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Authors: Thomas Mullen

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BOOK: Darktown
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“We have a body,” Boggs said, “a colored girl, teens or maybe early twenties. Found dead, shot in the chest. No ID or anything.” Smith paced a few steps away, loudly sucking in his breath, all but yelling
Mistake, mistake, mistake.
If McInnis knew Boggs was saying this, they'd be in serious trouble. But Boggs was livid at the judge, livid at Dunlow from last night, livid about the fact that white investigators had done nothing to look into the murder. “All she had was a yellow dress and a heart-shaped locket. We could wait around until someone thinks their daughter or wife is missing, but if you put a note in the paper somewhere . . .”

“What else?”

“That's all we know.” He didn't want to tell Toon they found her in garbage. If a husband or parent had to learn that, they should hear it from an officer, in person.

Toon had an impressive stare. “There's something you're not telling me.”

It was a mistake to have said this much. But Boggs felt such rage, he
hadn't been able to hold himself back. White cops had just let his case against Poe die. Dunlow had beaten a man in front of him the other night. And apparently someone, most likely his own superior officer, had retyped his report on the colored Jane Doe. Falsified it by deleting the reference to Brian Underhill, the last known person seen with the victim, probably to protect the ex-cop. People were undercutting Boggs at every turn, making him look stupid and helpless. He refused to be helpless.

“The last known person to be with her was a middle-aged white man,” he said. “Do
disclose that.”

Toon nodded slowly. “Okay, I'll run something. Call me when you have more.”

This was hardly the first time they had been humiliated in court, but that didn't make it any easier. In fact, they'd spent
so much time
preparing for this case because they'd thought that their efforts would finally overwhelm the hard-breathing judge's bias. They had thought that what they did mattered.

“I thought you locked it?” Smith said, opening the former custodial closet's door.

“I did.”

Smith hit the switch as Boggs closed the door behind him. Their civilian clothes, which they had hung on pegs, were strewn on the floor.

“For God's sake.” Smith picked up his shirt and his slacks, shaking the dust bunnies from them.

Boggs did the same with his shirt. He looked around for his pants. “You're kidding.”

He checked the shelves, which were half-stocked with old containers of cleaning solutions and boxes of what appeared to be years-old newspapers and legal transcripts. His pants were gone.

They stood there in silence for a moment, then Smith swung and batted a box of moth balls from a shelf. Little toxic spheres ping-ponged in every direction.

Boggs closed his eyes for a moment. He wanted to hit something, too. Yet he held it in.

“Easy,” he said, to himself as much as to his partner.

You're the one with no britches.”

“Which is why you should be cooling down. You're the one who's going to have to fetch me some slacks.”

“You're going to hide in here?”

“I am going to
in here for you to get them, yes.”

“The hell with that. Let's both go to the Y, in our uniforms. Hell with their rules.”

“No. I'm not getting written up for something like that. Not after what just happened.”

“Five dollars says your britches are in the judge's chambers.”

“He can have them.” Boggs reached into his pocket and dug out a key. “I have an extra pair in my locker. Hurry up and we can get some sleep before next shift.”

Smith leaned against one of the shelves. He stared at his feet.

“Remind me why we're doing this.”

Boggs breathed. “To be upstanding citizens and paragons of our race,” he said, his voice gently mocking the mayor's speech from their first day.

“Give me a better reason.”

“To provide a good example for colored kids.”

A phone rang from an unseen office.

“A better reason.”

“There aren't any better jobs.”

Smith closed his eyes. “A better reason.”

Boggs thought for a moment, then said, “Maceo Snipes.” Shot in the back for being the first Negro voter in Taylor County. “Isaac Woodard.” War veteran, blinded two years ago by South Carolina cops for daring to wear his army uniform. “The Malcolms and Dorseys.” Two married couples, including another veteran and a pregnant woman, ambushed and murdered on a bridge over the Apalachee River.

Smith opened his eyes. “Give me those keys.”


burgers at the grill when his nephews, Brooks and Dale Jr., cautiously approached. The fact that they held their hands behind their back meant either that they were about to throw something at him or that they were trying to impersonate harmless children with an innocent question.

“Uncle Denny?” Dale Jr., the six-year-old, asked.

Rake took a pull on his Coke. “Yes?”

“Is it true you were a Boy Scout in the war?”

“Where'd you hear that?”

“Mother and Father said you were a Boy Scout,” said Brooks, the freckled four-year-old.

“I was a
But yes, I suppose you could say it was like being a Boy Scout.” It was not remotely like being a Boy Scout. “It was more like I was a tour guide.” That was actually true, at the end.

