The Babe smiled. “I hope those bastards out in Chicago string him up. Little fucking son of a bitch.”
“What do you hear about Chicago, the grand jury and all?”
“What do I know?” Ruth wiped his mouth with the back of his free hand. “We weren't even in the Series last year.” The Babe's belch this time was more modest, hardly worth the effort.
“Yeah,” Cook said, trying to seem casual, “but you were there the year before, when you guys beat the Cubs.”
The Babe's eyes stopped scanning the bar and fixed back on Cook. “You saying something?”
Cook shrugged, suddenly wondering if the Babe's routine might be an act. “You hear stuff, maybe it's malarkey, from people who may know something or may not. Some of it's just logic, I guess. With all the trouble around the Series in '18âyou know, the players going on strike, fighting over money, the war, the gamblers.”
The Babe kept his gaze steady on Cook. “What about the gamblers?”
“Well, there's your business partner, Attell. He must've been hanging around the Series, both teams. And I've heard about that train ride from Chicago to Boston, the overnight train with both teams on it. That's a long time on a train, Chicago to Boston. Hard for guys not to talk to each other, play some cards, have a few laughs, you know? And you've always got those gamblers in your underwear, helping with the cards and the dice, shooting the breezeâyou know how it is. I was just thinking, if the players were trying to figure out how to get paid more, well, sometimes gamblers and ballplayers can figure that out, you know? Help each other out. At least that used to happen back in my day.”
“I don't remember about that train trip.”
Cook smiled. “That's a long ride to forget.”
“Sometimes I'm forgetful.” The Babe pointed to his half-empty beer mug and smiled. “I drink a lot, you know.”
Cook leaned forward on his elbows and smiled. “That's good, Babe. That's real good. Nothing good comes from answering questions like that.” Cook knew that was sound advice, advice that most people couldn't follow. Most people talked too goddamned much. Maybe the Babe didn't, which would mean he definitely was smarter than Cook had expected.
rother Briggs is speaking tonight, up in Harlem. Going to talk about Negro armed resistance. We should go.” Cecil Washington's narrow face wore an earnest expression under the flat light at Childs' cafeteria. This branch was downtown, not far from Wall Street. At midmorning, amid the hubbub of the financial center, Childs' was a refuge for the confused and forlorn. A few customers, most unshaven, sat at single tables, quietly bearing the burden of another day of having nowhere better to be. At a table against the back wall, Cecil and Joshua Cook nursed cups of coffee and smoked. Since coming home from the war, they had moved from harsh French cigarettes to Lucky Strikes, but still preferred their coffee hot, strong, and with a heavy dose of cream. Childs' coffee usually failed on the first two counts.
Cecil was an earnest man. As a soldier in Joshua's platoon, that earnestness was worth its weight in gold. No matter what the big talk was now among black folks about their army regiment, how the ferocious Harlem Hellfighters won the war all by themselves, not everyone in it was a two-fisted hero. Cecil though, now, he was. Joshua had counted on him over in France, counted on him every day, and he was never disappointed. Back home, Cecil had become an earnest black revolutionary. He earnestly believed in the need for Negro armed resistance against their white oppressors. In peacetime, Cecil's earnestness could wear a body out.
“You don't need to go hear that man,” Joshua said, stubbing out a butt. He was smoking more than he could afford. He could hear his mother fussing how his clothes stank of tobacco. “I can give you his speech right here, right now. So can you. We need to fight the white masters and get our hind ends back to Africa.”
“Don't be like that. Don't give me that I've-seen-it-all routine. Sure, we know Brother Briggs's message, but you need to be refreshed on it, let it steep into you. Feel it deep in your bones. Need that on a regular basis.”
“Like going to church on Sunday?” Joshua allowed himself a grin and reached for his cigarettes.
“See!” Cecil pointed a long finger at him. “You're doing it. Making fun of it. We got to stand up for ourselves, stand up for our brothers and sisters. Stand up for the African Blood Brotherhood.”
“I don't know, Cecil.” He exhaled his first puff, the one that felt best and you paid most attention to. “I need a movement that'll fight for my right to sit down, sit down like all those bosses sit down. That's the movement black folks need. More sitting down.”
“Come on, you know Briggs is telling it right. Ain't nothing going to be given us. We need to stand up and seize it. You used to tell me that over in the trenches, told me your daddy told you that your whole life.”
