Outside the cafeteria students stopped and stared as Jamal was quietly escorted to an unmarked police car in the parking lot. He put on airs as he walked a step ahead of the detectives; aside from giving the cops an early morning run he had done nothing wrong. From somewhere within the crowd, Andre’s voice rang out with his Tony Montana “Say Goodnight to the Bad Guy” speech from Scarface as two other detectives escorted him to a separate unmarked car.
During the drive Jamal sat in silence, staring out the window as he sorted through every ounce of business sense to figure out how he was going to say his piece during questioning. Because of the way the detectives gave chase across campus, he knew any one of them could be on the take. Too quick and eager to talk would make them suspicious; too tight-lipped and thug-hard might earn him a charge and a busted lip. Jamal knew if he said the right things the right way he could be out in ten minutes — free and clear of any further witness involvement or hassles.
When the cars arrived at a nearby precinct and Jamal was sure they weren’t heading back to Queensbridge, he cracked a smile. Contrary to the angst that had been building up in him since they first put his face on the news, he felt relieved. The chase was over. Aside from that, he knew if he and Andre had been taken into their local precinct it would have been tough to sneak in without being recognized by someone from the block. The wrong set of eyes could easily get them labeled as snitches, putting the lives of everyone around them in jeopardy.
Detective Rourke quietly escorted Jamal past the morning chaos to a small, unmarked room somewhere in the back. Jamal had never been arrested but its interrogation use was obvious; the dingy grey walls had the permanent smell of nervous sweat and Newports although there was no sign of cigarette butts or ashtrays.
Rourke closed the door and gestured for Jamal to take a seat. “Mr. Washington, you’re a tough act to follow,” he chuckled. “I’m handling the Alonzo Jameson case, but I’m sure you already know that. For the past few days it seemed like everywhere we went we just missed you. Your parents, Ms. Edwina, Mr. Steiner. You been busy, huh?”
Jamal nodded and leaned back in his chair, listening with a pleasantly unreadable expression. Never let anyone sitting across the table from you know what you’re thinking, a Business professor once taught him; Always keep the hint of a smile like you’re watching Disney’s Fantasia cartoon in a theater. His silence spoke in volumes.
Rourke returned a smug grin. Aside from the Cat-n-Mouse game he was used to playing with most uncooperative witnesses, he also knew that his new partner, Detective Simmons, was probably going to end up paying $100 bucks they had going on a secret bet. Because Jamal’s brother Justin had popped up as being seen with Black Mike on a few occasions, Simmons suspected that Jamal might have been caught on camera as a low profile part of that crew, one of the shooters that punked out and lost his nerve at the last minute. In contrast, Rourke actually knew a little more about Jamal’s background: Honor Roll student in high school, Dean’s List Business major working his way through college. Rourke’s gut instincts said there was nothing about this kid that remotely linked him to a crew, especially since their prime suspect in this case took over Black Mike’s crew after Mike shot and killed Justin. To him, Jamal was a kid from the streets but far from being a typical kid in the streets–and definitely no shooter.
Time passed. Jamal sat in silence, trying not to squirm as his thighs had grown numb on the hard wooden seat, waiting for Rourke to start with the interrogation. Rourke occasionally stopped to stare at back at him in between studiously answering morning emails on his PDA-phone. Their silent stalemate might have continued for hours if Detective Simmons hadn’t entered the room with the thunder of a circus ringmaster. “And how are you today Mister Washington?”
“I was doing great, sir. How are you?”
“Even better now that we’ve got you here,” he replied as he began to pace. “Looks like you’re the star of this party.”
Suddenly it made sense why Jamal and Andre didn’t immediately spot Rouke and Simmons out as police. Both were husky and had that patented New York Boriqua brown complexion where they could have been Hispanic, Sicilian or had at least one Black parent. All that aside they sounded like thoroughbred New York cops.
“With all due respect, there’s not much of a party going on,” Jamal mused, “ain’t no girls here, I need to get to class, and your boy Rourke and I both smell like cafeteria breakfast.”
Simmons didn’t appreciate the sarcasm. “For someone in for questioning on a murder you talk much yang, son.”
“And if I was a real murder suspect I would have been cuffed, processed and your boy would’ve read me my Miranda Rights back on campus,” Jamal replied then glanced at his watch. “I’m pretty sure you know I’m not your man. If I was I’d already be sprung on bunch of technicalities.”
With a hard palm slap on the table Simmons turned out of frustration, cursing under his breath.
Jamal smirked, unmoved by the over-the-top reaction. “Is all that really necessary?”
“Gotta give respect to get respect, son,” Simmons replied, secretly disappointed by Jamal’s cool demeanor. He hated it when the Good-Cop-Angry-Bad-Cop routine didn’t work on a new face.
