Read Darktown Online

Authors: Thomas Mullen

Darktown (7 page)

BOOK: Darktown
8.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

They were not detectives, only beat cops. They had no squad cars and were forbidden from entering the white headquarters. Their job was to enforce peace and arrest those observed to have broken the law, but they could not conduct investigations. One day, they each hoped, there would be promotions, but not now. Probably not for a very long while.

Although Sweet Auburn boasted far more wealth than most white folks realized, and, on the other side of town, the West Side offered renowned Negro universities that many white folks didn't even know existed, most of Atlanta's colored neighborhoods were in dire condition. Few lampposts, sporadic-to-no garbage collection, several unpaved roads, no enforcement of housing codes. And, until months ago, no cops. The end of the war had brought a population boom to the city, with so many farmers fleeing sharecropping to find something only slightly less horrible. Families lived packed into one-room apartments, multiple families sharing a bathroom in some buildings, others in ramshackle dwellings tucked into the alleys lining the more decrepit blocks. Some of the neighborhoods still lacked plumbing, and more than once Boggs and Smith had the unfortunate experience of pursuing a suspect who wound up trying to hide in an outhouse. These neighborhoods were minutes on foot from the street where Boggs had lived all his life, but his family had assiduously avoided them. It was like entering another world.

The area was in desperate need of policing. Since the white cops ventured over only when they needed a Negro to conveniently arrest for some crime, the residents had no protection from pickpockets and thieves and burglars, scofflaws and roughnecks, moonshiners and drunks and rapists. Even the fine homes on Auburn Avenue were not immune from break-ins and the occasional sighting of a prostitute strolling past. And the sheer amount of alcohol in this until-recently officially dry city was enough to keep the rest of the South at least half drunk at all times.

So they had started by going after the booze. They busted pool halls that kept moonshine. They busted stills, literally tore them apart with crowbars and set fire to the piles. They shut down barbershops that sold illegal booze, pharmacies that sold illegal booze, even an old lady who ran a small nursery school but sold booze on the side. The closest thing to an actual investigation they'd pulled off had been a prolonged surveillance of several low-level bootleggers to get a better sense of the
underground market's supply chain. That had led to a handful of arrests; one of the bootleggers' trial was just days away. Otherwise, their work involved being put in the middle of awful family situations: this son stabbed his father, that husband put his wife in the hospital, this wife is selling herself at night and now the husband found out and is chasing the pimp down the block with a cleaver in his hand.

His second day on the job, Boggs had been trying to help a woman whose wayward sons' friends had broken into her place and robbed it. He'd asked,
“Ma'am, can you tell me what time it was when you were out?”
and
“What other things were taken, ma'am?”
when her face turned into a scowl and she'd demanded,
“Why you keep calling me ‘ma'am' ?”
He'd been thrown at first, no idea what she meant. The second time she'd said it, he replied,
“Well, I can't very well call you ‘sir.'

Which had not been what she wanted to hear; she launched into a tirade, accusing him of playing some trick on her. It took him a moment to realize that no one had ever called her “ma'am” before. Boggs had heard his own mother so addressed countless times, as she was a regal Auburn Avenue matriarch, wife to a preacher. But to this poor woman, it was a word for someone else.
“You blind, son? You see a ‘ma'am' here? I look like a white lady to you?”
It had broken his heart.

A few months later, it had happened so many times he'd grown used to it.

Hours later, another storm had come and mostly gone, fading to a drizzle. Boggs and Smith walked in their ponchos, gutters playing their percussion all around them. Vast puddles sometimes forced them to walk in the middle of the road, and the city was glistening and new and everyone but them was asleep.

They walked down Krog Street, passing bungalows painted red and yellow and blue. Another block north and they'd reach a small textile mill across the street from an empty, overgrown plot where a few weeks ago they'd helped two lunatic white men from the country retrieve a couple of stallions that had fled the men's trailer after the men had pulled over in front of a nightclub for a few drinks.

Their shift had more than an hour to go and Boggs was yearning for sleep when Smith stopped.

