In Just Ice's world, it's use or be used: take a beating with a baseball bat, take a murder rap. Take the bad but use it to get a rep, get rich and maybe get out.

THERE IS A STORY JUSTICE TELLS about his old man and how they couldn't get along, and there's a particular way in which he likes to tell it -- standing as if holding a baseball bat, his two clenched fists held together and high against the chest, his arms cocked as if prepared to swing for the long ball.

One day, he says, his father buys a new pair of pants and lays them out on the bed in his room. Justice waits until his father leaves the house, then puts on the new pants and wears them to school. When classes let out, he returns home and puts them back on the bed as he'd found them that morning.

His father walks into his bedroom after a day on the job -- his father's a truck driver -- and notices a crease in the pants and says, "You wore my pants, didn't you?"

Justice lies and says no, he did not. "I didn't do anything," he says.

There is a bat in the house, a Louisville Slugger, and Justice's father goes for it, comes back and says, "What's that crease in my pants?"

Justice begins to say something but takes a hard blow in the shins before the first word can come out. He falls to the floor, bellowing in pain and clutching his leg.

His father says, "Don't you ever wear my new pants without asking me."

Justice, telling the story now, steps into the imaginary pitch, his back foot planted on the hard linoleum, his hips in clean athletic swivel. When the imaginary bat he holds connects, it connects solidly and at the most crucial and powerful point of the swing. You can almost hear the impact of wood on ball, or in this case, of wood on bone. It is a home run swing, the winning hit, and it is meant to convince whoever pictures it that Justice grew up in a home where discipline was measured in large and painful portions.

"Daddy, I got a man here at the record company writing the biography of my life," he says on the phone and winks at a newspaper reporter. When he hangs up, he asks if anybody knows what a Louisville Slugger is, then he tells the story again. "He didn't HOLD BACK with that bat either," he says. "Wham! Wham! Whop!" It is not difficult, especially with your eyes closed, to picture a baseball being hit clear out of the park.

THIS IS NOT THE BEST OF THE STORIES JUSTICE TELLS OF his growing up in the ghetto. But it does show in part why he wants so badly to make a grand life for himself. One day he'll tell that story while living a life full of money, cars, clothes and women, all of which may not be so far from his grasp now. And there will be this little lesson for whoever hears it: He who accepts his punishment can still reach and hold everything denied or never offered him, but one must pay what is due. Getting hit with the bat, unpleasant as it may have been, was the payback for wearing his father's new pair of pants.

But who was the first to wear those pants? Justice was. "I got a knot," he says, rubbing his shin. "I got a big knot here to show where he got me."

There is a question to ask, the same question Justice has been asking for months now, the one that won't go away: How could someone who grew up in that kind of house of discipline, and who grew up knowing that there's a price one must pay for all sins, no matter how small, kill a man in cold blood? And how could homicide detectives in Washington, D.C., ever come to accuse him, Joseph (Justice) Williams Jr., of shooting a man in the head and chest, then lifting and placing his already dead body on a bed and shooting him in the back of the neck?

THE PARENTAL DISCIPLINING IS BEHIND HIM NOW. HE IS full grown, 20 years old, and hardly ever sees his parents anymore. And Justice, who still lives in New York, is Just Ice, a rap music recording star with a future, perhaps a big future if he doesn't end up in prison serving 20 years to life, convicted of killing Ludlaw DeSouza in the first degree, which is to say killing him with premeditation, deliberation and malice.

Ludlaw DeSouza was a Washington-area drug dealer who, in November of last year, turned up dead, his body stuffed in a plastic garbage bag and dumped next to a trash bin in an alley off W Street in Northwest Washington. After almost four months of investigative work, D.C. police and prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office decided that Justice and a friend, Donald Allen, had shot and killed DeSouza in a Howard University dormitory, then skipped town on a train bound for New York, leaving the job of getting rid of the body to someone else.

Both Justice and Donald Allen, who likes to be called Shamel, say they are innocent, but Justice -- and this is not to imply that he's at all involved in the DeSouza killing -- has been saying he's innocent all his life. His father, who says he used a strict method of getting through to Justice, once said of his son, "His favorite line in the whole world was, 'But I didn't do nothin', Daddy, I didn't do nothin'. I swear I didn't do nothin'.' "

It is one thing to borrow your father's pants, and another entirely to shoot and kill a man in a dispute over drug money.

