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Authors: Thomas Mullen

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BOOK: Darktown
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“I'm sorry to hear that. Now, I have another question for you, son. Have you seen a colored lady out here tonight, with long hair? In a yellow dress?”

Horace nodded. The man smiled. His teeth were like the drawing in a magazine.

“She went into that building over there, didn't she?”

“She knocked but couldn't get in, sir.” He remembered to say “sir.” He had forgotten earlier. “She went 'round back instead.”

Rakestraw sat in his squad car, calling in the license and registration and watching as his partner chatted with the driver. What were they talking about? It seemed more conversation than would normally be taking place right now.

The driver's name was Brian Underhill and he was forty-three years old. The license listed a Mechanicsville address a short drive away.

Dispatch radioed back that Mr. Underhill did not have any record, warrant, or probationary status. Rakestraw was about to jot out the ticket when he stopped himself. He wasn't clear on how his partner wanted to proceed. So he stepped out of the squad car and walked toward the Buick.

Dunlow had been saying something, but he stopped as Rake handed over the papers.

“Thank you,” Dunlow said. “I was just telling Mr. Underhill here to be more careful about his driving.”

“Yes, sir, Officer.” The driver seemed slightly amused by something. So did Dunlow.

“All right,” Dunlow said. “You have a good night.”

Underhill turned his Buick back on. After it was a block away, Rake asked, “No ticket?”

“Me and him came to an understanding.”

“That understanding involved us not ticketing him for being drunk and knocking down a city light pole?”

“What light pole? You see any light pole?”

“Boggs and Smith say they saw it.”

“Don't recall the darkies saying they actually witnessed it. Though they may have. Even so, it's one less light in Darktown. Practically a civic service the man performed for us.”

Dunlow walked back to the car, taking the driver's side this time.

“Wonder who the girl was,” Rakestraw said as he got in, trying not to sound too accusatory.

“Again, I myself do not recall seeing any girl. Darkies say they did, I'm sure they're sniffing around the bushes for her right now.”

Dunlow probably believed that the colored cops did indeed possess such heightened powers of smell. Among other powers.

“And when Boggs and Smith file a report about it?” he asked.

“They're dumb, but not that dumb. Niggers know if they step on my toes, I kick hard.” He turned on the car. “Let's patrol a more respectable area of our fair city.”

The white man in the light gray suit had been smiling at Horace for longer than felt normal.

“You're a good little boy, aren't you?”

“Yes, sir.” Horace's mother had warned him about white people, that he should never speak to them unless they spoke first, and that if he did, he needed to say “sir” and “ma'am” and not be rude but to get away as quickly as he could before they did something terrible.

She had refused to say what it was people like this did that was so awful. Horace figured they ate colored people, or at least colored children.

What else had his mother said? That's right, not to look into their eyes.

Yet Horace had looked into the man's eyes the moment the man
had crouched down, and he could not look away. They were so blue and empty he felt himself being pulled in more deeply to fill that void. Horace shifted on his bare feet.

The man reached out and patted Horace's head. Once, two times. The second time, the hand lingered there. Then it moved, slowly, to the base of Horace's neck.

Horace flinched.

The man's hand slipped behind Horace's right ear, then reappeared again. Between the man's forefinger and thumb was a shiny dime.

“You can pay the colored doctor with that.”

Horace realized he should be reaching out with his hand, so he did, and the man placed the coin in his palm. Then the man stood, and without that eye contact it was like he vanished.

Horace hurriedly crossed the road.

He was still clutching the coin and had walked another block when he realized that he had indeed forgotten his mother's directions to the doctor's, and he was lost now, and so very tired.

2

THE NEXT MORNING,
Rake and Dunlow were on the prowl for an escaped convict.

They were pulling an earlier watch than usual, having clocked in at ten a.m., due to some strange personnel shift that no one really understood. Overtired and overcoffeed, they were in search of one James James Jameson—his real name—who had escaped state prison in Reidsville the previous day. APD had just been notified. Triple James, as he was known on the force, had been sent away for attempted murder two years ago, back when Rake was a disgruntled civilian adjusting to postwar life at a textile mill and doing a poor job of it. The trial had attracted much local coverage and even some national attention, as there were many in northern areas who felt the Negro had been unjustly persecuted, in that way of far-off people disapproving of how you deal with your own.

“Boy's been bad news since before he was born,” Dunlow said as they sped down side streets.

“How'd Reidsville say he got out?”

“Official story is prison break. Shots fired from a tower, speedy nigger escaping nonetheless, you know the story. But it so happens a buddy a mine retired out there, and story he heard is that Triple James and two other niggers were on highway cleanup, with just two guards. And one of them guards takes a walk or something, and the other guard, who's now the only guard, decides this is a good time to take a leak off to the side of the road. Only he has one of them infections makes pissing take forever. And hurt like blazes. So I'm told. Anyway, Triple James had apparently freed himself from his foot links, Lord only knows how, and as the guard was huffing and puffing with his little man in his hands, poof, off runs Triple James into the piney woods.”

