Authors: John Connolly
Tags: #Mystery & Detective - General, #Irish Novel And Short Story, #Assassins, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction - Espionage, #General, #Suspense, #Murderers, #Thrillers, #Suspense fiction, #Fiction, #thriller
The town wasn’t even unusual in its overt exclusion of the black population. It was one of thousands of such towns across the United States, and even whole counties had turned sundown when their county seat did. Half of all the towns in Oregon, Ohio, Indiana, the Cumber-lands, and the Ozarks were, at one point, sundown towns. God help the black man who found himself in, say, Jonesboro, Illinois, after dark, or nearby Anna (which was known, to both whites and blacks, as “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed,” and would continue to have signs to that effect on Highway 127 as late as the 1970s), or Appleton, Wisconsin, or suburbs like Levittown on Long Island; Livonia, Michigan; or Cedar Key, Florida. And, hey, that goes for your Jews, your Chinese, your Mexicans, and your Native Americans, too. Be on your way now, son. Time’s a killin’…
The thing about the boy’s hometown was that it was a pretty place. It was clean, and there wasn’t much cussing, not in public. Main Street belonged on a postcard, and the flowers growing in its pots were always appropriate to the season. It was small, though. In fact, it was so small that it barely qualified as a town by any reasonable reckoning, but no-body in those parts referred to anywhere as a village. The place in which you lived was a town or it was nothing at all. There was something substantial about a town. A town meant neighbors, and laws, and order on the streets. A town meant sidewalks, and barbershops, and church on Sundays. To call somewhere a town was to recognize a certain standard of living, of behavior. Sure, folk might go off the rails now and again, but what was important was that everyone knew where those rails were. All derailments were purely temporary. That train kept on running, and all good people made sure they were on board for the whole of the journey, allowing for some unforeseen stops along the way.
But, for the boy, it had never really been a town, not for him. True, it had all the characteristics of a town, however small a space they might have occupied. There were stores, and a movie theater, and a couple of churches, although none for the Catholics, who had to drive eight miles east to Maylersville or twelve miles south to Ludlow if they wanted to worship their own misguided version of the Lord. There were houses, too, with well-kept front lawns and white picket fences and sprinklers that hissed unthreateningly on hot summer days. There were lawyers, and doctors, and florists, and undertakers. If you looked at it the right way, the town had everything necessary to ensure a perfectly adequate degree of service for those who chose to call it home.
The problem, as the boy saw it, was that all of those people were white. The town was built for white people and run by white people. The people behind the counters of the stores were white, and the people on the other side of the counters were mostly white, too. The lawyers were white and the cops were white and the florists were white. Black people could be seen in town, but they were always moving: carrying, delivering, lifting, hauling. Only white people were allowed to stand still. Black people did what they had to do, then left. After nightfall, there were only white folk on the streets.
It wasn’t that anyone was cruel to the coloreds as a rule, or vicious, or intemperate in manner. It was simply understood by both sides that this was the way things worked. Blacks had their own stores, their own juke joints, their own places of worship, their own ways of doing things. They had their own town, in a sense, although it was one that did not trouble the planners or figure on any census. By and large, white folks didn’t interfere with them, as long as nobody caused any trouble. The blacks lived out in the woods and the swamps, and some of them had pretty nice houses, too, all things considered. No one begrudged them what they had built for themselves. Hell, it wasn’t unknown for white men to give some of these black businesses a little custom now and then, especially when those businesses facilitated the provision of exotic flesh for discerning gentlemen whose tastes ran in that direction, so it wasn’t like the two races never mingled, or the twain never met. The twain met more often than many people liked to think, and there was good money to be made from those encounters.
But no one on either side ever forgot that the law was white. Justice might be blind, but the law wasn’t. Justice was aspirational, but the law was actual. The law was real. It had uniforms, and weapons. It smelt of sweat and tobacco. It drove a big car with a star on the door. White people had justice. Black folks had the law.
