alarm, “Nana? You okay?”

He pushed aside the sheet. He wore his camouflage jacket, bare-chested underneath. Black jeans. One black Nike on his foot, the other in his hand.

He stared at Jones and Chadwick. Then he dropped his shoe and bolted.

By the time Chadwick realized Race was going for a gun—a semiautomatic resting on the windowsill—it was too late to back off. Race grabbed the gun, but with a six-foot-eight wall of white man coming down on him, the boy abandoned all intention of fighting. He started out the window, hooking his leg on a rusty fire escape as Chadwick grabbed his arm, Race pulling away, putting his whole weight on the railing.

The metal groaned under Race's feet, the fire escape peeling away from the wall, taking the boy with it. Chadwick's grip slipped to the boy's wrist just as Race's legs lost contact with the rail and his chest slammed into the side of the building.

Race Montrose hung, five stories up, twisting in slam-dunk position, the gun still clenched in his free hand.

He looked down at the line of dumpsters in the alley below, about the size of pillows, then up at Chadwick. He made a wild and heroically stupid effort to aim the gun at Chadwick's head.

“I tend to drop people when they shoot me,” Chadwick told him. “Let it go. I'll pull you in.”

Race was sweating, making his wrist hard to hold.

“I don't know anything,” the boy said. “I swear to fucking God.”

Chadwick tightened his grip. Kindra was right behind him, her hands latched to the fabric of Chadwick's coat, as if that would be enough to keep him from falling. She was muttering words of comfort and support: “Shit, oh goddamn shit. Crazy mother-fucking idiot.”

“We just want to talk,” Chadwick told the boy. “Drop the gun.”

He could feel his own pulse against Race's wrist bones, the semiautomatic's line of fire wobbling back and forth across his forehead.

The gun clunked against the dumpster below like a timpani strike. Chadwick pulled him inside.

“Damn!” Jones exhaled. She kicked the boy's bare foot. “Damn, little man! The hell you thinking? You born stupid or you study on it, huh?”

Race huddled against the wall, pushing his back against the bricks. He was skinnier than Chadwick remembered. His breastbone was concave and hairless between the folds of the camouflage jacket, his eyes soft, on the verge of tears.

“I don't know nothing.” His voice trembled. “Didn't say nothing.”

“We're not going to hurt you,” Chadwick said.

“Yeah. You just come from Texas to help me, like you helped Mallory.”

Chadwick scanned the area where they'd ended up—a sunny corner of the loft that passed for Race's bedroom. A cheap cotton sleeping bag was spread out on the cement floor next to a scatter of CDs, clothes, loose ammunition. Three cellophane-covered library books were stacked neatly against the wall next to a better sleeping bag—a green down one, rolled up in a red bungee cord. Chadwick stared at the down bag, trying to figure out why Race wouldn't use that one instead of the cotton one, then wondering where he'd seen the bag before—the green fabric, the red cord around the middle.

Faded letters were marked next to the zipper, AZ. It was Ann's old sleeping bag, the one she'd brought to the faculty retreat at Stinson Beach, when they'd looked at the stars together.

“Was Mallory staying here?” he asked.

Race's eyes darted around, as if he'd missed something he should've seen. “I was just—keeping the bag for her. You know.”

Chadwick knelt down, picked up one of the library books. It had been checked out from Laurel Heights: a Thomas Jefferson exposé about the DNA tests on his black descendants. Chadwick had read it himself about a month ago. The book under that was by Howard Zinn, the bookplate inside inscribed, Donated by Ann Zedman. The third title was Black Athena. “You keeping these for Mallory, too?”

“Why you say that—you figure I can't read?”

“Mrs. Zedman told me you were gifted.”

“So gifted she kicked me out of school.”

“You blew that. You brought a gun on campus.”

“The hell I did.”

“It just appeared in your locker?”

Race rubbed his nose with the back of his wrist. “You ain't gonna believe me anyway. Listen, I got friends coming over, man—they going to drill a hole in you the minute they see you. You going to kill me, you better do it quick.” He cut his eyes toward Jones. “That what you brought her along for? She your nigger gun?”

“Watch your mouth, little man,” Jones said. “'Fore I put my boot in it.”

Race scowled, but he had to blink to keep from crying.

Chadwick picked up a bullet from the tangle of clothes, turned the brass in his fingers. “You prefer guns over knives, Race?”

The boy hugged himself tighter.

“Your mother was stabbed to death,” Chadwick continued. “Six- or seven-inch blade.”

By the front door, the radio kept playing—Marvin Gaye, ridiculously happy music in the big empty space of the building.

“You think it was me?” Race asked. “That what you think?”

“Police found two people's blood at the scene. Attacker and victim. DNA says they were related.”

Race put his forehead down, rubbed it against his knees. “No. No, no.”

“Mallory's dad says he's been getting blackmail letters from your brother Samuel. That true?”

