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Authors: Thomas Mullen

Darktown (27 page)

BOOK: Darktown
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He needed to get away, and the house wasn't far enough, was too full of people, so he walked straight through every room and to the backyard. He was alone, or thought he was for the first minute or two, until his anger and self-possession faded enough for him to see the slender figure standing against the lone maple twenty feet away, smoking a cigarette with the aid of a narrow holder.

“Are you writing anymore, Lucius?” Percy asked.

Lucius walked closer to the silhouette. “I don't really have the time these days.”

“So your new sword is mightier than your pen. That's a shame. You have a talent. Or perhaps I should use the past tense?”

“I didn't say I've given up on it. I just . . . need to spend all my time learning about policing these days. If I go a few weeks without writing anything, that's okay, I'll still live. But if I've got my head in the clouds while I'm walking the beat, maybe I won't.”

Lord, what an evening. And the whole reason for the party was to bid farewell to one of his cousins, a young man who had decided to flee Atlanta and all the Boggs family had built, for the uncertainty of Chicago. The cousin had been rousted by white cops downtown a few months back, right before Lucius had joined the force, and had apparently made up his mind then to leave the South. Earlier tonight Lucius had asked him to stay, had promised him things were getting better. His cousin had replied,
I'm happy for you, but no matter what job you get for yourself down here, we're still just
niggers
to them.
The words were still ringing in Lucius's ears.
No matter how many college graduates and Negro-owned companies we get in Sweet Auburn, they'll still just call it
Darktown.
Half the people at this party haven't been downtown in years. They stay in this neighborhood, where they can fool themselves into thinking they have all they need, and don't dare wander out where they'll get knocked down another peg. So what's wrong with me looking for something better up north?

Lucius had no answer. Just that afternoon, he had manned a com
plicated phone tree to see which car-owning relatives could offer rides to which great-aunts and -uncles to Terminal Station tomorrow to see the cousin off. None of his relatives wanted to take a downtown bus. Auburn Avenue was a private world they and their forbears had been cultivating for decades, since even before the horrible riot of '06. It was a protective bubble keeping them safe from the rest of the city, the South, America. They were the lucky few who could afford not to venture into those lands.

“How can you
stand
it here, Lucius?” Percy asked, reading his mind. “The looks on the street. The insanity. They're all mad here. We defeated the Fascists in Europe, yet here they rule.”

“It's getting better,” he said, repeating the empty promise he'd made to his cousin.

Percy coughed out a laugh, complete with a cloud of smoke. After he'd recovered, he asked, “Have you seen
The Big Sleep,
or
The Maltese Falcon?

“I read the books.” The films had shown only briefly at Bailey's, the only theater on Auburn. They had played longer downtown, but Lucius would not subject himself to the colored balconies.

“Chandler and Hammett. Brilliant men. They write about detectives and police officers, so perhaps you'll find some truth there. Their heroes are good men who discover that their environments are far darker than they'd realized. Grand conspiracies afoot. But I look at you, Officer Lucius, and I can't imagine a darker place for you. You won't be the gumshoe who discovers to his horror that he's in a corrupt world, because you already know it. The evil is so garishly on display here, there's no mystery to it. It is sunning itself before us, and it will strike if you dare approach it.”

Percy dropped his cigarette on the ground and stamped it.

“I suppose that living here all the time makes me tolerate it a bit better,” Lucius said. “I've built up antibodies.”

Percy grabbed him by both shoulders. Even in the darkness, their faces were close enough for Lucius to see the red in his uncle's eyes.

“You need to bleed those antibodies from your veins, Lucius. Understand me?
Bleed
them from your
veins.

22

WHAT'S YOUR STORY,
Underhill? What were you doing with Lily Ellsworth?

Rake wondered this while he tailed the man late one night. He'd been staking out his apartment for barely half an hour when, at 11:30, Underhill emerged and walked to his car. Short-sleeved shirt, khakis, straw hat. Rake followed.

You're an ex-cop yet you're now a pimp? You steal girls from Mama Dove to meet the whims of clientele who don't want to be seen going into Darktown. What else do you do? And once you take the girls from her, where do they go? Some other brothel? Or something worse?
He wasn't sure whether he was on the verge of discovering some horrific conspiracy to steal, abuse, and kill colored girls, or whether such things happened all the time here, without need of any hidden machinations, and he'd been too naïve to realize it.

He needed to know more about Underhill. The man clearly had skeletons in his closet, though Rake always preferred the grislier German turn of phrase,
Eine Leiche im Keller haben.
Having a corpse in the basement.

They went south on Pryor, driving away from downtown and into the residential district of Mechanicsville, silent at that hour, all the factory workers exhausted. Rake had to hang back a ways, as there was so little traffic here he was afraid he'd be spotted.

