Streets of Fire - Thomas H. Cook - ebook

Streets of Fire ebook

Thomas H. Cook

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At the height of the Civil Rights movement, a young girl's murder stirs racialtensions in Birmingham, Alabama. The grave on the football field is shallow, and easy to spot from a distance. It would have been found sooner, had most of the residents in the black half of Birmingham not been downtown, marching, singing, and being arrested alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. Police detective Ben Wellman is among them when he gets the call about the fresh grave. Under the loosely packed dirt, he finds a young black girl, her innocence taken and her life along with it. His sergeant orders Wellman to investigate, but instructs him not to try too hard. In the summer of 1963, Birmingham is tense enough without a manhunt for the killers of a black child. Wellman digs for the truth in spite of skepticism from the black community and scorn from his fellow officers. What he finds is a secret that men from both sides of town would prefer stayed buried. Review Quote: "Cook doesn't use the civil rights movement merely as a conveniently atmospheric backdrop; he weaves it through the plot in sharp, unexpected ways." - Publishers Weekly "[Cook] reaffirms his ability to create realistic characterization and vivid narrative, then wrap it all up in a tightly plotted, cleverly clued mystery." - Library Journal Biographical note: Thomas H. Cook (b. 1947) is the author of nearly two dozen critically lauded crime novels. Born in Fort Payne, Alabama, Cook published his first novel, Blood Innocents, in 1980 while serving as the book review editor of Atlanta magazine. Two years later, on the release of his second novel, The Orchids, he turned to writing full-time. Cook published steadily through the 1980s, penning such works as the Frank Clemons trilogy, a series of mysteries starring a jaded cop. He found breakout success with The Chatham School Affair (1996), which won an Edgar Award for best novel. His work has been praised by critics for his attention to psychology and the lyrical nature of his prose. Besides mysteries, Cook has written two true-crime books, Early Graves (1992) and the Edgar-nominated Blood Echoes (1993), as well as several literary novels, including Elena (1986). He lives and works in New York City.

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Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Author

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINTEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

TWENTY-EIGHT

TWENTY-NINE

THIRTY

THIRTY-ONE

THIRTY-TWO

THIRTY-THREE

THIRTY-FOUR

THIRTY-FIVE

THIRTY-SIX

THIRTY-SEVEN

THIRTY-EIGHT

THIRTY-NINE

FORTY

FORTY-ONE

FORTY-TWO

FORTY-THREE

FORTY-FOUR

FORTY-FIVE

FORTY-SIX

Looking for more suspense?

Cover

Begin Reading

About the Book

At the height of the Civil Rights movement, a young girl’s murder stirs racialtensions in Birmingham, Alabama.

The grave on the football field is shallow, and easy to spot from a distance. It would have been found sooner, had most of the residents in the black half of Birmingham not been downtown, marching, singing, and being arrested alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. Police detective Ben Wellman is among them when he gets the call about the fresh grave. Under the loosely packed dirt, he finds a young black girl, her innocence taken and her life along with it.

His sergeant orders Wellman to investigate, but instructs him not to try too hard. In the summer of 1963, Birmingham is tense enough without a manhunt for the killers of a black child. Wellman digs for the truth in spite of skepticism from the black community and scorn from his fellow officers. What he finds is a secret that men from both sides of town would prefer stayed buried.

Review Quote:

“Cook doesn’t use the civil rights movement merely as a conveniently atmospheric backdrop; he weaves it through the plot in sharp, unexpected ways.” - Publishers Weekly

“[Cook] reaffirms his ability to create realistic characterization and vivid narrative, then wrap it all up in a tightly plotted, cleverly clued mystery.” - Library Journal

About the Author

Thomas H. Cook (b. 1947) is the author of nearly two dozen critically lauded crime novels. Born in Fort Payne, Alabama, Cook published his first novel, Blood Innocents, in 1980 while serving as the book review editor of Atlanta magazine. Two years later, on the release of his second novel, The Orchids, he turned to writing full-time.