If one thing is for certain, it is that in Justice's world, people are born poor and quickly learn to do without, and they pass their days using whomever and whatever they can to make the ride easier. It is not a completely unjust or bad world because for everything given there is something taken in return -- you wear my new pants, you get the bat. As a matter of course, one upholds this law. But on the street nothing is let go or received without a price. To Justice it is okay to use and, if you can't help it, be used. It is okay because if you're smart and lucky it all evens out anyway. And if it evens out and you also happen to be blessed, as he says he is, with a singing voice that has a powerful, almost liquefying effect on women, then you stand to become a man of unutterable wealth and known the world over.

Whoever gets in the last word wins.

"Lend me a twenty," he says.

"Lend or give?" I say.

"Give me fifteen bucks then," he says. "To eat."

"Why should I give you fifteen bucks?"

"Because I'm hungry, man. I want some food. Just don't tell Will and Juggy. Promise you won't tell." WILL SOCOLOV, ONLY 30, AND JUGGY GAYLES, WHO IS A FEW weeks shy of 73, are in the business of building rap and dance music stars. Their small independent operation in New York City, Sleeping Bag Records, includes the Fresh label, which in the spring released "Latoya," Justice's hit rap song that sold over 50,000 records and reached as high as eighth on the New York Daily News' singles dance chart. In Washington, the record got very little radio play, although Justice bragged to friends in New York that it was a big hit and played constantly on WHUR, the Howard University station.

When Justice was arrested for murder, Will and Juggy posted $ 10,000 bond to get their most promising rapper out of jail and into the studio working on his first album, "Just Ice: Back to the Old School," which was released last month. After getting him back behind the microphone, Will and Juggy promised him an executive membership to the Jack LaLanne health spa if he finished in the studio on time. Then they signed him to a five-year contract.

"The kid, Justice, he's destined," says Juggy. "I don't know, I don't know what it is. But he's destined. The man upstairs, He moves me in, He moves me out. I see things. I saw John Travolta before him and Elvis Presley before him and Frank Sinatra before him. With Justice, it's just supposed to be. He's destined. I'm telling you I've seen it with my own two eyes."

Before joining Sleeping Bag, Juggy was an independent promoter, or plugger, for more than 50 years, working with giant recording companies such as Atlantic and Warner Brothers. He touches the tip of his nose and says, "I got this nose, this incredible Jewish nose. It tells me things. It tells me things."

And what Juggy's ears tell him is something else. Rap music originated in the ghetto in the mid-1970s and appealed primarily to black inner-city kids who found in it not only a good dance beat and story line but often a moral or message on how to get along on the street. It leaped from being considered a simple novelty to what Will calls a "serious musical art form" after the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" went triple platinum in 1981. Big sales, more than anything else, gave it legitimacy. And with the wider audience, rap music no longer confined itself to the creative spontaneity of one street kid making rhymes and another, the beatbox boy, inventing strange thumping noises with his mouth while backed up by a DMX drum machine. In time rap music absorbed everything from high-tech electronics to screaming metal guitars to the weepy sweet strings of a violin. Justice's music consists of his own carefully scripted verse accompanied by a riot of electronic drums and whatever clever animal chatter his beatbox boy, Ben Paynes, can produce. Will says Justice's music is "intelligent and meaningful," but Juggy, in all honesty, admits to not really understanding it.

Juggy does, however, understand the business of selling records. Speaking of Justice, he declares, "I am somewhat of a prognosticator and I prognosticate great and wonderful things for this young man."

When Justice asks Juggy for money to buy something to eat, Juggy tells him to go ask Will. Justice asks Will only to hear Will tell him to go ask Juggy. They are like mother and father trading off the hunger of a precocious child. "One of you gotta give me money now or I'm gonna die. I'm starving," says Justice, who, only a few hours earlier, ate a New York steak and fries at Beefsteak Charlie's.

"How much?" Will says.

"Fifty'll do," Justice says. "I'll give you twenty-five, take it or leave it. Come here. Take the twenty-five. Take it."

"But I'm hungry, Will. I'm starving."

"Thirty then. That's all I got."

