Mid-Month Novel Excerpt: A Dangerous Road
Once per month, I’ll publish an excerpt of one of my novels, and I hope you’ll be intrigued enough to buy the rest of the book. I began this practice in February of 2011. Unlike the free fiction I put up every Monday, the novel excerpts will remain on the site. If you want to read the opening to the previous fifteen novels, click here.
This month, I’m pleased to present the first novel in my acclaimed Smokey Dalton series, which I wrote under the name Kris Nelscott. These mystery novels have been nominated for everything from the Shamus Award to the Edgar Award. They didn’t get much traction out of their first publisher, St. Martins Press, which was pretty freaked out about the fact that I was a white woman who wrote from the first person point of view of a black man. The books got fantastic reviews, amazing support from independent booksellers, and no promotion from St. Martins. Once they even sent me on tour–and failed to send the books.
The books have done better in other countries. The French editions, in particular, are wonderful. But here in the United States, these editions published by WMG this month mark the first time all six books have been in print at the same time. You can actually read them back to back if you wish, without searching for a used edition to fill your collection. You’ll find ordering information at the end of this post.
“Kris Nelscott can lay claim to the strongest series of detective novels now being written by an American author.” —Salon
Winner of the Herodotus Award For Best Historical Mystery
Private Investigator Smokey Dalton works for Memphis, Tennessee’s black community. He has almost no interaction with the white hierarchy, even though they exist only blocks away. So he’s surprised the day a white woman walks into his Beale Street office. Laura Hathaway has sought him out because he’s a beneficiary in her mother’s will, and Laura wants to know why. So does Smokey. He’s never heard of the Hathaways, but his search will take him on a journey that will change everything he’s ever known.
Set against the backdrop of the strike and protests that will end with Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, A Dangerous Road combines the politics of race, betrayal, unexpected love, and the terrible cost of trust into a story so memorable the Mystery Writers of America chose it as one of the top five novels of the year.
“More than just offering a puzzle, this novel encourages self-examination about identity, responsibility and the consequences of choices. Smokey proves himself a man of conscience able to make tough choices.”— Publisher’s Weekly
A Dangerous Road
Copyright © 2012 by Kristine K. Rusch
Published by WMG Publishing
First published in 2000 by St. Martins Press
It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing.… That’s a dangerous road. —Martin Luther King, April 3, 1968
The rioting is finally over, and the fires have burned out. Washington, D.C., is a blackened ruin, and so are the west and south sides of Chicago. Pittsburgh, Newark, Hartford, and Trenton have all suffered serious damage. So have many other major cities.
Jimmy and I drive the green Oldsmobile that belonged to Henry’s church and listen to the news. We hardly speak to each other any more. There isn’t much to say. Martin Luther King, Jr., is dead, assassinated in our home town, in our neighborhood, and both Jimmy and I played small roles in his death. Inadvertent roles, of course, but roles nonetheless.
We drive through fallow cornfields, the ground muddy with spring thaw. Some of the areas smell of manure as the farmers prepare for spring planting. I keep the windows of the Oldsmobile down despite the chill. I need to do something to stay awake. I have been driving for two weeks straight, and I am getting tired. Soon we’ll have to find a place to stay—Jimmy needs stability, as all ten-year-olds do—but I haven’t found any place that I feel safe in. The nearby cities are ruined—the black neighborhoods destroyed—and the two of us wouldn’t fit into small-town America, at least not here, where we are driving, in the center of the Midwest.
Jimmy doesn’t know it, but I have backtracked several times, afraid to cross the Mississippi. I know little of the Western United States and what I do know, I don’t like. So every night, after we find a roadside motel (I’ve been following the old gospel route, stopping in places that I know will accept us), I stay awake and pore over maps, hoping to find a home.
I despair of ever finding one.
I know I’ll have to choose some place soon. The money is running out. I need to make some decisions for both of us, decisions that will determine our future.
But my mind doesn’t focus on the future. Instead, it latches onto the past. The last two months are so fresh that I dream of them. With the clarity of hindsight, I can see the warning signs, the ones we missed—the ones all of us missed, from Martin’s lieutenants to the Committee on the Move for Equality, which we called COME, to the Memphis Minister’s Association.
I’m the one who failed the most. I’m the one trained to see patterns, who made his living putting pieces together, and I knew that something was going to happen. I simply hadn’t expect that something to be Martin’s death.
I tell myself, as I clutch the big heavy steering wheel and sit upright in the Oldsmobile’s soft plastic seats, that I couldn’t have seen it. The case I was working on was personal and absorbing; it took all of my attention. But that lie is breaking down under two weeks of strain.
Is that my fault? I don’t know. I wasn’t in Martin’s inner circle. I wasn’t in anyone’s inner circle, although I probably could have been. But joining wasn’t—isn’t—my nature. It hasn’t been since I was Jimmy’s age, back in the days when Martin and I were friends, when I called him M.L. just like everyone else did, when he was nothing more than a little boy with powerful eyes and an even more powerful father. Those days ended in a single night for me, the longest night of my entire life: December 16, 1939.
But all the seeds for everything that followed were sown two days earlier. That night, I used to believe, inspired Martin to his life’s work—and perhaps it also influenced mine. That night, the Old South and the New met face-to-face in a way that they wouldn’t do again for nearly twenty-nine years. They would meet again on April 4, 1968—a little over two weeks ago. Then the New South faced the Old and lost, as an assassin’s bullet tore into Martin’s throat—the home of his golden voice.
The night of December 14, 1939, wasn’t as dramatic, at least for most of America. But in Atlanta, it was the biggest single event of the twentieth century. That night, Atlanta began two days of parties to celebrate the premiere of the movie, Gone With the Wind.
And Martin and I were there.
* * *
The festivities actually began the evening before, as Hollywood’s biggest stars rode through the cobblestoned streets of Atlanta. I had snuck out of the house—my father didn’t cotton to all the hoopla surrounding Gone With the Wind which he (rightly, as it turns out) saw as perpetuating the white myths of the Old South. In the middle of the afternoon, I secured a spot on the corner of Peachtree and Ellis.
