Monthly Novel Excerpt: Smoke-Filled Rooms
Once a 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. Initially, I called this the Mid-Month Novel Excerpt, but I’m doing too many things in the middle of the month on this website. Now, I’ll do my best to get the excerpts up in the final two weeks of the month. 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 nineteen novels, click here.
This month, I’m pleased to present the second novel in my acclaimed Smokey Dalton series, which I wrote under the name Kris Nelscott. Like all mystery series, you can read the books out of order if you so choose. The mystery itself is stand-alone, even though in the Smokey Dalton series, the characters do grow and change from book to book.
These mystery novels have been nominated for everything from the Shamus Award to the Edgar Award. The first novel in the series, A Dangerous Road, won the Herodotus Award For Best Historical Mystery. These 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.
“This is mystery fiction at its highest, most gripping level.” —Chicago Tribune
“A blistering rendition of the ’60s racial wars marks this series as a standout as early as its second entry. You don’t need to be a fan of private-eye novels to admire Smokey: You just need a conscience.” — Kirkus Reviews starred review
On the run after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Private Investigator Smokey Dalton and Jimmy, the young boy he rescued, have settled under assumed names in Chicago. But history won’t leave him alone. His job in security at the Chicago Hilton places him in the center of the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention.
Worse, a killer works his South Side neighborhood, killing children. The Chicago Police Department doesn’t solve crimes in the South Side. Smokey can’t ignore the crimes, any more than he can ignore the tension building in the city that hot August. He has to take action, before he loses everything.
Chosen as one of the top ten mystery novels of the year by both Deadly Pleasures and Booklist, Smoke-Filled Rooms fulfills the promise of the award-winning Dangerous Road, and makes Smokey Dalton into one of the mystery field’s most memorable detectives.
“Nelscott does a superb job of using a familiar historical moment to dramatize an intimate human drama, as Smokey and Jimmy struggle to avoid becoming anonymous casualties lost behind the headlines. This series has all the passion and precision of Walter Mosley’s early Easy Rawlins novels, but it is not derivative. In fact, Smokey just may be a more compelling character than the celebrated Easy.” —Booklist starred review
Smoke-Filled Rooms: A Smokey Dalton Mystery
Copyright © 2012 by Kristine K. Rusch Published by WMG Publishing First published in 2001 by St. Martins Press
“[Chicago] is the city that invented the smoke-filled room, that locked-door cliché of cigar-chomping politicians bent on shifty deals.” — Jack Schnedler, Chicago
“Repression turns demonstration protests into wars…It forces everyone to pick a side.” —Jerry Rubin
“The people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
I had been in the Loop all morning. I had found a seat on the concrete steps leading up to the “L,” and no one had asked me to move. Dozens, maybe hundreds of us crowded the steps. For an hour, the trains hadn’t stopped and the platforms above me were closed, although policemen patrolled them.
They were searching for snipers.
The year of assassinations continued.
I hadn’t told anyone where I’d gone. I wasn’t talking much these days. I no longer felt as if I had anything valid to say.
It was September 4, 1968, only a week since the entire city of Chicago had erupted into chaos. Only a week since I had made a choice I couldn’t have contemplated a year ago.
Only a week since everything had changed. Again.
The street was eerily silent. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered under the steel-and-concrete skyscrapers and didn’t say a word. Police and National Guard, their rifles ready, kept the crowd on the sidewalks. Squadrols—paddy wagons in any other town—were on side streets, waiting in case last week’s riots started anew.
I had no real idea why I had come. I’d felt drawn here, as if this place, these people, this moment could give me some perspective.
There were very few black faces in the crowd. We stood out so dramatically that the police gave us special attention. I sat so that no one realized how tall I was or how broad. My very size intimidated people. And I kept my hands in view at all times. I didn’t want to start anything, even inadvertently.
Chicago had witnessed enough violence in this long hot summer.
I’d witnessed enough violence—caused enough violence—to last an entire lifetime.
I had embraced darkness because it was the only choice left.
The year of assassinations continued.
And in the midst of all these thousands of people, I was more alone than I had ever been.
It all began with the dreams. I had the first one on the night of August twenty-first.
I dreamed I was back in Korea, toward the end of the war. Our trench was waist-deep and not very wide, certainly not the kind required by regulations. It was on a lower hill, about eight hundred yards from the nearest Chinese trench. In that eight hundred yards there were higher hills and rice paddies, frozen over in the cold.
The enemy hills had no vegetation at all. The First Marine Air Wing had destroyed all of it, making the vista on moonlit nights eerie and unnatural.
The cold was unnatural too—biting and harsh, worse because nothing protected us from the wind. We patrolled and listened to the sounds of our unseen enemies digging in the frost-bitten earth. With each scrape-scrape-scrape of their shovels, the tension rose.
One day, we knew, we would fight them. One day, we would kill them.
The tension, the cold, the feeling that something horrible was about to happen were so strong that I could barely breathe.
I woke then, cramped onto the narrow couch in Franklin Grimshaw’s, covered with sweat on that hot August night, the nap of the couch sticking to my back, and yet feeling so cold it seemed like I would never warm up.
The apartment was large, but the heat gathered in there like a live thing. The open windows didn’t help—all they did was let in the noise of the street. Summer noises: people shouting, a radio blaring down the block, the roar of an engine, each sound magnified in the humidity, as close as the air.
I was used to heat—Southern heat—but somehow this Chicago weather was worse than any I’d experienced. Perhaps it was just the way I was living. For more than three months, I’d slept on that threadbare couch, forced to wake up whenever someone passed through the room. I had no privacy unless I went out onto the fire escape, and even then I had to share myself with the city.
Chicago. It was not my home. I hadn’t even been to the city before May first, when Jimmy and I finally decided to find a permanent place to stay. Jimmy was ten and needed more stability than a life on the road could give him. But he was afraid to settle anywhere, and I wasn’t sure there was any safe place for him to go.
I got off that couch and went into the apartment’s only bathroom, leaving the door open as I splashed cold water on my face. The water smelled of rust, tasted of it too, but I drank, not wanting to raid the Grimshaw’s refrigerator more than I had to.
I’d been living on their charity for too long. I’d known Franklin in Memphis. We’d been friends for years when he decided to take Althea north for a better life. In 1958, Chicago had looked a lot better than Memphis. Now I wasn’t so sure that this city was better than any other.
Even though I’d paid a minimal rent to salve all of our consciences, money wasn’t the problem. Space was. The apartment had three tiny bedrooms. Franklin and his wife, Althea, shared one, their three daughters another, and their two sons—along with Jimmy—had the third.