“Oh, Lord.” He was sniffing, so Boggs did, too. Even in the damp air it was unmistakable.

They walked in little circles, seeking its source.

Smith knew the smell far more intimately than Boggs, whose war experience had not involved combat, much to his chagrin. But Boggs had come to learn that scent on two occasions these past few months, once when they'd helped a landlord kick down the door to an apartment whose tenant had not been heard from in days and once when they'd come upon a local drunk who'd had his final, lethal jolt of bad moonshine in an alley.

Smith walked through the high grass of the abandoned lot, risking snakebites and red bugs and God knew what, using his long flashlight to see where he was going and to push back the overgrowth.

As they neared the brick wall of a two-story building, their feet started crunching upon wrappers. They beamed the ground and saw that this was an unofficial trash dump; garbage spanned the length of the building, several feet high in places. The overall stench was even worse, and more varied now, but still that tang of death clung around them.

Amid the weeds was some bamboo, and Boggs snapped off two shoots. He handed one to Smith and they used them to sift through the trash. Their beams illuminated paper bags and bottles and decaying food and worse things, all of their smells loud and radiant, made all the worse by the fact that the lot had been baked by the sun and soaked by rains and reheated and resoaked over and over again.

Boggs's bamboo hit against something solid. He pushed at the trash and moved it off whatever it was. Then he saw her. He didn't recognize the skin as skin at first, because it was so discolored. But he recognized her canary-yellow dress.

While Smith hurried to the nearest call box, Boggs said a prayer for her. He asked that the Lord keep her spirit, whoever she was. He asked that she find peace. And he prayed for the Lord's forgiveness, because he had seen her in that car with the white man who hit her, and he hadn't done anything to help her.

4

SERGEANT MCINNIS WAS
the first to join them at the site. Two of the other colored officers, Wade Johnson and big Champ Jennings, made it minutes later.

“You're sure she's the same girl?” McInnis asked.

“Pretty sure,” Smith replied.

“Thought you said you couldn't see her face that night.”

“Can't really see her face anymore either, Sergeant. But she has the same dress and locket and hair.”

McInnis crouched beside the corpse while Boggs shined a light. The body was bloated and purpled and not recognizably human. Pieces of it were missing, sometimes in chunks and sometimes little pecks, in accordance with the size of the scavengers that had feasted on it.

“Damn. Couple days, I'd say.” McInnis stood back up. “Garbage collection is supposed to be once a week in this neighborhood, ain't it?”

“That might be official policy,” Smith said. “But I live a few blocks away, and it ain't the case.”

“Well, I want you to call in to Sanitation and find out the most recent time they've been by.”

“Yes, sir.”

After three months of working under McInnis, none of them knew quite what to make of him. He had the exasperated air of a man who was perpetually one card shy of a royal flush, his patience thinned by that one maddening, missing card. He had a wife and, they'd heard somewhere, kids, yet he never spoke about them. His short dark hair had never noticeably grown or been cut, which meant either he trimmed it incessantly or it just somehow didn't grow. The hair was free of gray, though he had wrinkles around his eyes, the weathered look of a fellow
who'd been scowling for years until it became permanent. He was thin and—the few times any of them had occasion to see him pursue a subject on foot—startlingly fast. He was their boss. He called all of them by their last names and never asked about their home lives. None of them had ever heard him say “nigger” or “coon” or “monkey” or “ape,” yet they all felt certain those words were familiar to his tongue. He didn't smile much. He ate meticulously constructed sandwiches that his wife (they assumed) wrapped in waxed paper for him, never going out for a meal, which (they assumed) was because he did not want to patronize the local colored establishments. He was in all likelihood the only sergeant in Atlanta who had eight rookies to deal with, regardless of race. They each sensed that he hated his job, at least since they'd been hired.

“You'll have to take the body out,” he said. “And then you'll have to go through this whole mess for the murder weapon or anything else.”

“Should we wait for Homicide, sir?” Jennings asked. “We don't want them criticizing us for disturbing a crime scene.”

