Hannibal knew that John and Alana Graham intended to move into his neighborhood. He had met the young professional African American couple twice. The first time was when they first came to look at the rundown building two blocks from his own place. He spoke with them again three weeks later after they had bought the house and they were exploring their new acquisition. As he remembered it, they had found the place in worse condition than it appeared during their original exploration, and they were a bit disheartened by the amount of work it would take to make the place livable. They had talked about how an urban renovation property can look like more of a bargain than it really is. With only those two meetings behind them, Hannibal was surprised to be the first person John called on when tragedy struck. But Hannibal was used to being called whenever trouble arose, so he followed Graham through the twilight streets.
“This damned place absorbed every penny we had,” John said, slogging up the stairs to his front door, “and now it has taken her as well.” “Where’s Alana?” Hannibal asked. John opened the door and pointed up the stairs. Hannibal remembered the three rooms at the top of the stairs. Two were usable, but in the third the floor had been so rotted that it had fallen away completely from the door to half way across the room. Hannibal trudged up the narrow stairs with John close behind. At the top he was greeted by a note pinned to the door of the floorless room. It appeared to be written in haste, and simply said, “I’m sorry, it’s all just too much for me.” He turned to John.
“How long has this been here?” “I don’t know,” John said, his lower lip quivering. “Alana came out early this morning, supposedly to work on the house. I came later to join her. She didn’t answer my shouts so I started looking around. When I got up here I found that note hanging there. I opened the door, and looked down and…” Grief seemed to have choked off John’s words, so Hannibal nodded and opened the door. The smell of wet, rotted wood burst forward. Staring down into the darkness he thought he saw a form two stories below in the cellar. Knowing there was no electricity in the house he pulled a small Maglight from an inside jacket pocket. Directing the beam down into the cavernous space, he stared until a female form came into focus.
“I knew she was depressed,” John said. “We were on the verge of bankruptcy because of this house. But I can’t believe she would kill herself.” “Nor can I,” Hannibal said. “But then, I can barely believe that you would kill her.” “What? Are you insane?” John shrank back against the opposite wall. Hannibal stepped away from the door and turned to face him.
“Is this the story you intend to give to the police? You came up the stairs, read this note, opened the door and found your wife dead at the bottom of a fall into the basement?” “It’s the truth,” John stammered. “Why won’t you believe me?” Hannibal had met so many cold blooded men in his life that he thought they
shouldn’t surprise him anymore, but they still did. The wind outside seemed to scream in echo of his rage. Clenching his teeth, he reached out to gather John’s shirt in both hands.
Before Hannibal could touch him the house lurched. It was as if the wind had tipped the building, or perhaps the house had decided to crouch to the left for a moment. Hannibal rocked back, but held his balance. John was less fortunate. His feet flipped out from under him. As if in slow motion, Hannibal watched him fall to his right. When he thumped to the floor his head and shoulders were across the threshold of the door Alana had gone through. John had time for one short shriek of protest before his legs pivoted upward like the keep of a sinking ship and his body slipped down into empty space.
Less than two seconds later Hannibal heard the hard, wet impact. He had already turned and was rushing down the stairs followed by the clattering sound of his footsteps. He scrambled down the hall to the cellar door. When he opened the door a musty smell rushed up at him. Breathing through his mouth, he walked carefully down the narrow, creaking stairs.
A fall of a couple dozen feet wasn’t always fatal, he told himself. Alana may need first aid. And despite his feelings for John he didn’t wish him dead. He had to hope they had survived the fall.
Hannibal was no stranger to the dark, but the path down into the cellar seemed thicker than any darkness he’d seen before. At the bottom he had to move slowly to avoid the nails rising up from broken boards scattered across the floor. He followed the small circle of light across the floor until it wrapped itself around a woman’s thigh. Hannibal crouched to verify what he already knew. Alana’s face was twisted in fear, but
it couldn’t have lasted long. Her neck was broken, almost as if she gone through the door head first.
Then he moved to her husband who lay just inches away. John had gone through the door head first. He lay on his left side, blood still leaking from nail punctures. One of the ten penny spears had struck quite near his heart. He was gone too, but his expression was one of surprise. His last living thought may have been something like, “Well, I didn’t see this coming.”