It was December and cold, but people began lining up as early as noon for a parade that wouldn’t start until four. I wasn’t the only black on that corner. Right beside me were the daughters of the Grand—John Wesley Dobbs, the unofficial black mayor of Atlanta. He too would have been angry if he had known his daughters were there. I had heard him say only the day before that the book Gone With the Wind was not a great literary piece and it wouldn’t last long. The Grand was right about many things in his life, but not that.
In those days, Atlanta was a small provincial city, with a population of perhaps 300,000. There had to be that many people in the streets that afternoon, many of whom had driven in from rural areas of Georgia. Strangely, the crowd didn’t shove or push. We stood, talking softly among ourselves as we waited, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars we had watched on the big screen.
I didn’t care so much about the movie, but I wanted to see Carole Lombard, who I thought was the prettiest woman I’d ever seen—a sentiment I’d once expressed to my aunt when she was visiting. She slapped me. Hard. Little black boys like me didn’t ogle rich white women like Carole Lombard, not even on the big screen. I learned that lesson early, and I learned it well.
But that didn’t stop me from standing on Peachtree Street, right in the center of the route from Candler Field, where the stars had landed that afternoon, to the Georgian Terrace Hotel, where they would stay for the next three nights. The street was all lit up, and ahead were klieg lights, brought in special for the premiere. Banners and balloons hung from every balcony, and most of buildings displayed the Confederate flag.
It was not my celebration, and yet I cheered with the rest as the first of thirty convertibles appeared, flanked by police motorcycles. Confetti fell like snow and somewhere a band was playing “Dixie.” I held up my hand and waved, until I realized that seated in that car were people I didn’t know. Behind them was a car filled with Daughters of the Confederacy, in period costume. My hand went down, and so did the hands around me. We waited until the stars started showing up: Laurence Olivier (Vivien Leigh’s husband) and Olivia de Havilland in a convertible with feathered banners on the windshield; Evelyn Keyes in another; and Vivien Leigh herself riding with the David O. Selznick and Governor Eurith D. Rivers.
Around me the cheers and whistles and hollers grew. I screamed with everyone else, standing on my frozen toes so that I could see the Gables as they passed. And they finally did, in a car with Mayor William Hartsfield. Clark Gable was closest to me, wearing a cloth coat, his hair slicked down, his head bare despite the cold. He waved his hat and grinned as if he were really enjoying himself. The men flanked Carole Lombard, and all I saw of her was a fleeting, rather nervous grin, a leather-clad hand making a small, almost hesitant wave, and the flash of her famous platinum blonde hair.
And then they were gone. Beside me, Geekie Dobbs complained that the cars were going too fast; she hadn’t been able to see. Her sister June shushed her as a male voice beside me asked them what had they expected—the stars to get out and walk? We watched the rest of the parade—young men wearing their grandfather’s Confederate uniforms, more cars carrying more luminaries, most of whom I didn’t recognize—and then we waited as the crowd dispersed.
I don’t remember what I told my father when I came in the house, confetti on my coat and in my hair. He must have known where I had been and what I had done, but he said nothing. Later he did deliver a lecture at dinner about black history—one of his favorite topics—and the lecture centered on the portrait of Abraham Lincoln my parents kept in the dining room.
At the time, I wondered if M.L. got the same lecture. Looking back on it, I doubt that he did.
* * *
I saw M.L. the next night as we gathered in the basement of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The sixty voice choir, under the leadership of M.L.’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., known even then as Daddy King, had agreed to perform at the most prestigious event of the premiere: the ball held by Atlanta’s Junior League.
The Junior League was the center of white Atlanta society. Run by southern matrons so staunchly conservative that they often didn’t admit wealthy members of their own community, the Junior League sponsored many of the “important” social events, including the debutante ball. A girl who did not debut properly in white society was never admitted into the Junior League and, ironically, one of those girls whose debuts failed to impress the league nearly 20 years before was Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With the Wind. Because she had been so badly and consistently snubbed by the League, Mitchell didn’t attend the Junior League ball on Friday night—snubbing them in return—but the rest of Atlanta did, including several hundred blacks.
Only we didn’t go as invited guests. Some of us were hired as chauffeurs to take whites in period carriages to the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium, where the ball was being held. Others served as ushers, and the rest of us performed.
The Ebenezer Baptist Church Choir had been assigned its costumes, and we put them on in the chilly basement of the church. The women wore patched dresses with aprons and Aunt Jemima kerchiefs over their hair. The men wore torn pants too short for their legs, and shirts with the sleeves rolled up to reveal powerful arms. M.L. and I wore miniature versions of the men’s clothes, with one addition: straw hats that were coming apart on top. The adults were dressed as slaves; we were dressed as pickaninnies.
When we arrived at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium, Daddy King made us take off our shoes and leave them by the back door. We spent the rest of the night barefoot, because he wanted to make sure our costumes were authentic.
* * *
Five thousand rich white people attended that event—the cream of Atlanta Society. When we went out on stage, there were tables on the floor. The head of Atlanta businesses sat in those tables—and would later move to the balcony, among them the famous golfer Bobby Jones, former mayor Robert F. Maddox, and former judge Shepard Bryant, along with their families Slightly behind them were well-known northerners: William Paley of CBS, Harold Vanderbilt, and Laurance Rockefeller. I learned who all of these people were much later.
I was more concerned with the stage. It had looked like a reproduction of a Greek Revival plantation home, with four eighteen-foot Ionic columns. My stomach fluttered at that; I knew that standing in front of it, the Ebenezer Church Baptist Choir would look even more like the slaves we were dressed as.
Surprisingly none of the adults balked at performing. M.L. made a soft sound of protest in his throat when he saw it, and I thought of my father and knew I could never tell him of the humiliation I had volunteered for.
What made things worse were all the people in Confederate and Old South attire. Women wore their grandmother’s hoop skirts; men their grandfather’s gray uniforms. The surviving members of Atlanta’s Confederate battalions—doddering old men who couldn’t walk without help—were honored with front row seats.
The auditorium smelled of sweat, pine needles, and mothballs. It was cold in there—or perhaps it just seemed that way because I was barefoot on a tile-covered concrete floor. We stood backstage as the Master of Ceremonies, Clark Howell, publisher of the Constitution, introduced the luminaries. The crowd laughed when he called Clark Gable “Mr. Carole Lombard,” and that phrase sent a surprising spurt of jealousy through me.