Sunday cookout at the Rakestraws. Rake and his wife, Cassie, playing the hosts, as they usually did. Cassie was inside with baby Margaret and two-year-old Dennis Jr., as well as Rake's sister, Sue Ellen, and his brother-in-law, Dale, who was on his third or eighth beer.

Rake looked through the window into the kitchen and caught Cassie's eye. She winked at him. He wished these next two hours could vanish. It was a rare night off for him, meaning he was roughly on the same schedule as she was, and the baby was finally giving them some time to themselves.

Through another window he could see his old man, Colson, playing with Dennis Jr. and doing a reasonably good impression of a happy granddad.

The boys had been cagey, asking Rake about the war when their
grandfather was not in earshot. Rake seldom discussed it, especially when Colson was present. Funny how even marauding brats like these picked up on that.

“Did you kill people?” Brooks asked.

Dale Jr. popped his younger brother behind the head, then promptly gave Rake the kind of extremely attentive look that showed he was actually thrilled the question had been asked and could not wait to hear the answer.

“Ask me something else.”

Dale Jr. seemed deeply disappointed. Borderline crushed. It took him a moment to think of a new question. How many days or weeks or years had they been wondering these things?

“What does a scout do?”

“Well, your grandmother, who you never knew because she passed before you were born, she was born in Germany, and moved here when she was a teenager. So she spoke German, and taught it to me when I was not much older than you. I kept with my studies to the point where I could speak it like a native. When the war came, there was a need for fellows like me who could get by over there.”

And, years later, after the surrender, he'd been a tour guide. Stationed at the concentration camp in Dachau, he was tasked with ensuring that every civilian in the surrounding towns visited the camp.
This is where some of them were incinerated. This is where some of them were gassed. These are the cages they were kept in.
For two months.
We had no idea,
the “tourists” always claimed.
We didn't know.
And the tour guides like Rake had replied,
This is why we are here. This is why we have taken over your country. This is what your government was doing. We are here to save you from them.

Rake opened the grill and flipped the burgers again, though they didn't need it. His wife liked the things damn near scorched.

“Did Uncle Curtis speak German?”

He closed the lid.

“No. Uncle Curtis had never been much for his studies.”

The boys pondered this for a moment, amazed that their mythical, deceased uncle was being discussed. He'd survived two years in the Pacific. It was doubtful even the older of these boys had much memory of him.

Then Rake noticed that his nephews were holding hands.

“Uncle Dennis?” the littler one asked.


“If there's another war, does that mean one of us will die?”

Dale Jr. added, “The one of us that isn't as good at studies?”

Rake crouched down so they were more or less eye level.

“We fought that war so that there won't be any other ones. Don't you worry. Now go inside and bother your parents and don't talk about this anymore.”

They “Yes, sir”ed in chorus and wandered over to the door. They'd almost opened it when Rake called after them. “Dale Jr., you start your schooling next fall?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Study hard.”

After dinner, Rake walked Dale and the family back to their place, helping them carry home some extra Cokes for the boys and half a watermelon. Dessert had gone late and lightning bugs lit up the hydrangeas as Dale Jr. and Brooks darted ahead on the sidewalk-less road despite their mother's warnings of imminent vehicular dangers.

The two families lived only six blocks apart in Hanford Park, a quiet neighborhood west of the city. Nearly every house here was a bungalow, and even if they'd had second stories, those would have been swallowed up by the low, thick boughs of poplars, tupelos, and white oaks. The canopy was so thick the middle of the roads were in shadow even at midday. It wasn't a moneyed area like Buckhead to the north of downtown, or Ansley Park and Inman Park to the east, but it had what they needed: decent schools, a nearby park, and reliable buses and streetcars for Cassie to get to the downtown stores on days Rake needed to take the car to the station. Neighbors smiled and waved as they tended their gardens or sat on their porches as the setting sun tinted the sky pink.

Several other cops lived in the area, including his damned partner.

When they made it to Dale's, Rake was ready to shake his hand and say good-night, and indeed Sue Ellen had already chased the two rascals inside, but then Dale said, “Hang on a minute. I want to show
you something.” Dale walked down the block, Rake following. “That's the one over there.”

Dale seemed to be indicating a new house half a block from where they stood. The wood was not yet painted, and the front yard was nothing but bare red soil, having been turned over to lay a foundation. Some of the windows were so new they still bore tape from the factory.

“What about it?” Rake asked. He rearranged the items into one hand so he could slap a mosquito from his neck with the other.

“It's the one I told you about. Nigger put it up last week.”

