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Authors: Thomas Mullen

Darktown (3 page)

BOOK: Darktown
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Dunlow made a fist again. Rake heard a tendon pop.

“Ah, shit. That's better.”

Then Dispatch came over the radio, mentioning how Negro Officer Boggs was reporting a traffic violation, and did any real cops feel the need to assist? Dunlow picked up the mike and said he'd love to.

After the white man had driven away, Boggs and Smith had walked to the nearest call box, requesting a squad car to make an arrest. Dispatch had mercifully refrained from commentary as he relayed the information over the wires, and a white squad car, D-152, had immediately called in to say it was coming. Smith and Boggs were surprised—­usually the white cops took their sweet time responding to anything the colored officers requested. D-152 must have been mighty bored that night.

Five minutes later, they were walking a few blocks south of Auburn, approaching the National Pencil Factory and its ever-present smell of wood shavings, when they saw the Buick again. It was actually stopped at the end of the next block, obeying a stop sign. It lingered there.

“What's he doing?” Boggs asked. “Circling around for something?”

Boggs imagined himself shooting the Buick's tires. Which of course would get him fired, or worse. No colored officer had yet discharged a firearm in the line of duty.

“Maybe he's given up?” Smith asked. He hurried toward it, not quite running but moving fast enough that his injured knee was very displeased.

He and Boggs were only ten feet away when they saw the white man hit the girl. Even through the back windshield it was unmistakable, the white man's gray sleeve lashing out, the passenger's long hair flailing to the right. The whole car seemed to jump.

Then the Buick drove on again.

“Let's keep after it,” Boggs said.

The Buick was moving south, and in two blocks they would be near another call box. They could at least update Dispatch as to the car's location, in case D-152 really was on its way.

They ran. The Buick still wasn't going a normal speed, as if it was on the prowl for something. Clearly the driver didn't see the two cops giving chase.

Smith's knee was giving him a rather clear and unadulterated warn
ing that this whole running business had best stop soon. After another block they reached the intersection with Decatur Street, just north of the train tracks. Again the Buick obeyed a stop sign.

Then its passenger door opened. The woman darted out, her yellow sundress a tiny flame in the dark night until she vanished into an alley.

The Buick stayed where it was, the door hanging open like an unanswered question. Then the white man leaned over, his pale hand appearing outside the car and grasping drunkenly for the handle. He closed the door and drove on.

“Chase him or follow her?” Boggs wondered aloud as he and Smith stopped.

They could have split up. Smith could have pursued the woman and Boggs could have continued his chase of the Buick. But Sergeant McInnis had warned them many times against separating themselves from each other. Apparently, the Department felt that a lone Negro officer was not terribly trustworthy, and that a second Negro officer somehow had a restraining influence on the first. Or something. It was difficult to discern white people's reasoning.

“I want to see the son of a bitch written up,” Smith said. “Or arrested.”

“Me, too.”

So although only one of them had seen her face, and that just for a second, they let her disappear into the night, which would never release her.

Boggs sprinted east on Decatur. A half mile ahead of him, the downtown towers were dark. Nearby he could hear freight cars being hitched and unhitched, other behemoths wearily making their way through the night. Smith kept after the Buick, which was headed south now, driving into the short tunnel that cut beneath the tracks. He was losing it. Rats darted in either direction as the Buick splashed a stagnant puddle from that afternoon's twenty-minute storm. Smith was just about to give up when he heard the familiar horn of a squad car.

He ran through the tunnel and into a scene strobed by blue lights: the tracks curving away to his left, garbage loose on the street and sidewalk, and a squad car pulled sideways to block the path of the Buick, which had finally pulled over.

The white cop who'd been driving jumped out of the car, left hand held high, right hand lingering on the butt of his holstered pistol.

“It's Dunlow,” Smith said when Boggs made it beside him.

Dunlow ranked high on Boggs and Smith's list of most hated white officers. Not that there was an actual list. And not that there were many white cops who did
not
rank high. Maybe it wasn't so much that Dunlow was worse than the others; the trouble was that he was an ever-­present problem. The colored officers were only allowed to work the 6–2 shift, and there were only eight of them, so white officers still had occasion to visit what was now the colored officers' turf. No white cops had ever had Auburn Avenue as a beat before, they'd simply dropped by the neighborhood when they needed a Negro to pin a crime on, or when they felt like taking out their aggressions on colored victims. Otherwise, white cops had avoided the colored neighborhoods. Dunlow, however, seemed to feel rather at home here, though the residents did not feel nearly so warmly toward him.

“Let me handle him,” Boggs said. He was the more diplomatic of the two, a notion Smith did not like to acknowledge. Even if he knew it to be true.