Will pulls a wad of cash from his pocket and turns over two bills to Justice, who is not impressed. "I just gave you fifteen bucks," I say. "Why can't you eat on your fifteen bucks?"

"It ain't the same, man. I got bills. I got a woman who's at home to take care of. I got a phone, man. I got this household to run."

It is okay to take from the company because Will keeps an account book listing every dime he's ever loaned Justice, including the $ 10,000 bond Justice is working to pay back. It's okay because, as Will says, "Justice can do for Sleeping Bag what the Temptations did for Motown," and because, as Juggy says touching the tip of his incredible Jewish nose, "Destined! I tell you the kid's destined."

Will Socolov is a white man making a career of developing black musicians and promoting what he calls "street music." A few years ago, before leasing the company's present offices on Broadway in Manhattan, he worked wonders on the phone in the basement of his mother's restaurant; one minute a caller requested dinner reservations, the next someone else was ordering hip-hop dance records produced by his burgeoning enterprise.

"We're going to make Justice get a bank account," Will says. "Pretty soon he'll be making more money than most CEOs. But he doesn't know what to do with money. The moment he got out of jail, he asked me for $ 300. He begged me for it. He had to have this $ 300. I gave it to him and he went out and bought a $ 280 ghetto blaster and a Fila shirt. He's a giant baby. He still calls his father 'Daddy.' "

At Sleeping Bag, the phones never stop ringing. The retail promoters and sales reps -- exquisite titles for those five or six employes who distribute records and call radio stations to try to get the company's music on the air -- eat cheese sandwiches, hard red apples and corn chips at their battered wood and metal desks. They are not moved by the presence of the stars they work so hard to sell, including Justice, who on Friday licks stamps, stuffs envelopes and, as they do, calls radio stations and asks disc jockeys and program directors to play songs on the Sleeping Bag and Fresh labels.

"Play 'Latoya' by Just Ice," Justice says, then hangs up before the voice on the other end can ask him his name.

He knows all about radio people. After the record company posted bond and he was back on the street, people asked him if it was true that he "took somebody out." He told them he was in the Bahamas that week, and he told people at nightclubs the same thing. He lied. It was what they got for asking the same old impossible questions. Were you even involved with drugs and this dealer? "No!" Where were you . . . "NO!" Did you . . . "NO! NO! NO!"

ON MARCH 24, 1986, IN HEMPSTEAD, N.Y., Justice and Shamel went to 7-Eleven for a couple of Slurpees, drove back to the house where Shamel's parents lived and confronted a violent storm of lights and sirens and muffled voices. There were at least eight police cars, and cops everywhere, and Shamel's mother crying in the front yard. The police made Justice and Shamel lie down on the ground, and pointed guns at the backs of their heads. They told them they were under arrest for the murder of Ludlaw DeSouza. Justice says he rested his chin on the hard earthen floor and asked himself, "Is this some crap or what?"

Somebody would pay the price for his innocence and ultimate vindication. And for the five weeks he and Shamel languished in jail, bouncing from Nassau County, N.Y., to Manhattan to the federal prison at Lewisburg, Pa., and finally to the D.C. jail, somebody would have to pay.

They sat through two preliminary hearings -- the first in New York, the second in Washington -- in which an ugly, brutal slaying was attributed to them. They had been turned into "a couple of idiot fool patsies," as Justice said, by a D.C. homicide detective, Ronald S. Taylor, whose testimony was largely built on the word of a single unnamed informant, a man who claimed to be a witness to the killing. This same man, court papers revealed, was not only a thief and a drug dealer but a user of PCP and cocaine whose own mother would not let him live at home because of his addiction to drugs and wont to steal.

D.C. prosecutors have nine months from the time of the arrests in which to present their case to a grand jury and try to obtain indictments of Justice and Shamel. That means Justice and Shamel have lived and continue to live in an uncertain dream of December, hoping that any day now the charges will be dropped, the case dismissed, their slates wiped clean.

"This whole thing makes me laugh," Justice said. "This whole damned thing, every bit of it, is a joke. I'm innocent, man. I didn't do nothing."

But then what was wrong with Justice's profiting from the murder rap, from promoting his reputation as a coldhearted street tough at the expense of those who called him a killer? Why not use it to build his image, to show people he was, like his old man, the kind of person you don't mess with or bully or play for a fool? If, as he suspected, the detectives were grasping at straws in trying to create a case against him, why not use them right back?

