A Mann's World
by Rick Beck
On The Case
"You in a better mood this morning, sir?" Mike asked Commander Brown, easing himself through the door expecting the usual early morning frontal assault.
"Yeah, and I'm sure you're going to ruin it."
"Here! I picked this up on the way in. I thought they might have something to say."
"Damn he's pretty, ain't he? I guess all those gay boys," he said, looking up over the top of his glasses to see Connell's reaction to the use of gay, "...want to get to know our undercover plant."
"I'm not believing this. You didn't tell me you people had a paper. The Gay Blade, Connell? Give me a break. I'm working hard to get on the right side of this thing but you don't expect me to take this seriously? This is a joke right? No one takes this seriously, do they?"
"You might if you read the front page. Every gay establishment in the city and some in Baltimore and points north will have this paper by tomorrow."
"It gets worse and worse," Commander Brown moaned, dropping his head to read the story and examine the half page picture of "Bobby" Mann. "He's a regular folk hero. He's got no chance of making it in this goddamn police department now. No one will work with him, Connell. He's a goddamn pin-up for all the goddamned queers in town. You got me into this thing. Get me out."
"Commander Brown, I'd consider it a personal favor if you could say gays in place of queers."
"Connell, you're testing my patience on this thing."
"No, sir, I'm testing your sincerity. I know you saved my ass and I should be eternally grateful, but what good is it if you don't respect my point of view?"
"Mike, you know I respect you. I've stuck my neck out on this because of you. I just don't have a death wish and that word is hard not to use. It's all they've ever been called."
"Then not in front of me, sir. That's all I'm asking."
"No, Connell, that's not all you're asking. It's never all. There's always something else."
"Mike, remind me now and again when I slip up and use the wrong word. It's not my intention to be a bigot."
"You had something to say about this…," Brown continued, waving the paper. "Please feel free to give me a reason not to slash my wrists."
"They only publish on Thursdays? We have another week before they can print anything else."
"That's not what I was looking for. I've taken a perfectly good police cadet and turned him into the darling of the gay set. It ain't going to play well at headquarters once they find it out. How can things get so complicated?"
"Well I don't guess we have anything to lose by leaving him out there so let's go with what we have. The damage has been done. How do we make the best of it?"
"Yeah, well, slap me a couple of times because I don't see it, son. How do I get his damn face off the front of the newspapers?"
"The Post hasn't followed up. Catch the Strangler by next Wednesday and the Gay Blade will gladly put that on the front page with special appreciation for you personally."
Commander Brown threw the paper at the door and waved Connell out of his office. He was in no mood for further discussion.
"Connell," the intercom blurted, "Get Mann in here."
"Looks worse," Connell said, as Mann appeared coming up the stairs. "How do you feel?"
"Not bad. It's just a bruise."
"You can say that again. Go on back but keep your distance, I've already pissed him off about all he can handle."
"Thanks a lot for the favor. He's a regular grizzly bear."
"Hell, you ought to see him when he's in a bad mood," Connell said as Robert looked back over his shoulder at him as he headed down the hall.
"Damn! That hurt, son?" Commander Brown asked as he came through the door.
"Not much," Robert said.
"Hurts me to look at it. Sit down. I'm trying to figure out what to do with you."
"Yes, sir. I thought my usefulness might have come to an end. I didn't mean to screw it up."
"You mean because of the papers? Oh, we can work around that. You are something of a celebrity among the gay boys."
"Yes, sir. I'm afraid so."
"I guess. I never thought it would be noticed. I was just doing it to fit in better. The other thing just happened and then all of this."
"Yeah, things happen for no reason some times. I know what you're saying, Mann. When I was a boy, there was this kid named Clarence Pratt. He was just another kid. I been thinking about him just now. We went to the same school. Swam in the same mud hole. Hell, we both dated Prissy Baker as I recall. She had legs that went from here to…."
"Is this going to be another story like the one about your desk? I'm really not in the mood, Commander," Robert said with a touch of insubordination.
Commander Brown swung forward in his seat, folding his hands together in front of him and staring at the alarmed Robert Mann.
"By god your entire future lies in these big black hands of mine. I'm the one that asked for you and I'll by god be the one that decides when I'm finished with you. You understand me, boy?"
"Yes, sir. I didn't mean any disrespect, sir."
"Not what I'm seeing, Mann. You're full of disrespect. Police work isn't a pick and choose kind of deal. You don't like the job, move on down the road. Don't interrupt me when I'm telling you something. You understand me?"
"Yes, sir," Robert said, thinking he should have taken Connell's warning more seriously.
"In spite of everything you know, I suspect there are still some things you have to learn, son," Command Brown's voice softened as he settled back into his chair.