“No wonder y’all ain’t gettin’ any cooperation,” Jamal glanced at Rourke then back at Simmons. “Some sensitivity classes might be in order.”
By the way Simmons tensed up, Jamal knew he had plucked a sore spot. Rourke returned the PDA-phone to its holster on his hip and cut into the argument before it erupted. “You’re right, Jamal. Okay? Straight up. We’re on this case with nothin’ to go on. Nobody saw a thing. No evidence of drugs or weapons were found at the scene. All we got is footage of you and your boy in proximity of the shooting. Word is bond, I know you’re a good kid. Just tell us what you saw, what you know and you’re free to go.”
“How do you know it was one of my boys?”
“That Andre kid we picked up with you almost caught a charge in the cafeteria when he scrambled to pick your phone up off the floor after you busted your a** on the table,” Rourke confidently mumbled. “If he wasn’t your ace, anyone else would’ve cut his losses and jetted way before we chased you across campus. I’ll bet his voice matches the one we heard off-camera on the surveillance tape.”
Rourke had point. Jamal conjured up his best Al Pacino impersonation. “You guys blasted my face all over cable with that surveillance crap. You put me out there as a Person of Interest, endangering me, my family, and friends — and you expect me to be cool with it? Bush didn’t even do Saddam Hussein like that.”
“You want an Oscar for that performance?” Simmons laughed.
Rourke shrugged with open arms. “I apologize for that but we had no choice. We didn’t know who you were. If we did we would have already talked and you wouldn’t be here.”
“Okay,” Jamal paused, figuring this was as good a time to say what they wanted to hear. “My friends and I were on our way to the Mobb Deep show. Heard some shots so I dipped over to the next street where some more shots went off. Somebody jumped out of a light-colored SUV, blasted, and the other guy dropped. It was between street lamps, too dark to see any faces or plates; looked like a dude. I froze until I heard my boy calling for me to get out of the street… So I did. Now that you know will you stop running my face on TV?”
Suspicious that Jamal was operating on the ‘No Snitch’ policy, Rourke and Simmons feverishly began their cross-examination, asking the same rephrased question over and over in the hopes of some new information spilling out. Jamal responded with reworded answers, carefully leaving out any details about the SUV that would hint that he recognized it. Eventually the room fell silent and the detectives stopped taking notes. It was obvious that neither side was gaining any ground.
Rourke stood up. “I guess that’s it,” he said, still suspicious of Jamal’s convenient lack of details. “Thanks for your statement. Pick up your stuff at the front desk — you’re free to go.”
Out near the front desk, Andre sat on a bench talking on Jamal’s phone as he approached. He wrapped up the conversation then handed over Jamal’s backpack and cell phone. “Everything straight?”
“Yeah. Let’s roll.”
“There is something else I forgot to mention,” Rourke said as he casually stopped Jamal and Andre before they walked out the door. “This shooting is linked to your brother’s murder case. Black Mike was prosecuted on solely witness testimony, evidence related to other crimes, and some other circumstantial stuff. The gun he used was never recovered. Ballistics says Alonzo was killed with the same gun and Mike’s lawyers are watching us on this one. They’re appealing his case claiming that he was wrongfully prosecuted. Between the technicalities surfacing and Mike’s people making that reasonable doubt thing work in court, if we don’t bring in this shooter Black Mike will probably walk.” Rourke faked an exasperated sigh as he handed over a business card. “Use it if you hear anything.”
Andre talked the entire time they made their way to the nearest subway station, bragging about how he handled the other detectives. Jamal heard none of it, consumed by his choice to stick to the No Snitch Code of the Streets. If Rourke was telling the truth and Black Mike ended up going free because he omitted some vital facts, he knew he’d never forgive himself. If Rourke was lying, using Justin’s death was a vicious low blow. There was no way to tell whether or not this was a bluff. Somewhere off in the distance he heard his name.
“Earth to Jay,” Andre repeated, loud enough to snap Jamal back to reality; the subway was standing-room only and they were halfway back to Queensbridge. “What’s up man? You okay?”
Jamal responded with a blank nod.
“Whatever you’re thinking about, put it out of your mind.” Andre chuckled. “It’s past noon. You’ve already missed half the day. Just chill out — you’ve earned it. I’m gonna hook up with my girl. Whatcha gonna do?”
Jamal’s thoughts were seething with angst over what to do about giving up details on Donny and the Pearl Lexus SUV. He knew there was a chance that Donny was in that Lex at the time of the shooting. One question churned over and over inside — would he be snitching if he gave up the whole truth to the cops?
“I’m headin’ back to the crib and take a shower,” Jamal said as he stared at the infinity passing by outside the window. “Then back to campus; gotta clear things up with Steiner.”
In an attempt to hide what was really bothering him, Jamal mentioned the only other thing that had been on his mind. “I’ve got a business to start.”