“They'll criticize you regardless of what you do. And this crime scene appears pretty well disturbed already. Besides, if we wait on them, we could wait so long the sanitation trucks beat them to her.”

They didn't need him to translate: white detectives couldn't care less about a dead colored girl, especially one found in a dump.

“Someone should question the fellow she was with that night,” Johnson chimed in.

“Brian Underhill,” Boggs said.

“He was in your report?” McInnis seemed interested in that name.

“Yes, sir. Dunlow and Rakestraw took over once he was pulled over the second time.”

“I'll look into it.” McInnis considered something, eyes down. “C'mon, take her out.”

Boggs and Smith exchanged a quick glance, then got on with the unfortunate business. The body was rock hard, and they heard ugly snapping sounds, what might have been bone or tendons, and the gross expulsions of gas as they wrestled her out. They carried her past the dump and the jungle of weeds, lowering her to the alley floor as gently as they could manage. Boggs trying very, very hard not to think about what they were doing, not to fully grasp it.

The body was filthy, covered in everything from coffee grounds to wet newspaper to what appeared to be maggots. Jennings backed up a step, hand raised to his mouth.

McInnis, handkerchief covering his nose and mouth, knelt down beside her. He tried to move her head, couldn't, and settled for rearranging the hair that had been covering her face. It was foul and nightmarish and despite all the missing flesh there didn't seem to be anything shaped like a bullet hole.

He moved to her chest now, and there it was, a bullet hole leading to her heart. Not difficult to find at all, since the top of her dress was soaked black. There only appeared to be one, and the sight of it seemed enough for McInnis, who apparently figured the coroner could look for any others.

McInnis used his flashlight to beam the ground, looking for a blood trail, evidence she'd been dragged, anything. But the area was so unkempt that the search was useless. If she'd been dragged and bled somewhere, the blood was long since washed away.

Clock-out time was supposed to be two, but it was nearing seven and Boggs and Smith were still filling out paperwork on their Negro Jane Doe in the basement of the Butler Street YMCA.

The Y was a six-story brick structure that, in addition to serving as a gymnasium, rooming house, neighborhood meeting place, and political headquarters for the colored community, had for the past three months also become the de facto precinct for Atlanta's eight Negro police officers. The same city fathers who had finally extended the badge to Negroes still could not imagine a world in which colored cops
sat beside
white cops, or ate with them, or showered and dressed in the same locker rooms, or defecated in the same toilets. Surely a riot would ensue.

The fact that the Y was their HQ had spawned a range of slang terms among the officers. Walking a beat was “running laps.” Being chewed out by McInnis was “getting benched.” Doing paperwork was “lifting weights.”

The Y was managed by Herm Eakins, an older man who'd come down from New York ten years earlier. He told people he wasn't a political sort, but he'd been spurred into action by the white cops, who
frequently busted his door down and demanded that he admit them into the rooms of his various boarders, whom they suspected of having committed some crime or another. The cops never had a warrant and seldom even had a name, and Eakins seldom seemed to have any rights. He had reinstalled his door
twelve times
after cops had kicked it down, the story goes, one for each tribe of Israel. After the
twelfth time
he'd had to replace it—had to painstakingly rebuild the entryway and put in new screws and chisel the side of the wall and install new anchors—that twelfth time was the last. He reached out to Reverend King, Reverend Holmes Borders, and Reverend Boggs, informing them that whatever they needed from him to help get some Negro cops in this neighborhood, he was their man.

That's when Lucius first met him, more than a year ago, at one of the Citizenship School sessions Reverend Boggs helped organize. The white primary had just been abolished by the Supreme Court, which meant white people could no longer bar Negroes from voting in the Democratic primary, the only election that mattered. At least,
in theory
white people couldn't bar them (the ruling didn't stop Governor Talmadge from proclaiming that the best way to keep Negroes from voting was “with pistols”). Mayor Hartsfield, a moderate on the race issue, had promised the colored community leaders that he would hire colored cops only if they registered enough voters to make an impact in the municipal elections.

