A little black girl skipped along a trail in a small lot crowded with pecan trees and underbrush, skipping and singing songs that only little girls sing.
A white man stepped from behind a tree and squatted in front of her.
She came to a standstill, backed up a step, and adjusted the straps of her backpack filled with schoolbooks. “My momma told me I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” she said.
“And I’ll bet she told you not to take this shortcut home,” the white man replied. He slipped an envelope from his shirt pocket, held it out to her, and said, “I have something to give your momma.”
She stared at his nicotine stained fingernails, dense blades pinching the envelope between them. She held out her hand to take it.
He wrapped his hand around her wrist and squeezed. A smile split thin lips to reveal gray gums compacted with tiny, yellow teeth. He said, “Tell your momma I said you shouldn’t take this shortcut again. It wouldn’t be safe.”
She focused on those teeth. They were sharp, as if they’d been filed.
The white man released her, stood, and disappeared into the trees.
The little girl ran along the trail and burst from the lot like a spit seed. Across a narrow street was a row of shotgun houses. She ran passed them, deeper into the neighborhood, until she came to her mother’s building, the last three-story structure in Freedmen’s Town, with a café on the first floor, their home on the second, and empty rooms for rent on the third. She found her mother in the café, and with a trembling hand gave her the envelope.
Nadine Maye sat at the kitchen table and stared at neatly
arranged canned goods in the cupboards, waiting. She heard heavy footsteps on the metal stairway bolted to the outside of the building, followed by a gentle knock on the door. Quickly she opened it.
The man standing there was as wide and tall as the doorframe. His weight threatened to rip the stairway from the building. He wore black denim pants and shirt, and on his feet were black, eel-skin cowboy boots. His head was shaved and glowed with a purplish sheen.
Hallelujah Batts said, “You been axing ‘round for me?”
Nadine led him to the kitchen table and they sat across from one another. She related her daughter’s confrontation by the white man, then pushed the contents of the envelope across the table.
Batts flicked his eyes to what she was showing him. A faded newspaper article detailed an account of the police finding a young girl’s bones in a field outside Houston, a hole in her skull put there by what appeared to be human teeth marks, perpetrator unknown.
Batts’ expression turned hard. He flicked his eyes back to Nadine’s, and said, “What you want me to do?”
“Can you watch over her, just until we get organized enough to ¾”
“She now cast a big shadow.”
Nadine’s body sagged with relief. “I can take her to school.”
“I do that.”
“Hal, I can’t expect you to ¾”
“I said I do that. I pick her up after. I hang close at night. Won’t stop ‘til she safe.” He flicked his eyes to the ceiling. “Might be good idea I stay upstairs.”
“Okay, but I don’t expect you to do this for nothing. I’ll pay you —.”
“Must be somebody else in the room.”
“‘Cause you ain’t paying me.”
“Heard you doing good deeds for Freedmen’s. Been wanting to help. I take care of May Maye. Call it a donation. You got any idea who send this white man?”
She shook her head. “It has to be someone buying up the property around here for pennies on the dollar and knows I’m fighting it. I have most the remaining residents banded together, and we have a City Councilman backing a moratorium on development in here while we see if we can get it declared a State historical site. That way, we can. . .” She shook her head again. “I’ve looked into the identity of the buyers. They’re all corporations with different addresses, no common thread to any of them, no identifiable person’s name.”
“Got to be one of ‘em.”
“I agree. I don’t think it’s some crazy man picking my baby at random. No. It’s a message.”
Batts stood and said, “I be sending him a message back.”
Early the next morning, in one of the upstairs bedrooms, Batts sat on a chair next to the door, waiting. He wore a black long-sleeved T-shirt, starched blue jeans, and his eel-skin boots. He thought about how Freedmen’s Town was once ten times its size now, back in the forties, the restaurants, the jazz spots, the mom and pop businesses, all established by freed slaves after the Civil War. Houston’s all-white City Council didn’t like that, declared eminent domain, and just took it.
And now somebody else was taking what was left.
Suddenly he jerked the door open.
The startled teenager who was about to knock said, “How you know I was here, Mister Batts?”
Batts didn’t reply, ushered him from the hallway into the bedroom and told him of the white man’s threat.
