A Mann's World
by Rick Beck
"We're supposed to be in Georgetown an hour ago. Where you been," Pollard said, slipping into the car. "You don't sleep any more? You look like death warmed over."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence. I told you I'd be checking things out at night. I'm not asking you to go along. I know you got a family life."
Bland's fingers started drumming the steering wheel. His jaw set and he stared ahead as he weaved through traffic.
"At her mother's. Took the kids. She's been gone a few weeks."
"I thought she said she was coming back?"
"She lied. She's not, okay? Just get off it. I don't need to hear it from you."
"Sorry, boss. Maybe if you talk about it…."
"I called Brown and told him we were running late. You get me anything yet?"
"Oh, yeah, sorry," said Pollard, "Robert Mann. His address is listed as 54th Avenue in Bladensburg but I've tried the number and there is no answer. I had Prince George cops go by for a routine check. No answer, no car. We can drive up that way but I have a hunch that's a dead end. You know how fags get around. There's a car registered to him. A sixty-two blue Pontiac convertible, but like I said, it wasn't there. That's it. He's clean as a hounds tooth. No wants, no warrants, no record of any kind. Has never even jaywalked. I'm doing Virginia now just to cover all the bases."
"Okay, we might need to chat with Mr. Mann to be sure he isn't going to be a problem. I can't afford any more trouble."
"Maybe you should let me handle it. That's not going to cut it with Brown. It might be seen as intimidation and he's a no nonsense kind of a guy. I don't know he'll back you any further."
"Did I say intimidation. I said chat. Why are you being so difficult? He's just another faggot, right? Get on the team, will you?"
"I know you Jimmy. I know how you get when you get your dander up. I'm saying you aren't the one to talk to him is all."
The car wove in and out of traffic as Pollard held the armrest so he wouldn't slide off the seat.
Robert spent another restless night. He thought about Fran and then he thought about Peanut and how dangerous it was for him to be out there. He thought he could have brought him home and given him a place to sleep but then that would create more complications. That brought him to the green sedan that woke him up several times. He couldn't actually see the car or the driver, but he knew it was there, deep in his dream, chasing him.
He used more ice on his face and went down to Hubbard House to have breakfast once he was sure Fran would be there. She wasn't. He asked. She'd called in sick and he lost his appetite and was left with another open wound. He needed to talk to her and he wanted to explain. He wanted to tell her what he was doing. He thought it was a good thing she wasn't there because that too would have just complicated things more.
Later in the day he met up with Phil for another shopping trip and a late lunch. Phil had more energy than Robert ever had. He was amazed at how the guy never stopped. Phil wasn't playing that evening but he was meeting friends for dinner at the Flagship down on the waterfront. Robert declined the offer to go along. While Phil lightened things up for him, his friends didn't. A few were okay but most of them stared too much.
Once showered and dressed he headed out for another evening of roaming the streets. He'd lost his feeling of purpose. He wasn't sure what he was doing or how to do it. He was circulating and trying to keep his eyes and ears open but he didn't feel like the odds were in his favor. He still stared into every face he passed and only took time off to eat and to have a beer.
He was growing impatient. Would the Strangler be at home with the drag queens, the leather boys, or the closet cases? When he couldn't come up with anything that seemed right, he decided to go to Joanna's. He felt comfortable around the lesbians there. While they too stared at him, he knew it was for a different reason than when the guys stared. When a couple of the really big dykes gave him the hairy eyeball, he was sure they were sure they could kick his ass. Where did life get so complicated, he wondered, sipping his beer?
He left his car parked down on 8th and walked up to Henry's, sitting toward the rear and ordering a Ruben on black bread and a draft. Beer had been only window dressing in each of the previous bars during the evening, but he drank this one. He remembered meeting Albert and smiled. He was a nice man. Under different circumstances he could see being Albert's friend. In fact Albert reminded him of Swift Deer in some strange way
Robert went back to his car and drove the streets around the bars. He had no desire to go back into any of them. Three different times he looked into his rearview mirror to see a green sedan behind him. Each moved on past when he turned off. The kid was probably mistaken. Someone had merely left his house and forgotten to turn on their lights. He was sure that was it.