I grew restless during the introductions—dozens of them—and shoved M.L. He shoved me back, then put a finger to his lips. “Don’t want Daddy seeing us,” he whispered, and he was right. The last thing we wanted to do was anger Daddy King.
So we watched and we waited. And, when the signal came, we filed onto the stage like we filed into the choir loft in church. Bright lights nearly blinded me: all I could see were the faces of the white men in the front row, smiling at us as if we were babies doing a good deed. I scanned the seats for Carole Lombard and saw only darkness.
Even though Daddy King was our leader, Mrs. King was our director. She clapped her hands together for attention. We focused on her, and she led us through our repertoire—spirituals all, starting with “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” and ending with “Plenty Good Room.” I had solo that night, a small one, something that was supposed to sound like an impromptu descant on “Get on Board Little Children,” and as it approached, I felt my hands grow clammier and clammier. I had to sing in front of people I usually watched in the darkness. I had to sing while they watched from darkness, unable to see their faces, just as they were unable to see mine from that screen in the movie house.
When my solo came, I stepped forward into the light, and sang with a passion and fervor I would never have again. For the first and last time in my life, the whole white world—the world that I knew—focused on me, and I put my entire soul into impressing them.
Then I stepped back, and there was a smattering of polite applause. The choir left the stage, our performance done, and was allowed to huddle around the edges of the auditorium as other blacks, dressed in the clothes of house slaves, cleared the tables and set up for the ball.
Kay Kyser’s Orchestra put our little accomplishment to shame. To this day, I can’t hear big band music without seeing a parade of Atlantans walking slowly in front of the crowd, the women in their crinolines clutching dried flowers and the men standing tall in Confederate gray. Some of the women were so nervous that when the spotlight hit them they would trip, and their men would have to hold them upright. Flashbulbs glinted off swords and brass buttons, and I pushed against the wall, decorated with banners and evergreen bows, wondering why I had bothered to come to this place that mourned a past I was glad was gone.
After a long time, the dancing started. Clark Gable, looking dapper in his tux, graciously led off with Mayor Hartsfield’s daughter, and Vivien Leigh, wearing a long black gown with black and white feathers for sleeves, danced with the Mayor himself. As Atlanta society slowly made its way to the dance floor, Daddy King gathered us up, took us to our shoes, and told us to go home.
* * *
Strangely, I never talked to M.L. about that night. It was as if we hid it in a secret pocket of ourselves, to be forever remembered and never discussed. It wasn’t a part of his official biography, and I never mentioned my Atlanta days to anyone. His father was censured by the Atlanta Baptist Ministers Union not only for performing at a segregated event, but also for performing at one that included the sins of dancing and drinking.
Daddy King never apologized for his involvement, and my daddy never found out about mine. Not that he would have had time to punish me even if he had.
The next morning, my father found himself in the middle of a mess larger than anything he could have imagined—and two days later, he and my mother would be dead.
For me, that was the end of everything, and the beginning of something I have only recently come to understand.
If that night had gone differently, I wouldn’t be sitting here now, in this car, Jimmy at my side, a cold wind in my face, and terrible news on the radio. If that night had gone differently, I wouldn’t be here—and maybe, just maybe, Martin wouldn’t be dead. I might have seen what was in front of me, and I might have changed it.
Instead, I solved the central mystery of my life, and in doing so, forfeited everything I held dear. Everything, including someone I hadn’t realized I still cared about.
Some people will tell you the end began on January first, 1968, when Mayor Henry Loeb took office. Mayor Loeb did all he could to antagonize Memphis’s black community, and was hated for it. Still others will tell you the end began on February first, when two black garbagemen were accidentally crushed to death in the compressor unit of their ancient—and malfunctioning—truck. That incident was the unofficial beginning of the sanitation workers’ strike, the one that brought Martin to Memphis, where he died less than two months later.
For me, though, the end began on Monday, February twenty-sixth. That was the day I saw Laura Hathaway for the first time.
She showed up at 9 that morning. My office was on the second floor of the Gallina Building on Beale Street, the center of black commerce in Memphis, and home of the blues. Sometimes, late at night, I could hear blues coming from the clubs below, ever so faintly, accompanied by laughter and the sounds of revelry. Those sounds had grown softer over the years—most of the music clubs had moved to West Memphis—but I still heard them, and still treasured them.
The Gallina building was seventy-seven years old, and had housed several businesses, from a saloon and twenty-room hotel to a gambling den to a dentist’s office that had just closed when I rented my room near the top of the stairs. I had been a practicing private detective for over ten years, and until that day, I had never seen a white woman come through my door.
Laura Hathaway was tall and slender and in her late twenties. She carried a coat over one arm and a white clutch purse under the other. She wore an ever-so-proper pullover angora sweater and trim skirt that went modestly—and unfashionably—to her knees. Her little white boots didn’t do much to protect her feet against the garbage that had been pushed against the curbs below. Around her neck, she wore a strand of pearls. Her blond hair was cut shoulder length, ends flipped outward in a style that looked as if it took a lot of care. She had on just enough makeup to enhance her conventionally pretty face, but not enough to suggest she was willing to do anything immoral, illegal, or both.
I stiffened my shoulders, but didn’t stand. I was six feet tall, muscular, and broad-shouldered. Sometimes my physical presence frightened white people, especially white women. There was no percentage in scaring her, at least not right away.
I figured she was either another observer from the Civil Rights Commission—one of their observers had been injured Friday morning, and they weren’t taking too kindly to it—or the fifteenth reporter who was trying to find out what I had seen from my window.
On Friday morning, we had had what the mayor’s office was calling a “riot” and what the sanitation workers were calling “a march that had gotten out of hand.” The mayor had set Thursday as the last day the strikers had to come back to work, or they would be fired and replacement workers would be hired. The city council opposed the mayor and had promised to vote on Friday morning to support the strikers. But Friday came, and the council didn’t vote as planned. So the union members marched in protest back downtown, and somehow the march grew violent. Men, women, and children—bystanders and participants—were maced, clubbed, and bloodied.