He wondered whether he was doing this at least partially to get his mind off other things. Such as his brother-in-law, Dale. Cassie had warned him that morning that Dale had called for him, the third time in the last few days. Rake didn't want to hear about whatever nonsense complaint or damnfool errand Dale was thinking about performing. He
was certain—
certain
—that his brother-in-law at least knew something about the bricks that had been thrown through their Negro neighbor's windows. In fact, the day after that incident was the first time Dale phoned to leave a message for Rake to call him back. A confession? More likely he wanted to know if Rake knew whether their new Negro neighbor, Calvin, had gone to the cops, though of course the odds of that were slim. Dale probably also wanted to know if Rake had changed his mind and wanted to lend his expertise to whatever escalation Dale was planning.

Up over a hill and then down again, into Pittsburgh, a colored district. They passed rows of bungalows where Rake spotted more than a few Negroes lying on their front porches in the vain hope that it would be less suffocatingly hot out there.

After Underhill took a third turn in less than five minutes, Rake began to wonder if he'd been spotted. The man was varying his speed, which Rake didn't recall him doing before. Maybe Rake was overthinking, maybe he was just desperate for something of note to occur. Or maybe he was a fool to be following a veteran ex-cop, and through such a quiet area no less. Maybe he was making yet another rookie mistake.

Earlier that day Rake had hiked Kennesaw Mountain with his father. For as long as he could remember, the trek had been an annual tradition for him, his brother Curtis, and their father. Always in the summer, when the air was so thick that they were bathed in sweat before they'd been climbing ten minutes. The battle back in 1864 had taken place in late June into early July, so Colson had felt it necessary that his sons experience what their great-great-grandfather had, at least climatologically. The malarial heat, the mosquitoes, the sense that things were only going to get worse. Once when they were kids, Curtis had complained about the hike, their father's pace, the blisters on his sore feet from his sweaty socks. So Colson had made the boy take off his shoes and complete the climb barefoot, as a lesson against further whining.
Your great-great-granddaddy went without shoes most of those weeks, you can try it for a couple of hours.

Today the mountain had been the same as it had been in Rake's youth, the same as it had been for those troops and for the Cherokee be
fore them. The spiked pods of sweetgum trees still littered the ground. The wet earth was still soft beneath their shoes. The mottled bark of pines, armored like alligator skin, still rose high all around them. The canopy still protected them from the worst of the sun, though they knew the sun was out there, patiently waiting for them to reach the top.

Rake had been amazed by how much he missed the South while at war. Even the crushing heat. Even the sharp pain of a yellow jacket sting. Even the sight of bread gone moldy in a pantry that hadn't been kept cool enough. Even the orange tint of kids' bare feet playing in a clay lot. Even the way the ground disappeared from view when so many shrubs and vines grew out of the earth. The thick overwhelming ripeness of the South, the sheer three-dimensionality, the way it grew everywhere and anywhere, vibrant and unstoppable. The beauty of the tulips in March and azaleas in April and the many-hued leaves of November. Even the suffocating humidity of a summer day like this.

Rake hadn't expected the ribbing he received in training camp, the Yankees laughing at his accent and marveling at some of his expressions. They asked if he knew how to tie shoes, did he use toilet paper. Called him “cracker” and “hick.” And these were the ones who were being friendly. Then there was the drill sergeant who insisted they sing “Marching into Georgia” when they ran, and the New Yorkers who asked to see his KKK card and inquired whether he was a Grand Dragon or a Grand Wizard or a Grand Elf. He'd never felt such Southern pride as he did when fighting back at those Northerners and their indecipherably hard consonants, and despite the fact that he was miles from home, he felt a closer kinship with his father and departed grandfather, always so quick to denigrate Yankees for the way they belittled the proud old Confederacy.

Still, the annual hike up Kennesaw—the long slogs in memory of the Lost Cause—seemed irrevocably changed due to Rake's time in Europe. Fighting one's own war will do that. The bitter, cleansing tang of past sufferings no longer seemed in need of remembrance when one's own wounds were relatively fresh. He had tired of seeing Old Glory waving over wrecked battlefields in Europe, so he had little taste for seeing the Stars and Bars on this or any other formerly hallowed ground. The soldier in him couldn't even appreciate the ancient battle
of Kennesaw Mountain anymore. Most textbooks described it as a victory for the South, as it slowed Sherman's march and forced him to retreat. But Sherman had kept on marching, simply taking a wider tack to Atlanta and the sea. Praising this as a glorious last stand seemed rather like an ex-pitcher regaling people with stories of an impressive strikeout but failing to mention the fact that the next batter had swatted a game-winning homer.