Another green car was behind him as he made the turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue but he lost it in traffic once he got back toward the middle of town. He slowed to see if he could find the car again but he couldn't.
"John Christopher, news director of WMOD, with a news bulletin. The body of a man discovered in the industrial section of southeast Washington earlier this afternoon has definitely been linked to the series of slayings that have come to be known as the work of the DC Strangler. This makes eight men who have died at the hands of this elusive killer. At the time of this news bulletin there has been no identification made of the body. Stay tuned to WMOD for further updates. We now return you to our regular programming."
"Mr. Lonely" played and Bobby Vinton searched his soul for the answer to his pain. Robert felt the words down inside. What was he doing and where was it leading, he wondered? "Love Train" played and he smiled, turning up the frothy song.
Robert shook his head as a series of commercials followed. He was tired. His head hurt and he was back in Northwest. The killer never struck two days in a row. He thought a good nights sleep was what he needed but he hadn't had one in a while. He let himself into the apartment and made the couch into the bed before he sat on it to hold his aching head.
Officer James Bland eased to the curb immediately after turning off Dupont Circle and onto 19th Street. He watched the Pontiac pull over and park a half a block ahead of him. Robert Mann hadn't looked around and Bland was sure he didn't suspect he was being followed. Bland stood beside his car and watched for a light to come on in one of the nearby apartments. Once he knew which apartment his quarry was in, the rest would be easy. He now knew where to find Mann and he'd give him more attention when time allowed.
He whistled softly as he backed out of 19th Street and took the Circle until he turned off toward his own apartment.
Robert's frustration was growing and he lay awake trying to figure out which way to go until he finally drifted off to sleep. After another restless night he woke up to a phone call from Mike Connell.
"Let's meet over at the Grill. Two o'clock if that's okay."
"What time is it?" Robert asked as he rubbed his eyes open.
"Okay. Two o'clock."
It was noon by the time Robert showered and got dressed. He wandered down to Dupont Circle and sat on one of the concrete benches looking at the Hubbard House. He wanted to talk to Fran. He needed a connection to something he felt deeply and she had offered his only deep connection to anyone in some time. She was a bit of a flake but he didn't care.
He made a point of getting to the Grill at 1:30, ordering Liverwurst on rye with mustard, onion and an extra pickle. He was picking at the chips and watching Judy closely when Mike made his appearance. He had a jacket on over his uniform shirt and you couldn't tell he was a DC cop if he didn't lean over and let the badge reflect the little light. He sat with his back to the street and the window.
"How's it feel?" He asked with unusual concern in the words.
"Oh, great, I didn't even notice it this morning. It feels fine."
"Good. Looks terrible. It'll take a few days for it to fade."
"Yeah, I suppose. What's up?"
"I don't know. I thought we should talk. I've given you a hard time, Mann. I want to say it isn't anything personal. You're doing what we've asked. It's just that we aren't making much progress. You know there's another one confirmed?"
"Hey, sweetie pie. Haven't seen you in a while," Judy said, leaning across the booth to put her arm over Mike's shoulder.
"Hi, Judy. How are you?"
"Wonderful. This lovely man has come back for me to look at. You do have nice taste, Michael."
"I'm Robert," Robert said, smiling.
"You okay hon?" Judy said with a more serious tone.
"I'm fine," Robert replied.
"They ever get them all?" She questioned Mike.
"Nah, better to leave it alone. It doesn't bother me. If they don't catch them for shooting me, they'll catch them for something else."
"Well, you come more often. I worry about you. What can I get for you today. Bloody Mary?"
"No, I'm just passing through. I'm on duty, but maybe a Coke."
"Hardly call that crap Coke. Suit yourself. I could add a little Black Jack and no one would be any the wiser," she winked as she leaned fondly toward him, holding onto the coat rack that was attached to the booth. "He won't tell on you. He knows you're the boss, right?"
"Yeah, some days more than others. I've taken it out on him more than once."
"You should learn to duck, Bobby," Judy said while still looking at Mike. "They getting that asshole cop's badge?"