I was in my office that day, and I had a great view of the mess. Only I didn’t watch. I went to the window, saw the mêlée, and decided I would only get hurt if I went below. I waited until things calmed down, then I finally went to the street, helping up people who couldn’t see because their eyes were swollen shut and tearing, cleaning the blood off a young girl who had met with the wrong end of a truncheon, and generally cleaning up anything that looked like it needed cleaning.
That was how I saw myself: as a man who didn’t get involved with a crisis, but who did clean up other people’s messes—usually for a price.
I had offered no opinion on the strike to the reporters who had talked to me over the weekend, and I wasn’t about to now.
“What do you want?” I asked the woman.
She raised her eyebrows, which had been plucked and then marked over with a darkening pencil. “Mr. Dalton?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m Smokey Dalton. And you are?”
“Laura Hathaway.” She said the name as if I should know it. I didn’t.
I threaded my fingers together. I could wait for the information. Patience usually threw off white reporters. It often irritated white members of the Civil Rights Commission. I’d see which one she was.
“Your real name is Billy Dalton,” she said. “Not William. Billy. Right?”
Only good friends knew my first name, and very few of them used it. She was not a good friend. I kicked my chair back so that it rested on two legs. “Look, Miss. I only deal with people through referrals. So unless someone told you about me—”
“The only person who told me about you was that man who works valet parking at the Peabody,” she said.
Roscoe Miller. I kept my expression carefully neutral. Roscoe Miller owed me. He wouldn’t send just anyone my way. And he was conscious of the debt. While I had never been able to locate his daughter’s rapist, I had been able to raise enough money to fly her to Switzerland and pay for the legal abortion. Roscoe didn’t do favors for white people, not after what happened to his daughter. And he never turned on me.
“What did he tell you?”
“I asked him where your office was,” she said. “He told me.”
She nodded, and I thought I might be seeing nerves beneath that made-up exterior. “He didn’t really tell me about your office, not until I asked exactly where it was. Then he wanted to know what I wanted with you.”
That was the Roscoe I knew. She obviously had some important business then. “And what is that?” I asked.
She raised her chin slightly. “I’m Dora Jean Hathaway’s daughter.”
Again, she spoke as if the name meant something to me. It didn’t.
“So?” I asked.
Something flashed through her eyes, so quick that I almost didn’t recognize it. Surprise. She expected me to know the names.
“Earl Hathaway was my father.”
I kept my face impassive, let two fingers tap on the desktop as if I were tired of the conversation. I wasn’t. I finally felt as if we were getting somewhere. I just didn’t want Miss Laura Hathaway to know it.
“I need to know,” she snapped, “why my mother believed you were entitled to a payment from her estate at the time of her death.”
“Your mother’s dead?” I asked.
Laura Hathaway swallowed hard, so hard I could see the movement in her long and lovely throat. When she did speak again, her voice had an edge of disbelief. “You didn’t know her, did you?”
“I never knew anyone named Dora Jean Hathaway,” I said carefully. “When did she die?”
“Just before Christmas,” Laura said.
“Where are you from, Miss Hathaway?”
“Chicago,” she said.
“I’ve never been to Chicago.” I put my chair back on all four legs. “Are you sure you got the right Dalton?”
She swallowed again. It was a subtle nervous gesture that probably no one saw when she wore high-collared sweaters against a midwestern winter. But here, in the warmth of my office, her rising nerves were as palpable as humidity in June.
“‘A Negro named Billy, not William, Dalton, known as Smokey, of Memphis, Tennessee.’ Is there anyone else in this town that answers to that description, Mr. Dalton?”
Negro. At least she didn’t say nigra. Or nigger.
“Not to my knowledge,” I said. “How old is the will?”
“Updated last June, but the lawyer assured me that clause has been there since my father died.”
“And he died when?” I asked.
“Nineteen sixty,” she said. “January.”
My tapping fingers froze, and I had to concentrate in order to relax them. I didn’t want her to see my reaction.
“How much money did your mother want to give me?” I asked.
“I would really rather not say, Mr. Dalton.”
“Enough to bring you down here, though,” I said. “Enough to make you investigate me. Why didn’t you hire a private detective, Miss Hathaway? It would have been easier.”
“I wanted to see you myself,” she said.
“So your private detective found no connection between me and your family.”
She flushed. I had caught her. “I didn’t say that.”
“It’s always interesting to listen to what folks don’t say.”
At that moment, my door opened. Jimmy Bailey peeked around it. He was ten but his scrawny body made him look younger. His eyes looked older.
“Smokey?” He sounded plaintive.
I stood. “Jimmy? Why aren’t you in school?”
“I was goin’, but I—”
At that moment, Laura Hathaway turned her head. Her movement made the old chair squeak.
Jimmy caught his lower lip with his teeth. “Never mind,” he said, and pulled the door closed. His footsteps echoed as he ran down the hall.
“Excuse me,” I said. I hurried to the door, yanked it open, and ran toward the stairs. I made it in time to see Jimmy disappear out the front door.
I ran down, but by the time I got to the street, Jimmy was gone. I put my hands on my hips and sighed. Jimmy was a good kid, smart. I’d been keeping an eye on him, unofficially, since I caught him crying near my doorstep three years ago. His mother was a hooker who started the work to make ends meet, and who lost herself somewhere along the way. The day I first met Jimmy, she’d been arrested and the cops had been violent. They’d ignored her son and shoved her in their wagon, leaving him and his older brother to fend for themselves.
It had been the first time Jimmy had witnessed such a scene, but it wasn’t the last.
The February air was cold and I shivered once. Jimmy was gone. I’d see if I could track down Jimmy later. But first, I had to deal with the white woman in my office.
As I went back up the filthy marble stairs, I tried to suppress the feeling of unease that was growing inside me. The money, the dates, had to be more than a coincidence. But I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions.
I pulled open the door to my office. She still sat in the chair, clutching her purse. “Is the boy all right?”
As if she cared about a kid like Jimmy. “Show me a picture,” I said.
She frowned, not making the mental leap.
“Of your mother,” I said. “Maybe I’ll recognize her then.”
“Oh.” She flushed slightly. She knew I wasn’t going to talk to her about Jimmy or anyone else. She flicked the clasp on her white clutch purse, opened it, and pulled out a photograph. It had the tiny wavy edges and white border so common to snapshots taken in the 1950s. She handed the photograph to me.