Why shouldn't the old street rule apply, the one that always applied: Use what you need to get by.

EVEN BEFORE THE ARREST, JOSEPH WILLIAMS JR.'S STAGE persona not only was that of Justice and Just Ice, rap's bad boy, it was also that of a character known as Sir Vicious, the gangster of hip-hop. On stage at New York discos, or in gymnasiums packed with teen-aged kids who put up $ 10 and $ 15 a head to see him and his beatbox boy perform, he enjoyed playing the part of the hard, unfeeling street thug accused of taking out a drug dealer. For one thing, the act attracted crowds, and crowds meant money. To Will and Juggy, he was a sweet kid with a lot of growing up to do. But to his audiences, he was a real-life killer who often stopped in the middle of a song and shouted, "SHUT UP, stupid head!" and waved an angry fist in the air. "Nobody talks when I'm on this stage!"

Then he rapped:

If you don't know my name

I think you'd better call me Sir . . .

You'd just beware and better be suspicious

Because my name's Just Ice,

Another word for vicious . . .

Hearing a single heckler say his music was offbeat or didn't rhyme, he ordered the house lights turned up and yelled, "WHO SAID THAT? Where is he? Whoever said that get the hell out of here right this minute before I beat your damn butt! OUT! Get out!"

Some of his songs, even those recorded before his arrest, were irreverent and cruel; Will called them "nursery rhymes for black street kids." Sleeping Bag edited whole stanzas from "That Girl Is a Slut" and printed a warning label on the record cover saying it contained explicit lyrics and was "totally obnoxious."

I'm going to tell you about this girl who paid me a visit

I was all alone, there was a knock on my door

Then I fell over my shoes as I tripped across the floor,

Tripped across the floor, then I stumbled on the floor

Then I grabbed the door, looked through the peephole,

When I saw her, I was stunned with shock,

Then I said, "This (expletive) is gonna (expletive) my (expletive)."

After the arrest, his songs became even more daring. In "That Girl Is a Slut Part II," he almost laughs in the face of his accusers and dares them to find him guilty:

Murderer, when it comes to a rhyme

Homicide, ain't doin' no time . . .

The kids cheered and loved it; they cheered and loved him. They turned out just to see the transformation, to watch him go from rap singer to gangster to monster, to bulge and roar with rage and scream against those who had done him wrong.

"I WON'T STAND FOR NO NOISE!" Justice shouted.

Then, "DON'T TICK ME OFF."

He wore black cords, a black shirt and black baseball cap and sunglasses with lenses shaped like coins. He wore his hair teased out like a fright wig. He announced that in addition to his six gold-capped teeth, he would soon be adding eight more with his name, Justice, engraved across the 24.2-karat covering. Then he would dress his "wolf teeth" with diamonds and his mouth would look and shine like the display window in a jewelry store.

Often during his shows, those who watched in awe and trembling confused the act with the man and were so moved or pleased or mesmerized that they waited for him outside the service entrance and followed behind him to his car, whispering, "You bad, Justice. You bad, man." He walked through the crowd and the crowd parted, and a hush befell all who dreamed of possessing such a huge and furious spirit. In the eyes of his fans, he was not only a rapper, spinning off street verse as Ben Paynes, whose stage name is Human DMX, backed him up with so much bass and animal chatter, he was also a rappin' murderer.

"You know who I am?" he said. "DO YOU have any idea WHO I AM?"

One day when Ben Paynes failed to show up for a studio session, Justice returned to the ghetto in a foul, angry mood. He was no longer the licker and stuffer of Sleeping Bag envelopes, the cheerful voice on the telephone, the big brooding overgrown baby without a checking account. Home in the ghetto, he was a festering boil on the city's lower lip, ready to explode. He walked down the middle of the street, right down the middle of Broadway, carrying his blaster on his shoulder like a rare basket of fruit. The blaster spit a chaotic stream of verse across Bushwick in Brooklyn, the old neighborhood dressed now in scribbles of spray paint and crowded with cars and junk. Drivers of automobiles moving on either side of the street blew their horns at him and shot the bird and shouted obscenities.

"Why you walkin' down the middle of the road, man?" they hollered.

