ALEX CROSS’S HOME on Fifth Street in Southeast DC is its usual rolling chaos of laughing, good-natured insults, and more laughter. When we finish dinner, we crowd into the kitchen to help clean up after another one of Nana Mama’s memorable meals. Tonight’s roast pork loin was so tender it melted off the bone; it was served with potatoes and green beans and a dish of homemade applesauce at each table setting.
Alex, me, my daughter, Willow, and Alex’s two youngest kids — Ali and Jannie — wash and dry the dishes. Nana Mama slaps Ali’s hand as he tries to clean her big black cast-iron skillet.
“You leave that skillet alone, young man.”
“But it’s dirty and heavy,” he says. “I was just trying to help.”
She smiles and rubs his head. “That’s being a good boy, and thank you, but nobody cleans that skillet ’cept me. It took me months to season it right so it cooks perfect, and one good scrubbing with soap and a sponge will ruin it.”
After we wash the dishes, dry them, and put them all away, it’s time for dessert. I eat my homemade brownies with vanilla ice cream standing by the counter, remembering many, many years back when Nana Mama brought me to stay here after my mother went to prison the first time. My father had abandoned us long before that.
This old house with the well-kept rooms has always been my shelter, even with my home not far away. The Cross family is one that I proudly call my own.
When some form of calm returns to the kitchen, Ali goes upstairs to his room, allegedly to do homework, while Nana Mama, Willow, and Jannie move to the living room. The girls keep their eyes on the screens of their individual game consoles, and Nana Mama watches a reality-TV show about rich and pampered women who call themselves housewives. “If I had their money and jewels,” she once said, “no network would want to film me, ’cause I’d be so damn boring and happy.”
Alex and I slip out to the front porch, sit on old wicker chairs, and sip from the tumblers of bourbon in our hands. It’s reasonably quiet out here tonight, with only a few cars driving by and the occasional blare of a horn or a siren. I ask, “How’s Bree?”
“Working late,” he says. “Nana Mama saved a plate for her.”
“How’s she doing?”
“Busy,” Alex says.
I take another sip from my bourbon. “Busy with what? Government work?”
“She doesn’t say and I don’t ask.”
Alex’s wife, Bree, used to be with me at DC Metro, where she was the chief of detectives, and a good one at that. But politics and idiot bosses caused her to leave and now she’s working as an investigator at the Bluestone Group, an international private security firm.
“You okay with that?”
“No,” Alex says. “But we’re doing the best we can. She’s got a car service that takes her to and from work. I don’t have to worry about her safety.”
“What do you worry about, sugar?” I ask.
He ponders that for a moment. “Everything. How can I not?”
“What did you think about our high-level meeting earlier?”
“Impressive and detailed, except for that major absence that you pointed out. And it went about as well as our briefing with the chief. But something about that meeting bothered me.”
That’s my Alex. Always able to look ahead, peer around, and see patterns that others miss. “Go on.”
He shrugs. “It looks to be random, but to me it’s not. Why it’s not, I can’t see clearly right now, but I know the pattern’s there.”
“The general said someone or a group of people are orchestrating all the attacks. You don’t think they’re tossing the dice and saying, ‘Okay, we came up with eleven, it’s Kansas City’s turn’ — you think the sequence is more deliberate?”
Alex says, “I do. The attacks seem random, unusual — everything from a shooting at a mall to car bombs here and in other major cities — but I think they’re driving toward a goal.”
“You think there’ll be a major strike here in DC in a week, like they said?”
He takes a sip of his bourbon. “Maybe.” He sighs. “I won’t be sleeping tonight. I’m trying to figure this out.”
“Think you’ll have something for the nine a.m. meeting?”
“That’s the goal, my friend.”
We sit in silence, each with our own thoughts, until I say, “I should get going. Let’s meet at Metro headquarters tomorrow morning before we head off to our next secret and secure location. Say, eight thirty?”
He clinks his tumbler against mine. “Works for me.”
The door opens and Nana Mama comes onto the porch. “What are you two wildcats up to?”
Alex says, “Just shop talk.”
I say, “We’re trying to save the world.”
“Huh,” she says. “You two fools ’bout twenty years too late for that.”
I laugh, put my tumbler down, pick her up, and give her a kiss on her wrinkled cheek. “Nana Mama, if we had ten more of you, we could take over the world, never mind save it.”
She struggles but not too much. “John Sampson, you put me down. And the world couldn’t handle ten more of me.”
Alex laughs. “Sure would love to find out, Nana Mama.”