The teenager said, “Who this mouth-breather be?” Talking tough, wanting Batts’ approval, his tough talk belied by his being lead tenor for his a capella group, hoping for the big time.
“Don’t know, Tim,” he said, “but I need a posse set up ‘round May Maye’s school. Get your singing group, watch it from when I drop her off to when I pick her up.” He handed Tim a cell phone. “Keep this wit’ you. You see someone look like this white man, punch this button. It set for my phone. Start this morning. You got two hours to set up.”
After Tim left, Batts waited two hours, went downstairs and knocked on Nadine’s door.
She was waiting on the other side sporting a new dress. She wasn’t sure why she chose it that morning, but she did, deliberately. She wondered at that as she opened the door and stepped outside.
May Maye followed behind her, ready for school and secure in the knowledge Hallelujah Batts was her guardian angel. He was so fierce looking, but she’d been told his smile was oh so wide and filled with big white teeth stacked in there like whale bones. She hoped one day to see it.
Nadine hugged her daughter and said, “When Hal’s with you, his words are the same as mine.”
“Yes ma’am,” she answered with a wide grin.
Batts told Nadine about Tim’s posse and said, “After I take her to school, I be out poking around. Then I pick her up. Let’s ride, May Maye.
Nadine watched Batts carry her daughter through the door on his shoulders and prayed it wouldn’t be the last time she saw her.
Batts dropped off May Maye and drove to the Ironworker’s Union Hall. The Ironworker’s key trustee, George Plate, waited for Batts in his small office at the rear. His face was like his name, flat as a plate and wide, his nose mashed close to his face by one too many fists, his skin as thick and black as Batts’.
Batts sat on a metal chair in the front of the desk.
Plate said, “’Bout time you showed up. I was fixing to come see you, see if you still alive.”
Batts related what was going on in Freedmen’s Town and said, “Came by to see if you been hearing something.”
Plate thumbed a few papers on his desk with a thumb the size of a ballpeen hammer and said, “You finally doing something ‘bout that jones you been hauling ‘round for Nadine? Her husband been dead eight years. It be all right you make a move.”
Batts said nothing.
Plate looked at a framed photograph of his family sitting on the desk’s corner. “Wife saved me from things I don’t think about no more. Hope things work out for you. Now, what I been hearing is some developer out beating the ground for some project downtown. Don’t have much more than that. And rumor is it’s in Freedmen’s Town. That’s why I was fixing to come see you, let you know. Maybe it’s just that. Rumor, I mean.”
“No rumor, George. Who rich enough to pull off something like this?”
“That’d be Poth DeMard or Greg Munch. Got their business and home addresses right here.”
Batts parked in the Transco Tower’s underground parking facility. Munch’s office was on the sixty-second floor, the top one. Batts took the express elevator.
The receptionist’s desk had a sign that said, “Return in ten minutes. Please have a seat.” Batts ignored it and walked down a long hallway to a set of mahogany double doors that went to the ceiling, disregarded the anxious-looking woman approaching him, and pushed through the doors.
On the far side, across invisible waves of designer cologne wafting about the room, sat Munch behind a glass desk in the corner. He was in his late thirties, dressed like an Armani manikin, with a ridge of hair combed out over his forehead to a sharp edge. The face below looked as if it belonged to a man who just stepped out of a peep show.
Batts sat in a chair before the desk and said, “You know Nadine Maye?”
“I know who she is,” he said, acting as if large, contentious-looking men barged into his office every day. “But I’ve never met her in any sort of business or social environment.”
“Don’t mingle with poor folk, huh? Except when you stealing land?”
“I beg your pardon, sir. I’ll have you know that I’m prepared to offer a substantial amount for anyone’s property in Freedmen’s Town who chooses to sell it.”
“And you know this. I’m Batts, Hallelujah Batts. I be watching what you do in Freedmen’s Town.”
“You mean this intimidation routine of yours is about trying to buy property? You’re crazy.”
“Been told that. You say ‘trying?’”
“I’ve been trying for some time, but someone always beats me to it.”
Munch threw up his arms. “A vast right-wing conspiracy, someone abused as a child. How should I know?” His eyes turned sly. “I’ll be glad to pay you well to find out for me.”
Batts stood and gave Munch a blank stare, turned and left the office.