And Justice hollered back, "I don't walk on sidewalks. Not today I don't."

Finding Ben Paynes sitting on the front stoop of a plain-faced brownstone, killing time with his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Justice turned down his blaster and shouted, "Ben! Come here, Ben!"

Then: "You didn't do RIGHT, Ben. You missed three studio appointments, Ben. You messed up. A hundred and eighty dollars I had to pay for that studio, Ben, and you weren't there. The album, Ben. Ben, the album! Have you forgotten about the album, Ben?"

"Justice, man. Please."

"But, Ben. Ben! You didn't do right, Ben! You did wrong. You did wrong, my man. YOU DID NOT DO RIGHT, BEN!"

Guilty of killing Ludlaw DeSouza or not, Just Ice had in him the power to carry out justice. He would not be vanquished or defeated or cowed into a posture of surrender. Let them say he was a killer; let them make up whatever picture or story of him they liked. Although he insisted he had not done it, he truly was bad enough to pull off such an act. He truly was the kind of person who might have once held a smoking gun. He was of the streets and mean.

And even greater than that, he was destined. "MY MOTHER," HE SAYS, "SHE'S A DIABETIC who went to have some dental work done, and they forgot to tell her not to take her insulin shots. And after the dental work she went into a coma for two days. But now her speech is slurred. They put her in this institution in Boston."

Justice visited his mother not long after being released from jail, and they sat and talked about everything and nothing. One thing they did not talk about was how hard it had been to find love in their house once she was gone.

Justice, as a hardheaded 9-year-old, skipped school and ran with rappers who staged impromptu concerts in the parks of Harlem and Brooklyn. He would rather have been out roaming the streets than cooped up at home, waiting for another fight to break out. He'd come home at 3 or 4 in the morning, full of tales of the Casanova Crew and the Zulu Nation and the Nine Crew and this one fellow Herc, the man who actually invented rap music and did so in Justice's presence. When his grandmother told him violence and loud music ran together, he covered his ears. He didn't want to hear it.

He went to bed with a heavy bass beat in his head, his feet keeping time. He told his father he would never work a day in his life. His music would liberate him and get him out of the ghetto. He said he would be rich and famous and have things. And yet, there he was at 16 wearing his father's new pants without permission. And there was his father, stepping into the pitch, swinging for the fence and making sure it never happened again.

It was when he was in the ninth grade at a school for truants in Upstate New York that they started calling him Justice. He got the name because whenever there was trouble everyone turned to him. Bigger and stronger than most of the other kids, he was judge and jury. If cleanup details were not carried through as ordered, he was the one who came in, knocked heads and saw to it that no one got a free ride.

He loved his new name so much that back home in Brooklyn, he refused to talk to people who called him by his given name. In the 10th grade, he told a teacher, "You want to be my friend, lady, call me Justice and you'll get some work out of me. Call me Joseph and I won't do anything."

He told his father to call him Justice and his father said he wouldn't do it. "The name is dumb," his father said and called him what he'd always called him, which is Teo. Teo Marcus would have been Justice's name had his mother not written Joseph Williams Jr. on the birth certificate before her husband could arrive at the hospital to visit and name their newborn.

After five schools in five years, and after one last fight with his old man, Justice moved into a group home for kids in Far Rockaway, Queens. For money, he worked as a carpenter's helper roofing houses and putting up sheet rock and siding. He quit school knowing that school had nothing to do with how he would make his money. No one ever asked a rapper for his diploma.

Besides, who in his world read books when he could sit around smoking grass and drinking wine and making rhymes?

He was working as a messenger when he and Ben Paynes got together and made a demo tape of some of the songs Justice had written. One night when his courage was up he dropped off the tape at Sleeping Bag Records and said to pay close attention to the one called "Latoya," which was about a girl he had made up in his head.

Will Socolov, who receives about a hundred such tapes each month, listened to Justice's music and liked it; the voice, rich yet biting, came across as tough as the man. When Will called and told Justice that Sleeping Bag wanted to back him, Justice quit his job as a messenger on the spot and started work on his first 12-inch record. He and Ben worked through the night in rented studios, bringing the streets alive in verse and thumping rhythms that sounded like chunks of tar rolled down a tin roof. They rarely slept.

"New York, New York," Justice told Ben, "city of dreams; city so great they named it twice."