Hannibal stood and was turning to go when he felt a faint breeze. It was the kind of shift in the air you feel when someone passes through the room near you. His breathing stopped and he could feel the hair rising to attention on his arms. Did he have company, aside from the two corpses?
He eased the Sig Sauer 220 out of the holster under his right arm while he focused his light on a spot an inch or two above the floor. Turning in a slow arc he followed the small ring of light along one wall, then another. As the light slid along the third wall he saw nothing but paint crumbling from the cinder block surface. The light circle turned a corner, started along the fourth wall and disappeared.
It was as if the darkness itself were swallowing the light. Now the hair stood on the back of his neck and he pointed his gun down the path of the light. A flicker of movement caught his eye. Something shapeless, formless broke the beam of light. His stomach clenched and he felt a sudden drop in temperature. He didn’t hear footsteps, but rather a swishing, flowing sound. Hannibal strained his eyes in the direction of the sound but saw nothing more. His chest began to ache, reminding him to breathe again.
Hannibal was a prudent man, a rational man. He knew that the smart move was to retrace his steps, get up the stairs and out the door. He could return with three friends and flood lights and the city medical examiner’s team to recover the bodies. Only an idiot would do otherwise.
But he was also a curious man. That, after all, was what made a detective more than anything else. And this was his turf. Whatever was going on there, he needed to know about it. After reminding himself how curiosity had treated the proverbial cat he stepped forward. The bodies could wait. The mystery would not.
When Hannibal reached the place where the wall should have been his light continued onward. So did he. He moved down what appeared to be a long, narrow tunnel. There was a slight downgrade, and the tunnel curved from time to time but there were no blind turns.
The walls were damp and the smell of mold and decay surrounded him, but to Hannibal’s surprise he saw no rodents or any other signs of vermin life. He kept thinking the path had to lead somewhere soon or come out to the surface or perhaps would lead him under a manhole cover. After about five minutes and a quarter of a mile, none of those predictions came true. He was just about to give up and head back when his nose detected a stunning change. A breeze came to him from up ahead and it carried the familiar aromas of cornbread and collard greens. Around the next bend he saw light in the distance. It was a soft glow, like candlelight. He quickened his pace just a little. The answer to his mystery should lie just past one more curve in the tunnel.
Hannibal stayed close to the wall, stepped around the curve and found himself in what appeared to be someone’s living room. The floor was bare cement but the walls
wore dark wallpaper covered by tiny blood-colored roses. Did someone live down here? A dozen or more tea light candle holders bathed the space in a soft glow. The lights were scattered on low tables, shelves and sconces that almost seemed to appear as Hannibal watched.
A sound like a sharp breath drew his attention to a low desk and the darkened corner behind it. He wasn’t sure why the light didn’t penetrate that corner. The darkness seemed to swirl a bit, but surely flickering candlelight caused that effect. Then it was Hannibal’s turn to take in a sharp breath. His gun hand shook as the darkness appeared to coalesce into a solid form. His eyes widened as an old woman sat up behind a desk and seemed to pull the darkness around her shoulders like a shawl.
“Relax, young man,” the woman said. “You have nothing to fear from me.”
Here voice… he knew that voice. It was the voice of poetess Maya Angelou. Her face was blurred but as it came into focus it began to resemble Angelou too. Hannibal allowed himself one step backward but held his ground and fought to get control of his voice.
“Who are you? I know you’re not who you appear to be.”
“Of course not.” The woman stood, speaking in a soft voice “I just didn’t want to frighten you so I decided to project an image that would be familiar and perhaps comforting to you. Now put that gun away. It won’t do you any good here anyway. Tea?”
The woman nodded her gray head toward an easy chair that Hannibal hadn’t noticed before and lifted a silver tea set from the desk. She moved around it toward Hannibal, with such a benign smile that he began to wonder why he was so frightened.
Her movements were smooth for a woman of her apparent age, almost as if she were gliding across the floor. And as his eyes moved down her ample form they flared open wider and an icy fist clutched his heart. He could not see her feet. The same darkness that embraced her shoulders covered the floor and her legs flowed down into it. Not just into the darkness, but into the floor.