I leaned against the sink, feeling the warm condensation on the cracked porcelain, and wondered why I was dreaming of Korea.
And why it left me so cold.
* * *
That morning, Jimmy and I had an appointment to see a new apartment. I included him in all of my decisions. No one had ever done that before, and his reaction varied from gratitude to exasperation, depending on what I interrupted in order to bring him along.
He’d had as rough a night as I had. He was grateful to be looking for someplace new.
I gave him a once-over before we went out. He had put on weight since we’d moved to Chicago—Althea’s meals were large and plentiful—but he also had deep circles under his eyes.
He hadn’t slept well since the night Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot. Jimmy had witnessed the assassination. He’d also seen the assassin—and it wasn’t the man they’d arrested in June.
That night, I’d gotten Jimmy out of Memphis. It was the only way I could save his life.
He wasn’t my child by blood, but he’d become my family. By the time we got to Chicago, we were telling people that we were father and son.
I adjusted his short-sleeved shirt, made sure his pants were clean, and double-checked his shoes. I knew we had a better chance of getting the apartment if we both made a good impression.
Jimmy squirmed under my administrations. “I dressed up, Smokey, and I’m hot. Let’s go ’fore I start looking sloppy.”
I smiled at him. He wanted to be out of here as much as I did. We were both loners in our different ways, and living in such close quarters with so many people was driving us both crazy.
“All right.” I stood and put my hand on his back, happy that I could no longer feel his bones through his skin. “Let’s go.”
Jimmy opened the door and we stepped into the wide hallway. It was high ceilinged and clean, despite the number of tenants in the building. The Grimshaws lived in a nice area. Still, I had to lock three deadbolts before pocketing the keys.
Marvella Walker was coming up the stairs. She wore a halter top and tight shorts that showed every curve. She looked cool despite the heat.
“Hey, Bill,” she said, calling me by the name everyone in the building used. Franklin had told them that I was his cousin from Memphis. He never used my last name, and at my insistence he called me Bill in public. My legal name is Billy Dalton, although I’ve been called Smokey since I was a little boy. Smokey was too obvious and easy to track, I thought, and Billy no longer suited the man I’d become. So Bill it was.
Jimmy had stopped at the top of the stairs. He had never liked strangers, and that trait had gotten worse since the assassination. He’d become close to most of the men in the building, but he still had trouble with women — a fact I blamed on his abusive, neglectful, mostly absent mother.
I came up beside him. “How’re you doing, Marvella?”
She let out a small sigh and gripped the thick wooden railing, as if she suddenly needed it. “I swear if this heat don’t end, I’m gonna melt.”
I gently moved Jimmy toward the wall. I knew better than to try to get him down the stairs while she was on them.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sometimes I think it’s hotter inside than it is outside.”
She smiled at me. Her smile lit up her dark eyes, brought her regal cheekbones into focus, and accented her narrow chin. I thought if she cut her hair short instead of ironing it smooth and forcing it to curl along her shoulders, she’d look like one of those busts of African princesses sold at that imports store near Washington Park.
“I’d think you’d be used to the weather,” she said.
“It seems hotter here.”
Jimmy looked up at me, unable to hide his pleading look. He wanted to leave.
Then her smile faded. She looked to either side, as if she didn’t want anyone to hear what she was going to say.
“Bill.” Even her voice was soft. “You’re not one of those outside agitators, are you?”
Beside me, Jimmy froze. I could sense him, a rabbit in the headlights.
“Outside agitators?” I knew the phrase, but it meant many things in many places. In Mississippi, during the height of the civil rights movement, the cops were using the phrase to imprison white civil rights workers, saying they were communists.
She shrugged, sheepishly, it seemed to me. “You know my cousin the cop, right?”
Franklin had told me she was related to a cop. Unlike Memphis, where the police department was just starting to become integrated, Chicago’s force had had black cops for more than a hundred years.
Jimmy was shivering. I put my hand on his shoulder, partly to hold him in place, and partly as comfort. “I’ve never met him.”
“Well,” she said, as if my knowing him really didn’t matter, “he says that potential troublemakers are being followed by undercover cops and the FBI.”
I felt my breath catch.
“You’re not a troublemaker, are you, Bill?”
I made myself smile. “Just a poor working man. Why?”
Her voice got even lower. “I thought I saw someone tailing you yesterday. He was doing his best to stay out of your line of vision, which didn’t make sense to me.”
I tried to remain calm, even though I felt my brain kick into high gear. I’d been on alert since April for just this kind of moment.
“It makes sense to me, Marvella,” I said. “If they’re following potential troublemakers, they’re not going to want to be seen.”
“No, that’s not the point,” she said. “My cousin said they do want to be seen. So that these guys know they’re being watched and so that they don’t try anything when the Democrats come to town.”
The Democratic National Convention wasn’t going to start for another four days, and even before this conversation, it had become the bane of my existence.
“Are you sure they’re looking at me?” I asked. “I thought Mrs. Witcover upstairs had a grandson in the Blackstone Rangers.”
Jimmy was shaking so violently that I was sure Marvella would notice. I tightened my grip on his shoulder.
“Maybe that’s it,” she said. “It just seemed odd to me and I thought you should know.”
“I appreciate it,” I said. “You only saw this guy the once?”
She shook her head. “He’s been outside a few times. Not too obvious, but there. He was black, Smokey. My cousin says most of these guys are white.”
“So that they wouldn’t blend in.”
She nodded. “He was staring at Franklin’s place.”
“And you thought of me? Not Franklin?”
Her laugh was hardy. I liked a strong laugh in a beautiful woman. It made her more human somehow. “Franklin? He’s as innocent as they come. You don’t look innocent, Bill.”
“No,” I said, “I don’t suppose I do. Thanks for the tip, Marvella.”
I started down the stairs, bringing Jimmy with me. A knot, solid as a fist, filled my stomach. How had they found us so soon? Or was this just paranoia in a hot city, rife with tension?
“We gots to get out of here, Smoke,” Jimmy said when we reached the bottom of the stairs. Fortunately the lobby was empty. Circular flyers lay on the floor beneath the metal mailboxes, always a signal that the mail had arrived. The front door itself was closed and latched, and the lobby was stifling hot.
“We are, Jimmy,” I said, keeping my voice down. Sounds echoed upward from this lobby. It was not a private place.
“No, I mean this town. They—”
I put a finger over his lips. “We have to get to the car. We’re going to be late.”