"Where was I? Oh yeah, we both dated Prissy. She was a long slim girl with pigtails and bows and a dazzling smile," Commander Brown leaned back as he spoke from a distance. "Prissy was my first love."
"Clarence wasn't a particularly bright boy, and we certainly had no love for each other then, but that ain't the story I'm telling. You see, Clarence got himself hung down on the town square. They say he was dallying with a white girl. Someone had seen them together or said they did. Just talking and walking, maybe he held her hand, maybe he didn't do anything. That's the kind of time it was down there."
"Clarence was dumb enough to think some little white girl would like him even if he was a nigger. It didn't take much to get things in motion where we were from. Not when that something was black and white. They took Clarence out of his bed one night. His mama cried, beggin' for her little boy's life, but they hung him anyway. Fear and intimidation was what they used to keep us in our place, you see."
"They weren't really hanging Clarence, they were hanging all of us in a way. There was no one arrested. Hell, I don't recall there ever being an investigation. Everyone knew who done it. No one dared say it out loud, none of us anyway, but we knew, and we knew to keep our distance from the white girls."
"That's when I knew I'd get out of there. That's when I knew how dangerous life can get when people hate you, even when they hate you for something that's none of your doing. Don't matter none because hate is its own reason for killing."
"The rope was still up that tree when I walked up to town with my little sister the day they hung him. It had been cut to get his body out of the tree before the noonday sun ripened him up. Wouldn't do to offend the nostrils of respectable white folks, you know. There was a slight breeze that held the rope out at a strange angle as we stood there trying to understand why they'd done that to Clarence. Kids are like that. We were told they had performed surgery on him before hand."
"I won't describe what white men did to niggers down there. Pretty much whatever they wanted back then. The fact there was never an arrest or even the appearance that someone cared about a boy being murdered, well, it's the way it was, but I never forgot it."
"So, you see, when someone in my town, the town I'm responsible for, starts killing people that other people hate, I think of Clarence and how nothing was ever done for him. I'll do what it takes to get this guy, and Officer Mann, that's why you're still here, because I think you are what it will take. It's our job to do all we can without giving any thought to how we feel about the victims, or how they lived, or what they ate, or how they dressed. That isn't our job. Keeping them alive is. This is just a part of something else," he said, holding up the paper with the picture."
"Damn!" Robert said, touching the side of his face and feeling queasy. "I heard of lynching but I never knew anyone…."
"Mann, how's that bruise? Looks plum nasty."
"I've had worse."
"Why did he need to do that to you? Was there cause or not? Could he say he had some reasonable justification for hitting you?"
"Commander, I was a bit occupied when the guy showed up. I don't know who hit me. I suppose he must have had a reason. I don't want to hurt a cop. What's done is done. I'm fine."
"I suppose the guys who hung Clarence had a reason."
"There is no reason for that, sir."
"They identify themselves as cops?"
"I don't know."
"I've talked to him. Some say he did. Some say he didn't. Some say he did and hit you at the same time. There's no clear picture."
"I have no beef, sir. This will heal."
"That's admirable. I'm glad you don't hold a grudge."
"Now you know how my other detectives think, so I don't want to hear about your sensibilities being damaged because I've asked you to hang around some... gay men. They're people, Mann. They're no longer criminals. They get the same protection as every other citizen. You understand where I'm going here or do I need to tell more stories?"
"Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir. Yes, I understand. No, no more stories."
"You play your cards correctly and you'll have some help on the backside of this deal, boy. You fuck up again and you're history. I'll make that happen. Me, I'd go for the help every time, but you young guys all have minds of your own. One thing's for sure, I don't want you a kissin' on my big black ass while we're going down the porcelain fixture over this thing. I started it and now I aim to finish it. So, you best get your act together before you walk out of here. After all this press, no one else is going to want you in their precinct house anyway."
"I really am fine, sir. You can tell that to the cop who hit me."
"No, we won't be discussing you with him. We'll put this little bump in the road behind us. Circulate when you feel up to it. Connell will keep you posted. I got work to do. We'll go back to meeting elsewhere. Get back to your… Bobby character and circulate. Let the gay boys handle their own fights from here on out. Low profile. Get outta here."
Phil's phone call woke Robert late in the afternoon. He'd applied ice to the side of his throbbing head and fallen asleep on the couch watching "Search For Tomorrow."
"How's the face?"
"Oh, it's still there."
"Come up for drinks later. I'll buy . My piano hasn't been the same since you left it."
"Make it nine. It shouldn't be too crowded tonight."