"Nah, he's one of the good guys, just a bit of a bigot, but if we throw all the bigots off the force, there won't be anyone left but us fags. Educate them and pray for divine intervention."
"Yeah, but God ain't listening, Michael. One day you got to face up to what is and that's when you do something because it's the only way anything is going to get done." Judy pushed herself off the booth and whirled to make her return to the bar.
Robert turned to watch her move and felt a twitch of love/lust in his heart.
"Damn she's nice. I've never seen a woman that knows so many men. Everyone hugs her and kisses her. I'd love to…."
"Down boy. She's married, has a son your age."
"What? The way she treats guys? You mean she doesn't go out with any of them."
"The guys that come in here? Give me a break, Mann. You sure you're paying attention? We're all gay. Straight guys don't come in here except by accident or under protest. A few might peek in to see what a fag looks like."
"You mean she thinks I'm…."
"Get over yourself. Better guys than you, bud."
"I didn't say they weren't. I just didn't think she thought that. She's always friendly. What's with all the hugging and kissing then?" Robert said, giving up the view of Judy to look at Mike.
Mike took his hands out of his coat pockets and looked over at Judy and then back to Robert. "She's a very special lady. She takes a group of men who nobody likes and makes them feel special. She doesn't have to do that. I'm sure it improves her tips, but Judy is sincere. She loves everyone. She remembers the names and how long since you've been in here. She makes you feel welcome when you've had a rotten day, week, life. People come here just to be around someone like her. Do you know what it's like not feeling welcome to be yourself anywhere you go?"
Robert thought back to the reservation and how the other boys avoided him while their grandfathers stared at him with unending disdain.
"I guess. She called me Bobby but I just told her my name is Robert."
"The Gay Blade is up on the counter. Your picture is on the front page. Shit, it is the front page."
"Oh, no! You mean people will see that thing?"
"Yes! That brings me to the point of this meeting."
"There's a point? I figured you were just here to hassle me."
"The Blade's not a problem. The Post is."
"What's the difference?"
Robert folded his hands in front of him and resisted the idea of finishing the second pickle while he was being lectured. Mike seemed uneasy. He looked around and waited for Judy to set down his Coke. She immediately withdrew, having seen them talking. There were smiles and a refocusing on a conversation Mike seemed reluctant to have.
"I'll just get it out here. Brown's worried about you."
"I'm fine. I told you it doesn't even hurt now."
"Mann, listen up and shut your mouth for long enough to hear me out."
"I'm not sir, although it is flattering. I'm a cop like you, nothing more. I'm worried too. You need to be where you are. I know being around gay men isn't easy for a man like you and this has gotten a lot more complicated then we figured. The picture, your status as a folk hero, it isn't what we planned, and I'm not blaming you, so don't think that. I just don't know if this should continue since people know who you are, or, think they know. It could be dangerous because we don't have any idea who this guy is or what he's after. Brown wanted you off yesterday but I made him think about it. So, it's up to you now. I won't leave you hanging out there with no net. You ought to know that this picture thing has turned up the heat on you," Mike spoke seriously to Robert's eyes and the concern in his voice was real.
"Just tell me what you want me to do.?"
"Well, I was going to ask you to think about it, seeing as you're green and in over your head. What I know is that most guys would die for a chance to get in on the biggest murder investigation going on in the country right now, but yes, think about it and we'll look into having you reassigned if you want out. An assignment right now isn't going to be easy with people associating you with the gay community. That's why I wanted to talk."
"That's it? You just wanted to tell me how much more dangerous this had become? That I have an out if I want it and the big boss won't fall on me like a brick wall if I do? Cool!"
"Cool? Mann, are you on something. Your superiors don't hassle you, and police work is never cool," he shook his head as he spoke, impatient with the youth that wasn't much younger than him. "Carry on with what you're doing and be thinking about what I have just said. I won't ask you to do anything you don't want to do."
"How are you getting along with Phil?"
"Fine. He's cool."
"Some gay men can be overpowering but Phil's one of the nicest guys I know. He won't let you get into any trouble if he can help it. You can trust him."
