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The Saturday night we found Giarca with his face peeled, I was walking a foot beat with Mulroney in the glitzy section of Georgetown along M Street. It was maybe eleven-thirty. The night was hot with the humid pollution-funk of Washington in June. Car exhaust and general city stink hung in the air like fetid syrup, an olfactory background mixed with pizza smells, wine-soaked breath, frying steaks and occasional sour armpits. Urban plankton thronged the Strip: yups in government jobs they hadn't yet learned to hate, tourists having a Washington Experience, teenagers agog with the sophistication of it all and the absence of their parents.. Black punks from southeast strutted in running shoes and ghetto-bag trousers falling around their ankles in pools of denim. Derelicts worked scams or wrestled with private dementias, Marines from Henderson Hall posed with burr haircuts and triceps flapping like wattles. Traffic was ghastly. Cars ooched along, horns honking. Young male drivers ragged each other, feeling bad-ass with beer and summer, leaning on the horn a bit too long, gauging just how far they wanted to push it.
"Lotsa shitheads out here," said Mulroney. He was a nondescript cop in his mid-forties I'd worked with before and liked. He had a sharp face, alert, almost ferret-like, with hair going gray and a pasty complexion from a cop’s diet of doughnuts, Seven-Eleven coffee, and Italian hoagies. "Plenty of shitheads. We'll get action. Soon's the bars close. I can smell it."
I said, "Yeah. Something grotesque and unspeakable, I hope. Maybe we could kill somebody and I could write about it." I was a police reporter. I thrived on blasted cityscapes and moral carrion.
"Ammo's twenty cents a round. See anybody worth it?"
Mulroney was a tad cynical. Cops got that way. It wasn't something mystery writers made up. There was a limit to how many kids with crushed heads they could see lying under bus tires, how many moaning derelicts in alleys with gangrenous feet from never taking off their shoes, how much unhappy, lying, hopeless, vicious humanity they could watch before life lost the sparkle of dew on the flower beds of morning.
Anyway, Giarca. We weren't thinking about Giarca quite yet because we had never heard of him. Mulroney hadn’t, anyway. The bums and crazies were out in force, which was what led to it. We squeezed our way through garish lights and alcohol-induced elation. At the corner of Wisconsin and M a ragged black guy with a saxophone lunged forward in a gleam of brass and wawnkahawnkaed the theme from Sesame Street, the only tune he knew. His eyes opened wide with mockery and sought the eye contact with passersby that might lead to spare change being dropped in his cup. We walked a few blocks farther, crossed, crossed M Street, and started back toward Key Bridge.
"I can't figure it," Mulroney was saying of his daughter as we edged through the mob down the south side of M, past tiney restaurants with pre-fab ambiance intended to be European. When cops and reporters spent eight hours together, sooner or later they started to talk. "She just seems to hate me. You know? What did I do? Thirteen. She turns thirteen, and I'm the asshole of the world. She says she wants me to go away so she can live with her mother. Jesus."
We stopped for a moment in front of the Crazy Horse, a loud disco club catering to a young and downscale clientele who dressed like the contents of a dumpster. The bouncer was a hugely muscled young black guy in a tee shirt. He was shooting the breeze with a couple of fourteen-year-old suburban white girls all excited to be talking to a genuine black guy. He knew it and flirted genially with them. At fourteen they reminded me of cheap lawn furniture, all angles and joints and not enough padding.
"She'll get over it," I said, not sure whether she would get over it.
"You wouldn't think it to listen to her."
From inside came the hostile thumpathumpa of rap. The rhythm pounded along beneath an electronically generated band-track with enough high frequencies to cook a bat. The lyrics consisted mostly of endless repetitions of, "Gotta beat that bitch with a bat, gotta beat...." Anger ran in the streets like invisible water. A lot of it came from black males who had discovered that they were unnecessary.
"Beats me, Mike. Who understands kids?" I said, not wanting to get involved in his family troubles. I suspected Mara hated him, or thought she did, because he brought home too much frustration from the job, maybe laid on the discipline a bit too heavily. Like I said, cops burn out. There was only so much Maalox in the world.
That's when it began.
A cracked female voice cawed over the chatter and traffic noise, rising and falling in exaggerated inflection. "Ohhhh, It's Officer Mulroney, isn't it? Come to watch me for them, eh? Watch me. Because I know. Don't I?"