Then I opened the front door and stepped onto the wide porch. The apartment building had been built in the 1920s out of brick, the only wood on the interior. The lack of wood, I’d learned, was a strangely Chicago fetish—apparently no one had forgotten the Great Fire a hundred years before. City ordinances insisted that no buildings in the city limits be made of wood.
Sometimes that gave Chicago a grandeur it didn’t deserve, especially in the poorer neighborhoods. This one, just south of Hyde Park, was considered middle class, although by whose standards, I wasn’t sure.
There were a lot of people on the street, most of whom I recognized. The other buildings on this block looked the same — white brick with tan trim, wide porches, and broad expanses of sidewalk leading to them. The grass was untended, and the shrubbery overgrown. The buildings themselves went up four and five stories, and the wealth of the inhabitants marked itself in the curtains (or lack thereof), the items left on the porches and fire escapes, and the cars parked outside.
Jimmy was still trembling. I didn’t see anyone skulking in the shadows, but then, I wasn’t sure who I’d be looking for. I felt at a huge disadvantage in this new town. In Memphis, I knew all the ins and outs, the smallest detail had great significance, and told me more than most people could imagine.
Here, though, I saw the details and wasn’t sure how to process them. For all I knew, the faces I thought familiar might have been as new as mine. Had someone watched Jimmy and me for months without either of us realizing it?
“Smokey,” he said. “We gotta—”
“I know,” I said quickly. “We don’t want to be late.”
We hurried off the porch and headed toward the rusted blue Impala parked against the curb. It wasn’t a great car, but it was the best I could do when I traded in the green Oldsmobile Jimmy and I had traveled in. We’d stopped at a discount auto dealer whose very sign looked shady, and made him a deal that he couldn’t refuse.
I unlocked the passenger door and pulled it open, almost pushing Jimmy inside. Then I went to the driver’s side and got in.
Jimmy’s head was down. “We gotta go, don’t we? They found us.”
“They might have,” I said, putting the key in the ignition, “but there’s a lot going on in this city, especially this month, and I don’t think Marvella’s the most reliable source we’ve ever talked to.”
“But, Smokey, if they find me, they’ll kill me.” He was staring out his window, his hands clenched into fists.
He’d never said that before. I wasn’t sure if he’d understood it. But he was right. He’d seen enough to implicate the Memphis police. I knew that if the police were involved, so was the Memphis city government and the FBI. The FBI had major ties with Memphis’s leadership—and the Feds’ involvement had been my biggest unspoken concern.
Apparently, Jimmy had picked up on it.
My silence must have startled him. He gave me a sideways look. “Right?”
“No one’s going to hurt you,” I said. “I promise you that.”
“How can you promise?” he asked. “Stuff happens all the time.”
That knot in my stomach grew harder. The kid knew more about the world than I gave him credit for. “I’ll check it out. I’m not going to ignore anything.”
“But what about nights when you’re working? Franklin can’t do nothing. He don’t even notice when his family’s there. All he cares about is his books and those papers—”
“I’ll make sure you’re protected,” I said, “and not by Franklin.”
My assessment of Franklin was the same as Jimmy’s. I liked the man—I always had—but he wasn’t a physical person. He was taking night courses, studying for a law degree, and it suited him. Franklin did his battles with words, not his fists.
I put the car into drive and pulled out, checking my mirrors for a tail. I hadn’t done that since mid-June. For some reason, I’d assumed we were safely hidden.
No one pulled out behind us, but I continued to watch as we drove north through the Black Belt, heading toward the heart of Bronzeville.
Most of Bronzeville was a ghetto. Slums, broken-down buildings, gangs roaming the streets. But other parts reflected Chicago’s long and proud black heritage. Stately homes lined some of the avenues—and one even housed a museum of black history in some lady’s parlor. She’d been raising funds to move it into a proper building, and Franklin had been helping her.
The riots which hit Chicago after Martin Luther King died happened mostly in the black neighborhoods on the Near West Side. Buildings had been burned, looted, and destroyed. It was so bad that I no longer looked for housing there. I stayed on the South Side, having heard horror stories of what happened to blacks who ventured outside the Black Belt.
Jimmy and I had enough problems. We didn’t need gangs of armed whites blocking the door to our home.
The apartment building we were going to go see was on Forty-sixth Street, just off the new Dan Ryan Expressway. Over the phone, the apartment manager had assured me that the apartment was in a good neighborhood, well kept, and clean. I’d checked the address with Franklin, who’d shrugged.
“Housing market as tight as it is, Smokey, you’re gonna have to take what you can get around here.”
He’d been saying that to me from the beginning, and I knew he was right. It was just that I owned my own house in Memphis — a house that had been locked and unoccupied since early April. It was in a good neighborhood where children played happily on the street.
I wasn’t able to go back to it yet, but I wasn’t willing to trade that sense of security for a little bit of privacy. I’d look as long as Franklin was willing to tolerate two extra presences in his small home.
Jimmy had turned around in the seat, his chin resting on his arms as he stared out the back window.
“See anyone?” I asked.
The apartment complex was on Forty-sixth. I scanned for the address as I drove slowly up the street; there were several apartment complexes and none with a For Rent sign in the window. I wasn’t sure I liked the neighborhood—there were few trees, and the faint lingering odor of the stockyards permeated the area. I was sure the smell was exacerbated by the heat—the stockyards were no longer in use—but the old scent of manure and cows lingered all the same.
“I thought this was a good one.” Jimmy sounded as disgruntled as I felt. I had had high hopes for this place. It was close to an elementary school and the price was one of the more reasonable I’d heard. Rents in Chicago were ridiculous—although I had nothing to compare them to in Memphis. I hadn’t paid rent in eleven years.
I finally saw the address, metal letters on a steel-and-concrete building, about ten stories high. There was no yard to speak of, only dirt and scraggly brown grass. No trees, and a view of the houses across the street and the empty stockyards beyond.
“Maybe it’ll be all right inside,” I said.
“Not if it’s like the last one.”
He was right. We’d seen some ugly buildings in our search for a place to live. Still, I had been promised that this apartment had some amenities. It was worth the look.
“Let’s check it out anyway.” I got out of the car, and my feet crunched on broken glass. Several beer bottles had been shattered along the side of the street. The glass was hard to see against the gray concrete. I hoped my tires would survive.
Jimmy opened his door and got out as well. He immediately scanned the neighborhood, his eyes wide and alert. Looking for our shadow. Apparently not trusting me to see anything.
I’d been looking too and on this empty street, I knew we hadn’t been followed. No cars had been behind us for the last several blocks.
