Authors: Chester Himes
Anderson told him to order the car to stay put and he’d send the Homicide crew up there.
The Homicide lieutenant ordered one of his detectives to call the Assistant Medical Examiner again.
Haggerty said, “Old Doc Fullhouse ain’t going to like spending his nights in Harlem with bodies as cold as these.”
Anderson said, “You go along with Jones and Johnson; I’ll take the witness back to the station in my car.”
Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, with Haggerty in back, led the Homicide car down 125th Street to Convent Avenue and up the hill to the south side of the convent grounds.
The prowl car was parked by the convent wall in the middle of the block. There was not a pedestrian in sight.
The three cops were sitting inside their car to keep warm, but they jumped out and looked alert when the Homicide car drew up.
“There is it,” one of them said, pointing toward the convent wall. “We haven’t touched anything.”
The corpse was flattened against the wall in an upright position, with its arms hanging straight down and its feet raised several inches from the pavement. It was entirely covered, except for the head, by a long, black, shapeless coat, threadbare and slightly greenish, with a moth-eaten, rabbit-fur collar. The hands were encased in black, knitted mittens; the feet in old-fashioned, high-buttoned shoes that had recently been cleaned with liquid polish. The face seemed to be buried in the solid concrete, so that only the back of the head was visible. Glossy waves of black, oily hair gleamed in the dim light.
“Holy Mary! What happened here?” the Homicide lieutenant exclaimed as the group of detectives pressed close.
Flashlights came into play, lighting the grotesque figure.
“What is it?” a hardened Homicide detective asked.
“How does it stick there?” another wondered.
“It’s a bad joke,” Haggerty said, “it’s just a dummy, frozen to the wall.”
Grave Digger groped at a leg through folds of garments. “It ain’t no dummy,” he said.
“Don’t touch it until the M. E. gets here,” the Homicide lieutenant cautioned. “It might fall.”
“It looks like it might be garroted,” one of the cops from the prowl car offered.
The Homicide lieutenant turned on him with a face suddenly gone beet-red. “Garroted! From within the convent? By who, the nuns?”
The cop backtracked hastily. “I didn’t mean by the nuns. A gang of niggers might have done it.”
Grave Digger and Coffin Ed turned to look at him.
“It’s just a way of speaking,” the cop said defensively.
“I’ll take a look,” Grave Digger said.
He stood on tiptoe and peered down the back of the fur collar.
“Nothing around its neck,” he said.
While still on tiptoe, he sniffed the wavy hair. Then he blew into it softly. Strands of silky hair floated outward. He dropped to his feet.
The lieutenant looked at him questioningly.
“Anyway, she’s no grandma,” Grave Digger said. “Her hair looks like a job from the Rose Meta beauty parlors.”
“Well, let’s see what’s keeping her up,” the lieutenant said.
They discovered an iron bar protruding from the wall at a point about six feet high. Below and above it there were deep cracks in the cement; and, at one point above, the crack had been dug out to form a long, oblong hole. The face of the corpse had been thrust into this hole with sufficient force to clamp it, and the end of the bar was caught between the legs, holding it aloft.
“Jesus Christ, it looks like it’s been hammered in there,” the lieutenant said.
“They’re no signs of bruises on the back of the head,” Grave Digger pointed out.
“One thing is for sure,” Haggerty cracked. “She didn’t get there by herself.”
“You’re going to be a senator someday,” the lieutenant said.
“Maybe she was hit by a car,” a harness cop suggested.
“I’ll buy that,” Coffin Ed said.
“Hit by a car!” the lieutenant exclaimed. “Goddammit, she’d have to be hit by a car traveling like a jet plane to get rammed into that wall like that.”
“Not necessarily,” Grave Digger said.
The flip cop said, “Oh, I forgot—there’s a wig in the gutter across the street.”
The lieutenant gave him a reproving look, but didn’t say the words.
In a group, they trudged across the street. The cold east wind whipped at them, and their mouths gave off steam like little locomotives.
It was a cheap wig of gray hair, fashioned in a bun at the back, and it was weighted down by a car jack.
“Was the jack with it?” the lieutenant asked.
“No sir—I put the jack on it to keep the wind from blowing it away,” the cop replied.