“Cecil, you need to think over all this standing up business. Standing up just makes it easier for the government to find you. Then they write your name down, come see you in the middle of the night. If Mr. Briggs doesn't watch out, he's going to get himself a one-way ticket to the pokey, or out of the country, sent away like all those Russian reds got sent away.”
Lowering his voice, Cecil increased his intensity. “Joshua, you know there's got to be revolution, just like they had in Russia. Seize the government and take the wealth of the rich for the benefit of the poor. For black folks, ain't no other way. We're never going to get anything that we don't take. Things can't keep going on this way.”
“Cecil, we just need to think this thing through.” The tobacco was starting to taste as sour as Cecil's dedication to the African Blood Brotherhood. Joshua balanced the cigarette on the rim of the saucer. “You say you want to take the wealth from the rich folks. You really think that's going to bring money to black folks? Haven't you noticed how all those Bolsheviks are white? You think they're going to forget all of a sudden how that skin makes them better than us? We may take the money, but
going to keep it, leave us with nothing except maybe that ticket back to Africa, where nobody in the Cook family has lived for a few hundred years.”
Cecil sat back with some force, clucked his tongue and shook his head. “Come on, you can't really think it'd be any worse than it is now. Look at your daddyâsmartest colored man I ever met, right? Back in Africa, he'd be a goddamned king. What's he do now? Hustles bets on some broke-down Negro ballplayers who play for nickels and dimes. And he's got to pay off Jewish gangsters just to do that.”
Joshua stared through the cafeteria. New customers were working their way down the food line. He was sorry he'd introduced Cecil to his father. Sorry, too, that he'd spoken about his father's business, such as it was. Cecil never knew his own father, so he'd got real impressed with Speed Cook. Too impressed.
He raised his eyebrows in answer.
“You sound like you're ready to go into business, turn into a capitalist, maybe with your old man, like he wants you to.”
“Hell, he doesn't want me to do that. That's about the only thing we agree onâI should do something better. I don't even like baseballâplaying it, watching it, even knowing it exists. My daddy knows that. 'Course, he does want to stop me consorting with dangerous revolutionaries like you.” Joshua traced his finger around the rim of his coffee cup. “But you know, I've been thinking. . . .” His voice drifted off and he stared for a minute more.
“Bully for you.” Cecil made a face and shook his head. Joshua was his friend, his best friend, but sometimes the man acted like the whole world should stop and wait for him.
“No, listen to me. I've been thinking about this for a while.” He pushed the cup aside and leaned forward. “What about bootlegging?” When Cecil made an exasperated sound, Joshua held out a hand. “No, no, hear me out. You know, there's some colored men moving into it now. It's a brand new business, so it's wide open. And there's lots of money just wandering around in it, looking for a place to go. People're drinking more than ever now we got Prohibition. It's like if you said turnips was against the law, suddenly everyone'd want nothing but turnips.”
“Bootlegging's against the law.”
Joshua laughed. “Some revolutionary you are. I thought you wanted to break
the laws, bring down the government!” He drained the room-temperature coffee from his cup. “How about this? Think of bootlegging as a way to undermine the government, American style. It's a revolutionary act that just happens to put dollars into empty pockets like yours and mine.”
“I think I am. I'm heading over toward lower Broadway, an errand for a couple of bootleggers. They were hanging around the old man's baseball team. It's a little collecting work, some speakeasy.”
“Look at that. Capitalism is already making you a criminal. They won't let you make an honest buck.”
Joshua smiled. “But Prohibition's such a dumb law.”
* * *
Joshua cut across Wall Street to get over to Broadway. He saw some black faces here in the heart of American capitalism, but none of them was dressed as well as he was. He owned two suits and they were both sharp. This one was a soft brown, single-button number with a rich chocolate stripe. The vest had lapels. His cream-colored fedora sported a tan silk band. He looked better than most of the rich men he passed. He kept to the north side of the street to stay in the sunlight.
At the corner of Wall and Broad, he paused to take in the imperial offices of J. P. Morgan & Co., the beating heart of the capitalist beast. Though only a few stories high, the squat building radiated the self-importance of an Egyptian pharaoh. Joshua craned his neck. Getting out of a taxi over there, that looked like the blond head of Violet Fraser. He'd met her in France the year before, when her father helped him on that business with the army. He liked her. She seemed like more than just a pretty girl. They had vowed to get together back in America, but they hadn't. No surprise there. He wasn't from her world, not even a little bit.
