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Authors: Thomas Mullen

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BOOK: Darktown
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Boggs didn't even know what charges Dunlow and Rakestraw had cited Underhill with the evening they'd pulled him over. But he had a feeling McInnis didn't want him to bother with finding out, as it would have only made the paperwork take longer.

Boggs was nearly finished when McInnis excused himself to use the john, which was one flight up. (The Y had been paid by the police department to turn an existing closet into a small, whites-only restroom for McInnis's sake.) Boggs picked up the phone. He identified himself to the police switchboard operator and asked for Records. Muffling the receiver, he turned to his partner and asked, “Cover for me, Tommy.”

Smith shook his head, but he walked over to the stairs, in better position for a warning whistle if McInnis approached.

The voice of a middle-aged woman came over the line: “Records.”

“Yes, I need the arrest record for Brian Underhill on July ninth.”

“Who's speaking?”

He gave her his name and badge number, which included the suffix identifying him as a Negro officer. He was put on hold for a while. At least she hadn't hung up on him.
McInnis better have slow bowels,
he thought. Finally, she was back on the line. She told him there was nothing to be found.

“Not even a traffic citation?”

“Nothing. No record of anything involving that name.”

“I'm sure that's a mistake. Could you check the logs for Officers Dunlow and Rakestraw? They would have made the arrest.”

She sighed loudly into the phone and put him on hold again. Minutes passed. McInnis was still in the john, poor bastard (or maybe he'd fallen asleep on it?), when her voice finally came back on.

“Nothing in the recent logs for those officers about any Underhill.”

So not only had Dunlow and Rakestraw not cited him for striking the lamppost, they hadn't even made note of the fact that they'd pulled him over.

“While I have you,” Boggs said as politely as he could before she hung up on him, “I was hoping you could pull Underhill's records. Does he have any priors?”

“I've done enough for you, boy. There was no arrest, there's nothing for you to worry about, so go patrol your nigger neighborhood.” She hung up.

Boggs held on to the receiver for an extra moment, his cheeks burning.

A minute later, McInnis returned, and Boggs handed over his report. McInnis skimmed it, his eyes red above the gray bags in his skin.

“I'll take it over in the morning. Next shift, I mean.” He yawned. “Lord, it's late. Go home, everyone.” He left without a thank-you.

Boggs and Smith each showered upstairs for a good fifteen minutes. They saw garbage whenever they closed their eyes. Garbage and a body. They put on their civvies and stuffed their rancid blues into trash bags. They had only one spare each, so they'd need to get these washed immediately. Boggs had his mother—financial good sense and practicality meant that he still lived with his parents—while Smith paid a woman on his block to do his.

Boggs was on his way out, nodding a good morning to Eakins at the front desk, when he heard the basement phone ringing. He stopped, considered for a moment, then jogged down and unlocked the precinct door. The phone was on its sixth ring by the time he lifted the receiver.

“Officer Boggs.”

“This is Records.” It was a woman's voice, so hushed he could hardly hear her. “Did you call about Underhill?”

“Yes. Yes, that was me.”

“Well, we never had this conversation, but what do you need to know?”

It had been hard to tell because of her whisper, but now he was sure of it: this wasn't the same lady who'd told him off earlier.

“I had thought he was cited for a traffic violation the night of the ninth, but she told me there wasn't anything—”

“I know, I heard that part. But what else? You'd best hurry, she'll be back soon.”

“His arrest record. Any priors. And his address, occupation. Anything.”

“He's ex-APD.”

Boggs sat down. “When was he on the force?”

“Until '44 or '45. Toward the end of the war, I remember.”

The facts and ramifications were coming too fast for Boggs to assemble at once. If Underhill was ex-APD, then Dunlow must have known him. Which at least partially accounted for the easy rapport between the two of them that night, the way Underhill's singing taunt had won a familiar smile from Dunlow.

But also:
likely knew Underhill. Which would explain the look on the sergeant's face when Boggs had said the name a few hours ago.

“He looked a little young for retirement,” Boggs said.

“He didn't retire. He was forced out.”


“Shoot, I gotta go. I'll try and get you something.”

“What's your name, ma'am?”

But she'd already hung up.


Rake was filing a report at headquarters when he heard someone say
“Dead girl.”

“What dead girl?”

used to make him think
but now that he had a daughter the word had forever changed. He heard
“dead girl”
and thought of a toddler in a pink dress. A car accident, a stray bullet, a drowning. One little life ended and so many others permanently scarred.

The other cop clarified: “girl” as in nigger adult female.