Rake's mother had never permitted
that word
to be spoken in their house when he'd been growing up. The Rakestraw children had been brought up to respect everyone, no matter their color. It was years before Rake put a few things together and realized that part of her awareness of the evils of race hate could be traced back to the first war, when she was a German immigrant here and her family had been ostracized as bloodthirsty, baby-killing, nun-raping “Huns.” Rake didn't think his mother had ever been friends with any Negroes, but after having words used as weapons against her, in the delicate teenage years no less, she'd no patience for those who employed similar tactics. Rake's father had always backed her up on that—Rake recalled Curtis being whupped for cussing and getting in scrapes with colored children in his rebellious years—and Rake had only heard his father use the word a few times, when it was just men sitting on a porch or watching a Crackers game, far from the missus's ear.

Rake's brother-in-law, however, was a big fan of the word.

“I don't think it's anything you need to trouble yourself with,” Rake said.

“Trouble myself? I ain't troubled, Denny. I aim to
something about it. I was wondering if you wanted to help out.”

The half watermelon was sweating through Rake's shirt. The houses that they had passed on this short walk did not appear any smaller than the ones on Rake's block, and the trees seemed no more prone to disease or drought, and Rake didn't see any more rubbish on the sides of the road. Yet Dale's house was a mere two blocks from the unofficial border with the colored section of town. This particular Negro had built his new house on the wrong side of that border.

“This nigger's put up his house
one block
from mine,” Dale said. “I'm sure you're all nice and cozy in your new place, but what's gonna happen to your sweet little spot if this block goes, and the next two? I'm your first line of defense. I'd think you'd want to help out here, before the problem's on
doorstep. It's like a damned military operation they have, you know? Trying to flank us over here and outflank us down off North Street.”

The war analogies grated. Dale had terrible vision, disqualifying him from service in the army. It was a sore subject with him—he felt his manhood and not his irises had been called into question, according to Sue Ellen.

Rake shifted the watermelon from one side to the other like a halfback bracing for tacklers.

“I didn't say I'm not concerned about the neighborhood, Dale. But I think you should maybe wait and see who this fellow is before you get up in arms about it.”

“Who he is, is a nigger. I'd think with what all you've been seeing of 'em in Darktown, you'd know enough not to let them come over
How you like your own habitation to turn out like the place you patrol all night?”

“That's not going to happen.”

“Damn right it's not, because we're not gonna let it.”

Rake gazed back at the new house again, worried that the homeowner in question might emerge from the building, prompting Dale to do God knew what. At the same time, Rake wasn't exactly thrilled by the idea of Negroes moving in. He'd only been able to buy the house thanks to GI Bill financing, and he couldn't afford to find himself suddenly staring down the barrel of a mortgage gone way out of whack with the value of a property surrounded by Negroes.

Dale stepped closer and lowered his voice. “Me and some buddies have a few ideas we're kicking around, if you know what I mean. We thought someone like you would be able to help us out.”

Christ. Rake was angry at himself for letting this go so far. He didn't want to get in a fight with his brother-in-law either, so he tried to tamp down his emotions.

“I advise against you breaking any laws.”

Dale smiled, as if to say,
Ha, good one, I get it.
But his smile faded as he saw that Rake wasn't smiling back.

“Well, yeah, sure. I understand you got to say that on account of your job and all, but,” and Dale lowered his voice still, “as
As blood to my two sons. Are you going to help out?”

There was another mosquito at Rake's neck but he let it suck away rather than break his stare.

He repeated, “I advise against you breaking any laws.”

Dale was just drunk, Rake told himself. His memories of this conversation would not be clear. He would not feel offended by his cop brother-in-law. So Rake hoped.

He handed the watermelon to Dale, who took it and stared for a moment like he had no clue what it was. Birdsong filled the air the way it tends to at dusk, which always made Rake wonder if they were frantically warning one another to hide from the night or if in fact they'd been that loud all day and he'd been too busy to notice.

The next night, Rake and Dunlow returned to their car after taking down a report on an armed robbery at a grocer on Ponce de Leon and Boulevard. The sky above them was swirled in a restless palette of grays and pinks. The sun had just set, and either storms were imminent or God just felt like doing some wild painting that night.

Minutes later, they were driving slowly down Decatur Street when Dunlow spied something.

“Well looky here,” he said at a tall form loping along the sidewalk. As they passed him, the man cut north into an alley. Dunlow made a three-point turn and drove into the alley. The man stopped and turned when he felt the headlights on him. He froze, raising his hands in surrender.

Dunlow turned off the engine and got out first, Rake following.

BOOK: Darktown
7.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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