Rake had thought about asking his father's advice about how to handle Dale, and even what to do about Dunlow, but he'd held his tongue. He'd focused instead on climbing the mountain, pacing himself so the old man could keep up.

It was nearly midnight when Underhill headed northwest on Newnan Street, recrossing the invisible color line into a white area and then, half a mile later, turning onto a gravel drive. Rake continued past the drive, glancing at the cloud of dirt just visible in the dark. Underhill was driving into an old foundry, which had closed down two years ago. It had made railroad cars and engines, he recalled, but hadn't been used for anything in a while. What the hell was Underhill doing here?

Rake pulled over. He opened his glove box and removed his revolver, putting it in his pocket.

He hurried in the direction where Underhill's car had disappeared, avoiding the gravel and finding enough dirt and grass to keep his footfalls silent.

The foundry itself was three blocks long and as tall as a five-story building, most of its windows still intact. Its very size and dormancy put him in mind of the destroyed or abandoned factories and munitions plants—and in some cases entire towns—he'd seen in Germany. Some of the surrounding light poles were still lit, probably on the city's dime to make this place less appealing to those searching for late-night terrain to ply illicit wares. This wasn't Rake's beat but he was willing to bet a squad car made a point of driving around here at least a couple of times a night.

Rake walked alongside the building, hoping to stay invisible. He was more certain than ever that Underhill had deliberately been taking a
circuitous route to get here. He was meeting someone, and for all Rake knew the someone was already here.

He stopped at a corner of the building. Twenty yards away, Underhill was walking up a two-flight fire escape, then across a long gangway from the main foundry building to a smaller one, his steps loud on the grating. Then he opened a steel door and closed it behind him.

Rake hurried after, gun in hand now, though when he made it to the gangway he slowed down again, mindful of the racket Underhill's feet had made and not wanting to repeat it. He looked behind him and below him, though there weren't enough lights for him to see very far.

Rake put his hand on the knob, which was so rusted he wasn't sure it would turn—or did he just need to push it open? It did turn. He could feel flakes of rust adhering to his palm as he turned the knob slowly, then applied pressure to the door, hoping it wouldn't make as much noise as it had when Underhill had walked through.

He realized it was a mistake before he'd even taken a step. Beyond the door, all was pitch black. He'd taken only one step inside when he felt a blow at the back of his head.

He wasn't sure if he remembered falling, but he was definitely on his ass now.

The part of his head that had been hit was leaning against the door, but he couldn't feel the door, at least not yet, because he felt numb. He tried to steady himself with a hand on the floor, but then the sole of a large black shoe appeared. He could make it out only because a trace amount of light was coming into the room from outside. He could see the shoe coming, inch by inch, but his body was curiously unable to do anything about it.

The sole pressed into his clavicle and pushed him flat on the floor.

The shoe stepped back into the darkness, and now what Rake saw was a gun.

He sat up, much more slowly than he was trying to, and Underhill's body began to materialize around the gun.

“Don't move.”

Rake obeyed. He was sitting up now, but there was nothing behind him and he wondered if Underhill would kick him down again. He'd dropped his gun and wondered where it was.

The numbness was already being replaced by a throbbing pain in the back of his head and a pang of nausea in his gut.

He barely had time to think
Already the second time I've had a gun on me from close up
before Underhill leaned down, gun nearly in Rake's face, and patted Rake's pants pockets and his ankles in search of a weapon.

“You got another one? Roll over and keep your hands high.”

Rake grudgingly did so, and then he felt Underhill searching for a weapon at the small of his back. Then Rake turned, sitting up again.

Underhill leaned back in the doorframe, enough light on him that Rake could study the man's expression. He hadn't shaved that day, and maybe not the day before either. He had a wart on the left side of his neck, which Rake remembered from the detailed physical description in his file. Like Dunlow, the man had a gut on him, but not as much of one, and he wasn't as tall. His straw hat was pushed back a bit, the brim not shielding his eyes from view. Rake's revolver was tucked into the ex-cop's belt.

Underhill was studying Rake, too, from a decidedly more comfortable vantage point. His face was alarmingly blank, like he was weighing pros and cons in his head.

“You're pointing your gun at a cop,” Rake said, and he knew it sounded weak even as he spoke it.

“Big deal.
I'm
a cop.”

“You
were
a cop.”

“Really.” The hint of a smile. “You so sure about that?”

Rake looked to his sides, wondering if there was anything he could grab and throw.

“Don't even think about it,” Underhill said. Another pause as he assessed his prey. “They don't seem to teach surveillance so well anymore.”

BOOK: Darktown
13.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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