Rake read the report. In a trash heap. Yellow dress, locket. One bullet wound in the chest. No name or ID, nothing physically distinguishing save for a birthmark on her right shoulder. Filed by Negro officers Boggs and Smith.

“Anybody been to the brothels?” Rake asked out loud, to no one in particular.

“Not tonight, but maybe later,” someone joked. Laughter from the others.

“I mean, is she a whore or just somebody who got shot?”

Another beat cop sighed as he walked past and said, “She came in all covered in garbage. I don't imagine any detectives will be lining up to take that one, but I'm sure you're welcome to sniff around.”

“We are born naked and covered in shit, and so shall we exit,” someone else mused.

“She wasn't naked, according to this,” Rake said.

“Well, she's naked now.”

Hours later, Rake and Dunlow sank into their chairs at the Hotbox, a diner two blocks from Terminal Station. It catered mostly to rail yard
workers but became a de facto police cafeteria in these post-midnight hours, as it was one of the few places in the city legally allowed to stay open all night.

“If it isn't Grits Rakestraw!” Brian Helton's voice called out.

Laughter from all over the dining room. Rake willed that his cheeks not turn red, though they probably did, as Helton and his partner, Bo Peterson, walked in.

Rake had been hearing a lot of the “Grits” line. Officers in his presence made a point of discussing what they'd eaten for breakfast, as if this was the funniest damn thing they'd ever heard.

“They do serve grits here all night, I believe,” Helton said. He had short blond hair turning gray and he looked like the sort of fellow who might have once had a lot of promise, longer ago than he cared to admit. Perhaps he'd been skilled at throwing a ball of some kind and had married a cheerleader who was still distraught over the fact that they couldn't afford to live in a better neighborhood.

“Flavored with niggers' tears,” Peterson added. With their similar manners and surnames, Rake saw Helton and Peterson as basically the same person, divided in half by some horrible accident. Though he changed his mind about which was which. Peterson had darker hair and a rounder face, but otherwise their differences appeared minor.

They dragged another table over to join Rake and Dunlow for “lunch,” which Rake still thought was a strange thing to call a meal you ate at midnight when you worked the night shift.

“They're saying Henry Wallace is gonna try to give a speech here next month,” Peterson said.

“I don't care to discuss politics at work,” Dunlow said. Dunlow still had fading bruises on his face from his tussle with Triple James. “Nor anywhere else.” He belched.

“Well, our esteemed former VP has made it his own personal policy not to give any talks before segregated audiences,” Helton explained. “So if he gives a talk here, that means some of us will have the honor of arresting him.”

Wallace had served as vice president under FDR, one of the most hated men in the South, for one term before being unceremoniously dumped in favor of Truman in '44. Now he was running, against the
man who had supplanted him, as a third-party agitator. Wallace had gone hard left during his time in the political wilderness, attracting all manner of Communists and socialists, railing against segregation and doing what he could to cause trouble in the South.

“They won't let us arrest the ex-VP, you idiot,” Peterson said. “We'd just have to shut it down.”

“Where's it happening?” Rake asked.

“Haven't said yet. They'll likely announce it as last-minute as possible.”

After they'd eaten and the waitress had cleared all but their coffee mugs, Helton asked, “Y'all hear the latest on Nigger Bayle? He's gonna be reinstated.”

“Bullshit,” Dunlow said.

“It's bull but it's happening.”

Dunlow was the one who'd reported Negro Officer Bayle for consumption of alcohol. He claimed that he'd seen Bayle among a trio of Negroes drinking from flasks outside a bar. Rake had learned over the ensuing days that things hadn't quite happened that way—it was actually one of Dunlow's Negro informants who'd seen it, supposedly.

“Next time you want to get a nigra suspended,” Helton said to Dunlow, “say you saw him doing something more lurid.”

“Bad enough we got coloreds wearing the same badge as us,” Dunlow said, “but some of them are drinkers, too.”

Though Rake was officially Dunlow's partner, he had worked a handful of shifts with Peterson and Helton in his first few weeks, as the Department liked the rookies to learn from as many veterans as possible. Rake swiftly determined that he had little to learn from them. Like Dunlow, they were on the wrong side of forty for beat cops, and they were far more interested in getting cuts from gamblers and moonshiners than in enforcing the law.

