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Authors: Thomas Mullen

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BOOK: Darktown
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Boggs felt his heart rate spike and he told himself to stay calm. “Please turn your car off, sir,” he said, realizing he should have started with that.

“You don't have the power to arrest me and you know it.”

On the other side, Smith took this as the proper time to beam the backseat. He didn't see anything there, other than a road atlas on the floorboards. The car was prewar but in good condition, the vinyl shining. Smith aimed his light at the front seat, where the woman had been staring ahead, her hair blocking his view. He had hoped the light would startle her into looking at him, so he could better study her injury and look for others, but she turned farther away.

Smith, unlike Boggs, had a good view of the space between driver and passenger. He saw that the man's right hand was resting protectively atop a large brown envelope.

“I do have the authority to issue you a traffic citation, sir, and I intend to do that,” Boggs said. “I also have the ability to call white officers here, should your arrest be required. I wouldn't have thought that necessary for something as minor as a traffic violation, but if you want to push things up the ladder with your tone, then I can oblige you.”

The white man smiled, entertained.

“Oh. Oh, damn. You're one of the smart ones, huh?” He nodded, looking Boggs up and down as though finally laying eyes on a new kind of jungle cat the zoo had imported. “I'm very impressed. Y'all certainly have come a long way.”

“Sir, this is the last time that I'll be the one asking you for your license and registration.”

Still smiling at Boggs, still not moving.

On the other side of the car, Smith asked, “What's your name, miss?”


Don't
you talk to her,” the white man snapped, turning to the side. All he could have seen from his vantage was Smith's midsection, his badge
(yes, we really are cops, sorry for the inconvenience),
and perhaps the handle of Smith's holstered gun
(yes, it's real).

“Are you all right, miss?” Smith asked the woman.
Let's see how the white man likes being ignored.
Her face he still couldn't see, though her breaths occasionally made her hair move just enough for him to see the right, bruised side of her lips. Yet she refused to turn.

Smith glanced up at his partner over the car roof. Both of them would have loved to see this blowhard arrested, but they weren't sure if Dispatch would bother sending a white squad car for an auto accident whose only victim was an inanimate object. And Atlanta's eight colored officers hated calling in the white cops for any reason whatsoever. They did not appreciate the reminder that they had only so much power.

Smith leaned back down and said, “Your friend isn't very friendly, miss.”

The white man said, “I
told
you not to talk to her, boy.”

“Sir,”
Boggs said to the back of the man's hat, trying to regain control (had he ever had it?), and annoyed at his partner for escalating the situation, “if you do not show me your license and registration, then I will call in—”

He didn't get to finish his pathetic threat, the threat he was ashamed to need and far more ashamed to use, because in the middle of his sentence the white man turned back to face the road and shifted into gear, the Buick lurching forward.

Both cops stepped back so their feet wouldn't be run over.

The Buick drove off, but it didn't even have the decency to speed. The white man wasn't fleeing, he simply had tired of pretending that their existence mattered.

“ ‘Stop or I'll call the real cops'?” Smith shook his head. “Funny how that don't work.”

Atlanta, Georgia. Two parts Confederate racist to two parts Negro to one part something-that-doesn't-quite-have-a-name-for-it-yet. Neither city nor country but some odd combination, a once sleepy railroad crossing that had exploded due to the wartime need for matériel and the necessities of shipping it. Even after the war, all those factories and textile mills and rail yards were still churning, because normalcy had returned and Americans were desperate for new clothes and washing machines and automobiles, and the South was very good at providing cheap, nonunionized labor. So Atlanta continued to grow, the trains continued to disgorge new residents and the tenements grew more crowded and the moonshine continued to be driven down from the mountains and the streets spilled over with even yet more passion and schemes and brawls, because there on the Georgia piedmont something had been set loose that might never again be contained.

Twenty blocks away from Boggs and Smith, Officer Denny Rakestraw was dividing himself in two again.

Standing in an alley off Decatur Street, a colored section of town, though he and his partner were white. Staring up at the sliver of moon above him, perfectly framed between the tops of the two brick buildings. Listening to the sound of an approaching westbound freight train slowly, slowly trudge its way from the downtown yards. Then looking at his shiny cop shoes. Then turning to look behind him at the squad car they had left on the side of the road, lights not blinking because his partner, Lionel Dunlow, said he didn't want the attention.

Dunlow hit the Negro again. “I said, did you hear what I said, nigger?”

The Negro was trying to say something, Rakestraw could tell, but Dunlow was holding him too tightly around the throat.

Then the sound of soles scuffing, and Rakestraw's attention was drawn to the mouth of the alley again. Two silhouettes were watching them.

“Dammit, clear that out,” Dunlow instructed his young partner.

Rakestraw took a step toward the two silhouettes. They were either young men or teenagers, tall but slight, hardly a threat. Drawn here by the sound of the beating, not any desire to intervene.

“Beat it!” Rakestraw yelled in his lowest register, bass notes practically shaking dust from the mortar in the brick walls. The shadows beat it.

Then another swing from Dunlow and the Negro was on the ground.

“Thought we didn't want attention,” Rakestraw said.