I took it to my desk and sat down. Then I leaned back in my chair and studied the picture.
It was black and white, a candid shot of a woman seated at a glass table, a cup of coffee before her. She wore long white gloves and a Mamie Eisenhower hat that covered her short curly hair. Her face had the same planes and lines as her daughter’s, but the features were different. Dora Jean Hathaway had small eyes, a pug nose, and a wide mouth. It almost looked like someone had grafted parts of various heads together to form hers. Yet hers was a formidable face, a memorable face, the face of a woman who seized life and held it. I tried to imagine it without its character lines and wrinkles, and found that I couldn’t.
“Do you have another photo?” I asked. “Something taken when she was younger?”
Laura Hathaway was watching me. “You don’t recognize her?”
“Not from this shot. Give me something older.”
“I don’t have anything older with me.”
I shrugged. “Then I can’t help you, Miss Hathaway.”
She sighed, and glanced around the room, and I saw it through her eyes: the pull windows, their outsides covered with the grime of decades of city dirt; the high ceilings; the papers scattered everywhere. There were piles of paper on the floor, the filing cabinets tilted against the scarred wood paneling, and a shabby coat rack on which I had hung two shabby coats. My desk had its own stack of papers and there were two chairs—the wooden one in front, and the metal one on wheels that I used to annoy my downstairs neighbors.
“What exactly,” she asked with just the right note of curiosity, yet somehow maintaining a touch of distaste in her voice, “is it that you do here?”
She wouldn’t have been able to tell from the door. It had the frosted glass, but no name stenciled in. No number. I liked the anonymity. It allowed me to control who became a client and who didn’t. “Your detective didn’t tell you?”
She turned toward me. Her eyes were flat, her gaze cold. “I expected him to find some connection between our families. I had assumed we were distant relatives, going back to the days of slavery, and that you were blackmailing my mother to get some of the family money.”
My palms had grown wet. I took up a napkin and wiped my hands slowly, deliberately, wondering what good it would do to never invite another white person in my office again. I really wasn’t a supporter of Black Power. When I thought politically, I thought like Martin did, that integration would be a good thing. But I never really acted on it. I had no white friends.
Now I knew why.
“I’ll take that to be another no, that your detective failed again,” I said. “I hope you didn’t pay this idiot very much money. He sure as hell didn’t find out anything useful for you.”
“He found you,” she said.
“Anyone with a Memphis phone book could have found me.”
“So what do you do?” she asked.
I almost continued the games. I almost taunted her about her sources, about her decision to come here instead of sending someone else. But it was that decision that stopped me. For all her good-girl manners and her condescending ways, she had taken that long two-block walk from Union to Beale. She had sought me out.
“I do odd jobs for people,” I said, the official answer, the answer I gave white people, coming out of my mouth so fast that I didn’t have to think about it.
“Odd jobs.” She frowned. “From an office?”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Seems strange, that’s all.” She tucked her clutch purse under her arm, and started for the door.
“I’d hold that if I were you,” I said.
“What?” she asked.
“That purse,” I said. “I’d hold onto it, at least till you cross Gayoso, and maybe even after that.”
It was as if she were reassessing me each time she looked at me. “All right.”
“And I’d move from the Peabody,” I said. “A woman like you shouldn’t stay in this part of town.”
“A travel agent recommended it. She said the ducks—”
“Are great for tourists. But you’re not one, are you, Miss Hathaway? And as you can tell this neighborhood isn’t the best.”
“I thought the Peabody wasn’t in your neighborhood.” She flung that at me just as I was warming to her.
I shrugged. It wasn’t my concern whether the lady got followed from Beale, mugged, and put in her place. The Peabody was a grand, expensive hotel in Memphis, but I expected trouble there and soon. It had just desegregated as part of a union concession, although that fact wasn’t well known, and I was afraid that when the first blacks registered, there’d be hell to pay.
It is amazing how wrong I was.
“I’ll bring an older photo for you,” Laura Hathaway said. “See if it jogs your memory.”
“Why bother?” I asked. “This means nothing to me.”
“I’m obligated to make sure you get your cash.” Her eyes clouded for a moment. It was beginning to look like disposing of Momma’s assets had become a tricky and uncomfortable proposition.
“You know,” I said, “sometimes people should be allowed their secrets.”
“Do you think so, Mr. Dalton?” she asked, and this time there was no condescension in her voice. “Do you really think so? A man like you who takes odd jobs? Do you allow people their secrets? Or do you just want to hang onto yours?”
Then she let herself out, closing the wooden door gently behind her. Her shadow moved across the frosted glass, and then she was gone.
I stared at the door for a long moment, and then I stood up. I finally had a lead in a personal quest that had bothered me for eight years.
I was going to go to work—for myself.
After she left, I picked up the phone and called Jimmy’s school. He had been marked absent which, the secretary said, wasn’t that unusual anymore. Her tone had a touch of blame to it as if I were the one responsible for the boy. He had a mother, such as she was, and a brother who was older. They were supposed to be looking out for him.
I wondered why I was always the one who did.
Before I faced the feelings that Laura Hathaway’s visit had stirred, I wanted to find Jimmy. His abrupt departure bothered me. Jimmy rarely came inside my office, and when he did, he slipped in like a wraith. This morning, he had barged in, and my response, along with my client, had frightened him off.
With luck, he’d be waiting for me across the street, beneath the statue of W.C. Handy and his famous trumpet.
I left the office. The late-morning sun shed a pale cold light on Beale Street, revealing the garbage piled on the curbs. Several shoppers hurried by, their faces tense and harried.
The daily march to the courthouse was over, and near Handy Park, I saw several men carrying placards. They were going somewhere else with them, holding the signs horizontally so that I couldn’t read them. But I wasn’t really trying to. I was looking beyond the men to the center of the park, just behind the statue.
Jimmy’s brother, Joe, sat on one of the concrete benches. He was as thin as his brother, and five years older. Joe should have been in school too, but of course he wasn’t. No wonder Jimmy was skipping. His brother had already shown him that it was all right.
I crossed with the light and walked toward the park. As I got closer, I saw that Joe wasn’t alone. An older man in a black beret was talking with him. Their heads were bent together and the discussion looked serious.