He drove to Tanglewood and parked in the driveway of Greg Munch’s house, a three-story mansion built of solid red brick with white trim. He rang the doorbell, and within a few seconds Grace Munch opened the door.
Batts was surprised not only that she opened the door, but that she married Greg Munch. Her age was beyond the inattention of youth and her carriage said was born full-grown and sophisticated. She turned abruptly and motioned for him to follow, saying, “I’ve been expecting you, Mister Batts.”
She lead him through rooms with spare, obscenely expensive furnishings. Furniture wax permeated the air along with a slightly sweet odor.
She stopped at a glass-walled room that jutted off the back of the house. In it was one sofa facing another. Outside the glass was a swimming pool that shimmered like liquid turquoise, untouched by a living body. She sat on a sofa and motioned for him to sit on the facing one.
Batts broke the ensuing silence with, “Don’t believe we met, Mrs. Munch.”
“No, we haven’t.”
Batts waited for her to continue, but when she didn’t, said, “Reason I’m here¾”
“The reason you’re here is that you are trying to help Nadine Maye block any developer from taking over Freedmen’s Town.”
“Opportunity for me in Freedmen’s Town beside playing bodyguard.”
“And what might that opportunity be?”
“You tell me.”
“You’re fishing, Mister Batts.”
“Big pond, plenty room for more fishermen.”
“You mean fisherpersons, don’t you?”
“Whoever got a pole.”
“Is that a double entendre?”
“Don’t know what one of those is.”
“I’m sure. If you’re here to play me against my husband, you’re wasting your time. I don’t care one twit what that twit is doing.”
“Buying up Freedmen’s Town, what he doing.”
“I said I don’t care what he’s doing, not that I don’t know what he’s doing, or trying to do. Someone seems to be thwarting his efforts, something I find comical.”
Batts looked through the glass at the pool, then back at her. “Hear you rich enough for River Oaks or any place you wanna be.”
“Oh, I may be moving there soon,” she replied. “Tanglewood is for the nouveau riche, and Grace Munch is certainly not part of that crowd.”
“Mister Munch not moving with you?”
“You’re a careful listener, Mister Batts. This conversation is finished. You can find your way out, I’m sure.”
DeMard’s office building was a stand-alone, one-story structure, located next to Buffalo Bayou. A Rolls Royce was parked by the building’s entrance in a wide space reserved for Poth DeMard.
Batts parked next to it, entered the building, and told the receptionist that the Freedmen’s Town sanitation man was there to see DeMard.
Thirty minutes later, a small slender man with coarse gray hair and glasses thick as a banded stack of money appeared and said, “Please follow me to my office, Mister Batts.”
The office had so much leather, it smelled like a saddle. They sat on leather sofas across from one another.
Batts said, “You know my name how?”
“Surely you can deduce how, Mister Batts.”
“How sagacious of you,” he said. “Oh, please excuse my manners. Would you like something to drink? No? Then I hope you will permit me to say that I uncovered some rather interesting elements to your personality, Mister Batts, other than your name. Would you like to hear them?”
“I already know.”
“Yes. Yes, I suppose you do. Well, it appears your purpose in this visit is to determine my interest in Freedmen’s Town. But why are you interested?”
“You got competition.”
“Competition for what one attains is inevitable. Look at Microsoft. Are you here to offer a jolting left hook to my competition? I assure you I can reward you much more than Munch, if that contumely gentleman is your employer. His wife controls the real money, you see. And it’s my understanding that his sexual peccadilloes have earned him her disfavor and his business may be in trouble. Furthermore, my aims are more altruistic than his. Freedmen’s Town is filled with children. You do care about their future, don’t you, Mister Batts?”
Batts stood, leaned over and said, “And you better, too.”
Batts drove to DeMard’s house in River Oaks, turned into a driveway a hundred yards in length, and parked in front of a veranda six times longer than his Lexus. He got out and rattled a door knocker in the shape of elephant’s head.
A woman half DeMard’s age appeared and said, “Hello, I’m Sossi. You must be Mister Batts. My husband said he wouldn’t be surprised if you paid me a visit.”
“Yes, and I must say what he told me isn’t hyperbole. You are quiet an imposing sight.” She held out a hand. “Come, please. We can have tea in the tea room.”