The boy understood all of this instintively. Nobody had been forced to explain it to him. His momma hadn’t sat him down before she died and gone through the subtleties of law versus justice with him as it applied to the black community. As far as anyone was concerned, there wasn’t a black community. There were just blacks. A community implied organization, and there were a great many people who associated organization with threat. Unions organized. Communists organized. Black people did not organize, not here. Maybe elsewhere, and there were those who said that the tide was changing, but not in this town. Here, everything worked fine just the way it was.
And that was why the boy was so troubling to the policeman who watched him through the twoway mirror on the wall. The mirror was one of the few concessions to modernity in the town’s little police department. There was no a/c, even though the units had been installed. The problem with the units was that they kept blowing all of the fuses in the building on account of how the wiring was no good, or so the local electrician had explained. For the a/c to work properly, the whole building would have to be gutted and rewired, and that was going to be an expensive job in a structure this old. The town fathers were reluctant to sanction this expenditure, not if its sole purpose was to ensure that Chief Wooster didn’t break a sweat during the hot summer months. Truth was, there were those who felt that it wouldn’t do the chief the least bit of harm to break some sweat now and again, the chief being, according to the general consensus, a lard-ass with a heart that was seriously overworked, and not due to his general affection for humanity. So the little room from which the chief was observing the boy was cooled only by a desk fan, and the desk fan wasn’t worth a gnat’s fart in the enclosed space. The chief’s uniform was pasted to his body so that even the outline of his belly button was clearly visible through the tan cotton, and the sweat was running down his face in rivulets, near blinding him sometimes if he failed to judge properly the sweep of his handkerchief across his forehead. And yet he did not move. Instead, he stared curiously at the boy, willing him to break. Chief Wooster might have been a lard-ass, and his view of his fellow men and women was certainly colored by a cynicism bordering on misanthropy, but he was no fool. The boy interested him. The boy had managed to kill his mother’s lover, a man named Deber, without laying a finger on him, of that the chief was certain, and Deber had been nobody’s idea of an easy mark. Deber had himself done time for a murder committed when he was barely thirteen, and there had been others since then, even if no one had been able to pin them on him. One of the killings of which Deber was suspected was the murder of a pretty young black woman down in the city. The son of that pretty young black woman was now sitting on the other side of the mirror being interrogated by two detectives from the state police. They weren’t getting any further with the boy than the chief’s own men had, and the chief’s men had been far less gentle than the detectives. The bruises to the boy’s face and the swelling beneath his right eye were testament to that. Clark, one of the men in question, told the chief that the boy had pissed blood when they had taken him down to the bathroom to clean him up. The chief had told them to ease up on the boy after that. He wanted a confession, not a corpse.
It had taken the state cops a day to organize themselves sufficiently to make the journey north. During that twenty-four-hour period, the chief’s men had worked the boy pretty hard. They’d started with beatings, then threats against the boy’s family, who had provided him with an alibi. The cops had fed him soda spiked with Ex-Lax, then tied him to the chair and left him there. The chief had watched the boy fight against the urge to void himself, his mouth trembling with the effort, his nostrils flaring, his hands clasped into fists. When he was certain that the boy could take the pain no longer, he’d sent Clark in to make him an offer: confess to the Deber killing and they’d haul him straight to the bathroom. Otherwise, they’d let nature take its course and leave him to sit in what resulted. The boy simply shook his head. The chief almost admired his resilience, except it was making him look bad. He instructed Clark to accompany the boy to the men’s room before he burst, as he didn’t want him stinking up the building’s only interrogation room. Clark had acquiesced, albeit reluctantly. Afterward, he had taken the boy out to the yard and hosed him off on the ground, his trousers around his ankles and the other cops jeering as the water jetted painfully against his privates.
Threats against his family hadn’t worked either. He came from a house full of women. Wooster knew them. They were good people. Wooster wasn’t a racist. There were good blacks and bad blacks, just like there were good whites and bad whites. It wouldn’t be true to say that the chief treated them all equally. Had he tried, even if he’d had the inclination, he wouldn’t have lasted a week in his current position, let alone ten years. Instead, he treated blacks and poor whites pretty much the same. Wealthy whites required more careful handling. Wealthy blacks he didn’t have to worry about, because he didn’t know any.