I didn’t like how quiet the street was, and I was glad that my car had almost nothing to steal. Its parts were nearly as useless as it was, but my .38 was locked in the glove box. I kept the gun there because I didn’t want to bring it into an apartment full of children. Taking the gun out would draw too much attention to it, and carrying it would make the wrong impression on the landlord.
“Come on,” I said, and headed up the walk.
Jimmy stayed at my side, closer than he’d been in weeks. He would have clung to me if he had been a few years younger. At ten, staying close was the best he could do.
As I approached the building, I thought I saw a white face peer at me from one of the windows. A trickle of unease ran through me. There shouldn’t have been a white face for miles. Bridgeport, the nearest white enclave, was at least six blocks north, and Hyde Park, one of the few areas in Chicago where the races mixed at least a little, was over five blocks south.
“What is it, Smokey?” Jimmy asked in a hushed whisper.
“Nothing,” I said just as softly, even though it appeared we were one of the few people on the street. I didn’t like that either.
We walked underneath the small overhang that led to the main door. It had a security lock, and an intercom at the side. The system was sophisticated enough that someone had to buzz a visitor in. There was a series of buttons that ran along the left side of the door, each labeled with an apartment number. Only a few went so far as to add the name.
I pressed the one marked “Manager.”
“Yeah?” A tinny voice answered.
“I’m here to see the apartment.”
In response, an electronic buzzer sounded, so loud that both Jimmy and I took a step back. Then I grabbed the door and yanked it open.
It was heavy and metal, a security door without dents, a good sign. We stepped into a narrow interior that smelled faintly of garlic and grease. It was hot too, as if it never got any air.
The manager’s apartment was directly behind the security door. There was another door, this one glass, that led into the main part of the building. That door was propped open and I could see into the first floor hallway. It was clean enough. No broken lights, no damaged doors. But it also didn’t have toys on the floor or bicycles propped up against the wall or even mats in front of the doors.
Jimmy shook his head just a little as the manager’s door opened.
The manager wasn’t what I’d expected. I thought the white face I had seen belonged to him, but it hadn’t. This man was short, bald, and had a goatee threaded with silver. He wore a clean white shirt and dark pants and was carrying keys in his left hand.
I was about to introduce myself when he turned away from me and unlocked the glass door.
“It’s upstairs,” he said.
I glanced at Jimmy, who shrugged. Then we followed the manager through the door and up the metal stairs.
Our footsteps echoed. That was the first real strike against the building. Any sounds in the hallways would carry. We went up all ten flights. Halfway up, I asked if there was an elevator.
“Service only,” he said. “I let people use it when they move.”
I didn’t like that much either. Jimmy opened his eyes wide, then grimaced at me. He was already ready to leave. I still wanted to see. We’d had such poor luck finding a place to live that my standards were coming down. How far, I hadn’t yet figured out.
We reached the tenth floor. The manager was puffing but Jimmy and I weren’t. Jimmy was in the best shape of his life. Some of that had to do with the fact he was finally getting regular meals, but the rest of it had to do with fear. He wanted to be able to run as far as he could to escape anything that came after him.
This hallway was darker. I thought I saw a movement in the shadows, but I wasn’t sure. Jimmy hadn’t seen anything or he would have been running for the stairs.
The faint odors of stale sweat and perfume filled the hallway. Someone had been here before us. The smells mixed with the scent of frying hamburger. Down the hall, a woman was screeching—angry shouts, followed by a slap.
The manager didn’t even seem to notice. He led us to Number 1037, unlocked the door, and stood back.
The apartment was empty. It had a large living room with a stained gray carpet, a hole in one wall, and the gray remains of a leak down the other. The kitchen was to the right, its cupboards grease stained, the stove so filthy that the dirt would have to be dynamited off. I gave the bathroom a cursory glance and the bedrooms, which smelled faintly of rot, an even shorter glance.
Jimmy remained at the living room window. I joined him. The view was the only good thing about the apartment. We were high enough to see over the rows of apartment buildings and houses to the stockyards. On Halstead, just in front of the yards, sewer workers were sealing manhole covers. On the far side of the yard, I could see other workers fortifying a cyclone fence covered with barbed wire.
The International Amphitheater sat in the middle, a concrete monstrosity that seemed more like a bunker than a building. Police cars surrounded it, as did several trucks marked Andy Frain Security Services.
Apparently anyone who lived here would have a bird’s-eye view of the Democratic National Convention.
To me that was the most major strike against the building. The papers had been full of the various preparations Mayor Daley had ordered to protect the city and the delegates, including blocked-off roads and searches of motorists in that area. That kind of attention was the last thing Jimmy and I wanted.
“Apartment’s available September 1,” the manager said. It was, apparently, his only sales pitch.
“It’s empty now,” I said.
“Got some work.”
Obviously. But I wasn’t going to let him off the hook. “The ad said that the apartment was ready for immediate rental.”
“That was a different apartment,” the manager said, and I had the sense he was lying. “This is the only one we got and it’s ready for September first.”
“All right.” I turned away from the window.
A tall, thin white man was standing just inside the door. The manager gave him an uneasy look. Jimmy hadn’t seen the white man yet, but I knew that he would be startled. The white man looked official in his black suit, narrow tie, and polished shoes.
“You interested in this place?” the white man asked me. “Because if you are, there are security forms to fill out.”
No one filled out security forms to rent an apartment. Applications, yes. Financial forms, maybe. But not security forms. This man was either police, FBI or Secret Service. A chill ran through me, and I resisted the urge to glance out the window again.
Of course. Mayor Daley’s panic over some kind of black uprising during the Democratic National Convention had filled the papers all summer. The authorities would be watching sites like this, apartments that a sniper could rent, wait for the right moment, train his scope on the potential nominee and blow the election process all to hell.
I think if Martin had been the only person assassinated this year, preparations wouldn’t have been so bad. But with Bobby Kennedy’s death in June, the entire country believed these political murders would continue.
“All I want,” I said making myself sound both calm and confused, “is an apartment for me and my boy.”
Jimmy slipped his hand in mine. He squeezed and I felt the panic in his fingers.
I turned toward the manager. “You told me over the phone that this neighborhood was safe. Your definition of safe and mine are very different.”
“It’s a good neighborhood,” the manager said.
“It’s not what we’re looking for.”
“You looking for suburbia?” he asked. “Nice, clean house with a great big yard? Chicago’s got lots of places like that but not for people like you and me, pal. You go outside the Black Belt and you’ll learn what violence really is. Those places, they’re only safe for white people.”