“You have got to be joking.”

“Son, don't ever overestimate the intelligence of our partners in law enforcement.”

“With you around, I never will.”

Officers had been assigned different locations to check first. Ex-­girlfriends' apartments, last known associates, poor old parents, and aunts and uncles and sundry relations. Apparently Dunlow knew that Triple James's sister had moved recently, and he'd kept this information to himself during the briefing, not sharing it with Rake until they were in their car. The sister lived in a crowded Negro neighborhood a few blocks south of Auburn Avenue.

This was one advantage to Dunlow's propensity to wander into the colored neighborhoods: he knew the streets, the characters, the histories, and could predict the future with surprising accuracy.

Atlanta was a strange city, and Rake was realizing that he'd not fully appreciated that strangeness before the war, as this was all he'd known. Yet he'd known only parts of it. Downtown had the towers, the wide avenues crowded with streetcars and trolleys and cabs, small triangular parks at confusing intersections, and unexpected one-ways that baffled the newcomers. Grand hotels and office buildings and fine theaters and, in the dark interstices between, narrow alleys that could turn dangerous after dark. During his time in Europe he'd seen London and Paris, where he realized just how small Atlanta was, but his city didn't like admitting that, and indeed every year a new ten- or fifteen-story building seemed to add itself to the skyline. Go too far in any direction and the tall buildings were replaced by either mills or factories or rail yards, most of them surrounded by cheap worker housing, and beyond those borderline shanties the neighborhoods were buffeted by shotgun shacks or bungalows or Queen Anne's or Tudors, depending on how poor or well off the area. Outside the city center, the trees were omnipresent, a canopy of oaks blocking out the sun most of the time, and thank God for it in the summer. Go farther beyond those neighborhoods, though, and you were in the country, farmland and the occasional small-town Main Street, mule-drawn plows and cotton and vistas unchanged over decades. Even within the city limits Rake had found himself in scenes so rural he was amazed they were still within a few miles of the capitol,
with crumbling old farm buildings and outhouses and livestock giving funny looks to his passing squad car.

It was the areas east and west of downtown that Rake had known especially little about. To the east was the Auburn Avenue corridor, and immediately west of downtown was the West Side, both of them Negro neighborhoods.

The street Dunlow now drove them to was only a few blocks south of Auburn and was flanked by rows of narrow, two-story clapboard houses. Crape myrtle branches sagged in the heat, their lavender blooms hanging like ripe fruit. The cloudy sky was darkening at midmorning, rain on the way.

“His sister lives here with her husband, second floor,” Dunlow said.

“Let me guess, her name's Jamie Jamie Jameson?”

“Belle. Just moved here a couple of weeks ago. Husband's more or less clean as far as having a record, but with a gal like that . . .”

“What's her record?”

“Ain't got none, but you know how blood is. I'll knock kindly on the front door, and you can sneak in back.”

Great, the back door. Though going in the back may seem to benefit from the element of surprise, and therefore be an advantage, Rake had learned it was usually the opposite. Back doors opened into kitchens. Kitchens had knives. Two months ago, on a similar surprise backdoor entrance, Rake had been sliced in the arm by a drunk man who outweighed him by fifty pounds, and who had needed three blows from Rake's club to finally fall down.

No one was on the sidewalk as Rake walked through the narrow side yard, creeping beneath clotheslines. No dogs barking, yet. In back, an old wooden fence enclosed their yard, and it wasn't in any condition to support the weight of a full-grown man. In the neighbor's fenceless backyard sat an assortment of boxes and crates, so Rake dragged a wooden crate that reeked of rotten peaches to the fence. He stood upon it and, in the second before the wet wood crumpled beneath him, hoisted himself over the fence. Nearly castrating or at least causing himself severe damage, but managing to avoid it. He did not avoid landing on his backside, however. Fortunately he did not have an audience.

This was the part of police work that remained unknown to those
who would glorify it. As far as Rake could tell, the job consisted of about nine parts of this to one part of the other stuff.

He was about to step in the other stuff.

He crept up the back stairs as silently as he could, which wasn't very silently, as the creaky planks did not enjoy being stepped upon. It had taken him so long to get up here that he figured Dunlow was already inside, beating up Triple James's brother-in-law without probable cause.

A thin curtain at the back door's window prevented Rake from getting much more than a gauzy view of a dark-skinned person in the kitchen.

Rake knocked on the door, hard enough to make things in the kitchen shake. The figure turned.

At the front, Dunlow hit the door like it owed him money.

“Police, open up!”