Wooster believed in preventive policing. People ended up in his cells only when they’d done something seriously wrong, or when every other attempt to persuade them to follow the path of righteous and decent behavior had failed. He knew the people in his charge, and he made sure that his men knew them, too. The boy and his family had not once required his attention during the first nine years that he had been chief, not until Deber appeared and wormed his way into the affections of the boy’s mother, if that was truly what he had done. There had been nothing in Deber to suggest that he was capable of arousing the affections of anyone, and the chief suspected that threats and fear had been more responsible for the gestation of the relationship than any depth of feeling on the part of either party.
Then the mother had been killed, her battered body found lying in an alleyway behind a liquor store. There had been reports that Deber had been seen in that same liquor store less than an hour before the discovery of the body, and someone told of hearing a male voice and a female voice raised in argument at about that time. Deber, though, was like the boy now seated in the interrogation room: he hadn’t broken, and the killing of the boy’s mother remained unsolved. Deber had returned to the house full of women and taken up with the boy’s aunt, or so local gossip had it. The women were frightened of him, and had good cause to be, but he should have been frightened of them, too. They were strong and clever, and nobody thought it likely that they would tolerate the presence of Deber in their house for much longer. And then, not long after the commencement of that particular relationship, someone had taken the metal whistle that Deber used to summon his work crews, separated its two halves, and replaced the pea with a wad of homemade explosive. When Deber had blown the whistle, the charge had torn most of his face off. He’d lived for a couple of days afterward, blinded and in agony, despite the efforts of the doctors to keep him medicated, then had passed away. The chief was pretty sure that, wherever Deber now was, his agonies were continuing and were likely to do so for all eternity. Deber was no loss to the world, but that didn’t change the fact that a man had been killed, and the person responsible had to be found. It wasn’t good to have people wandering around freely creating booby traps out of household items, didn’t matter if they were targeting blacks or whites. Guns and knives were one thing. They were commonplace, just like the people who used them. There was nothing particularly unnerving, beyond the occasional brutality of the act itself, about a man who’d carve up another man because he crossed him on a bad day, or one who’d put a bullet in the head of the guy next to him in an argument over a woman, or a debt, or a pair of shoes. As chief, Wooster knew where he stood with men, and women, of that stripe. They were neither strange nor startling. On the other hand, someone who could kill a man with his own whistle represented a whole new way of thinking with regard to ending lives, and one that Chief Wooster was in no hurry to encourage or embrace.
Wooster had obtained a warrant for the boy’s arrest on the day Deber had died. The state cops had laughed down the phone at him when he’d informed them of what he’d done. Deber, they told him, had so many enemies that their suspect list resembled a phone book. He had been killed by a miniature explosive device, cunningly constructed and designed to ensure that only its intended target would be affected, and that the target would not survive. It had involved a degree of planning not usually associated with fifteen-year-old Negroes living in a shack by a swamp. Wooster had pointed out that the Negro in question was attending a high school that, thanks to a charitable donation from a southern trust fund, had a reasonably well-equipped science lab, and one that could easily have provided the iodine crystals and ammonium that an examination of the remains of the whistle had revealed as the constituent components of the explosive used to kill Deber. In fact, Wooster continued, they were precisely the components that a bright kid, not some expert assassin, might use to create an explosive, although, according to the report on the whistle, it was a miracle that it hadn’t blown up long before it reached Deber’s mouth, as nitrogen tri-iodide was a notoriously unstable compound that was supersensitive to friction. The technician who had examined the whistle suggested that the compound, even the reconstructed item itself, had probably been kept soaked in water for as long as possible by the killer, so that it had only just begun to dry out by the time the victim had raised it to his mouth for the final time. It was this information about the nature of the explosive used, and the absence of any other leads, that had convinced the state police to send, however reluctantly, two detectives to interview the boy.