She’s waiting in front of the store, a large African American woman, mature, perhaps in her mid-fifties. Her ample figure is draped in a long skirt and flowing caftan, a symphony of muted tones in violet and spring green. Her heart-shaped face is a mellow shade of cocoa, making her a beauty if it weren’t for the gaunt and haggard eyes.
"Jo Epstein?" I nod. "I’m Shondrea Johnson. I need to talk to you. My son has got himself into some deep trouble.”
“Who referred you to me?”
“Tony Sanchez. He said you were a godsend.”
It's two years plus since I got Tommy Sanchez off the hook. Still, they find me – the ones with brothers, sons, nephews, who swear they’re innocent, no matter how damning the evidence.
She watches me as I unlock the door and then follows me inside. “If you would just give me a few minutes of your time, I’m sure you’d find a way to help. Or at least tell me what you think I should do next." She’s not going to be an easy brush off.
I hit the light switch, and Ted’s West Side News illuminates in red neon, bathing the front shelves inside the store, as well as the drab facades of the adjoining brownstones. Opening the register, I count the cash. Happily, it matches Ted’s reconciliation from last night.
I’d like to tell this anxious woman that I’m retired, that nowadays when I can’t sleep it’s because I’m reading a mystery, not solving one. But my dream of supporting my writing habit by working part-time is rapidly dissolving, along with the proceeds from the sale of my agency in Los Angeles.
“What’s your son’s name?”
“Gabriel, Gabriel Johnson,” she says, and the story floods out. "He’s a photographer. Last week he got a phone call, somebody wanting a print. Gabe went up to the Bronx and made the sale, but on his way back, he was jumped in broad daylight by some hoods, just three blocks from the subway. He said that he was tryin’ to disarm the one who had the knife. He said that what happened was an accident. The police didn’t believe him, but they should have. Because he didn’t run away. He waited for them so he could tell his own side of the story. Didn’t make any difference. They charged him with manslaughter, when his only crime was defending himself. That's not right, is it?"
These last words bring on the tears, and I hand her a tissue from the box I keep near the register. "Do you know who called about the photograph?"
Mrs. Johnson wipes her eyes while she scans her memory. “I answered the phone and gave it to Gabe. It wasn’t a familiar voice and later Gabe wouldn’t tell me who it was. Said I was better off not knowing. That got my curiosity up, like I told the police, and that’s why I remembered the call. But when I went to the station to make a statement, I could tell they thought I was covering up, telling lies to protect my boy. Please, you’ve got to help me find out what happened. Gabe needs someone to take his side."
“Look, Mrs. Johnson, I’ll be honest. You should go with someone who has better contacts in the Police Department. I could give you a few names.”
She looks around the newsstand with a disparaging frown. “Woman, from what I’ve heard you’re a competent professional. Why are you working here?”
It’s a long story and none of her business, but she does have a point. “Has your son been in trouble before?"
“Just once – last year, when Sean was staying with us. Sean’s a street kid, a runaway, and Gabriel brought him home. He does things like that. One night the two of them went to a party and the next thing I know Gabe's calling me from jail. He said he was gonna leave – it was getting too wild – but then the police broke down the door, and it was too late. They arrested everyone. Gabe had a small bag of cocaine in his shirt pocket, but he swore he wasn’t using. Said Sean bought the drugs at the party and insisted on a two-way split. Wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“So your son has done time before.”
“No, he hasn’t – but that’s only because Silas Harding came on as our attorney. Because of him, Gabe got a six month suspended sentence, with the one condition that he go to rehab, upstate. When he came home, he went to New Beginnings, a re-entry program downtown, and they were the ones who convinced him he could turn professional and sell his photographs. Gabe was doing fine right up until that phone call came.”
These last words are accompanied by direct eye contact, and I get the message. All those years spent trying to keep her son out of trouble and now he’s headed down the tubes.
“Tell you what, Mrs. Johnson. I’ve gotta go to Rikers Island tomorrow to deliver some books. While I’m there, I’ll have a talk with your son. I charge three hundred bucks a day plus expenses.”
She digs through her purse. "Take this as an advance. You’ll have to work quickly. The trial is set for September.”
The five hundred dollar check she presses into my palm seems to like it there. Maybe it has some friends that will help me cover the latest rise in my rent.
"No promises, Mrs. Johnson."
"Please, call me Shondrea. I'm not expecting any miracles, but to have someone looking out for my son, someone who knows the system, that's what I been prayin’ for.” She hands me a crumpled business card. “I've written my phone number and address on the back, as well as Mr. Harding’s private number. You can call us anytime." She leaves the store briskly and through the window, still a bit misty with spray from an afternoon shower, I watch her progress down the street, her shoulders a bit straighter than before.
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