Batts walked beside her. His footsteps echoed through the long hallways and massive rooms like gun shots. The air smelled vacant.
Sossi said, “Normally our butler answers the door but we gave him time off for doing such a good job. He’s such a dear.”
“Mine, too,” Batts said.
She led him into a room where a pot of tea was set in the center of a wooden coffee table flanked by four high-back chairs.
Batts ignored her breasts pouring from the top of her dress as she poured tea and leaned over the table to hand him the cup. He accepted it and said, “Need a tour guide, this
“Oh, we live only in certain rooms,” she said, flapping her hand over her shoulder in a dismissive motion. “The rest of them are for sundry guests or for entertaining. Do you do much entertaining in your home, Mister Batts?”
“I look entertaining to you?”
“That depends upon the category of entertaining you mean.” She sat her cup on the table, picked up a Danish from the tray, licked off the icing with a fully exposed tongue, and said, “This isn’t a social visit, is it?”
“If your husband tell you ‘bout me, why you think that?”
“There are all sorts of ways to conduct business, Mister Batts.” She fluttered her eyelashes at him.
“You saying you handle company business, not your husband?”
“Of course I do, silly. But I delegate most functions to Poth and reserve my time only for major decisions.”
“Like Freedmen’s Town?”
“Mister Batts, Freedmen’s Town is the last prime real estate that lends itself to Houston’s renaissance that’s bringing people to the inner city, now isn’t it? I mean, really, downtown Houston has been too long a place to work, not a place to live. We’re changing that, and we’re prepared to make ample offers for the resident’s land. Perhaps you can help in that area. Let’s adjourn to the smoking room and discuss this further.”
Batts stood, put his cup on the table, said, “Smoking’s stupid,” and left to her indignant, “Well, I never.”
Batts drove to Houston’s near east side and parked in front of Silky’s, a beer joint in a long, narrow building with white shingle siding that had long lost its white. No windows.
Batts walked through the door without looking at the men drinking in the gloom and pushed through the office door without knocking.
Silky was seated behind a desk with his feet up on it. He wore black, crocodile skin shoes with a matching belt. His black shirt and pants were raw silk. His skin was oily white, and his eyes were a startling dark brown, looming in contrast over prissy pink lips.
Batts stood in front of the desk and said, “Hear there be a hitter in town.”
Silky shrugged and looked bored.
Batts said, “You wanna get busted up now or you wanna quit playing like you nonchalant.”
“My good man,” Silky said, “the grapevine is indiscriminate. My ears hear the same thing your ears hear. The only dependable tidbit of information that’s come my way is that someone has been imported.”
“Getting impatient wit’ you.”
“Someone has been imported because no local hitter, including myself, was willing to take the contract.”
“It seems this contract included the possible hit upon a child.”
“And you don’t hit children, that right?”
“I maintain certain principles.”
“He make contact how?”
“I was contacted, my good man, by a note left in an envelope on the front door of my establishment. Before you ask, no one saw it delivered.”
“How you suppos’t to answer?”
“The note said to leave a green kerchief on the door if yes and I would receive further details, leave a red one if no. I left a red one. Silk, of course. And by the way, the offer was one million dollars. Per hit.”
Batts looked at him for a moment. “Maybe you do got principles,” he said. “You still got the note?”
“Temporarily.” Silky opened a desk drawer, withdrew an envelope, and tossed it across the desk.
Batts picked it up and examined it. Plain white, standard size envelope, the outside with Silky’s name in cut-out magazine letters. The same with the note itself. He tapped it against his nose, looked at Silky over its edge, and said, “I be taking this wit’ me.”
“Then I’ve been of help, which means you now owe me one.”
“I owe nobody nothing. But you need one, pass it by. I see if it meet with my principles.”
That evening, Batts told Nadine, “I know who it is,” and outlined his plan.
At midnight, Nadine waited at the kitchen table and felt as if she were an intruder in her own home, a stranger who bore no resemblance to the person who had always respected the law. Now here she was willingly strolling along outside it.
She heard a car park outside, then footsteps coming up the outside stairway. She thought of her daughter safely sequestered far away and steeled herself, stood at the door and opened it on the first knock.
