The Mothership Connection (4)

Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this story about an empty grave found in an under-construction Beltline where we try to ascertain whether I can write a compelling story with hip-hop as the background. We just found out there was a kid with a “gang tag” doing his homework in the car the night of the pot festival:

“Christopher,” said the old lady, “is my pride and joy. He knows not to smoke that weed and mess up his mind; he’s the only kid in Pittsburgh who has a future. And I don’t know who he’d run with here; he goes to the magnet school down by the airport. I’d have known he was going to a dope festival, I’d have kept the keys. He told me he had a chance to do some rhyming on stage, so I let him go. He loves him some poetry. You see, his papa was in the game, one of the original Pirate Mafia. Used to do security at their shows before he got gunned down. My other son is doing life for what them Bankhead boys came down on him for, but he’s up for parole in thirteen more years. Christopher saw Big Daddy Jay all kinds of times when he was a little boy.”

She steeled herself, gripped her walker, stood. “You can probably see why I want to keep him away from that life, and also why he wants to write about it. To him, it’s all memories of good times.” She sighed. “Pirates, they look good in the movies, but that ain’t reality.” She led them to the back door, carefully unlocked all three deadbolts, opened the door, unlocked the heavy steel grill that was the screen door, opened it. The perfect lawn was tiny and neat, and ran up to a small embankment.

Diana pointed. “That’s the Beltline, running behind your house?”

“That’s what they tell me. I’ll believe it gets to this neighborhood when I see it.”

The car was under a vinyl cover. Mustapha peeled it back, cupped his hands, looked in the driver’s side window. “Clean as a whistle.”

“Well, it better be,” said the old woman. “I told him he borrows it, he has to bring it back cleaner than he found it.” She handed Diana the keys. “It better not smell like weed smoke.”

“Smells like it’s been washed,” said Mustapha.

Diana popped the passenger door, put her head in. “Smells like it’s been detailed.”

“Who the hell details cars on a Saturday morning?”

“Neighborhood this poor, people are entrepreneurial. Better question: why would someone detail a car on a Saturday morning?” She stood up. “Ms. Jones, when did Christopher come in this morning?”

“Now that I can’t say. I sleep with earplugs.”

Mustapha pointed over the chain-link fence. “Maybe the neighbors will know.”

The old lady shook her head. “Ain’t nobody there. All those houses been boarded up for years, now.”

“Yeah? Then how come the garden plot is all freshly turned over?”

She took a pair of glasses from the pocket of her housecoat, held them up to her eyes, raised her eyebrows. “Now that I really can’t say. Maybe they’re going to grow them some weed. Or maybe some vegetables, sell them to all those people gonna ride their bicycles down that Beltline any day now.”

On the way back out, Mustapha scratched the address of the house next door in his notepad. “We get back, let’s look up the owners; nobody is going to give us exigent circumstances on a five-year-old corpse.”

Diana held up her tablet, started recording video, then spun slowly, taking in a panorama that ended on Mustapha. “I’d do it now, but,”

“Yeah. The records people won’t let you do it remotely. Ha: you think I don’t listen.”

“I was going to say that cell reception is terrible here.”

“What? In an up and coming neighborhood like this?” He spun around to do his own panorama of a down-and-out hood that had never quite climbed out of the ghetto. Diana pointed behind Ms. Jones’s house. “She’s right, though: if the Beltline gets finished, this neighborhood really will come up.”

“Yeah. White hipsters with expensive strollers are going to wreck the ambience, though.” They drove down the street and pulled onto McDaniel Street, which had been roped off with police barricades. Down the street, a truck-mounted soundstage was being set up, with a range of corporate vendor tents around it: cheap mobile phones, shoes, clothes, brightly-colored energy drinks whose names Diana knew she’d probably mispronounce. Around this were local entrepreneurs: guys with coolers full of soft drinks, the ubiquitous Sock Man. Sooner or later, there was going to be a guy selling meat out of a car trunk full of ice. Or seafood, two hundred miles from the nearest port.

The sergeant came trundling over. “Homicide in the house. Y’all are too early: no one’s got their drink on enough yet.”

“Hey, Lucas,” said Mustapha. “We’re trying to track down a missing corpse. What’s going on?”

“Big Daddy Jay, making his triumphant return to his old neighborhood. Going to throw out three or four rhymes, give away a few T-shirts, make the peeps listen to his stable of rappers. Y’all wasting your time hanging out here: this is party hip-hop, with maybe just enough artificial gangsta flava to pretend to keep it real.”

Mustapha said, “But this Daddy character, he’s from here?”

“Man, don’t you follow the news?”

“Fuck me, I only listen to classic rock.”

“I’m just funnin’ you; this shit makes me feel white. I only like classic soul, but you work in this hood a few years, you’ll pick it up. Daddy Jay is more of a producer, now: where the real money is. Now, back in the day, he was one-third of the New Pirate Mafia, and they was gangsta. Sort of. They broke up, he moved up to New York, started collecting younger rappers.”

“And now he’s back here, helping his old neighborhood.”

“Selling records, more like. He was in jail up there, just got out, is why he’s touring.”

Diana asked, “What was he in for?”

“Brought a gun to a Mets game? Something like that. He met some rapper in jail, got him all set up, trying to make him big.”

Diana said, “Sergeant, do us a favor?” She flipped through her tablet, showed him Christopher’s DMV photo. “This kid might get five minutes on stage. You see him up there, pay special attention.”

“That boy’s too young and pretty to be making corpses go missing.”

“That’s just what we’re hoping.”

Now we get some hip-hop in the mix. But it’s all from a decade before, which is what I think enables me to write about it and make it reasonably compelling.