"I know that. He's like someone's mother that way. Is that weird or what."
"Yeah, he is. That's a good description. I got to get back to work."
"He told me about you and some cop he went with," Robert said without any idea why.
"That's not something I bring to work and it's not something you talk about."
"How can you not? I mean what if people knew?"
"I'm careful that people don't know."
"Yeah, but what if they found out? I mean you're on this investigation. Don't you think someone might suspect?"
"You're on this investigation too. They suspect you a hell of a lot more than they suspect me. Give that some consideration."
Robert did give it some thought as Mike left him there with his pickle and Judy. People would think that because of the picture. He hadn't read the article in the Blade and he didn't have any desire to do so. He had noticed more recognition in Judy's eye when he came in and the warmer smile. He still couldn't help but look at her when she brought his check. She was a fine looking woman. "You don't get in too deep, honey. It's a dangerous world out there," she said, more friendly than she had been.
"I didn't until I saw Mike but it all makes perfect sense now. I don't miss much and I didn't think you were one of the boys. Some cross over to check it out but mostly, once they've gone gay, they go all the way, hon."
"I'm damn glad someone knows," Robert blurted out. "I'm starting to feel queer."
"Just be careful, hon. It's not a good time to be a gay boy, even if you're only pretending. That creep won't know the difference."
"No he won't. Thanks, though… Robert hesitated, "They really like you."
"Who?" Judy said, leaning on the booth with one leg off the floor bent up behind her.
"These guys really like you. You're a woman and they're gay but they really like you. Go figure."
"You ever seen a kicked puppy? How they'll nuzzle up to the first kind person they see? Don't much matter who as long as they ain't kicking 'em. You keep your money, honey. This one's on Judy."
Robert left the five on the table. He wondered about the world as he stepped out into the afternoon sun. It was a little hazy and cool but the air smelled fresh. He realized that all he had to do to get some real experience as a cop was to ask for reassignment. It seemed to lighten things up. Just the fact that Mike treated him halfway human was a nice change. He always seemed so angry.
Looking back at the black wood on the front of the Grill, he thought of the word refuge. Refuge in the storm, he thought to himself. It must be hard being gay. Walking back toward his car he saw a single boy sitting on the wall a hundred feet further up from where he had parked. He decided to walk up and see if it was Peanut. He didn't know why he was curious but he was.
As he approached the wall the young man sitting there gave him a long hard look. Bobby hopped up beside him at a respectful distance but close enough to talk. Before he could open the discussion the boy got right down to business.
"Man, I got this corner. Not enough business for two this time a day," his drawl was deep and it hung on each word like a road sign. He had long blond hair that touched the shoulder of his buckskin shirt. He was young and still had boyish looks but there was fire burning in his eyes as they were considering the trespasser.
He might have been eighteen or nineteen but the numbers sixteen or seventeen seemed to fit him better. He was anything but cordial and his annoyance with the new arrival was obvious.
"I'm not working, man," Bobby answered sarcastically with a bad imitation of the boy's easy drawl.
"Yeah, well why not move on down so's you don't confuse my customers. They might be a thinkin' we come together or somethin'," the boy complained some more but with such charm in the hostility that it made Robert laugh.
"Look, man, I'll be moving on down when I'm good and ready to be moving on down. I'll pull you off this wall and make you shorter than you are if you don't watch the way you talk to me."
The words came out without anger or bravado. It was a simple statement of fact that immediately changed the boy's mind as he considered the much bigger man. He decided it would be much healthier to have this guy as an ally rather than an adversary. His need to eat overrode his need to stand his ground against a superior force. "Where you from? I'm from Anniston, Alabama."
Robert took the Marlboro cigarette as a peace offering and he leaned to let the boy flip his Zippo until he could taste the smoke. "North Dakota," came the answer.
"Farm?" the boy asked.
"Farm what?" Robert said.
"You a farm boy? You look like it with all those shoulders you got on you. You a bad lookin' mother up close." The drawl held true as the boy continued the exchange. He considered the new arrival from the corner of his eye. He seemed way tall to a short boy and way big to a small boy. His attempt at establishing some kind of superiority by virtue of his early arrival had failed as it always had. There was no superiority when you were small.