I got the sense that speech wasn’t so much for me as it was for his unwelcome white watchdog. I kept my grip on Jimmy’s hand and maneuvered my way out of the apartment.
“Thanks for your time,” I said to the manager, but I said nothing to the white man as I passed him. In fact, I kept my eyes averted, just in case there were pictures of me floating around some bureau office somewhere.
I hustled Jimmy to the stairs, silently cursing myself. If this had been Memphis, I would have known to avoid this neighborhood. It was only common sense that there’d be security in apartment buildings like this. With the level of paranoia the city government was exhibiting, they would do everything they could think of to guard against trouble, even if it meant trampling on some citizen’s rights.
I’d allowed myself and Jimmy to be noticed—and not in a positive way. If the government assumed everyone who viewed the apartment was a sniper, then I might just have caught the attention of the very people I had tried to avoid all summer.
My abrupt departure probably hadn’t helped, but I hadn’t had much of a choice. I looked guilty whether I stayed or whether I left. And it was up to that official white man to determine if I was enough of a threat to be followed or investigated.
Fortunately, I hadn’t given anyone our names. I’d have to make sure that I didn’t drive past the building so that he could take our license number — not that it would be easy to read. I’d coated it with mud the second day I had the car, not wanting anyone to trace us easily. Some of the mud had fallen off, but not all of it.
Jimmy tried to tug me down the stairs, but I made him walk, listening for footsteps behind us. Once he started to speak, and I put my free hand over his mouth. We had walked into the exact type of place we did not want to be, and I had to get us out as unobtrusively as possible.
On the first floor, a young girl played with a doll in front of one of the apartment doors. It stood ajar, and the sounds of a television, blaring one of the noontime Chicago news and talk programs. The girl didn’t even look up, for which I was vaguely relieved.
I pushed open the glass door, then the security door, and stepped out onto the brown lawn, feeling like I could breathe for the first time in an hour. Jimmy pulled me toward the car and I let him. The quicker we got out of here, the better.
I didn’t glance at the building until I was behind the wheel with both doors locked. I saw no white faces in the windows. No black faces either. But I had the feeling that we were being watched.
“They knowed us, didn’t they?” Jimmy asked. I’d been teaching him good grammar all summer, but when he got nervous, old habits returned.
“No, they didn’t know us,” I said.
“But they think we done something.”
“They think we’re going to do something.” I put the car in reverse and went down the middle of the block until I found a place wide enough to make a U-turn without letting anyone in the apartment complex see my license. No matter how much mud was on it, it was still better to be safe than sorry.
“What’d they think we’re gonna do?”
“There’s going to be a big convention a few blocks from here.” I checked the rearview mirror. No tail. “I’m sure they suspect we’ll disrupt it.”
“I don’t care about no convention.”
I took a side street. I was going north, although Jimmy hadn’t realized it yet. I would take a number of back roads until I was absolutely positive no one was following us.
“I don’t care about the convention either.” I might have once. But with the way my life had changed, worrying about politics seemed like a luxury. “But everyone else around here does.”
The next side street was blocked off. Sewer workers again. Daley’s people were thinking of every single way this convention could be compromised, and were struggling to prevent it.
“It’s where they’re going to choose one of the two candidates for President of the United States.”
“I thought they already killed that guy.”
His matter-of-fact tone threw me. I glanced at him. “You mean Bobby Kennedy?”
“Yeah.” He was looking out the window. His voice was calm but his expression wasn’t. He was learning from me, just not the things I wanted him too.
“He was a candidate,” I said. “But right now there are several others. At these conventions, they narrow the choices to two.”
“There’s gonna be another?”
Sometimes the depth of his ignorance astonished me. It shouldn’t have. In Memphis, I had struggled to keep him in school, but I would have been surprised if he attended more than half the time. And I sometimes forgot that for all his street smarts, he was still only ten years old.
“There was another,” I said. “The Republicans met in Miami last week. They chose a guy by the name of Richard Nixon.”
“What’s he like?” Jimmy asked.
I thought of the charges of corruption that had followed Nixon like a stink, the petulance which culminated in the famous “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” speech he made to the press a few years back, the methodical coldness with which he destroyed anyone he suspected of being a communist. Not to mention the things he said about my people, or implied, or simply failed to acknowledge.
I couldn’t encase all of that into a simple sentence, so I didn’t even try.
“Smokey?” Jimmy asked. “What’s he like?”
“We’ve got two and a half months to the election,” I said. “Why don’t you study him and find out?”
“Sounds like school.” Jimmy flounced back in his seat.
“No, Jim,” I said. “I wish politics was simply something you studied in school. But it’s more important than that. It’s life.”
“So if that’s true, how come you’re not gonna pay attention to this convention.”
“I’ll be paying attention,” I said. “Just not in the ways I want to.”
He frowned, then leaned forward. “Hey. We’re not going home.”
He caught me. But our destination was hard to miss with the downtown skyscrapers looming before us.
“Plans change,” I said.
“Because of that white guy back there?”
“And because of what Marvella said.”
“You think someone is following us then?”
“Not right now.” I hadn’t seen a suspicious car at all. “But I can’t discount it. And I promised you I wouldn’t.”
“So where are we going?”
I gave him a smile that I hoped was reassuring. “Someplace safe.”
We picked up a tail on Division and Dearborn, near the Claridge Hotel. A police car followed at a discreet distance. Jimmy didn’t see him, but I did. I had been expecting him.
We were in Chicago’s Gold Coast, a neighborhood filled with mansions more than a hundred years old and exclusive apartment buildings that had been growing along Lake Shore Drive like weeds. My rusted Impala fit in no better than my skin color. Combined, they were like a neon sign advertising trouble.
Chicago police had a habit of harassing blacks who ventured into the wrong neighborhood. I always knew when I had made a wrong turn by the police car that would attach itself to my bumper.
I knew we were out of place here, but we needed to come. I was being extremely cautious, but I had to be. I had made a mistake today. Going to that apartment complex had drawn attention to us. I couldn’t ignore that any more than I could ignore the fact that Marvella had seen someone follow me. If I had been on my own, I wouldn’t have taken these precautions, but I couldn’t protect Jimmy every moment of every day.
I had to make sure he was safe until I discovered exactly what was going on. There was only one other place I could go.
I turned on Burton and parked on the street beside a high rise apartment building that overlooked Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan. Jimmy was looking at me in complete surprise. He had never been here before.
I had only been here twice. Both occasions had been memorable, but not enjoyable.
As the cop pulled up behind me, I braced myself. Some things didn’t change from community to community.
