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When I was a kid, my favorite book was Horton Hears a Who, and, like most kids, I wanted to hear it over and over and over again. My indulgent but increasingly frazzled father tried to substitute Horton Hatches the Egg and other Dr. Seuss books, but nothing else would do, although I did permit season-appropriate readings of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. See, I had figured out what Seuss only implied: Those Whos down in Who-ville, the ones who taught the Grinch what Christmas was all about? Clearly they were the same Whos who lived on Horton's flower. That realization made me giddy, a five-year-old deconstructionist, taking the text down to its bones. The word was the word, the Who was the Who. For if the Whos lived on the flower, then it followed that the Grinch and his dog, Max, did, too, which meant that the Grinch was super tiny, and that meant there was no reason to fear him. The Grinch was the size of a dust mite! How much havoc could such a tiny being wreak?
A lot, I know now. A whole lot.
My name is Edgar "Crow" Ransome, and I indirectly caused a young man's murder a few months back. I did some other stuff, too, with far more consciousness, but it's this death that haunts me. I carry a newspaper clipping about the shooting in my wallet so I'll be reminded every day -- when I pull out bills for a three-dollar latte or grab my ATM card -- that my world and its villains are tiny, too, but no less lethal for it.
Tiny Town is, in fact, one of Baltimore's many nicknames -- along with Charm City and Mobtown -- and perhaps the most appropriate. Day in, day out, it's one degree of separation here in Smalltimore, an urban Mayberry where everyone knows everyone. Then you read the newspaper and rediscover that there are really two Baltimores. Rich and poor. White and black. Ours. Theirs.
A man was found shot to death in the 2300 block of East Lombard Street late last night. Police arrived at the scene after a neighbor reported hearing a gunshot in the area. Those with information are asked to call . . .
This appeared, as most such items appear, inside the Beacon Light's Local section, part of something called the "City/County Digest." These are the little deaths, as my girlfriend, Tess Monaghan, calls them, the homicides that merit no more than one or two paragraphs. A man was found shot to death in an alley in the 700 block of Stricker Street. . . . A man was killed by shots from a passing car in the 1400 block of East Madison Street. . . . A Southwest Baltimore man was found dead inside his Cadillac Escalade in the 300 block of North Mount. If they have the victim's name, they give it. If there are witnesses or arrests, the fact is noted for the sheer wonder of it. "Witness" is the city's most dangerous occupation these days, homicide's thriving secondary market, if you will. We're down on snitchin' here in Baltimore and have the T-shirts and videos to prove it. Want to know how bad things have gotten? There was a hit ordered on a ten-year-old girl who had the misfortune to see her own father killed.
Here's what is not written, although everyone knows the score: Another young black man has died. He probably deserved it. Drug dealer or drug user. Or maybe just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he should have known better than to hang around a drug corner at that time, right? If you want the courtesy of being presumed innocent in certain Baltimore neighborhoods, you better be unimpeachable, someone clearly, unambiguously cut down in the cross fire. A three-year-old getting his birthday haircut. A ten-year-old playing football. I wish these examples were hypothetical.
I'm not claiming that I was different from anyone else in Baltimore, that I read those paragraphs and wondered about the lives that preceded the deaths. No, I made the same calculations that everyone else did, plotting the city's grid in my head, checking to make sure I wasn't at risk. Shot in a movie theater for telling someone to be quiet? Sure, absolutely, that could happen to me, although there aren't a lot of tough guys in the local art houses. Killed for flipping someone off in traffic? Not my style, but Tess could have died a thousand times over that way. She has a problem with impulse control.
But we're not to be found along East Lombard or Stricker or Mount or any other dubious street, not at 3:00 a.m. Even when I am in those neighborhoods, people leave my ride and me alone. Usually. And it's not because I'm visibly such a nice guy on a do-gooding mission. They don't bother me because I'm not worth the trouble. I'm a red ball walking; kill me and all the resources of the city's homicide division will be brought to bear on the investigation. I'll get more than a paragraph, too.
In fact, I think I'd get almost as much coverage as Gregory Youssef, a federal prosecutor found stabbed to death last year. Perhaps I should carry a clipping of that case, too, for it was really Youssef's death that changed my life, although I didn't know it at the time. But I'm not likely to forget Youssef's death soon. Nobody is.
The hard part would be fitting me into a headline. Artist? Musician? Only for my own amusement these days. Restaurant-bar manager? Doesn't really get the flavor of what I do at the Point, which is a bar, but increasingly a very good music venue as well, thanks to the out-of-town bands I've been recruiting. Scion of a prominent Charlottesville family? Even if I were confident I could pronounce "scion" correctly, I'm more confident that I would never pronounce myself as such. Boyfriend of Tess Monaghan, perhaps Baltimore's best-known private investigator? Um, no thank you. I love her madly, but that's not how I wish to be defined.No Good Deeds. Copyright © by Laura Lippman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from No Good Deeds by Laura Lippman
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