They adjusted their caps and ties, made sure their shirttails hadn't come out, and straightened their postures as they slowly walked up to the white Buick.

Dunlow arrived at the driver's door, trailed by his young partner, Rakestraw. Dunlow seemed to look at the driver longer than necessary before speaking. Perhaps he thought this was intimidating. The days when his bulk had been mostly muscle were gone, but he was still a man accustomed to cutting quite a wake.

“License and registration, please.”

Boggs had spent his entire life giving such white men as wide a berth as possible. Now he had to work with them.

So Boggs concentrated on Dunlow's partner. He walked up beside Rakestraw and leaned into his ear. If Rakestraw was offended at the proximity, he did not show it. They didn't have much opinion on Rakestraw, who tended to hide in his partner's long shadow. He likely would prove to be as much of a bastard as Dunlow once they got to know him.

“He had an adult Negro female in the car with him. She fled on
foot, at the corner of Hilliard and Pittman. He'd hit her in the head a block earlier.”

“You saw it?”

“They'd been circling around. It just happened a minute ago.”

Rakestraw offered a neutral expression and the slightest of nods, which could have meant
Interesting
and could have meant
Who cares?
and could have meant that he would recommend to the colored officers' white sergeant that Boggs and Smith be reprimanded for not pursuing the woman.

The driver handed Dunlow his papers and joked, “They got you babysitting the Africans?”

“Understand you fled the scene of an accident,” Dunlow replied.

“Wasn't no accident. You hear any other car complaining 'bout an accident?”

“It was a lamppost on Auburn Ave,” Boggs said.

Dunlow glared at Boggs. He did not seem to appreciate the colored officer's contribution to the conversation. He extended the paperwork to Rakestraw, who walked back to their car to call in the information. Then Dunlow said to the colored officers, “That'll be all, boys.”

Boggs glanced at his partner. Smith was dying to say something, Boggs could tell, but was holding himself back. They hadn't yet told Dunlow about the assault they'd witnessed. The victim was gone, sure, but a crime is a crime.

Boggs opened his mouth. He tried to choose his words carefully. But before he could do so, the driver chimed in again, in a drunken singsong, “Back to the jungle, monkeys!”

Dunlow cracked a smile.

That approval was all the driver needed: he launched into a rousing chorus of “Yes! We Have No Bananas!”

Dunlow was grinning broadly at the performance as Boggs met his eyes. Boggs held the look for a moment, hoping that he was passing on silent messages but knowing, despite all his effort and anger, that those messages would not be received.

The song was getting louder. Boggs couldn't even look at his own partner, as he would see the rage there, would see the reflection of himself, and he could not abide that.

Boggs and Smith walked away. The flashing blues painted the top of an eastbound freight train on the crossing.

“Son of a bitch,” Smith cursed.

Boggs spat on the ground. A cockroach half as long as his shoe scuttled across the sidewalk.

“Two bucks says they don't even ticket him,” Smith said.

Boggs would not take that bet.

A six-year-old boy named Horace was three blocks from his house when he saw the lady in the yellow dress running. She was pretty, he thought, even though he couldn't much see her face. Then why did he think she was pretty? He would wonder that, later, when thinking back to this moment.

He was walking alone late at night because his mother had woken him up and commanded him to. She was very sick and needed the doctor. She'd given Horace careful directions. He had to hurry, for her sake and because if he took too long, he might forget the directions.

The lady was banging on someone's front door.

Horace watched her as he passed, and she must have heard him because she turned and looked at him. Looking at him and then not looking, the way adults do when they realize you're just a kid and they can forget about you now.

He walked on. She stopped knocking.

At the next corner, he looked both ways to cross the street. Then he decided to turn around and see what that lady was up to. He saw her step off the front porch and walk around to the backyard, at which point he couldn't see her anymore.

He looked both ways to cross again. This time a car was coming, so he waited.

The car pulled up to the curb, right where Horace was standing. The door opened on the opposite side, the engine still on, the headlights still too bright in Horace's face.

A thin white man walked up to him, a white man in a light gray suit.

“Hello there, son. What are you doing out at this hour?”

It was the kind of voice that adults who aren't used to talking to kids use.

Horace mumbled something about his mother.

The man squatted down so his eyes were almost at Horace's level. His eyes were very blue. His hat matched his suit.

“Slow down, son, and enunciate those words.”

Horace had felt mostly confused when the man had stepped out of the car. Now he felt mostly scared. Something about those eyes, and the man's waxy white face, and the way he looked at Horace. Like he was very
interested
in Horace.

“Mama's sick. I'm fetching the doctor.”

A loud banging sound, like a garbage can falling over a block away, and then the laughter of coyotes.

BOOK: Darktown
3.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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