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The elderly black woman sits on her couch and rummages through a cardboard box until she finds the newspaper article—raggedy and faded like the town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where her daughter Melody spent her final years. The headline re, police seek more clues in murder. Her weary voice assumes the pitch of a little boy: " 'Grandma, have they found out who did it to my mama?

And then she mimics a grandmother's loving cadence: "I'd say, 'Not yet. But the Lord knows who did it. She falls silent. Then the woman points to a large photograph propped against the wall of her modest home. Below her grandson's name and grinning face are the dates "October 15, November 15, She remembers how the astonishing white light made her gasp, " Jesus …" Then she remembers her grandson flying away from her, as her daughter had three years earlier.

The farmer who discovered the second body found off Seven Bridges Road, a few miles north of Rocky Mount, had been taking down his electric fence, and what drew him to the tree stump was a foreign odor. He initially mistook the carcass in the woods for that of a rotting deer.

But then he saw the hands raised above the small round skull, as if waving for help. The skeletonized woman lay facedown, naked. Maggots and beetles dug into what was left of her leathery flesh.

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When Corneta Battle saw the news that day in Marchshe knew that her prayers— Lord, you've got to show me where my sister is. Let me dream it. Let me see it —had finally been answered. Corneta called the authorities. They asked her to swab her mother's mouth for DNA. After the tests came back indicating a Corneta Battle looked at them and nodded silently. Though there was almost nothing left of her sister, she still recognized Ernestine. For almost six weeks, Ernestine Battle had been missing. It was well known that she walked the streets of Rocky Mount all night, selling her body to support her crack habit, that she had stopped taking care of her two young children, that she had been in and out of jail for the past nine years on drug- and prostitution-related charges, that when her family gave her food, she would trade it on the streets for a rock of cocaine.

Her disappearance was nonetheless alarming for two reasons. The first was that Ernestine, no matter how strung out, always managed to stay in touch with her family. The second was that in the past five years, several other African-American women who wandered the streets of Rocky Mount at night had never been seen alive again.

Among the disappeared, Ernestine had known Nikki Thorpe best. Nikki lived down the street from her. And on her way to the park to score some drugs, Ernestine would wave to Nikki's mother sitting on the porch drinking a Pepsi and call out, "Hey, Miss Jackie! Nikki there? Nikki grew up playing football with the boys in the projects on Stokes Street.

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She'd been a cheerleader in high school. She wrote poetry and spent entire evenings at the O 64 Bingo Parlor. Nikki's talent for braiding hair was highly regarded by the crack dealers, who sometimes gave her a rock in exchange for a hair job instead of a blow job.

Then, in the summer ofNikki's became the first body left to rot away alongside Seven Bridges Road. So little remained of her, or of Ernestine the following year, that the pathologists who examined the corpses could not determine a cause of death. All that could be said with certainty was that the Rocky Mount women had died far from home—like Denise Williams, whose bloated body was discovered floating in a swamp southeast of town in ; like Melody Wiggins, found in the woods in May ; and perhaps like Christine Boone and Joyce Renee Durham, who in andrespectively, simply vanished from the streets.

Someone was apparently taking drug-addicted black women from the drab streets of Rocky Mount—women who were not well connected or captivating to the media—and ending their sad lives and gambling that it would not matter. The cabbie believed that the someone was like him. Someone who knew the girls. Someone they would feel comfortable with. Let their guard down with.

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Jump in a car with, no problem. He'd been driving these girls—Nikki, Ernestine, Denise, pretty much all of them—for years. Sometimes the cabbie who asked not to be named would drop them off at one of the grubby motels on Highwaywhere a john had bought them a room and where they'd turn tricks and smoke crack till checkout time. Then the cabbie would get a call on his cell and pick them up. In their state of dubious afterglow, he would see them strung out beyond comprehension, bruised and cut up, their clothes reeking from having been worn days in a row.

Oftentimes they had no money despite their long evening of work, and the cabbie would give them a few bucks or drop them off at a church where they could get a hot meal. The cabbie had been raised in Rocky Mount population 57, He left for Los Angeles in the mid-'60s, came back in the mid-'90s, and was at pains to recognize his birthplace.

The Rocky Mount he had remembered—lustrous with cotton fields and tobacco warehouses—had evaporated. Integration had chased the white folks out of the public schools, consolidation shrank the tobacco industry, and the textile mills moved overseas.

InHurricane Floyd would roar in to finish the job. A decade later, Forbes would rank Rocky Mount one of the ten most impoverished cities in America. Even so, the white side of the railroad tracks that ran through the city—the Nash County side—remained pleasant enough. But things were different on the black side, the Edgecombe County side. When the cabbie was growing up, the residents in Edgecombe had been proud, hardworking people: doctors, schoolteachers, railroad employees. But then they died off, as did the jobs, as did something else in the community's soul that economists are at a loss to quantify.

By the '80s, crack dealers began to operate in once respectable, now abandoned houses in the Edgecombe sector known as the Neighborhood. To the cabbie, the Neighborhood was as bad nowadays as what he'd seen in L. He drove these streets—East Grand, Myrtle, Highland, Carolina, Park—watching the same girls jump in and out of strangers' cars, day after day, year after year. Helplessly the cabbie saw the girls deteriorate as Rocky Mount itself had. At times he would lecture them: "You remember when you was young and the guys would pass up the older ones to get to you?