“Let’s get out,” I said. “You follow my lead.”
“Bill, for now. And do as I say, Jimmy. It’ll be all right.”
His face squinched into a frown so deep I could map it, but he got out of the car, just like I asked. I got out too, locked the car, and walked to stand by Jimmy on the sidewalk as if we had every right to be here.
“What’s your business?” The cop had gotten out of his car and was heading toward mine. He was beefy and thick—someone I could outrun or knock down with little effort. Still, he wore his service revolver and had a nightstick attached to his belt. He wouldn’t be afraid to use either.
“I’ve got a meeting inside,” I said.
I knew he wouldn’t believe the truth, that I knew the owner of the building personally and was going to see her.
“Yes,” I said, making sure my tone was nonthreatening, my hands were visible, and my face was blank.
“What kinda meeting?”
“Job interview.” It was the first thing that came to my mind.
“Then how come you brought the kid?”
“I know the doorman. He promised to watch him while I interviewed.”
Jimmy stood silently beside me on the curb, his hands threaded, his gaze pointed toward the sidewalk, as I had taught him to do whenever we were confronted by white authority. Still, I could see the tension in him. I hoped the cop couldn’t.
The cop wasn’t looking at him. He was frowning at me. I looked respectable enough, and I knew that Jimmy’s presence weighed in my favor.
The cop nodded toward me. “Make sure that car is gone in an hour.”
As if I could control a job interview like that. As if I had a job interview. “I will.”
He waited. I realized that we had to head into the building, or he’d be after us again.
I took Jimmy’s arm and turned him around, then led him toward the building. He was shaking. He hadn’t had a day this bad since April. Maybe even since we’d left Memphis.
The service entrance was behind the trash cans, but the door was closed. I probably should have tried it to keep up the masquerade, but I pretended I didn’t even see it. I went to the front.
The steel-and-glass façade would have looked expensive even without the doormen in their ridiculous red outfits, flagging cabs and opening car doors for the rich residents. I walked inside the gold ropes that led to the front door and headed forward as if I knew what I was doing.
A doorman stopped me. He was slender, white, and young. Probably not a usual doorman, but security being trained for the upcoming convention. A lot of buildings were doing that.
“State your business,” he said.
“I’m here to see Laura Hathaway.” I sounded confident, but no longer felt that way. I should have called ahead to see if she was home. To see if she would see me.
We had not parted on good terms the last time I was here, more than a month ago.
“Miss Hathaway isn’t available,” he said.
“She’ll be available to me.”
“I’m sure she’ll call you if she needs you.”
“And I’m sure you’d bar my way if she did, just as you’re doing now.”
He stared at me for a moment, then shrugged. “Sorry. I’ve had no word that anyone like you would be here.”
“I’m sure Miss Hathaway confides with you about everything,” I said.
“You have no right—”
“Find out if she’ll see me before turning me away,” I said. “I have some clout with Miss Hathaway, and if she knows how you treated me, you’ll probably be out of a job.”
He flushed an ugly red and went inside to the house phone. I waited. Jimmy shifted from foot to foot beside me, occasionally glancing over his shoulder, probably looking for the cop.
I prayed that Laura was in, and not just to prove my point to the young bigot barring the door. I needed her help, and I needed it now.
Ironically, it had been over her offer of help that we had our last fight. We had met in Memphis in February when she hired me to find out some things about her family, things that neither of us liked once I solved the case. Somehow, in one short month, we’d become lovers and I’d thought, for a brief shining moment, that we actually could have had something more than a single weekend.
But we didn’t. Our last hope ended when Martin Luther King died. Laura flew home and I helped Jimmy escape Memphis. When I was honest with myself, I acknowledged that Laura was the reason I brought Jimmy to Chicago, but I didn’t contact her for the first few weeks we were here.
When I finally did see her, I made it clear I didn’t want her charity, then or now. I found a job, enlisted the help of the Grimshaws, and then I went to see her.
She’d been furious at me. She’d thought I was dead. She had no idea that I’d left Memphis with Jimmy — I’d sworn the one friend I’d told to silence — and she hadn’t been able to reach me for nearly two months.
I’d explained the situation and she’d calmed down. That was our first meeting. It was our second—the one in which she’d offered me charity—that still stung.
Yet here I was, asking for help.
The doorman returned. His lower lip was set, his eyes narrowed. “Miss Hathaway will see you,” he said. “She’s on the —”
“The top floor,” I said as I passed him. “I know.”
Jimmy glanced at me. He’d heard the suppressed anger in my voice. The morning hadn’t gone well for me either, and I was beginning to get tired of being suspect just because I was darker than the people around me.
The lobby was ridiculously ornate. A dozen families, crammed into shoddy apartments in my neighborhood, could have lived in all that wasted space. Instead, comfortable groupings of leather furniture faced Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan beyond. Huge plants — scheffleras, ferns, and a few potted trees — accented the furniture groupings. A shiny marble floor reflected everything on it, making the lobby seem even bigger than it was.
Two bouquets as tall as Jimmy flanked the security desk. The bouquets were made up of fresh roses, their scent filling the lobby. The desk was recessed near the elevators, as unobtrusive as possible, yet still providing all the services people in this privileged building demanded — guest screening, mail and package delivery, and whatever other whims the rich and idle might have.
I led Jimmy to the bank of elevators behind the security desk. Everyone in the lobby, from the little old lady who was digging in her purse to tip the doorman to the young executive who had come home for his lunch hour, watched us walk. I tried to ignore them, but I could feel their gazes upon me.
One of the elevator cars stood open. The elevator attendant, an elderly man, was the first black I’d seen since I entered the building.
He nodded at me as Jimmy and I boarded. I asked for the top floor and the attendant swung the lever all the way to the top. As the door closed, he said, “You got business with Miss Laura?”
Miss Laura. I’d always known she was rich. I knew more about her finances than I knew about anyone else’s except my own. But her wealth hadn’t come home to me until the first time I visited this building, the one her father had placed in her name when he built it shortly before he died.
“We’re old friends.” I watched the tiny lever above the door point out the floors as we passed them. I didn’t want to discuss Laura, not even casually.
The attendant chuckled. “So you’re the one.”
I looked at him then. He had age spots all over his face and hair the color and texture of cotton balls. But his dark eyes were alert and wise—at least, they seem wise to me.
“She be different since she come back from Memphis, throwin’ money at causes she never thought of, askin’ me if I feel ‘exploited’”— he exaggerated the word, as if imitating her — “wondering if there be something she can do to integrate the buildin’ without makin’ the other residents mad. Some think she be just shook by the death of Dr. King, but I know it be sumthin’ else. She got to see another side of life, didn’t she?”