This constituted a significant workout for Officer Dunlow. Sweat ran down his cheeks, and his cap was askew. His belt was strained by his forty-some-odd-year-old belly, and he was panting even though he'd thrown only five or six punches. Failed physicals were in his immediate future.

Rakestraw hadn't thrown a punch himself, had in fact barely moved, yet beneath his uniform his skin, too, was slick. Not from exertion but the opposite, the stress of holding himself back, the anxiety of watching this again.

“You're right,” Dunlow said, catching his breath. He stepped closer to the loudly breathing mound that, minutes ago, had been a Negro walking alone, a man Dunlow suspected of bootlegging moonshine. Dunlow looked down at the mound. “We come to an understanding, boy?”

This was a phrase Rakestraw had heard his partner use so often now that it echoed in his sleep. Dunlow and perpetrators
came to an understanding,
Dunlow and witnesses
came to an understanding,
even Dunlow and the judges before whom he testified
came to an understanding.
The man seemed confident that he possessed a vast reservoir of knowledge, which he in his goodwill shared with those around him.

“Yeah, yeah. I unnerstand.” It sounded funny because some teeth were missing.

Rakestraw saw that flicker in his partner's eyes, something he'd seen a few times now. It foretold very bad things indeed. So Rakestraw stepped forward and put a hand on his partner's shoulder. Dunlow was taller by two inches; that and the age difference made this feel uncomfortably like a son trying to coax his drunk daddy back from the brink of slapping Ma around some.

“Dunlow,” Rake said.

Dunlow looked back at Rake like he barely recognized him for a second, like maybe he'd actually expected to see a son and not his partner.
Dunlow did have sons, two of them, in their teens and by all accounts hell-raisers who lacked rap sheets only because of their father's occupation. The veteran cop's eyes were fiery and he appeared on the verge of taking a swing at this junior interloper, the way he probably had numerous times to his sons. Then he recognized Rake and returned to where he was.

Rake said, “Made yourself clear, I think.”

“Yeah.”

But not before a final kick in the gut for emphasis, and the lump on the ground hissed a long inhalation, then silence, like he was afraid to let it out. By the time he exhaled, the two cops were gone from the alley.

Rake chose to believe that his partner's extreme response to the bootlegger was due to a passionate desire to enforce the city's alcohol ordinances. He chose to believe a lot of things about Dunlow. Such believing took work, not unlike religious faith, the devout belief in things that could not be proven. Because in the case of the not-terribly-­godlike Dunlow, there often was strong evidence to the contrary. In the weeks since Rake had taken his oath, he had seen Dunlow beat at least a dozen men (usually Negroes) rather than arresting them, had seen him instruct a few men on what to say if and when they needed to stand witness at a trial, and had seen him take a handful of bribes from bootleggers and numbers runners and madams.

There was a lot that Rake was learning about his new occupation. He had survived against steep odds for years in Europe as an advance scout, had been alone for long stretches and had wisely figured the difference between threats and opportunities, collaborators and spies. Back home in Atlanta, however, he was finding the moral territory more difficult to chart than he'd expected.

Rake wondered if there was a particular reason Dunlow had beaten this Negro, a particular message he'd been sending, and, if so, was it any more nuanced than the message Rake's own dog sent whenever he lifted his leg on the neighborhood walk. In such cases, Rake rationalized that his job was just to hold on to the leash, hold on to the leash.

So Rake stood there and tried to divide himself in half. One half of him would hold tight to his moral compass, that small wobbly thing that prevented him from beating a stranger without cause. The other
half of him would learn everything he could from Dunlow and his fellow officers, the surprising and often counterintuitive pieces of advice on how to survive in Darktown.

“I'll drive,” Rake said, opening the driver's door before his elder could object.

Dunlow sat in shotgun and peeled off his gloves, sucking in his breath.

“Y'all right?” Rake asked.

“Bastard had a hard head.”

“Sounded like it.”

“You know the average nigger skull is nearly two inches thicker'n ours?”

Rake wasn't the type to indulge such comments. But he didn't feel he had much choice around Dunlow, so he went for the neutral, “I did not know that.”

“Read it in a journal. Phrenologists.”

“I've been reading the wrong journals, I guess.”

“I ain't surprised, college boy.” Dunlow called him that even though Rake hadn't graduated, doing only two years before the war changed everything. Fluent in German thanks to an immigrant mother and two years of courses at UGA, his skill had been prized indeed. “Anyway, explains a lot, don't it? Not just the lack of room for a fully evolved brain, but, you know, your basic hard-headedness and all.”

“His skull looked plenty malleable to me.”

Dunlow made a fist, then extended his fingers. He had double-­jointed thumbs. He could extend them all the way back to his wrists, a gruesome circus trick—he liked to surprise newcomers by doing that after opening a bottle of Co-Cola, crying in pain for a moment, receiving a horrified reaction from the witness, and then he'd bust a gut laughing. He bragged that he'd been the greatest thumb wrestler in his elementary school, which was exactly the sort of bizarre accomplishment only he would boast about.

It also meant that, when wrapping his hands around someone's throat, he had an extra couple of inches of grip, an advantage which he'd just employed.

BOOK: Darktown
13.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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