The first time Rake had met Peterson, the older cop had extended his left hand, saying, “I have a friend in Black Rock.” Rake had extended his right, puzzling over the comment. Their two opposite hands had hovered there like a couple of mismatched shoes. Peterson had repeated his comment and kept his left hand dangling.
Who the hell shakes hands with his left?
Rake had thought. Then Peterson had pulled
his hand back and walked away without another word. It wasn't until Rake saw Peterson have a similar encounter with another rookie cop that Rake put a few things together. That time, Peterson and the other cop shook with their left hands, the fingers loose, almost like two fish flopping against each other. They'd noticed Rake watching them then, and had glanced at each other, which was when Rake realized that the left-hand thing was a secret Kluxer greeting.

And the first time he'd walked with Helton, they had arrested an old Negro who had simply been walking home along Juniper Street at midnight. Helton had demanded the Negro's work papers, wanting proof that he was employed at a night job and therefore had reason to be out so late. There was no official curfew in Atlanta, yet most of the cops enforced one on the colored population. Helton had made such arrests in Rake's presence three times now, and every time it happened, Rake silently vowed that next time he would protest, insist that this was ridiculous, or at least refuse to go to the call box. Yet every time it happened, he went along with it, reluctant to win himself a new enemy.

“Your informant may have actually been wrong about Bayle,” Rake said to Dunlow.

“Really, now?”

“Rookie doesn't seem to understand how valuable it is to have friendships,” Helton said.

Rake took his time finishing his coffee, then put the mug down. “Don't call me rookie, Helton. I got four years' combat experience while you were over here arresting elderly Negroes for illegal-­pedestrianism-after-curfew.”

After a second of silence, Peterson laughed. “Kid's got sand, Dunlow.”

“Damn right he does,” Dunlow vouched. “Had my back at Triple James's while you two and everyone else was trying to find him on the wrong side of town.”

“I would like to hear him further explain his opinion on Nigger Bayle,” Helton said, seething from Rake's comment. “Seemed to me there that he was supporting Bayle over Dunlow. That doesn't sound like having your partner's back.”

Rake realized he was wading deep into waters he'd been trying to avoid. Lord only knew where the sudden drop was.

“The city isn't going to change its mind,” he told them. “The Negro cops are here to stay. I'm not saying you have to like it, but I am saying, if we want to keep from driving ourselves crazy, we'll learn to deal with it.”

“Oh, we are going to deal with it,” Dunlow said. “Make no mistake on that.”

“I just mean y'all are looking at this the wrong way.”

“Enlighten us, Officer Rakestraw,” Peterson said. “Share with us your higher worldview.”

“Look, you two patrol over in Kirkwood, so what do you care about colored cops? They're miles away from you. But me and Dunlow are in downtown, just blocks from Darktown every night.” He decided not to add the fact that Dunlow made a point of going into Darktown
every damn night
to reassert his ownership. “Right now, sure, it's awkward with us being so close to them. But once they're up to speed, once they've proven themselves decent cops, or close enough, the city'll hire a few more—”

“The devil you say,” Peterson nearly spat.

“—and then they'll have the manpower to police their part of town by themselves. Which means us white cops can police the white neighborhoods, and we won't need to spend another moment down near Auburn Avenue or Decatur Street or the West Side.” He paused a moment for them to get the point. “Isn't that what you want? You're so huffy about seeing a Negro in a uniform that you can't see this for what it is: a better kind of segregation. Give the colored cops the colored neighborhoods, and we'll never have to set foot in there again. They'll handle their affairs, and we'll handle ours.”

Dunlow was watching Rake with a kind of stony silence. The others looked like they were either having trouble following his argument or were wondering if he was deranged.

“Lord have mercy,” Helton finally said with a shake of his head. He waved to the waitress for a refill. “A white cop saying that what we need is more black cops. Guess you got a little shell shock over there in France, boy. A little weary of fighting.”

“That's a mighty nice story, Rakestraw,” Peterson said. “But there are only two ways this little experiment might end. One is them niggers running through burning streets, firing rifles into the air as the whole
damned city turns to chaos. The other is us shoving those badges so far down their throats, we'll be able to cut their balls off with 'em.”

Rake and Dunlow had been barely driving a minute when Dispatch called in with a report of an assault in Darktown. An old colored woman who lived on Fitzgerald had seen “four or five” men in a fight, some of whom she thought might have been colored officers.

“This sounds good,” Dunlow said to Rake after telling Dispatch they were on their way.

It was a side street five blocks south of Auburn, Dunlow driving so fast he nearly drove over the scrum of Negroes in the center of the road, braking just in time. Rake wondered if maybe he'd been toying with hitting them on purpose.

Negro Officer Little was cuffing one of two Negroes who were lying facedown on the sidewalk. The other was already cuffed, his hands slick with red.

BOOK: Darktown
12.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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