Although he was lucky to have a dollar in his pocket, Justice looked at the place differently now and saw that it was his -- he owned it. He filled every door he walked through. He was a recording artist. And down in Fort Green and Castle Hill and Bushwick in Brooklyn people knew his stay there was temporary. Who with fame and money stays in Bushwick, who chooses to live there when Manhattan sits like a dream just across the bridge, an island wreathed in gold?

His old friends were suddenly mindful of his wishes. And young girls who had heard of his good fortune and sure deliverance crowded him on the street, some days waiting outside on the stoop of his building for him to make an appearance. Where before he simply left his home and walked outside, now he made an appearance.

"I don't have no big head," he said one day. "And I won't until I produce my own records. But these women want to be around me for sex. I get tired of that. You do it too much and it makes you skinny."

When a friend he grew up with, a student at Howard University, invited him to take the train down and spend some time in Washington, Justice figured that after all his studio work and hiding from sex-crazy girls he needed time "to cool out," as he called it. In Washington he could hang out at clubs, glad-hand admirers of his music, boast of the recording contract he was set to sign with Sleeping Bag. In Washington he could be whomever he wanted to be, including who he was: just another black guy walking the street, carrying a ghetto blaster playing some funky rap anthem.

Or it seemed so, he says, until he got word in March that D.C. detectives had called and were looking for him. He was back in New York, playing club dates three and four nights a week, when he heard about it from the receptionist at Sleeping Bag who answered the call.

"Justice, some homicide detective in Washington was just on the phone asking if you worked here," she told him. The next day Will fired the woman. It was none of her business, he said, and he didn't want to upset Justice, whose record then was climbing in sales and on the verge of becoming what Will called a "monster giant hit."

"What do they want me for, Will?" Justice said.

"Don't worry about it," Will said. "You've got to live your life, you've got a lot of work to do. Just don't worry about it."

ONE THING HE HATED ABOUT JAIL WAS NOT BEING able to leave. Another was losing 20 scheduled club engagements at $ 1,000 a pop.

What he liked most about it -- and this is not to imply that he ever once considered calling it home -- was being able to sleep late in the morning. "Hotels must be like this," he said one day and rubbed his bare feet on the carpeted floor. At the prison in Lewisburg, where he and Shamel spent three weeks, there were televisions and telephones on every floor. He wondered why Shamel, who was a better-than-average college student from a fine middle-class family and who seemed as unlikely a murderer as Justice liked to think he himself did, sat shaking and staring at the walls.

"Don't be like a woman," Justice recalls mumbling under his breath. "You're acting like a damn woman."

Justice says he told him it was all a big stupid joke, and Shamel asked him to please announce when it was time to laugh. "Oh, shut up," Justice said and knew he was really only talking to himself.

When Justice and Shamel were removed to Washington to appear in D.C. Superior Court, marshals wouldn't let Justice wear his black baseball hat and sunglasses into the courtroom for the hearing. "That really ticked me off," Justice said later. He sat at a table with Avis Buchanan, a public defender, and Irving Cohen, a New York criminal lawyer Sleeping Bag had hired to represent him, and with Shamel and his attorney, Gary Kohlman.

As in New York, Ronald Taylor, an 18-year veteran of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, was the government's lone witness. Justice listened and says that at times he almost burst out laughing; he had to cover his mouth with his hand in order to contain himself. "This is a riot," Justice says he kept telling himself. "This ain't real. This is some hilarious stuff."

Taylor said that Justice was a member of a group called the Nation of Five Percent and that on his periodic trips to Washington from New York, he carried narcotics for delivery to other members of the Five Percent. Justice was the Five Percent name for Joseph Williams Jr., Taylor said, and other members of the Five Percent also assumed God-given names and believed they were gods or God Almighty unto themselves. Shamel, Taylor said, was Donald Allen's Five Percent name, and he and Ludlaw DeSouza, for whom Shamel allegedly sold drugs, had been engaged in a longstanding dispute over money.

Taylor said Justice came down as an enforcer or hit man, for it is the way of the Five Percenter to perform any act in the service of one of his brothers. He said on Nov. 13 of last year, Justice and Shamel pulled guns on DeSouza in Room 766 of the Meridian Hill Tower, an off-campus Howard University dormitory on the corner of 16th and Euclid streets in Northwest Washington. According to Taylor, Justice and Shamel asked DeSouza if he feared the Lord, then opened fire when DeSouza, thinking they were just fooling around, made a swipe at Shamel's gun.