We had reached Laura’s floor, but the attendant hadn’t opened the door.
“Laura’s expecting us,” I said.
He chuckled again and pulled the lever to open the door. Behind me, I heard Jimmy gasp.
I had seen it before, this space outside of Laura’s penthouse apartment. It wasn’t exactly a hallway because the only door led to Laura’s, and it wasn’t exactly a foyer, because we weren’t inside that apartment. But the space was as grand as the lobby, obviously done by the same designer — someone who favored black floors and brass trim, and a mirror to expand the space. Another large vase filled with roses stood on the table before the mirror, making an even more dramatic statement than the one downstairs.
I stepped out of the elevator as Laura’s door opened. Jimmy stood slightly behind me, letting my body shield him from the woman at the door.
She looked different than she had when I first saw her in February. Then she had worn makeup and expensive clothing, her hair exquisitely styled. Now it was pulled back in a ponytail, and she wore no makeup at all. Her blue jeans were frayed at the hem and decorated with wide yellow patchwork flowers. Over it she wore a thin yellow cotton shirt and no bra.
She was more beautiful than I remembered.
“Smokey,” she said softly.
Behind me, the elevator doors wheezed closed. Jimmy pressed against my side.
“May we come in, Laura? This is too important to discuss in the hall.”
“I’m sorry.” She flushed and moved away from the door.
I walked inside. Her apartment was huge, as large as the lobby downstairs. An oriental rug — authentic, I had no doubt — covered the black marble floor in the actual foyer, and photographs, mostly black-and-white professional shots of Laura and her friends and family, covered the wall.
Jimmy stared at it all as if he were in a dream. Laura led us to the living room filled with leather furniture more elegant than that in the lobby. Plants draped off tables and hung in front of doors. But Jimmy didn’t look at the decor. Instead, he was drawn to the wall of windows, revealing a clear view of the lake.
Up here, the sun didn’t seem too bright or threatening. It was the perfect complement to the deep blue of Lake Michigan, stretching as far as the eye could see. Ships were out on the lake, ships that looked so tiny as to be insignificant, yet which were entire floating cities that traveled from port to port.
The bulk of the windows faced east, but the north and south walls had large windows as well. To the south, the city of Chicago rose in all its dirty glory. To the north was Lincoln Park and the suburbs beyond.
The windows were closed, but the apartment was cool, almost frigid. I hadn’t noticed the air-conditioning downstairs, although I was certain it had been on. I had simply been too preoccupied by my encounters with the cop and doorman. Here, though, the chill was welcome.
I hadn’t been this comfortable in weeks.
“Jimmy,” Laura said, facing him. “I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Laura Hathaway. We met in Memphis.”
He raised his chin so that he could look her in the eyes. “I remember you.”
She smiled then, and I remembered how it felt when she had turned that smile on me. I longed to touch her, to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ears, to pull her close. But I didn’t move.
“You live here?” Jimmy asked.
“All by yourself?”
“Yes.” She seemed amused by the question. If she had known how we were living, she would have been appalled.
“Gosh.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “How come you don’t let no one else stay here?”
She looked at me, a frown between her perfectly plucked brows. She was smart enough to understand there was more to his question than the words.
“I’ve lived alone for a long time,” she said.
“Me and Smokey, we want to live alone, but we can’t.” He pressed his face against the glass, then leaned back. “It’s hot!”
“The sun does that,” she said, “especially when it’s really hot outside. Is it really hot today?”
“Not as bad as last night.” Jimmy had never been this talkative with a woman before. Either the place impressed him or the cool air did, or maybe it was the familiar face, one he’d first seen in Memphis.
Laura turned to me, suddenly all business. “Somehow I get the sense this isn’t a social visit.”
“No.” Now that I was here, I wasn’t sure how to approach her. I’d been very careful since my arrival in Chicago not to seek her out.
“Jimmy, you want some soda?” Laura asked.
“Yeah!” That got him away from the window.
“There are some cans in the kitchen. Take whichever kind you like.”
“Okay.” He paused, looking helplessly at the expanse of furniture, and the hallways disappearing in two different directions. “Um, where is it?”
“That way.” Laura pointed down one of the hallways.
“He’ll eat everything in sight,” I said.
“That’s all right. I take it you haven’t had lunch.”
“Not yet.” Not that I could stomach food at the moment. I wanted to get this meeting over with.
Jimmy headed toward the kitchen. He was smiling for the first time since we’d left the Grimshaws’.
She stared at me for a moment. Her blue eyes were shadowed, her face thinner than it had been even a month before. “I missed you, Smokey.”
I’d missed her too, but coming to Chicago had convinced me how insurmountable our differences were. I would never fit into a place like this. Hell, I probably couldn’t even live in a place like this. Even though the housing laws had changed, Chicago hadn’t. White residents had a habit of attacking black families who moved into the wrong neighborhood.
“Laura, I…” I took a deep breath. I almost couldn’t finish the sentence. “I need your help.”
The softness left her face. Suddenly she was all business. “What’s wrong?”
“I think someone may have found us. I was wondering if Jimmy could stay with you while I discover what’s going on.”
Her frown deepened. “You actually think they’ll go after a little boy?”
“No,” I said quietly. “I think they’ll kill him.”
She blanched. She’d been to Memphis in those last horrible weeks. She’d seen the racism and the riots. She’d even had her life threatened by a man I knew to be an undercover FBI agent, although I couldn’t remember if I had told her that.
Still, she’d seen enough to know the truth of my words, though I wondered if that truth would overcome her upbringing, in a cool glassed-in world where everyone had a private bedroom and cops protected people.
“Wouldn’t he be safer with you?” she asked.
“Usually, but I can’t check out this rumor and keep him beside me.” I didn’t mention my job, which was the only thing keeping Jimmy and I afloat these days. The money I’d brought with us from Memphis was long gone, and I hadn’t been willing to endanger us further by having money wired to me.
“I don’t know, Smokey. If there is someone trying to kill him, and they know he’s here….” Her voice trailed off. She glanced toward the kitchen as if she were afraid Jimmy had overheard.
“We weren’t followed,” I said. “I made sure of that. And you have enough security in this building to take care of Fort Knox. No one would ever suspect Jimmy of hiding here. You can tell people whatever you like about him except the truth.”
She rubbed the back of her right hand with her left, a nervous gesture that I hadn’t seen before. “He can’t stay inside like a prisoner.”
“He wouldn’t have to.”