“Who… what the hell are you?” The room was too cool for perspiration, but he felt wetness under his arms all the same. He stepped back again and fell backward into the easy chair. The woman placed the tray on a side table and placed his cup beside him as she spoke.
“Who am I? My name is Anacostia, but you may call me Anna.” Then she noticed where he was staring. “You’re looking at my legs? Oh, my, no one has done that in quite a while. Don’t be too surprised, dear. I am permanently rooted to the ground here.”
As she turned to return to her seat he said, “Anacostia? I don’t understand.”
“She stopped at the end of the desk and turned to face him. “You know me, we just haven’t met. You know how you’ve told people that your neighborhood has a personality of its own? Well, that would be me.”
“This is crazy. I’m dreaming, right?”
She stared at him from behind her desk. “Does it feel like a dream?”
It did not. Hannibal felt the chair beneath him, smelled the homey aroma of soul food, and tasted the sour bile of fear on his tongue. In hope of changing that he lifted the cup and sipped his tea. It was hot and sweet and strong and very real.
“All right, who are you? I mean really.”
“I am exactly who I say I am,” the woman replied. “I am the spirit of the neighborhood, the embodiment of all that it is.”
“Let’s say I believe all this. You’re some kind of ghost, then.” Hannibal glanced at his left hand, realized the pointlessness of violence under the circumstances, and slipped his pistol back into its holster. “You’re haunting the hood?”
The woman chuckled, and the room glowed warmer. “I ain’t no haunt, son. I am the heart and the soul of the hood. When you walk down my streets, don’t you feel my heart beat? When one of my people dies don’t you feel the sadness all around you? Me and my brothers and sister, we sort of pool the spirits of all the humanity above.”
Hannibal’s mind was spinning fast, trying to make sense out of what was so clearly an insane situation. “Your brothers and sisters. You’re saying there are more of you?”
“Lots in the District,” the woman said. “You know them. Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, Chinatown, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights…”
Hannibal’s fear was giving way to his curiosity. Faced with a puzzle, he was driven to poke at it until it unraveled. He leaned forward in his chair, trying to read the kindly face in front of him. “Okay, you’re telling me that each neighborhood has its own spirit. Living underground, like this. And this is just a Washington DC phenomenon?”
“Oh, Lord, no. It’s everywhere, child. I haven’t met Paris but I hear she’s a lovely old gal. Unfortunately, many of my brothers and sisters have faded away in this country. You see, we are nurtured by the spirits of those above us. But in so many places the inner city has died. When that happens we die too.”
“Okay, that makes a weird kind of sense. And you look human. In fact, you look like a particular black woman I know. How come?”
“Oh, I already told you. To make you comfortable.”
“Uh-huh.” Hannibal leaned back. “I know I’m hallucinating, you know. And I got to admit I’m having fun quizzing my hallucination. So tell me, Are you really Black? What do you really look like?”
The woman seemed to go out of focus again, and then coalesced back into Mother Washington. This time she looked very sad. “When I am alone, I have no face. When I have company, I often look like a composite of my people. I manifested white until the 1950s.” Hannibal knew that was when the public housing apartments sprang up and Anacostia went from almost totally white to the present 92 percent black population. He didn’t believe in supernatural beings, of course, but if he did, this woman’s story would fit his world view. That was it, of course. His own subconscious was making this all up. He had chosen people he knew and a setting that would put him at ease. Except of course for the darkness all around him. He wondered what would happen if he stood up and tried to retrace his steps.
“Come on, now,” the woman said. She settled into her seat behind the desk, like a counselor in her office. “There are a couple more things you’re dying to ask me.”
Hannibal realized that she was right. “Why me? Why did you lead me down here?”
The old woman gave a broad smile. It must have been the question she wanted. “You’re here, dear boy, for three reasons. First, I’m lonely. And you are the one person
up there who is most in tune with the neighborhood. That usually means I can talk to a person without them getting a heart attack or ending up in an asylum. I reveal myself to only one person in each generation and I judged you the most deserving. You’re trying to take care of my streets and the people who live on them, so in a way you’re taking care of me. The second thing was, I thought you should have answers about that young couple. Your other question.”
The Grahams! Hannibal had almost forgotten what had led him to that dark tunnel under his city. But now that she mentioned it, he did have questions.