"No. No farm."
The boy watched a car pass, leaning back on his elbows so the front of his pants were easy viewing for any interested driver. It was easy to tell which ones were on their way to some place else and which were on more urgent missions, looking for the company of some friendly boy who might still the empty ache that haunted their lonely lives. This was where his size was his biggest asset. No one saw him as a threat and they'd stop for him a lot quicker than they'd stop for one of his bigger friends. The trick was knowing which one of them didn't pose a threat to him.
"I'm Toby!" the boy announced, sticking out his hand as he took the opportunity to look Robert over. He'd seen the sunglasses and that he was handsome and big but that was all one glance was worth. Now he lost interest in the street and the cars and felt himself drawn to the tall dark stranger who had sat down beside him for no reason that was obvious yet. There was always a hope and Toby hoped for the best.
"There's some nut killing people around here. You better stay off the streets," Robert advised.
"I can take care of myself. I only asked your name for crimminy sakes. So, what is your name anyway?" Toby's words were more a plea as his eyes searched the bigger boy's face for some sign of kindness.
"Robert. You can call me Bobby."
"Your friends call you Bobby?"
"…Yeah, lately it seems like. Hey, do you know, Peanut?"
"Hell yeah! He's from New York. He's the one what told me to come to DC. He was here but he went to Richmond with a guy. That's what I heard, anyway."
"Okay. I was just wondering about him."
Robert was everything Toby wished he were. Robert was the kind of guy that Toby envisioned when someone took him off the street and home to a life of regular meals and a warm bed. He didn't much care if someone else was in the bed or not, but if Bobby was in it, it wouldn't hurt his feelings any. He looked good to Toby.
"Quit staring," Robert said, annoyed, remembering all the gay men that continually stared, then he relented. "Why do you keep looking at me? I mean… it makes me nervous."
"I'm sorry, is that a birthmark or what?" Toby looked down at his feet and realized he was hoping for something that wasn't ever going to happen. Once you went for a week without showering and your hair started to tangle, the odds against someone thinking you were worth a second look were slim. Usually it was just the old guys that wanted a pit stop before heading home to the little woman and the odds of seeing the inside of a house were even less than getting enough for a burger.
" Oh this, it's just a bruise." Robert reached out and mussed up his hair and Toby lit up. He gushed a smile but could no longer look directly at Robert. The boy laughed because someone had touched him and didn't want anything off him. "Don't take life so seriously. You got to be careful, kid. Some nut case is wasting dudes and he's not particular. You're too nice looking to get yourself murdered."
"Really!" Toby blushed and felt a sudden surge of warmth as he went back to Robert's face. Maybe life wasn't all that bad. He sure could use a burger though. Toby wouldn't mind asking most guys for a buck for a burger but he wouldn't ask this guy. He didn't want him to think he wanted anything from him, not anything he wanted to be paid for. There was something about Robert that he liked right off.
"Why aren't you home?" Robert asked, turning his head to speak.
"I got no home to be at."
"Where do you stay?"
"Where ever I am. Where do you stay?"
"At home where I belong. You got to be careful out here, kid."
"Yeah, well, I ain't a kid an' I done all right so far. I was up in New York but that place is nuts. I did pretty well with eating regular and all, but them dudes is crazy. I'm not used to big party deals. I come down here after Peanut told me DC was cool. What's your bag, anyway?"
"My bag?" Robert asked.
"What do you like?"
"I like girls," Robert said, needing to let the big eyed boy know he was wasting his time.
It was a little like being slapped. Toby didn't know why Robert needed to say that except for the way he looked at Robert. Toby felt bad again and then he noticed the silver Mercedes easing up the block. The car almost came to a stop as the driver looked up through the windshield at the wall.
Toby immediately leaped down and headed for the car door. When he reached for the handle, a big hand clamped around his wrist and guided him out of the way without him ever knowing what the hell was happening. He felt a like a fool as Robert swung the door open and leaned into the car.
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