“But if someone sees him—”
“As long as you don’t tell anyone who he is, he’s fine. No one knows what he looks like. They only know his name and that he’s with me.”
She swallowed, then looked away. She was going to say no. I could feel it. I braced myself, holding back the anger and frustration that had been building all day. Of course she would say no. For all the changes Laura had professed to make, she hadn’t made the deepest one, the one that would require her to make choices that were hard.
“You’re expecting problems with your neighbors, aren’t you?” I said. “He can’t even stay here, can he? They’ll protest because of the color of his skin.”
“I own the building, Smokey.” Her voice was cool. “What they say doesn’t matter. If they get too pissy, I’ll make their lives hell.”
She sounded tough. I was about to speak when she continued.
“I’m more concerned about Jimmy’s safety. If I take him outside, and someone comes after him, I can’t do much. You’re the one with the gun and the experience.”
I smiled thinly. “Most situations take ingenuity, not greater firepower. Just be aware of who is around you at all times.”
She tapped her thumb against her teeth. I could see her thinking, weighing the options, trying to figure out her response. Then she let her hand drop, and looked up at me. “How long will he need to stay here, Smokey?”
“With luck only a few days. But it might be as much as a week. This town is filled with FBI and undercover cops. They’re all over the Black Belt, trying to make sure that the gang leaders and the Panthers are aware of their presence so that they don’t try anything before the convention starts.”
“And they’re following you too? What are you doing, Smokey?”
That was the kind of question I’d expected. “I’m trying to survive in this place, Laura. I haven’t done anything.”
“Sorry.” She took a step toward. “Smokey, I’m so very sorry.”
She wasn’t referring to what she had just said, but everything that had gone before.
She put her hand on my arm and a tingle ran through me. At that moment, Jimmy came out of the kitchen. His mouth was smeared with peanut butter, and he held a Coke in his left hand.
“I had some stuff,” he said. “Is that okay?”
“It’s fine.” Laura let her hand drop from my arm. The warmth of her fingers lingered on my skin.
He wasn’t looking at her, though. He was looking at me.
“Come here, Jimmy,” I said, ignoring his earlier question.
He came, his steps slow and tentative. He knew something was about to change. He could probably hear it in my voice.
When he reached my side, I put my arm around his shoulder. “For the next few days, I want you to stay with Laura.”
“Here?” Whatever he had imagined, it was clearly nothing like this. “Are you staying too?”
“Then I’m going with you.”
I had expected this argument. I knew he wouldn’t want to be separated from me. I’d been his only stability for months now, maybe the only stability he’d ever had in his life. “This morning you asked me to keep you safe, remember?”
“I asked if we gotta move again. Maybe go someplace else.”
“We might have to.” I crouched. We had to speak on equal footing. “But I want to check out what Marvella said before we give up everything we’ve started here.”
“We ain’t started nothing.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It seems to me you’ve been making a few friends in the neighborhood.”
“They’re just kids,” he said.
“And I’ve got work, and we know people here. If we go somewhere else, we won’t have any of that.”
“So how come I can’t stay home?”
“You know the answer to that.”
He did. We had discussed it earlier. Laura was watching us intently. I could feel her tension as clearly as I felt Jimmy’s.
“You saw that man today, Jimmy. Men like that are all over Chicago right now and it’ll just get worse when the convention starts. Some of them may be looking for a black man and a boy your age. It’s better if we don’t let them see that.”
“I’ll stick out here.”
I nodded. “Yes, you will. But no one will think you’re Jimmy Bailey. Would Jimmy Bailey live here?”
There was a sadness in his eyes that matched how I was feeling.
“No,” he said.
Laura put her hand over her mouth. In her world, apparently, children weren’t as aware of their limitations as they were in mine.
“There are guards downstairs, and locks on the doors and more security here than in any other place I could take you. I want you safe, Jim, and this is the best way to do it.”
He took a deep breath. He was trying. He really was. “Can you stay too?”
I resisted the urge to look at Laura. “I’ll be here every day if I can, just to see you. And if I can’t—if it’s too dangerous—I’ll call.”
“But you ain’t gonna leave me here forever, are ya?”
Even though I had expected that question, it still hurt. In Memphis before Martin died, I had taken Jimmy to a foster family, and then hadn’t told him I was leaving town. That action on my part, among other things, had led Jimmy to be on Mulberry Street the night of the assassination.
“I’ll come back for you, I promise.” I made sure I met his gaze and that my voice was firm. “If we have been discovered, I’ll get us out of Chicago. We’ll stay together. We’re family now, Jim. We will be for the rest of our lives.”
Tears filled his eyes, but he didn’t move. “I don’t want you to go, Smokey. Please. Don’t leave me here.”
“I’m not leaving you here,” I said. “I’m having you stay with a friend so that you’ll be safe while I take care of both of us. There’s a big difference, Jim. I’ll never abandon you. I’ll always be with you. You know how to reach me, at work and at home, and I’ll make sure Laura does too. We’ll be okay, you and I. This is temporary. I promise.”
He bit his lower lip, looked down at the floor, as if he were trying to gather himself. It felt as if he were moving inward, away from me, as if he were becoming the boy I’d known in Memphis, five months before.
“So I was right?” he asked. “Things are really bad?”
How to answer that? Things were really bad. They had been bad since Martin died. But were they worse? I didn’t know yet.
“I’m not going to wait until things get bad,” I said. “We take precautions first and then find out what’s going on. You agree with that, don’t you?”
“But how’ll I know you’re safe?”
Good question, and one without as easy an answer. “I’ll stay in touch like I promised.”
“What if you don’t call? Does that mean you’re dead?”
Most likely. But I said, “No. It means that I’ve found something and I don’t want to lead anyone to you. For the most part, though, I’ll be in touch.”
He nodded, bravely, I thought. Then he leaned as close to me as he could get, his body blocking Laura’s view of his face. “You really want me to stay here?”
“Yes, I do.”
“But, Smokey,” he was whispering now, “she’s white.”
Laura started, but I didn’t. I should have been expecting that comment. In Jimmy’s world white people were the enemy. They had been since he was born.
“There are good white people in the world, Jimmy, believe it or not.”
He frowned, as if he didn’t believe me, but he didn’t say anything more.
I stood, and faced Laura.
“I’m trusting you with the most important person in the world to me,” I said. She had to understand that. If she didn’t, I’d find some other way to take care of him. Or I would leave, even though I didn’t want to run any more.
“I know,” she said, putting her hand on his shoulder. He didn’t move away. “I’ll do everything I can to keep him safe.”