The murder happened at about 1 p.m., Taylor said, but not a soul in the building could be found who heard shots fired. Taylor testified that Yusef Smith, the Howard student who rented the room, returned later in the evening and discovered blood on his bedding. In February, detectives searched the room and found blood residue that matched DeSouza's blood type.

After the killing, Taylor continued, both Justice and Shamel told the informant the details of how they killed DeSouza, and Justice went with the informant to the Blair Road apartment where DeSouza lived. The two of them, Taylor said, ransacked the place, and Justice removed between $ 8,000 and $ 9,000, a cache of narcotics and a firearm from a green metal file. Taylor said the informant then went with Justice to Union Station, and Justice and Shamel teamed up again and boarded a train back to New York.

Sometime later that day, Taylor said, the informant returned to the Blair Road address and helped himself to such "usable items" as the stereo. Someone else put the body in a metal footlocker and then moved it to the W Street alley.

As attorneys Kohlman and Buchanan cross-examined the detective, Justice smiled and teased his nappy head of hair, thinking, he says, about what perverted fools some people make of themselves. He thought Taylor was like anybody else on the street looking for someone to use, and he thought that the informant, another user, would have his price to pay. It was one huge mean circle of users, and he was stuck in the middle of it.

He thought that the government, represented by William Martin of the U.S. Attorney's Office, used the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department to wipe clean the streets; the cops, in turn, used what people they could to sweep together tidy little mounds to try to make sense of the mess; the people the cops used turned around and used whomever else they could to keep themselves out of the huge mean circle.

In and out of jail Shamel's one burning question was: "If somebody tells the police that Mr. X killed a man, and after getting this information corroborated by somebody else, can the police go ahead and arrest Mr. X for murder?"

In and out of jail Justice's answer was: "Yes, of course they can. They can and they do."

The way Justice says he figured it, as long as homicide detectives could use him and Shamel to sweep this one killing into a tidy little mound and get it off the streets, who cared about what they had to say?

It didn't matter that Justice said he went to Washington to rest after long days in the studio and running from sex-starved girls, or that on the afternoon of the killing, he said he was in the Meridian Hill Tower watching "Thundercats," a cartoon, on television; who cared if he said he was in the room where the killing was supposed to have occurred -- in there at 3 o'clock -- and saw not a dead man, not a single drop of blood, but hundreds of animated spacemen waging war on each other on the terrain of a television set?

It didn't matter that he and Shamel said they enjoyed only an infrequent association with the Nation of Five Percent, or that Shamel's name was given to him by his cousin, an Ansaru Muslim, when Shamel was in the third grade, or that he, Justice, got his name for trying to do right when it seemed everyone else in the world was out to do wrong. None of it mattered and what if it did?

Who cared if Justice was on the verge of a rich and famous career as a rap music star, or that Shamel made good grades and read the Bible and had once marched against apartheid?

Justice knew all about using people and being used, but how could he explain that to someone like Shamel, who, being so tragically middle-class and book-smart, had not been toughened and made wise and strong by the streets?

The police said that Shamel dealt drugs for DeSouza. Did it matter that Shamel says he did not use or sell drugs and hardly knew DeSouza?

Shamel says he met DeSouza when he, Shamel, was a student at Montgomery County College. He says he and his roommate had in the summer of 1985 sublet their one-room Blair Gardens apartment to two men before returning home to New York for vacation; those two men were Ludlaw DeSouza and his friend Winston Sinclair. When Shamel returned to Washington at the end of the summer, he says, all of his clothes had been piled in one corner of the room, his metal green file had been taken over and filled with DeSouza's drugs and drug money and he had been threatened repeatedly to turn down his music, to shut up, to leave.

But who cared about his story now, the one he says he never told the police, the one he carried with him to jail?

Shamel says he and his roommate cleared out of the apartment within two weeks after returning, and that he moved to a friend's place on 10th and N streets NW, leaving some of what he owned with DeSouza because he was afraid and intimidated by DeSouza and feared for his life.