The lieutenant moved the jack with his foot and picked up the wig. A detective held a light.
“All I can say about it is it looks like hair,” the lieutenant said.
“Looks like real nigger hair,” the flip cop said.
“If you use that word again I’ll kick your teeth down your throat,” Coffin Ed said.
The cop bristled. “Knock whose teeth—”
He never got to finish. Coffin Ed planted a left hook in his stomach and crossed an overhand right to the jaw. The cop went down on his hips; his head leaned slowly forward until it stopped between his knees.
No one said anything. It was a delicate situation. Coffin Ed was due a reprimand, but the lieutenant from Homicide was the ranking officer, and the cop had already riled him with the crack about the nuns.
“He asked for it,” he muttered to himself, then turned to the other prowl car cop. “Take him back to the station.”
“Yes, sir,” the cop said with a dead-pan expression, giving Coffin Ed a threatening look.
Grave Digger put a hand on Coffin Ed’s arm. “Easy, man,” he murmured.
The cop helped his partner to his feet. He could stand, but he was groggy. They got in the prowl car and drove off.
The others recrossed the street and stared at the corpse. The lieutenant stuck the wig into his overcoat pocket.
“How old would you say she was?” he asked Grave Digger.
“Young,” Grave Digger said. “Middle twenties.”
”What beats me is
would a young woman masquerade as an old woman
“Maybe she was trying to impersonate a nun, a Homicide detective ventured.
The lieutenant, began to turn red. “You mean so she could get into the convent?”
“Not necessarily—maybe she had a racket.”
“What kind of racket?” The lieutenant looked at Grave Digger as though he had all the answers.
“Don’t ask me,” Grave Digger said. “Folks up here are dreaming up new rackets every day. They got the time and the imagination, and all they need is a racket to make the money.”
“Well, all we can do now is leave her for Doc Fullhouse,” the lieutenant said. “Let’s go over the ground and see what it tells.”
Grave Digger got a heavy flashlight from the glove compartment of their car, and he and Coffin Ed walked back to the intersection.
The others covered the area nearer to the corpse. No tire marks were evident where a car might have braked suddenly; they found no broken glass.
Coming up the street from Convent Avenue, playing the light from right to left, Grave Digger noticed two small black marks on the gray-black asphalt, and they knelt in the street to study them.
“Somebody gunned a car here,” he concluded.
“I’d say a big car with a used tread, but we’ll leave it for the experts.”
Coffin Ed noticed a car with a wheel jacked up. On closer inspection they noticed that the opposite wheel was missing. They looked at one another.
“That’s the money,” Grave Digger said.
“For this one,” Coffin Ed agreed. “Some local tire thief witnessed the kill.”
“What he saw made him broom like the devil was after him.”
“If he wasn’t seen and taken away.”
“Not that son. He had presence of mind enough to get away with his wheel,” Grave Digger said.
“He oughtn’t to be hard to find. Any son out tire-thieving on a night like this has got some pretty hot skirt to support.”
The lieutenant listened to their findings with interest but no particular concern.
“What I want to know is how this woman got killed,” he said. “Then we’ll know what to look for.”
A car turned in from Convent Avenue, and Coffin Ed said, “We ought to soon know; that looks like Doc’s struggle-buggy.”
Doctor Fullhouse was bundled up as though on an expedition to the South Pole. He was an old, slow-moving man, and what could be seen of his face between an astrakhan cap and a thick yellow cashmere muffler made one think of a laughing mummy.
His spectacles steamed over the instant he stepped from his overheated car, and he had to take them off. He peered about from watery blue eyes, searching for the body.
“Where’s the cadaver?” he asked in a querulous voice.
The lieutenant pointed. “Stuck to the wall.”
“You didn’t tell me it was a vampire bat,” he complained.
The lieutenant laughed dutifully.
“Well, get it down,” Doc said. “You don’t expect me to climb up there and examine it.”
Grave Digger clutched one arm, Coffin Ed the other; the two detectives from Homicide took a leg apiece. The body was stiff as a plaster cast. They tried to move it gently, but the face was firmly stuck. They tugged, and suddenly the body fell.
They laid the corpse on its back. The black skin of the cheeks framing the cockscomb of frozen blood had turned a strange powdery gray. Drops of frozen blood clung to the staring eyeballs.
