I place a small porcelain cup under the brass nozzle of the espresso machine and pull a shot. While the steaming, black liquid flows, my cell phone rings. A Woman's voice says: "I want to speak to Detective Zorn."
"You're in luck. You've reached him."
"I'm told you have information about a Miss Sandra Wilcox."
"That's possible," I say. "Who are you?" I take a sip of coffee. It's very hot and strong.
"I am not at liberty..."
"I know," I say. "What's your connection to Sandra Wilcox?"
"Can we meet at your office, Detective? Say in half an hour?"
Someone's in a hurry, I think. "Make it eleven," I say. "I have an appointment at nine."
"Can't your appointment wait? This is important."
"My appointment at nine is important."
There's an impatient sigh at the other end. "Very well. Eleven."
"My office is at police headquarters," I start to explain. "Homicide
Division. That's at..."
"I know where your office is, Detective Zorn. We know all about you."
My 1971 lime green Jaguar drop top is kind of conspicuous—probably the only one in the city—and I don't like parking it on the street in this part of town. It's not that I'm afraid it will be lifted— there are those here who know it belongs to me and will see that it is not touched. But I prefer not to advertise I'm visiting Sister Grace. A taxi or Uber would leave an electronic trail I can't risk being traced so I drive.
The street seems empty except for a young African-American wearing fierce dread-locks. A Lincoln Town Car with low-number DC tags is parked in front of a liquor store. I park the Jag behind the Lincoln.
"Haven't seen you around this neighborhood," the man in dread-locks says to me. "You sellin' or buyin'?"
"I'm here to see Sister Grace."
"Ain't no one here by that name."
"That's too bad," I enter the liquor store, its doors and windows covered with heavy steel mesh. It sells cheap booze, cigarettes, and lottery tickets. An elderly black man with white hair sits behind the counter. He looks up at me, smiles pleasantly and gestures toward the back door. I remember the same gentleman from my last visits, nod in a friendly way, and walk past racks of vodka and wine bottles out the back door into a narrow alley. A basketball hoop has been set up at one end. Two large dumpsters are at the other. Four CCTV cameras cover the length of the alley.
A boy of about ten or eleven wearing a gray hoodie stands in the alley waiting for me. "I'll take you in," the kid says.
"I know the way," I say.
"I'll take you."
We cross the alley and go through a steel door marked in stencil "Do Not Enter" and into a small entryway. The kid punches the keys to a cyber lock and pushes open a second, heavy metal door. We step into a room that might once have been a commercial showroom. There are a dozen or so unmatched chairs scattered around the room, a regulation-size pool table at the far end and a large plasma TV set on one wall showing a college basketball game.
A dozen armed men intercept me at the door. One is Cloud. I vaguely recognize one of the others who, I'm pretty sure, is wanted for murder and drug trafficking. There is no sign of Cloud's number two, Lamont. Almost tangible tension fills the room. In all the times I've been here, I've never before seen so many armed guards. Something big is going down. Or is about to happen. Something bad and dangerous.
Cloud pats me down, very smooth, very professional and practiced, and I feel a pain in my midsection but try not to wince. I don't want to give Cloud the satisfaction.
Cloud leads me through an inner door, and we step into a small, cozy room furnished with old, but comfortable, furniture: a floral chintz-covered sofa, several large, over-stuffed armchairs with lots of poufy cushions, and two side-tables on which are vases filled with African violets. The walls are covered with wallpaper with images of roses, once bright red, now faded. There is a faint smell of lavender mixed with Marlboro cigarettes in the room. There are no windows; the only light comes in from two floor lamps on either side of the sofa. A picture on one wall shows Jesus Christ surrounded by adoring children.
This is Sister Grace's parlor—some would say the most dangerous place in the city of Washington.