They stood as I walked into the park. The man with the beret turned and headed toward Union. Joe came toward me.
“Don’t say nothing, man,” he said as he passed me. “You don’t understand.”
His hostility surprised me. I hadn’t seen Joe since January, and although he often got defensive with me, he had never before been hostile.
I turned around and caught up with him. “Jimmy isn’t in school today.”
“He’s too young to be on his own all day.”
“Someone should tell our momma.” Joe glanced at me. He was as tall as I was these days. That was disconcerting. “I ain’t got time for this, Smokey.”
But he was already weaving his way through the crowd, walking so fast that I would have had to run to keep up with him. I stopped instead and put my hands on my hips. Going to their mother would do no good at all. If she was home. If she wasn’t entertaining. Calling the cops wouldn’t help either. They’d put Jimmy in some foster home, probably white-run, and he’d be even more miserable than he was now. He’d become one of the lost, as my friend Henry called them. Although I was wondering if he wasn’t becoming one of them already.
I crossed back to my side of Beale. I couldn’t spend my entire day searching for Jimmy, but I could do my other work and look for him at the same time.
Besides, my meeting with Laura Hathaway had left me with some unfinished business.
I went back across the street. My office was on the south side of Beale, closer to Third than it was to anything else. The Gallina Building held a lot of history and some of that history still showed in the three-story façade. It had exquisite brick work, including massive arches that framed the third story windows, and an orange terra cotta cornice at the top of both sides of the structure. But the building was falling apart. The brick work was dirty and the arches were crumbling. One of the downstairs tenants, the owner of the Memphis Meat Company, once told me he had trouble putting in his Double Cola sign: he was afraid the attachment would cause serious damage to the building’s front. It didn’t. That happened a month later, when one of the newer businesses put a Schlitz sign next to the rusting fire escape staircase.
Still, for all its decay, it was more home to me than my own house was. I had spent years there developing my business in the time after I returned from Korea. Just going inside relaxed me, and entering my office, messy as it was, made me feel like I could accomplish something. Not much, maybe, but enough.
I didn’t close the door all the way, in case Jimmy was lurking in the hallway. Then I stopped on the far side of my desk, turned the telephone around, and dialed Shelby Bowler, one of the most eccentric lawyers Memphis State University ever produced. Not surprisingly, he answered his own phone.
“Been thinking I’d hear from you,” he said. “I settled a case this morning and got the afternoon free. You wanna come down to my place? I ain’t too fond of yours.”
He said that every time I spoke to him, which wasn’t often. I first met Bowler in June 1960 when he came to my office and handed me a check for $10,000. Attorney-client privilege, he told me, prevented him from revealing my benefactor. And no matter how hard I tried, I hadn’t been able to pry the information from him.
I waited almost a year before I cashed the check; I thought there was some trick attached. I investigated everything, including Shelby Bowler, and learned nothing, except that, for all his eccentricities, Shelby Bowler could be trusted despite the lightness of his skin.
I drove to Bowler’s office, taking the long way, searching for Jimmy. Black kids clustered throughout the downtown, some of them carrying signs, others looking for trouble. It seemed like there were more kids out of school than usual—or maybe I was just paying attention for the first time. Either way, it bothered me.
I cruised all the hangouts I knew, and didn’t see Jimmy. I wondered what had brought him to my office that morning. I knew what made him leave. My tone when I asked him about school, and Laura Hathaway’s presence.
I was worried about him, but I also knew that he’d been on his own before. If he ran true to form, he’d find me again, and we’d talk about whatever it was.
I left the neighborhood and headed south.
Bowler’s office was on Highway 51, right near the border of Tennessee and Mississippi. Bowler liked having his office that far out of town. It was his way of controlling his clients, just like word of mouth was my way of controlling mine. He once told me he could tell who would be worth representing just by the way they reacted to the drive and the neighborhood. The location benefited me, especially when I first drove there, in July of 1960. There weren’t a lot of neighbors around to worry about what a black man was doing in that part of town. I didn’t like going to a lot of white people’s offices, but I didn’t mind going to Bowler’s.
I drove a white Ford Falcon that I paid cash for in 1961. The car was battered and its underbelly had a coating of rust, but the car and I, we took a liking to each other. It wasn’t too fancy, so it didn’t broadcast my windfall in the days when people like me didn’t get windfalls, and it got me around Memphis easily. I liked the shift on the steering column, and I even liked the old push button radio with the button for WDIA so loose that it always threatened to come off.
Bowler’s office was a square building made of sand-colored brick. The original layout was long gone and almost impossible to guess at. Bowler had ripped out and remade the interior into four rooms: the reception area, where his legal secretary usually sat and barked at people; his associate’s office, often empty because the junior lawyers came and went as soon as they learned just how strange Bowler was; a conference room that doubled as a law library; and Bowler’s private office, which was filled with antique mahogany furniture he once told me had been carved by slaves.
I parked on the gravel lot that stretched behind the chain-link fence that protected the office from the road and let myself inside. The office smelled of Bowler’s cherry pipe tobacco and dusty legal tomes. His secretary, a woman who’d been with him since he first hung out a shingle, looked up from her typewriter and grunted. I took that for the greeting it was and slipped through the door to Bowler’s private office.
He was sitting behind the mahogany desk, nearly hidden by thick green books, all of which were open and stacked on top of each other. A pencil was stuck in his silver hair, and earlier that day, he’d spilled tobacco on his gray suit and failed to wipe it off. His pipe was resting in a tin ashtray and looked as if he’d filled it, then forgotten to light it. When he saw me, he waved me in.
“Been expecting you,” he said.
“That’s what you told me on the phone.” I headed toward one of the mahogany chairs. It had been reupholstered in dyed red leather and looked damned uncomfortable, although I knew from personal experience that it wasn’t.
“Lucinda!” he yelled. “Shut the door.”
His secretary got up and walked toward the door, grabbing it and pulling it closed, not before she shot me a filthy look. I couldn’t tell if it was because I should have closed the door myself or because she just didn’t approve of me. I suspected the later, but knew if I said anything, Bowler would claim it was the former.
“Some private detective from Chicago called me three days ago to ask if you were still alive.”