Robert showered and used alcohol and more ice on the bruise. He splashed on Brute, donned his new slacks and added a flannel shirt. It was cooling down and he didn't want to carry a jacket. He left his car parked in front of the apartment and walked up to the corner and to the Hubbard House so he could have a quiet dinner and perhaps look at Fran.
"Long time no see," she said, dropping the menu in front of him instead of handing it to him.
"I saw the Post. Bobby, why did you do that to me? I liked you."
"Do what? What are you talking about?"
"Lead me on. I don't want a guy that wants other… It's not fair. I haven't enjoyed being with anyone in a long time and you were perfect. I don't understand how you can be that way."
"I'm not, Fran. I'm fine. I want to see you. I've been busy."
"Yeah, me too. Would you like to order."
The rest of the meal went no better. Robert left feeling sick at his stomach. Fran went on break so another waitress took his money. He walked across Dupont Circle wondering if he wanted to stay involved. He could just stay on the streets and out of the bars, but then he'd only be doing a half-hearted job.
There was a steady stream of people going in and coming out of the alley that led to the Frat House entrance. He climbed the stairs as people giggled and laughed. These people seemed to have such a good time. Robert wanted to have a good time. He felt the bruise as it started to throb again.
When he broke through the doors into the bar, the crowd seemed the same. There were guys everywhere, white T-shirts against black lights with lava lamps doing their thing as glasses and bottles clanged.
There was space to walk for a change and he didn't have to elbow his way through to the piano bar. The crowd seemed to part as he moved through it. The restaurant was almost empty. Phil looked up and smiled when he saw him. At least someone was glad he was around.
When he got to the piano Phil stopped the flourish he was delicately nursing and started playing and singing "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow." Then other people were singing and crowding around the entryway to the restaurant. They all sang, and Robert Mann was adrift in a sea of admiration as they applauded him. He blushed and half looked at the pleased crowd and half looked at the floor, feeling quite small for all the things he'd thought and the nasty things he'd said.
The music stopped and Phil sat with his hands in his lap looking quite pleased with himself. "I told them you'd hate it but they made me do it. They aren't used to someone that will stand up and fight for them. You're a novelty."
"I guess I just don't understand," Robert said, sitting down to face Phil. No one else sat at the seats around the piano and Blue Cheer playing in the background would have drowned out any other sound as the crowd went back to rocking and rolling and getting bombed.
"How is it?"
"Your face. Looks horrible. Take off your glasses."
Robert looked around to make sure no one was paying attention. He pulled off the glasses and saw the alarm on Phil's face. He slipped the glasses back in place and decided he needed to get out of there.
"Just have a drink and you can go on your way."
There wasn't much conversation. Robert downed a draft then headed for the door. Before he made it half way the applause started anew. Robert blushed and tried not to meet anyone's eye. He still felt pretty small and the admiration of the crowded bar did nothing to make him feel any better about himself.
He drove to Southeast, parked and walked the blocks around the bars but was reluctant to go in. There were no contacts of note and no one looked like he could be the DC Strangler. In fact most of them looked far less frightening than Robert.
Seeing no one of interest, he decided to get a beer at the Plus 1. He didn't want to get into the scene at Johnny's. There was a steady step downward from the Frat House to the Plus 1 and finally to Johnny's. Each catered to a different crowd and Plus 1 was probably more his cup of tea while Johnny's was the bottom of the homosexual barrel.
He leaned on the bar and held the frosted glass against the bruise without removing the glasses that hid half of it. His hair covered some but his exposed cheek radiated a throbbing red, black, blue, and a host of other colors he couldn't identify.
"Haven't seen you before." The voice was husky. The man was in his thirties and wearing a heavy leather coat. He looked like he might have a motorcycle parked close. His beard and mustache were well trimmed and his gaze was persistent.
"I'm new," Robert said, drinking from the beer and curbing the urge to bolt. "You come here often?"
"Oh, now and then. I don't have a lot of time for queer bars." He turned his back to the bar, leaning on both elbows. He now looked at the other dozen or so patrons. The light was dim enough so no one could get a real good look at anyone else. Unlike Frat House, these patrons were guarded and seemed suspicious, standing with tight postures and a lot of space between each man. Every time the door opened all the heads turned to check out the new entrant into this derby of love. This was more what Bobby thought gay bars would be like. These were the men he thought he'd meet during his assignment.
"Oh yeah. Not so much during the week usually. I keep my bike in the garage during the week. I just needed some fresh air tonight."
"You live in town?"
"Oh no. Chevy Chase. I'm an attorney out there. Andrew Parkson at your service," he said, handing Robert his card. "If someone has injured you we can get you a settlement. You probably won't even need to go to court on it. No fee until we get you paid."
"Right!" Robert reached for the bruise and resisted the urge to feel it. It was impossible to see the card. He put it in his shirt pocket out of courtesy but he didn't look at the guy again.