In jail Justice lay in his rack rubbing the knot on his shin and hearing a heavy bass beat in his head. There were so many questions about who didn't care and all that didn't matter that after a while he hardly cared and only a thing or two mattered. The beat still mattered because it would in time get him out of the world of users and into the place where rich and famous people lived and the knot mattered because of how it got there.

Several years before, his father had stepped into an invisible pitch with a Louisville Slugger and knocked him to the ground. When he thought about it from where he lay in jail, it was not so bad a thing his father had done. He was even a little bit grateful for that knot.

It was not so bad at all.

JUSTICE MET HIS GIRLFRIEND, PAMELA HOUSTON, when he was doing a radio talk show and live, on-the-air performance of "Latoya" and she called and introduced herself. She was one of dozens of girls who called the radio station and asked if he wanted a woman, a pretty woman, a smell-good woman. Of course they were not really women but teen-aged girls, most of whom lived in the ghetto and had nothing better to do on this week night than call a rap star and pant and talk dirty-talk. He told them all to send pictures.

"But if you're ugly," he told them, "don't bother."

He liked the sound of Pam's voice -- she sounded older and less giddy -- and he gave her Sleeping Bag's Manhattan address. She wrote a letter telling him how much she liked his looks and his music and included her telephone number. He called and made a date. Soon as he saw her, he decided she was more than pretty enough, and then after a time, he told her she was the only woman he would have sex with. It was a big commitment but he told her that his line of thinking was you can hug and kiss and play around with all the women you want, but you're allowed to have only one for sex.

He thought that by sticking to this policy, a man could keep from getting too skinny, particularly in the area of his arms.

The one night Justice's father, Joseph Williams Sr., comes by to visit everyone at the record company, including a certain biographer from Washington, so does a girl wearing her yellow frosted hair in a ponytail, knotted and clipped with a plastic butterfly. Out of the blue the girl arrives and announces that Justice asked her if she felt like partying. The girl's orange polka-dot Spandex pants reveal a plump but shapely figure, and her low-cut blouse reveals something else entirely. Justice hands her a stack of promotional photographs of himself and says, "Check these out," then, "You wait here," and rides a big-wheeled all-terrain bicycle across the floor of the office. He maneuvers the bike around trash cans and chairs and the promoters and sales reps who do their best to ignore him.

Juggy Gayles says, "Now don't go fall and hurt yourself, Justice. Please, Justice. Please! Don't go and hurt yourself."

Justice parks the bike near the open doorway of Will's office and says, "You see that girl I got in there from Jersey, Daddy?"

His father says, "You know how much AIDS is out there, Teo?" and laughs a quiet laugh meant to let everyone know he's joking.

"I ain't worried about no AIDS," Justice says.

"You'd better take it to a doctor before you do anything with it," his father says and laughs a little harder. "Better let the doctor check it out."

"I don't need no doctor," Justice says. "I can check it out myself. I know what to look for."

Mr. Williams takes a seat and starts talking about the old days, though they are really not so old, and about how he always wanted to move his wife and son and daughter to Florida and be a pilot, and how he told everybody what a big deal he would make of himself, but how after a while he became what he calls "a ghetto gypsy," moving from one dead end of Brooklyn to another.

He says after a while his dreams of moving the family to Florida and being a pilot died, and he started living in the real world. "Every father wants his son to be what he wasn't," Mr. Williams says. "I didn't get too emotional when I heard about this mishap, this murder thing, because what could I do? I just hoped it wasn't true. I want Teo to be successful. A person would have a hard time trying to be successful from behind bars."

Justice sits on the arm of Will's new couch and listens to his father talk. He is quiet and stares out the window, watching the headlights of traffic on the street below. After a while he stands up, thanks his father for coming by and leaves the office, the girl with the ponytail tagging closely behind. Some of the people at Sleeping Bag stand at the windows and watch as he walks down the street with the girl following at his heels, trying to keep up. Justice seems to care little about the girl, who keeps playing with her butterfly hair clip as if it were real and trying to flutter away. He takes long, loping strides, and it seems that what he wants more than anything is to walk right into the night and embrace it, or open wide his mouth and gobble it, or pick up the invisible bat he is known to carry and take one last home run swing at everything that ever was.

"He's destined," Juggy says after a minute. "I tell you that kid is destined for something."