“The house,” Hannibal said, starting slowly, not wanting to anger this being if what he suspected was correct. “When the house moved, tipping John Graham through that open door to his death, was that you?”
The woman nodded with all the gravity and presence of a Supreme Court judge.
“You didn’t take Alana, did you?”
“No, child. She was an innocent.”
“But you did take John,” Hannibal said. “Why?”
“Because he was not. Which leads to the third reason you are here. To answer my question.”
“You have a question for me?” Hannibal caught himself wondering what a living spirit could want to know from him. If such things existed outside your imagination, he told himself. He watched her spread her hands on the desk and stare at him with kindly eyes.
“I want to know how you knew. I saw the evil that John Graham committed. That lovely house has been mine for generations and he used it as an excuse to murder that sweet young girl. But you didn’t see it. So how did you know that he was guilty?”
Hannibal smiled with unexpected joy at having something on this ancient spirit. “No big secret there. He said he went up the stairs, read the suicide note, opened the door and found his wife dead at the bottom of a fall into the basement.”
“Ah, yes.” The woman nodded her head. “And you were wondering…”
“I was wondering just where Alana was standing when she turned around to close that door.”
The woman laughed a very warm, long, and very human laugh. As it ended she lifted her own tea and emptied the cup. That act seemed to have meaning beyond the obvious.
“Your answer tells me that things up top are in good hands. And now, my son, it is time for you to return to the surface, and for this old woman to take a little nap. Take one of those candles to guide you. And don’t disappoint me, young man. The hood is yours to watch over. As long as you do me proud I’ll stay under it, and keep quiet.”
Hannibal wasn’t sure what to say when leaving the presence of a demigod. It has been a pleasure? An honor? Should he bow? While he wondered, she flipped the back of her hand as if to shoo him away.
“Yes, yes… you’re welcome. Now get! A woman needs her beauty sleep.”
Hannibal picked up one of the candles and took three steps down the tunnel. But he turned to look over his shoulder just in time to see the woman step back and be
enveloped by the darkness. That darkness then moved forward like a slow cloud of smoke. The furniture disappeared. The candles vanished. The air chilled.
Hannibal started walking down the tunnel away from the approaching void. Soon his walk became a jog and seconds later he was running flat out through the gloom, panting hard, using his free hand to keep him from hitting a wall on the curves. He was back in the Graham cellar much sooner than he expected, hopping over the corpses without slowing. A minute later he was walking through the front door.
Cool fresh air slapped his face, drying the sweat there as he moved down the outside steps. After his time in the dim light, the sun stabbed his eyes.
The sun? Hannibal looked to the east to see his yellow friend just peeping over the horizon. It was dawn. But he couldn’t have been in the cellar all night. Could he? No, it was barely an hour. So he must have fallen asleep. That made sense. Somehow he passed out down there and dreamed the whole experience. Sure. It was easy for the pragmatic private detective to believe that he had imagined a conversation with an ancient magical being. It was amusing to think they had that kind of a benevolent power under the hood.
He started to laugh at himself, but his smile dropped when he looked at his right hand.
Where, he wondered, could he have gotten that little tea light candle?
Austin S. Camacho
Author ● Journalist ● Public Affairs Specialist
Austin S. Camacho is the author of five novels in the Hannibal Jones Mystery Series (including Blood and Bone, The Troubleshooter, Collateral Damage, Damaged Goods and Russian Roulette) and two in the Stark and O’Brien adventure series. His short stories have appeared in 2010’s Bad Cop… No Donut and several other anthologies including Dying in a Winter Wonderland – an Independent Mystery Booksellers Association Top Ten Bestseller for 2008. He is featured in the Edgar nominated African American Mystery Writers: A Historical and Thematic Study by Frankie Y. Bailey.
Camacho is also a public affairs specialist for the Defense Department. For more than a decade his radio and television news reports were transmitted daily on the American Forces Network.
He was born in New York City but grew up in Saratoga Springs, New York. He majored in psychology at Union College in Schenectady, New York. Afterward he enlisted in the Army as a broadcast journalist.
After leaving the Army he continued to write military news and handle media relations for the Defense Department as a civilian. He also teaches writing classes at Anne Arundel Community College.