The door did not obey. He pounded it again and could see the gaps around the door widen with each blow. Niggers couldn't afford decent doors. Even the ones who moved to the better neighborhoods, he'd noticed, had weak doors. The ones who wanted to act white and let you think they were above the fray. Just pound on the door and the truth revealed itself right quick.

“I'm coming, I'm coming!” a man said from within. Freddie, Dunlow recalled. He'd spoken to him once or twice, never anything important, just enough to remember the name. A nigger who marries a gal who happens to be sister to a murderer is someone to keep your eye on.

The door finally opened, and it was free of any annoying door chains. Dunlow entered like the conqueror he was.

Freddie was slender and short. Dunlow figured a harsh word would knock him over. How the little ones like this managed to reproduce and send on their genes was a mystery, as was so much about these people.

“Freddie, right? Freddie the man who has Triple James's sister's heart.”

Freddie looked down. “What can I do for you, Officer?”

Because the little man barely deserved his attention, Dunlow scanned the room. Perfectly tidy. Suspiciously tidy. The walls were bare but for two photographs, one of a happy Negro bride and groom and
lots of their well-dressed relations. It looked new. The other picture of Freddie in army khakis. Christ, Dunlow hated seeing them in uniform. Maybe he'd find a reason to knock the picture down before he left.

A plant by the window leaned toward what little sunlight squeezed between the tightly packed buildings. No toys or crying babies, so they had yet to get around to that. Glasses of what looked like Coca-Cola were sweating on a salvaged coffee table in a small room. An electric fan sat there, aimed at no one.

“You can tell me where he is.”

“Who's that, Officer?”

Dunlow inhaled slowly, which, he'd learned, made him appear that much larger, especially around smaller men. And most men
were
smaller.

“You know who I'm looking for.”

Freddie's eyes were darting around the room, but whenever they returned to Dunlow they stayed no higher than his chest. Sometimes they appeared to fix on the gun in Dunlow's holster. Perhaps Freddie had never seen one so close. Dunlow doubted that.

“I'm sorry, Officer. I'm a little confused.”

Dunlow placed his large left hand on the Negro's right shoulder. He could feel Freddie's trapezius muscle twitch.

“Don't make his problems your problems, boy.”

Freddie didn't answer.

“What were you doing before I got here, huh? Ain't got no job to be at?”

“I, uh, I had to take today off. Haven't been feeling that well.”

“Really now? That's a shame. Don't you breathe no nigger germs on me.” Dunlow smiled, but Freddie didn't seem to see the humor in it.

Rake should be kicking in the back door right about now, Dunlow was thinking. He heard something coming from the kitchen, a tapping.

“Who's that?”

“My wife, Belle. She's fixing my lunch, sir.”

“She's home sick, too, huh?” Dunlow's hand was still on Freddie's shoulder.

“Taking care of me, yes, sir.”

“You don't seem that sick to me.”

A pause. Freddie was wearing only slacks and a sleeveless undershirt, and Dunlow was in full uniform, yet it was the Negro who was sweating.

“Well, I did nap most of the morning, sir.”

There was a narrow hall behind Freddie, and past that a door leading to the bedroom, and past that the kitchen, just out of view.

Dunlow raised his voice. “Why don't you stop that chopping in there, Belle, and walk out here nice and slow so we can all talk together.”

The tapping stopped. Freddie looked nervous. Dunlow, in truth, had thought there was only a tiny chance Triple James had come this way, but those odds seemed to be increasing by the second.

“Y'all been home all day, that right?”

“Yes, sir.”

Finally Dunlow heard Rake pounding on the back door.

“Just you two newlyweds, taking the morning off?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then tell me why you got three glasses set out?”

The closet door beside him swung open, hitting his elbow. A whirlwind of panicked Negro sprang out of the closet and Dunlow barely had a chance to see Triple James's face before the convict planted a prison-tested fist square on Dunlow's nose.

Dunlow stumbled back. He reached for his gun with his right hand, thumbing back the hammer, but something clamped on his forearm and prevented him from drawing the pistol. A spell of numbness was working its way from his neck into his hands from that blow—Christ, the nigger could hit—and then Triple James popped him a second time.

Dunlow couldn't reach up with his right to deflect the blow, or he'd relinquish his gun to Freddie, who was clawing at it. He stepped back again and may well have fallen down if not for the fact that he came against the wall then, which was a godsend, and he swung wildly with his left hand, not hitting anything but at least inspiring Triple James to move.

That bought him a second, so he leaned with his right shoulder and drove forward, knocking little Freddie out of the way. Dunlow and Triple James squared off then, the convict with both fists up like a
goddamn boxer. Only Freddie wasn't as out of the way as Dunlow had thought—the black twerp had been knocked down, but not completely flat. Freddie reached up, seeking Dunlow's holstered firearm, and somehow managed to pull its trigger.

BOOK: Darktown
2.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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