“My God!” one of the Homicide detectives muttered, stepped to the curb and vomited.
The others swallowed hard.
Doc got a lamp from his car with a long extension cord and focused the light on the body. He looked at it without emotion.
“That’s death for you,” he said. “She was probably a goodlooking woman.”
No one said anything. Even Haggerty’s tongue had dried up.
“All right, give me a hand,” Doc said. “We got to undress her.”
Grave Digger lifted her shoulders, and Doc peeled off the coat. The other detectives got off her gloves and shoes. Doc cut open the thick black dress with a pair of shears. Underneath she wore only a black uplift bra and lace-trimmed nylon panties. Her limbs were smooth, and well-rounded, but muscular. Falsies came off with the bra, revealing a smooth, flat, mannish chest. Underneath the nylon panties was a heavily padded, yellow satin loincloth.
Grave Digger and Coffin Ed exchanged a quick, knowing glance. But the others didn’t get it until the loincloth had been cut and stripped from the hard narrow hips.
“Well, I’ll be God-damned!” the Homicide lieutenant exclaimed. “She’s a man!”
“There ain’t any doubt about that,” Haggerty said, finding his voice at last.
Doc turned the body over. Across the back, at the base of the spine, was a tremendous welt, colored dark grape-purple.
“Well, that’s what did it,” Doc said. “He was struck here by great force and catapulted into the wall.”
“By what, for chrissake?” the lieutenant asked.
“Certainly not by a baseball bat,” Haggerty said.
“My conjecture is that he was hit by an automobile from behind,” Doc ventured. “I couldn’t say positively until after the autopsy; and maybe not then.”
The lieutenant looked from the street to the convent wall. “Frankly, Doc, I don’t believe he was knocked from the street against that wall in the position that we found him,” he said. “Isn’t there a possibility that he was run over and then stuck up there afterwards?”
Doc made a bundle of the clothes, covered the body with its coat and stood up.
“Everything is possible,” he said. “If you can imagine a driver running over him, then stopping his car and getting out and propping the body against the wall, and pushing its face into that crevice until it was stuck, then—”
The lieutenant cut him off. “Well, goddammit, I can imagine that better than I can imagine the body being knocked up there from the street, no matter what hit it. Besides which, people have been known to do things worse than that.”
Doc patted him on the shoulder, smiling indulgently. “Don’t try to make your job any harder than it is,” he said. “Look for a hit-and-run driver, and leave the maniacs to Bellevue’s psychiatrists.”
It was past two o’clock Sunday morning. Sand-fine sleet was peppering the windshield of the small black sedan as it hustled down the East Side Drive. There was just enough heat from the defroster to make the windshield sticky, and a coating of ice was forming across Grave Digger’s vision.
“This heater only works in the blazing hot summer,” he complained. “In this kind of weather it just makes ice.”
“Turn it off,” Coffin Ed said.
The car skidded on a glazed spot on the asphalt, and from the back seat Detective Tombs from Homicide Bureau yelled, “Watch it, man! Can’t you drive without skidding?”
Grave Digger chuckled. “You work with murder every day, and here you are—scared of getting scratched.”
“I just don’t want to wind up in East River with a car on my back,” Tombs said.
The witness giggled.
That settled it. Conversation ceased. They didn’t want outsiders horning in on their own private horseplay.
When they drew up before the morgue downtown on 29th Street, they all looked grim and half-frozen.
An attendant sitting at a desk in the entrance foyer checked them in, recording their names and badge numbers.
The barman from the Paris Bar gave his name as Alfonso Marcus and his address as 217 Formosa Street, Yonkers, N.Y.
They walked through corridors and downstairs to the “cold room.” Another attendant opened a door and turned on a switch.
He grinned. “A little chilly, eh?” he said, getting off his standard joke.
“You ain’t been outside, son,” Coffin Ed said.
“We want to see the victim of a hit-and-run driver from Harlem,” Grave Digger said.
“Oh yes, the colored man,” the attendant said.
He led them down the long, bare room, lit by cold, white light, and glanced at a card on what looked like the drawer of a huge filing cabinet.
“Unidentified,” he said, pulling out the drawer.
It rolled out smoothly and soundlessly. He removed a coarse white sheet covering the body.