They gonna pass you up, too! Didn't care about themselves or their children. They lived only to chase the ghost that was crack's finger-snap of a buzz. Still, the cabbie, an aging retiree, nurtured a soft spot for these girls he had known back when they were once pretty young things.

Glance into the cab's rearview often enough, he'd figure, and you might be rewarded with a flash of promise. Like Nikki, with her no-good boyfriend freshly dropped off at federal prison, vowing to take a stab at community college. Like the girl who always carried a book with her to and from the crack house.

And like Yolanda "Snap" Lancaster, a broad-faced short girl who radiated intelligence and who talked to the cabbie of her days playing clarinet in the high school band. Right after graduating from Rocky Mount Senior High, Snap had sought to enlist in the armed services. The recruiters told her to lose some weight. She'd gone to the Neighborhood instead. After a few years of jumping in and out of cars, Snap had accumulated enough of an arrest record to foreclose any future in the military.

With her boyfriend, she moved into a house with no electricity or water that the city had been slow to condemn. One day in FebruarySnap turned up with a full set of her boyfriend's teeth marks on her arm—sobbing, nonetheless, that she couldn't leave him: "Ain't nowhere else I can go! But that wasn't true—because a few days later, year-old Snap Lancaster was gone. Someone wasn't saying where. Jim Thorpe had played minor league baseball here in Eight years later, a local couple gave birth to the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk.

During the bleak era of segregation, the city was a reliable Chitlin' Circuit stopover for performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway who would have to be hustled out of town after stirring up the white ladies in the audience. InMartin Luther King Jr. Washington High School and said, "And so, my friends of Rocky Mount, I have a dream tonight"—road testing the refrain he would immortalize in Washington a year later.

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By the election season, amid all the glowing promise of Obama's America, Rocky Mount seemed to belong to another country altogether—with its shuttered downtown and its crack-cocaine epidemic and its railroad track demarcating a boundary between black and white. The town's lingering racial inequality was an inconvenient truth that neither political party had the stomach to discuss. And yet viewed through the perverse lens of electoral politics, Rocky Mount had something that the Obama campaign very much wanted: an abundance of black citizens who were eligible to vote but seldom if ever did.

So in the spring ofObama's fabled grassroots operation dropped by the Neighborhood. The residents did not quiz the Obama volunteers much on green jobs or high-tech classrooms.

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Instead, their questions were more basic. How could one black man make any difference, even as president? Wasn't he likely to get shot? And would registering to vote cause one's food stamps to get cut off? Still, register they did, by the thousands. And six days before the election, Rocky Mount got its reward: Michelle Obama came to deliver a get-out-the-vote speech.

The only crowd comparable would gather when the new Lowe's opened its doors and a thousand local applicants lined up to compete for the hundred available jobs. The candidate's wife, tall and glamorous, stood behind a lectern and without any notes spoke forcefully of the change that was coming.

She and her staff knew nothing of the killings that had been haunting the Neighborhood. Her speech made no mention of poverty or injustice or of once proud cities gone utterly to seed. Rather, Michelle Obama's message that afternoon was, as an Obama staffer would fondly recall, "full of hope. Out in the audience, a young African-American woman named Nekita Coleman reacted to America's future first lady with ecstatic delight like everyone else around her. It felt good to celebrate. For too long now, Nekita had been burdened by a darker strain of hope. She hoped God would make the killer see in his sleep the faces of Nikki and all his other victims.

Three months after Rocky Mount doubled its voter turnout and helped Obama take North Carolina by 14, votes, Snap Lancaster went missing. That same month, a body was found by a prison cleanup crew out in the woods beside a soccer field. The skeleton was unclothed; the mummified skin that had not been scavenged by animals was that of a black female.

Her lone tuft of hair was toxicologically tested and revealed the presence of cocaine. Her teeth did not match the dental records of the three Rocky Mount women known to be missing. In March yet another body turned up—the third to be found near Seven Bridges Road—and this one was in good condition.

She wore a black bra, white socks, and nothing else. Her neck was fractured. Abrasions covered her body. The toxicology test registered positive for cocaine. Likely she had been given some crack, then strangled, then dragged some distance to her final resting spot in the woods.

Just two weeks prior to the body's discovery, Taraha Shenice Nicholson had been telling her boyfriend that her feet were tired from walking the streets of the Neighborhood. The evening, she had gone to her mother's to see her little boy Jamarius, who squealed when she threw him into the air and cried when she left for what would turn out to be forever. Taraha had tried to clean herself up for Jamarius's sake.

She'd gone into treatment, but it didn't take.

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She emerged from a forty-five-day jail sentence with some extra weight on her, vowing that she was going to change. But her boyfriend wouldn't let her. He'd waggle a vial of crack in front of her face so that she could hear the rock rattle. Taraha's father had grown sick of their freeloading and tossed them out of his house. Taraha and her boyfriend relocated to one of the Neighborhood's many abandoned houses, where they used a generator for electricity.

Her mother, Diana, would warn her, "There's someone out there killing these girls.

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