Cook published steadily through the 1980s, penning such works as the Frank Clemons trilogy, a series of mysteries starring a jaded cop. He found breakout success with The Chatham School Affair (1996), which won an Edgar Award for best novel. His work has been praised by critics for his attention to psychology and the lyrical nature of his prose. Besides mysteries, Cook has written two true-crime books, Early Graves (1992) and the Edgar-nominated Blood Echoes (1993), as well as several literary novels, including Elena (1986). He lives and works in New York City.

Streets of Fire

Thomas H. Cook

 

BASTEI ENTERTAINMENT

 

Bastei Entertainment is an imprint of Bastei Lübbe AG

 

Copyright © 2014 by Bastei Lübbe AG, Schanzenstraße 6-20, 51063 Cologne, Germany

 

For the original edition:

Copyright © 2011 by The Mysterious Press, LLC, 58 Warren Street, New York, NY. U.S.A.

 

Copyright © 1989 by Thomas H. Cook

 

Project management: Lori Herber

Cover adaptation: Christin Wilhelm, www.grafic4u.de

Cover design by Jason Gabbert

 

E-book production: Jouve Germany GmbH & Co. KG

 

ISBN 978-3-95859-006-9

 

www.luebbe.de

www.bastei-entertainment.com

 

All rights reserved, including without limitation the right to reproduce this e-book or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the publisher.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

FOR ROBERT WEST

AND J. WILLIAM BROADWAY

– SOUTHERNERS –

AND FOR

FATIMA GOLDMAN

– CITIZEN OF HER OWN LAND –

The author would like to thank his students,

friends and colleagues at

Packer Collegiate Institute for their kindness,

stimulation and support.

BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA

MAY 1963

ONE

Ben scribbled into his notebook, balancing the radio mike on his shoulder while he wrote.

‘I’m on surveillance,’ he said irritably, ‘and King’s still talking.’ He glanced up toward the church. He could see the crowd shifting excitedly as the people stood packed together tightly on its wide cement steps.

‘I got to pull you off for a minute,’ the dispatcher said. ‘We got a body down in that old football field off Twenty-third Street.’

‘Twenty-third Street?’ Ben asked. ‘Why don’t you let the Langleys handle it?’ He kept his pencil poised on the page.

‘Nobody knows where they are,’ the dispatcher told him. ‘You know what it’s like at headquarters.’

Ben knew exactly what it was like, and as he looked out toward the crowded cement steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, they reminded him of the chaos which had overtaken police headquarters as well since the demonstrations had begun. It was a hot May. The jails were already choked with everything from dentists and lawyers to half-blind old women, and every man in the department was on full duty to deal with them. Both uniformed patrolmen and plainclothes detectives slept in their cars or in makeshift dormitories which the department had set up in the hallways and storage rooms of City Hall. Sometimes, as Ben had already complained, the whole place looked more like a skid-row flophouse than a government building.

‘You read me, Ben?’ the dispatcher asked.

‘Yeah, all right,’ Ben said drearily.

‘That old football field off Twenty-third,’ the dispatcher reminded him.

‘I’ll get there as soon as I can,’ Ben said. He clicked off the radio, snapped it back into its cradle and hit the ignition. The engine groaned fitfully in the steamy air, and several of the people who stood crowded together around the old brick church glanced toward him, their brown eyes watching him silently as he pulled away.

It took no more than a few minutes for him to make it all the way across town to the football field. There was almost no traffic, and scarcely anyone on the streets. It was as if all the people who lived in the downtown black district of the city had been drained out of it, so that the whole area now existed only in the ghostly remains of deserted streets and buildings. The sloping wooden porches were empty, along with the weedy yards and plain dirt driveways of the railroad shanties that lined the bumpy, potted streets. Occasionally, an old man would nod to him as he drove past, or a little half-naked child might wave, but it was as if all the rest of them, nearly the whole black population, had been funneled into the few concentrated blocks of the downtown business district. That was where they gathered to block traffic or seize lunch counters or simply march in long dark lines, silently, determinedly, either staring straight ahead or glancing about apprehensively, as if looking for that menacing white tank the Chief had brought in to control the situation.