It was Mama Cass, as they called her on the street, one of the strip's fixture loons. I hadn't noticed her. Mama was a paranoid schizophrenic who sat all day and most of the night on the sidewalks, surrounded by signs saying that space aliens and the CIA killed her nephew. In summer she lived in a pile of cardboard boxes under the bridge over the canal on Wisconsin. When society emptied the nut hatches some years back to save money, the city got lots more interesting. She was old or at least looked it, and usually squatted against a storefront in a pile of Glad bags. They contained god knew what mementos of a decayed life. I wouldn't have touched them without rubber gloves. Or with rubber gloves.
"Evening, Mama," said Mulroney. It wasn't illegal to be crazy. Cops had to live with the street life.
Bright eyes with nothing behind them stared craftily up from the sagging weathered face, the face of a desert squaw who got on a bus to Washington by mistake. The painted wooden sign leaning next to her said, "Space Aliens Talk To Our Brains. Elvis and Jimmy Hoffa."
No, I didn't know. Probably she didn't know.
"That's why they killed him," she said. She said things like that. "It's their transmitters. Yes, their transmitters. Now he's underwater. But he still looks up, looks up. Watching. No arms, though."
Mulroney wasn't stupid, and he had been on the street a long time. He perked up just visibly. Even I was curious. It wasn't her usual story, which was that her nephew, whose name she wouldn't tell anyone because it was classified, was kidnapped by space aliens and taken to a CIA base on Mars. She was no crazier than a dozen others I knew. Like the guy who lived under a bench on the Mall and insisted he was waiting to try a case before the Supreme Court. Or the woman who said she was a secret agent for the Trash Police, which didn’t exist, and kept going into office buildings and turning off the lights. When she stole a set of pole-climbers from a maintenance truck belonging to the power company and started up a high-tension pole to help the repairman, the cops had a reason to take her in. We stopped talking for a moment as the entire senior class of Tuskaweegee High swept past us in a chattering wave. They all wore red-and-white jackets that said, "Tuskaweegee Eagles, Tuskaweegee, Tennessee."
"Kiss my ayess," hollered a blond sweetie of the southland to her boyfriend.
"Dootchure own self," responded her swain.
"I ain't that flexible, Bobby Lou," she said. The swarm vanished.
"What water, Mama? Who's in it?" Mama lived under the bridge over the canal on Wisconsin. "The transmitters. You want to put one in my brain, too, don't you? But I'm too smart. No arms, though."
And that was all we could get out of her. Interrogating a paranoid schizophrenic wasn't as easy as you might think.
"Let's take a walk," said Mulroney.
"To the bridge?"
"OK, I'm crazy. Yeah, to the bridge."
"Think there's something there?
The old Chesapeake and Ohio canal ran along the bottom of Georgetown, between M and Water Street, where a few high-end joints like the River Club catered to lobbyists and expensive lawyers who wanted to duck the crowds. Mulroney led the way in silence. He didn't want to be kidded about looking for victims of space aliens. But he was curious.
The arched bridge with decorative iron railings crossed over the canal just past a sex shop selling hand cuffs and implausible neoprene dildos for the suburban adventurous. A wooden rail kept drunks from falling into the water, and tried to look quaint in a neighborhood that was trying too hard to look quaint. Stone stairs down to the deserted darkness of the canal path. We descended.
"Are we really doing this?" I asked.
"Only if we find something. Otherwise we aren't doing anything."
The path was narrow on the city side of the canal. We walked in silence. A high stone wall like part of a medieval castle rose high overhead. It was dark as a lawyer's intentions and the sand crunched under our feet. Mulroney pulled out his flashlight and played a feeble beam over the weed-choked water. Nothing, just a few condoms and beer bottles waiting to sink. When he shined it along the wooden canal-lock under the bridge, I knew why the man the space aliens had killed didn't have any arms.
They were floating against the bank.. In the sleeves of a suit.
So much for the piano career.
"Jesus!" said Mulroney.
"Probably not. Damn, Mama's not as crazy as she looks."
"Yeah she is. Where's the rest of this guy?" He was reaching for his radio.
The rest of the guy was worse, much worse. We found him floating just underwater, face-up, twenty feet further along the canal. Except he didn't have a face. Somebody--or something--had peeled him like a nectarine. The flashlight barely illuminated a red glob streaming little tendrils of clotted blood, with wide horrified eyes staring like egg whites with pupils. I guessed that people had a tendency to stare when they didn’t have eyelids.
"Christ Almighty," said Mulroney, who now had the radio and flashlight in one hand and his service Glock in the other. Whoever croaked this guy probably wasn't anywhere nearby, but "probably" didn't seem quite good enough.
Sirens, lots of them, began to play in the distance.