He caught a second glimpse as she crossed the sidewalk. It was definitely Violet. He thought about calling out, but didn't. She was going into the Morgan bank. She wouldn't want to deal with him right now, even to be seen with him. She probably had a boyfriend in there, some Ivy League man. And Joshua had business.
Halfway down the next block, the sidewalk surged under his feet. Something slapped him down on his face. A roar burst into his ears. The world hung suspended. Time stopped.
When Joshua's mind began to work again, whenever that was, he had trouble understanding the thought that was struggling to be recognized. It hung right near him but he couldn't reach it. Then it was there. After surviving six months dodging German shells, he wasn't about to get blown up on the streets of New York.
* * *
Debris was settling around him. Rock and dust. Wood and fabric. Bits that might be flesh. He coughed and squinted, then rolled up on an elbow. He shaded his eyes to look back at the blast site. A crater gaped at the entrance to the Morgan bank. Wagons and cars were twisted heaps. Broken glass lay everywhere. Bodies littered the pavement at terrible angles.
The silence confused him. No sound. He rose onto all fours, his head hanging down. Still silent. He lifted his head, then raised up on his knees. He squeezed his eyes shut and placed his hands over them. He opened the lids. There . . . there were screams. They were far away. He got to his feet, still shaky, and turned toward the Morgan building. He fumbled in his pants pocket for his handkerchief. He put it over his mouth. His palms were raw, scraped when he was knocked down. A woman knelt nearby. She held her hands over her mouth. They were her screams. He could hear them better now. But only them. Wait. A bell was ringing. A fire truck? In the gutter, off to the right. It was a hand. He looked away, willed his feet to move forward. He'd seen worse in France.
He could focus. Others were moving in the same direction he was. Toward the bank. They were calling out but their voices were muffled. He heard coughing. Blood pooled under a horse that had been blown out of his harness. The horse had only three legs. Its eye stared up at the sky, the cart reduced to kindling. An open-top car rested on its side, its fender crumpled and driver gone, who knew where.
Joshua grew steadier. He could hear more. Sirens now. Shouting. The air was still filled with . . . he pushed the thought aside. The front of a building across from Morgan was gone. Girders and struts and wiring stood naked to the world. There was moisture on his lips. He tasted it. Salty. He touched it. Blood was trickling from his nose.
The Morgan entrance was torn open, its heavy doors intact but splayed to the side. A leg in blue serge extended from under one door. Joshua stepped over the corner of the door, over the leg. He peered into the bank. Daylight streamed in from unnatural holes, spotlighting debris in the air. He felt shaky again. His legs froze. He leaned against the thick granite wall that had withstood the blast. He breathed through his handkerchief. A massive chandelier had crashed down on the lobby, pulverizing everything beneath it.
Nothing he saw looked like Violet. There was movement toward the back. The bomb's impact would have been less there. He started forward, reaching out with both hands. He struggled past the chandelier, then beyond upended desks and chairs, chunks of ceiling. He veered around two bodies covered with rubble, stopped to cough. The coughing bent him over. He could hear himself. Bells and sirens, too.
He wasn't sure until he was standing over her. She made no sound. Her hands and arms were free, her eyes wide. One leg was under a heavy desk covered with ceiling plaster. The end of a ceiling beam rested on the desk. He spoke to her, his voice small in his head. She said nothing. Her eyes were scared eyes, but he thought they knew him. His brain was still slow. He didn't see other people nearby. He stopped to calculate, to figure out how the debris would shift when he moved things. He didn't want something new sliding on top of her. He started methodically, removing one piece at a time. His strength started coming back. Then he reached the ceiling beam. It was too big. He looked back to the doorway. Others were climbing inside, arms held out for balance, to ward off the horror. He called out and waved his arms.
A young white man approached. Joshua pointed at the beam, then at the direction it should go. Once the newcomer understood the job, he shouted to the front of the bank. More men came near. The building was filling up. Joshua crouched down to Violet. He explained what they had to do. Her eyes were wet but she nodded.
Five of them strained. They lifted the beam, pivoted it, then dropped it with a thud. Joshua lifted the side of the desk by himself, fired by the prospect of setting her free. Balancing the desk up on its end, he made sure it was stable, then turned back. Her right leg was turned at a slant. It was black from internal bleeding. He bent down and spoke again, urgently. She shouldn't look down. She nodded but then looked. Her eyes rolled back in her head.
Joshua felt his control slip. “Stretcher!” he screamed. Then screamed again. “For God's sake, where's a stretcher?”