The boy was shivering.

“Hey, little man,” Jones tried, her voice softer now. “Come on. Just answer him.”

Race said something into his knees.

“What?” Chadwick asked.

“I said yeah. Samuel sent those letters. Said Zedman was gonna get his.”

“Get his. For what?”

Race glared up at him. “You know for what . . . your kid. She used to come around. Slumming and shit. Samuel didn't want to fall for her, but he did, and then you go and keep them apart. And she kills herself, and the police are all like—she was infected. She was poisoned. How you think that made him feel?”

Chadwick felt Kindra Jones staring at him.

Out the open window, the sun flooded from behind a cloud, cutting a yellow arc of light down the side of the next building. A jackhammer pounded a five-beat cadence. The loose fire escape bobbed and swayed on its bent ladder, ten feet out from the window.

“Why the Zedmans, then?” Chadwick asked. “If Samuel was mad at me, why take it out on them?”

“You left, man. Not so easy to get to you. You didn't have nothing left to steal. Zedman—that was different. You all a piece of the same world, man—Laurel Heights. All that shit. Samuel hates all of you.”

“And yet he sent you there.”

The look in Race's eyes wasn't anger, exactly, but a memory of anger, as if he were hearing a story whispered over a telephone. “He used to say it was my duty. Show them up. Improve myself. But he hated the place. After they kicked me out—he said fuck it. Those kids—I used to come home crying. They'd ask me what kind of car my momma drove. And what was I supposed to say? My momma take the bus? She drive whatever her boyfriend's driving? They used to ask why I wore the same shoes every day. And I got to look at them like, ‘This is the only pair I have.' And they just stare at me, okay? And then they talk over me, the rest of the day. Improve myself? So I can be like them? Hell with that.”

“What'd that Zinn book say about the Revolution?”

“Said it didn't have nothing to do with freedom principles and Locke and Hume and all that shit. Said it was rich white landowners escaping their debts from England and setting themselves up to get even richer and more powerful.”

“What'd you think of that?”

“I think the book was written by a rich white man. So the Revolution must've worked.”

Chadwick smiled in spite of himself. “You must've had some interesting discussions in history class. Mrs. Zedman was right.”

“'Bout what?”

“You. She believed in you. Still does. Told me you were one of the smartest kids she'd ever had at the school.”

He dug his finger against the cement, sketching invisible cursive letters.

“You really hate Laurel Heights?” Chadwick asked.

“Said so, didn't I?”

“Then why did you warn Ms. Reyes?”

He lifted his finger, as if the floor were suddenly hot. “What?”

“You showed up at Ms. Reyes' house last week, told her to check on the school's money. The next day it was gone. Why did you try to warn her?”

“She's lying.”

“Eight years of your life, Race. Mrs. Zedman was always in your corner. Maybe you were mad at her for expelling you—maybe that's why you went to Ms. Reyes instead, but I don't think you wanted the school destroyed. Whoever did that, get away from him. You don't owe him any loyalty.”

“Samuel protected me. He was good . . .”

“Thirty-two stab wounds, Race. Your mother was murdered and no one protected her. The truth.”

“Mr. Chadwick,” Kindra said.

Her expression was hard, full of angry sympathy for the kid. “We got that other appointment, you know?”

Chadwick glanced around the loft, trying to recapture his feeling that Race was a dangerous person. He had needed to believe that, almost as much as he needed to believe Samuel Montrose was dangerous. But he saw only a young man who needed less help than most of the kids he worked with each year—whose circumstances were harder, maybe, but not because of anything he had done.

Chadwick could understand Ann's desire to help him—he could understand why she'd wanted him at Laurel Heights. But he wondered if Ann had done Race any favors—if Asa Hunter wasn't right about the boy being corrupted by the girl, and not vice versa.

“Your grandmother said you saw too much,” Chadwick said. “What did she mean?”

“Nana don't know what she's saying, half the time.”

“If you want to talk,” Chadwick said, “if you want to get out of here, you want anything—call.”

He took out his business card. He kept it extended until Race took it.

The boy looked up, his eyes red, but the look of defiance was starting to re-form. “What's this Cold Springs place like?”

“Strict,” Chadwick said. “You go through levels, have to learn survival skills out in the woods. Learn a trade on the ranch. Most kids get their GED. Some get college credit.”

“Mallory out in the woods?” Race wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “I can't see that. Texas—I thought that was like desert.”

“Not this part. Green and hilly. There's a river. Rainy and cold this time of year.”

Race seemed to be imagining it, stretching his mind around a new alien planet.

“Keep the card,” Chadwick said. “Call me.”

Race glanced at Jones. “Whatever, man. Fuck you, anyway.”

But Race called them before they got to the door. “Hey, Chadwick. You asked why Samuel didn't come after you? Ask yourself what would hurt you worse than leaving you the way you were, okay? See how gifted you are.”

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