Lucius had been back from the war for a year and a half by then, working at the same black-owned insurance company as his brother Reginald and still seeking his purpose. At the Citizenship School, he had stood in front of nearly a hundred people of varying ages and explained to them how voting worked, where they needed to go to register, what they had to bring. Which nasty questions to anticipate and how to deflect them. How to dress and conduct themselves, what not to say.

Twenty thousand registered Negro voters later (countless pamphlets and endless meetings and long speeches and miles of shoe leather worn down all across the colored neighborhoods of Atlanta) the community had their officers. And because those officers needed a place to change into their uniforms and file their reports, Eakins offered them the Y's basement.

White officers had proven quite uninterested in knocking down—or even knocking
on
—the Y's door ever since. They grumbled that the Y's boarding rooms were no doubt a hive of illicit activity with nothing but
Negro-quote-cops-unquote
to stop them, but Eakins didn't mind the chatter. At least he didn't have to hang another gotdang door.

The ramshackle precinct consisted solely of this subterranean space, badly heated in the winter (so they had been warned) and so humid in the summer that the concrete walls actually sweat. Eight desks were crammed in the room like some rural Negro elementary school. The concrete floor was cracked in places, dirt from below seeping upward, so much so that no matter how well Boggs shined his shoes, they looked dusty when he hit the streets. In the back some Sheetrock and a thin door had been installed to create an office for McInnis, who had asked his own superiors repeatedly if this cup could pass from his lips, but no, someone had to be the martyr and oversee the Negro cops, and it was him.

The showers were three floors up, the toilet was one flight up, and there was often a line for both. Lack of paper and paper clips was a problem. Rats were a larger problem.

On one wall, thumbtacks denoting crimes and suspects' addresses adorned a map of their district. Even at this early hour, Boggs could hear a basketball bouncing on the first-floor courts.

That there were eight Negro officers did not alter the way the Atlanta police department went about identifying Negro Jane Does. The first step was shipping the body to the morgue, in the basement of the white headquarters, far removed from the colored officers. The second step was waiting for someone to show up asking where his girl was. If that didn't happen, the third was throwing away the body when space was needed for another dead Negro. The coroner had finally shown up in his wagon to take the body, but, as McInnis had predicted, Homicide never showed.

Most of the bodies Boggs had dealt with were found at crime scenes where the perpetrator was still present, or where the victim lived, or at a venue with several witnesses. This was the first time any uncertainty had been involved. There was no missing persons report matching
her description. The yellow dress she'd been wearing and the simple necklace—­steel cord and a silverlike heart-shaped locket, empty—were the only things on her person that might prove identifying, other than a birthmark on her right shoulder.

“You done with that report yet, Boggs?” McInnis asked. He was not a fan of Boggs's report-writing. During their first week, he had read one of Boggs's reports to the others during roll call. “The subject
vehemently
defended himself,” he read, with sarcastic emphasis, and “the witness's
aquamarine
blouse had become
translucent
from spilled moonshine,” and “the hilt of the blade
protruded
at a ninety-degree angle.” Then the sergeant had tossed the report in the trash, saying, “You're not impressing anyone with the ten-dollar words, Boggs. Fewer adjectives, please. No one's giving you a PhD for this.” Since then, Boggs strained to be as succinct as possible so as not to offend his GED-holding boss.

As he typed, he thought of the facts he wished he knew, information a white cop easily could acquire by going to the Records department. If the Negro officers needed to access files that were stored at headquarters, they needed to place a call asking for the file, since they weren't allowed on the premises. The file would then be added to a stack that was picked up daily by McInnis, who frequently complained to his officers about that chore.
I am not your errand boy.
Which made them that much more reluctant to make such requests.

BOOK: Darktown
8.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Very Hungry Zombie by Michael Teitelbaum
A Cousin's Prayer by Wanda E. Brunstetter
Silver Stallion by Junghyo Ahn
Stars Go Blue by Laura Pritchett