A man with vacuous eyes stood there smiling and showing tiny, yellow teeth. Her body shuddered with the certainty that death had arisen from the abyss and found her.
He pushed her aside and said, “Hi, there! I’m Earl Dean Feemer.” He reached behind him and pulled someone forward by the hand. “Let me introduce my traveling companion, the amazing Grace Munch.”
He slammed the door shut, pulled a silenced .22 target pistol from under his shirt and quickly looked into the other rooms. Grace Munch stood by the kitchen counter, distaste on her flawlessly made-up face, staring at Nadine as if examining lice.
Feemer returned to the kitchen and pointed the .22 at Nadine with one hand and flicked a lighter to a Camel with the other hand. Smoke trailed through the hairs in his nostrils as he spoke with the cigarette dangling from his mouth. He said, “You’re a trusting person of your word, my dear, but we aren’t. We’re not here to buy your land as little Miss Amazing told you when you called. Too bad for you and your soon-to-be orphan.”
Grace Munch said, “All right, get to it. Let’s see how you’re going to make this look like a burglary.”
“This’ll be two mil, not one,” he said.
Her face turned into a grotesque mask and she snarled, “First you said threatening her daughter was all it would take. Then that Batts creature shows up and I still couldn’t buy the rest of Freedmen’s Town and bring that stinking Greg to his knees, watch him grovel and beg while I ruin him. Teach him to use my money for his little trollops. Now you ―”
“You’re not trying to bargain with me, are you?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then quit talking so I can get this done.” He reached for Nadine, but like a wild animal aware of any inappropriate sound, he turned to the doorway instead.
Batts came through it like a howitzer.
Feemer backed up and stumbled over a chair and fired wildly in Batts’ direction.
Before Feemer could straighten, Batts smacked the .22 out of his hand, grabbed him by the neck and lifted him off the floor high enough that Feemer’s legs dangled, held him at arms length, and with his thumb and fingers overlapped around Feemer’s neck, slowly tightened his squeeze.
Feemer’s fumy eyes bugged out, the whites of his eyes suffused with red, his tongue protruded like an obscene wad of flesh and pushed the Camel from his mouth. A gurgling
sound came from his throat, until he passed out.
Batts let go and Feemer dropped to the floor like a plumb line.
Grace Munch screamed, “Feemer made me do it. He was going to kill me if ¾”
Batts pointed an index finger at her, his eyes showing what he would do if she didn’t shut up.
She shut up.
Nadine didn’t move through the mere seconds it took for it to be over. She looked at Feemer on the floor, then back at Batts, saw the beginning of a blood stain on his shirt, and implored, “My God, are you hurt?”
Batts replied, “I be big-boned.”
Feemer and Grace Munch were jailed after the police questioned Batts. Within one hour, her lawyer claimed that she suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, that it was all part of a plan by Feemer to obtain the land and the billions it represented, that Feemer was hiding in her house when Batts was there, pointing a gun from behind a curtain at both of them.
The primary detective told Batts that if DNA evidence from the saliva on the envelope matched Grace or Feemer’s, then both had a state-paid vacation waiting at the Walls in Huntsville, if not a lethal injection should they tie Feemer to the girl’s bones, a cold case still open. Then he added with a wink that Feemer was already talking deal. And besides that, the Munch home didn’t have any curtains.
Nadine drove Batts home after picking up her daughter. As they ate breakfast together, a wild thought crossed her mind that if she married this man they would need a bigger bed.
She asked, “How were you so sure she was the one behind it?”
“I don’t get it.”
“Self love. Vanity.”
“You mean other than being put off by Grace Munch referring to herself in the third person, you could see that her vanity was so pathological she couldn’t simply divorce her
husband for cheating on her? You got all that in one visit to her house?”
“That envelope I told you ‘bout, one at Silky’s?
“Perfume on it. Half ounce, ten grand, special order by one person. Same sweet stink she had on when I was in her house.”
Nadine smiled and placed her hand on his, gently.
May Maye peeked around the edge of her bedroom door just as Batts looked at her mother’s hand, and there it was. His smile started with his eyes and spread down his cheeks
alongside his nose to the corners of his mouth and stretched out towards his ears, almost touching them, and the shiniest, whitest teeth in the world brightened the room.