I sank into the chair. Laura Hathaway really should have asked for her money back. The detective had done nothing that she couldn’t have done.
“Did he say why he thought I was dead?”
Bowler picked up his pipe and tamped the tobacco down. Then he placed it in his mouth but didn’t light it. “That’s what I asked,” he said, “and he made some comment about us killing lots of you folks down here the last few years.”
“Stupid,” I murmured.
He took the pipe out of his mouth, and stared at me for a moment. “He’s from the North.”
“That’s no excuse for one-sided thinking.”
“Doesn’t create all our evils.”
He rolled his eyes. “We’ve had this discussion before.”
“And never finished it.”
He stared at me, then put his pipe back in his mouth and lit it with a gold monogrammed lighter. He puffed, and blue smoke smelling of rancid cough medicine filled the room.
“This private detective,” I said, “he wouldn’t have anything to do with the money I got in 1960, would he?”
“Smokey, I got lawyer-client privilege—”
“Laura Hathaway visited my office this afternoon,” I said.
He leaned back in his leather chair. It squeaked. He took another puff off the pipe, then removed it ever so slowly, cradling it in his left hand. That was one of his courtroom tricks, making him look relaxed and calm, while in reality it gave him time to think.
“Laura Hathaway,” he said, using the repetition as another stall.
“She was the one who hired the detective, or didn’t he tell you that?”
“Oh, he did.” Bowler put his pipe back in the tin ashtray. “I was getting to that.”
Actually, he had been startled that I knew her name, only he didn’t want me to know that.
“She says her mother left me some money in her will,” I said. “You know what this is about?”
“Why would I know?”
“Why would the detective call you?”
“I was your lawyer.”
“No, you’re not. I have never needed a lawyer. You’re someone else’s lawyer who just happened to pay me money.”
“People’ve got my name before,” Shelby said. “Maybe he called lawyers till he found one who’d heard of you.”
I shook my head. “Sounds like a lot of legwork. This investigator doesn’t believe in legwork.”
Shelby’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know?”
“I’ve been on the receiving end of his work all day, and it’s clear.” The smell of cherry pipe tobacco was getting thick. I rubbed my nose and resisted the urge to sneeze.
“What’re you here for, Smokey?” Shelby asked.
“You said you were going to call me,” I said.
“To warn you about the detective. I didn’t know what it was about.”
“And you thought it could be bad.”
“Hell, Smokey, most things are bad these days.” He set his pipe in the tray. The tobacco still glowed red, but the embers would die in a moment, and Shelby would have to relight it. “What are you really here for?”
“I’ve only received money that I didn’t earn once in my life,” I said slowly, “and you’re the guy who gave it to me.”
“It was from a client.”
“I know,” I said. “And now I’m about to receive more money I didn’t earn, this time as part of a will.” I leaned back in my chair. “I have a hunch, Shelby, that this money comes from the same source.”
His left hand fidgeted with the pipe stem. The expression on his face didn’t change. He said nothing.
I crossed my arms. “Shelby, your client is dead. Confidentiality doesn’t apply any more.”
“That’s never been adequately determined.” He spoke, and then he flushed. It was the flush that gave him away.
“Why is this Hathaway family interested in me?”
“You’re the detective.”
I smiled slowly. “I do odd jobs.”
“That too.” Shelby picked up his pipe, tamped the tobacco down, and picked up his lighter. Then he must have realized he was fidgeting, for he set the entire mess down.
“Look, Smokey.” He folded his hands and rested them on the desk, giving me that fatherly lawyer approach he was famous for. “I had a hell of a time forcing you to take that money eight years ago. I think one of the reasons you did was because I wouldn’t tell you who your benefactor was. Now it looks like you might get some cash again. Let me give you some advice. Take it. Take it, and pay off your house—”
“I did that last time.”
“—or put it away for your retirement, or buy a new car for crissakes. But don’t question it. Don’t worry about it. Just take it.”
He seemed so sincere, his blue eyes watering and his face still slightly flushed. But we’d had this go-around eight years ago, and I hadn’t changed since then. I finally took the money then because Shelby threatened to use it to pay off my bills—which were considerable in those days—without my permission. I told him to give the money to charity, and he refused, saying it belonged with me, and he would dog me about it for the rest of my days.
I took the money. I paid off my debts and my house and bought my car.
I tried not to think about what kind of trouble I was buying.
I let that windfall put me on the right road. But I’d been cautious with money ever since, and I didn’t need money this time. I could afford to be ethical.
“We’re different, you and me,” I said.
Shelby closed his eyes. Such an eloquent way of expressing disgust. The movement was slight—his eyes opened a half second later—but not before I saw it and understood it.
It didn’t stop me. “You come to this world with a sense of entitlement.”
“Let me finish.” I’d never told him this. Not in the eight years we’d known each other. In 1960, speaking of such things black to white was unthinkable. We’d come a long way since then. A long, long way. “You get money like this, you think it’s a windfall and you don’t question it—except maybe to find out who to thank. I get money like this, I want to know what the strings are. I want to know who’s gonna pull the rug out from underneath me before somebody does.”
“I thought you said this Hathaway woman is dead.”
“But her daughter isn’t. And I don’t know how many other relatives are alive. These are white people, Shelby. Rich white people. They may not like it that their mother or their grandmother is giving money away to blacks they don’t know. In fact, the girl already don’t like it. She shows up at my office wearing angora and pearls and acts like the whole place smells bad.”
“It does smell bad, Smokey,” Shelby said. “It smells like Mississippi River rot and mold. That building should be condemned—”
“You know what I mean.”
Shelby closed his eyes again. He pushed his leather chair back and placed his folded fingers across his soft stomach. He appeared to be in deep contemplation. Finally he opened his eyes, and when he looked at me, they were clear and blue and filled with light.
“You’re right,” he said. “I don’t know what you mean. I look at you and the way you live and the choices you have and I think a bit of money will help. If you can’t use it, I’m sure you know folks who could. A little bit of cash in the right hands can do a lot of good, Smokey.”
“You used that argument on me in 1960.”
“And you took the money.”
“There wasn’t some prim white woman looking down her nose at me, wondering what my connection was to her mother.”
“What was your connection to her mother?”