"I can show you," Andrew said.
"Show me what?"
"My house. It's only fifteen minutes this time of night. That's on motorcycle. You like speed?"
"No thank you. I'm really not feeling all that well this evening."
"Keep the card. You can never tell when it might come in handy."
Robert tossed the card on the dashboard and drove to Georgetown, pulling over when he spotted the Little Tavern. He came out with ten of their mini burgers in a bag and sat them next to him in the seat as the lights in the small restaurant all went out. He reached for a burger as he pulled up to the stop sign at Wisconsin Avenue and turned right, down past the Grill.
He took a tour of the block to see what could be seen after midnight. He tossed the first wrapper on the passenger side floor and grabbed another burger. It was half gone when he reached the wall and the three dark figures sitting on it. He leaned forward looking to see if he recognized any of the faces from his last turn around the 'meat rack'. It was too dark.
After finishing his second burger, he pulled to the curb a half a block down and thought he'd watch to see what would happen. This felt more like police work but how would he know. He'd never done police work before and if this was police work then he was doing it but it didn't feel like what he thought it would feel like. He was on his fourth burger by the time one of the boys dropped down off the wall and came toward the car.
The knuckle rapped on the glass. Robert rolled down the window and looked at the boy from thighs to shoulders and waited for his face to appear. He finally leaned down so his face was even with the window, but he looked up and down the sidewalk and not into the car.
"Okay! We doing business or what?"
"You just gave us the once over and you came down and stopped. I figure you was lonely and need some company." As he spoke he continued surveying the block.
"What makes your company so desirable?"
"I'm cool. Better looking than the rest a dose guys. I ain't no thief. I do good work."
"You telling me you are working?"
"Man's a freakin' Einstein."
"So I still don't know what makes you such a bargain."
"Gee, I done let you see once. What I got to do, a show?"
At first Robert was left at a loss for what was going on but when the boy stood up and pulled his hands out of his pockets, it was only too obvious there was a growing concern in his trousers. He used one hand to make sure this aspect of his anatomy was properly positioned for easy viewing through the window.
"It's all very interesting, but I just came down here to eat my burgers."
"What?" the boy complained. "You ain't a cop are you?"
He finally took the time to lean over and look into the car at the guy he was bargaining with. The unhappy surly look turned into a bright smile.
"Hey, I'm Peanut. Where you from?"
"I'm just having a burger."
"Ah, man, come on and give me a break. I been out here for hours. How about one of them burgers? I'm starved. Ain't et since this morning."
"Sure," Robert said and the boy's hand was immediately in the bag. "Oh man, this is tops. I love these. Thanks! You sure? You look lonely. I'm great company and I don't mind most stuff if the price is right."
"I'm sure you're all you say, but I'm just not in the market right now."
"That guy with you?"
He chewed the words along with the hamburger. He took another survey of the street and then stuck his head back in the window to look at Robert.
"That car what followed you up here."
"No one was behind me. I checked before I turned past you guys."
"No, he didn't have his lights on. He was driving slow up next to the curb. Almost stopped to see where you was. Big green four door jobby. Figured him for the fuzz. That's why I didn't come over right off. That's why I asked you if you was one. Man I can't get myself locked up. No way."
"You sure about the car?"
"Honest. I don't lie, man. I ain't like some of the guys. I can be real nice to the right dudes. You sure we can't do business? You won't be sorry. I ain't doin' no good out here anyway. The whole night for another burger and five bucks. Come on, man. I'm great company. You won't be sorry."
"Peanut, if I was in the mood for that, you'd be just what I wanted, but I'm not, and I don't want to waste your time."
"No problem. No waste. I come up here two or three nights a week. You change your mind, you look me up. Peanut. Don't forget. Okay?"
"Where do you live?" Robert felt a sudden curiosity about the wayward boy.
"Just 'round. I crash where I find a place."
"Where are your parents? Shouldn't you be home?"
"Tell them that. I'm on my way to hell and they says they can't be lettin' me get there through their house. So I split. I do okay. Well, see you 'round maybe. Peanut. Don't forget."
He started to walk back toward the wall when Robert relented.
"Yeah," the boy said with excitement in his voice as he turned back to the car.
"Take the rest of these. I'll make myself sick if I eat anymore."
"Wow! Far out. Later gator. Peanut," he yelled as he moved away with his hand stuffed into the Little Tavern bag.
Robert laughed and shook his head. He turned right and drove back toward Wisconsin. He slowed and stared into the rearview mirror, taking off the sunglasses to make sure he was seeing everything. There was nothing there except the cars parked bumper to bumper on either side of the street.
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