“Damned if I know.” I squirmed in that soft leather chair. “The girl even showed me pictures. I didn’t recognize the mother, but that doesn’t mean a thing. I’ve lived an interesting life, Shelby.”
He smiled. “Been around a lot of older white women, have you?”
I shrugged. “It could have been a job, or it could have been when I was in the army or it could have been at Boston University or it could have been some connection I don’t even know.”
“Is that what’s got you worried? That you don’t know who this woman was and what her connection to you is?”
“Haven’t you been listening?”
“I’ve been listening. You’ve been complaining about a lot of things, some of which make sense and some of which don’t. It seems to me that you should just take what’s offered.”
I stared at him a moment. He was a good man, an ethical man for all his liking to play devil’s advocate, and things weren’t always straightforward with him.
“Would you take the money?”
“Yes,” he said, with a touch of impatience.
“Wouldn’t you want to know where it came from?”
“Of course, but that wouldn’t stop me from taking such a lucrative gift.”
“Sure it would, Shel,” I said. “If the circumstances were right. If you were running for public office, you wouldn’t take a gift like this.”
“Is it?” I stood and walked toward the large windows in the back of the office. They were covered with heavy velvet curtains. You couldn’t tell that it was daylight outside. “Those are the kinds of strings I’m talking about. In everyday life, you never think of them. I do.”
“So,” Shelby said. “You’ve got the girl. Ask her.”
“She doesn’t know. I doubt she’ll be back.”
“Then do some investigating on your own.”
I turned. “That’s what I’m doing. And I’m starting with you. Did that first check come from someone named Earl Hathaway? Or his wife, Dora Jean?”
Shelby’s eyes had gone flat, the light gone from them. It was that look that made him such a good attorney. He could pin anyone with that look, from the governor to the lowliest criminal.
But he wasn’t pinning me. I waited.
“What if it was?” he asked.
I got the game. He wasn’t going to say yes, and he wasn’t going to say no. He was going to tell me all that he could, while retaining the ability to deny everything.
“Then I’d have to ask to see any correspondence that came with the bequest.”
“That wouldn’t be possible.” Shelby flattened his hands against his stomach. “Confidentiality again.”
“Of course, that assumes there was correspondence.”
“It would be odd to receive such a bequest without it,” Shelby said. “But normally, such correspondence only contains instructions for the attorney.”
“Do you think any correspondence in a case involving the Hathaways would be normal?”
He smiled. The movement was small, but it was there. “I don’t see how it could be anything but.”
“Would it be normal in such correspondence to explain why someone would get such a bequest?”
“Most people know why they would get such a bequest.”
“What about anonymous bequests?”
“Most anonymous bequests prefer to remain anonymous. Doling out any information about the bequest might destroy that anonymity.”
I’d had enough of the games. “So all these years, you’ve only had a letter instructing you to find me and give me the money? No explanation, no nothing?”
“I’ve told you that much before, Smokey.” Shelby’s chair was tilted so far back the edges of his gray hair brushed his bookcase.
I sighed and returned to my chair. “Didn’t you investigate who this money came from?”
“I knew,” Shelby said. “I just couldn’t tell you. And I still can’t, although I think you have some suspicions.”
That was as close as he would ever get to confirming what I knew.
“You have no explanations?”
“None, and even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
Although he would have tried, now that the daughter was here, now that she was looking for me.
“Why didn’t you send someone out to investigate this?”
“There’s no point, Smokey. Attorneys handle anonymous payments all the time. It’s not ours to question why. It’s ours to do the job.” He ran his fingers through his hair and dislodged the pencil. It tumbled down the side of his head before he caught it against his suit. “Smokey, is there going to be trouble between you and this Laura Hathaway?”
I froze. No matter how much you trusted a man, he could still ask a question that made you doubt everything about your relationship. “Trouble?”
“If she doesn’t give you the money—”
“I think she has to. She wouldn’t be here otherwise. I’ll wager giving me that cash is tied to her getting the rest of the estate.”
He smiled and set the pencil on his desk. “You’d’ve made a good attorney.”
“Because I see things?”
“Because you understand human nature and how it pertains to the law.” He stood, clasped his hands behind his back, and made his way around the desk. “What if she does have to give you the money?”
“I won’t take it without knowing why. Forgive me, Shelby, but I won’t be beholden to a white woman for anything.”
“If she has to give you the money, that might be trouble in and of itself.” He stopped near me. The scent of cherry tobacco wafted off him. It wasn’t so offensive when he wasn’t smoking.
We were the same height, something that always startled me. He was heavier than I was, and the net effect was to make him look shorter and rounder.
“I really don’t expect to see her again,” I said. “I think she just wanted to check me out, and now that she knows I have no idea what this is about, she’ll disappear.”
“But she told you about the money.”
“She saw my office.”
“She knows I can’t hire an attorney to come after her.”
Shelby’s smile grew. “I’d take the case, on a contingency basis. It’s intriguing enough.”
I patted him on the arm, then headed toward the door. “No need, Shel. Taking someone else’s money once in my life was plenty. I’m not sure I want to do it again.”
His smile remained. It made him look eerily like the Cheshire Cat. “Then why did you come here?”
“Because this thing has bothered me for eight years, and I thought I might finally get an answer from you.”
“I hate a mystery,” I said, putting my hand on the doorknob.
“Yes.” His smile faded, followed by a look of such deep compassion that I had to turn away from it. “But there are some things in our lives that will remain a mystery forever.”
“I know that,” I said. “But I don’t like it.”
“Someday you will have to accept it.”
I turned back to him a bit more fiercely than he deserved. “I’ve been told all my life to accept things, and usually they are ugly, unfathomable things. I decided a long time ago to accept nothing.”
“Then you’ll be tormented, my friend, by things that most people would never give a second thought to.”
I wasn’t his friend. I took a deep breath so that I didn’t snap at him. “I’ll make a deal with you. If Laura Hathaway reappears and offers me the money, I’ll find out why her mother felt I deserved it.”
“And if you don’t find out?”
“I’ll take it anyway. I’ve done my best.”
“You’ll live with the mystery.”
“I’ll have to either way. At that point, taking the money is the sensible thing.”
His smile returned. “I’m glad you see it my way.”
“Actually,” I said, “I think you’re beginning to see it mine.”