The football field at Twenty-third Street was as deserted as the surrounding neighborhood. Not even a single uniformed patrolman had been sent on ahead to stand guard over the body, and Ben guessed that someone had simply stumbled onto it and anonymously called in what he’d found, and that everyone but himself, now suddenly appointed as the lone centurion of Bearmatch, had already been far too busy to bother with such a little thing.

He shook his head irritably, then took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his jacket. Across the field, the noonday sun struck piercingly toward him, and in its bright glare, he could see only the hazy outline of the goalpost which stood shakily at the opposite end of the field.

For a moment he thought that it might all be a hoax, a prank call, or just some old wino whose imagination had gotten away from him. But as he made his way across the littered ground, his eyes slowly began to focus on what looked like a small dark ball perched motionlessly on the bare red ground beneath the goalpost. As he continued forward, the ball became a tiny fist thrusting out of the dirt, its fingers curled toward the palm as if trying to grab for something which still hung in the air above the ground.

For a little while, he stood casually beside the gray sidepost, listening to the way it creaked and groaned in the summer wind. Bits of paper blew across the empty field, and when one of them came to rest against the small black hand, he nudged it free with the toe of his shoe. Far in the distance, he could hear the sound of sirens, and he knew that things had begun to heat up downtown. But they seemed far away compared to the whisper of the wind through the trees around him, the enveloping heat and the small curled hand that reached toward him from the dust.

Luther arrived a few minutes later, walking briskly up the field, his belly spilling in a doughy mass over his broad black belt.

‘What you got, Sergeant?’ he asked breathlessly as he stepped into the dusty oval beneath the goalpost.

‘Looks like a child,’ Ben answered.

Luther groaned uncomfortably as he squatted down beside the hand. Instinctively, he reached out to touch the fingers, then drew back. ‘What do you think, boy or girl?’

‘I don’t know.’

Luther got to his feet. ‘Well, they’re sending a couple of diggers,’ he said. ‘They should be here anytime.’ He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his jacket and offered one to Ben.

Ben took one and lit it.

‘Don’t guess they’s a public John around here,’ Luther said as he glanced up and down the field.

‘I don’t think so,’ Ben said.

Luther’s eyes shifted back down to the small black hand. He shook his head wearily. ‘Bad time for this to happen.’ He looked at Ben. ‘They’ll try to make a race thing out of it. That’s why they sent me down here, to make sure it was just a plain old Bearmatch killing, nothing to do with white folks, trash or otherwise.’ He blew three large smoke rings into the air, poking a stubby finger through the center of each one as it drifted upward. ‘Can you do that, Ben?’

Ben shook his head.

Luther smiled. ‘Trick my daddy taught me.’ He did it again, then leaned lazily against the unsteady goalpost. ‘Where were you when you got the call?’

‘Surveillance.’

‘Anybody in particular?’

‘King.’

Luther looked surprised. ‘Who put you on him?’

‘The Chief.’

‘He didn’t mention it to me,’ Luther said.

‘He just caught me in the lobby this morning,’ Ben said.

Luther nodded. ‘Yeah, that’s the way he works sometimes,’ he said, his voice faintly disgruntled. ‘Once in a while it screws things up down the line.’

Ben nodded, and for a moment the two of them stood in silence. Across the field, under the opposite goalpost, an old Negro man watched them cautiously, his ancient face half-hidden beneath a tattered straw hat.

‘Place is empty,’ Luther said, after a moment. ‘I guess everybody’s downtown raising Cain.’

‘Did it start up yet?’ Ben asked.

‘Oh, yeah,’ Luther said. ‘Same old thing so far. But they say the shit’s really going to hit the fan before long.’ He laughed. ‘You know, Ben, it’s a good time to be working Bearmatch. Hell, the whole place’s deserted.’ His eyes widened. ‘Down by the tracks, they say even the shothouses are empty.’ He laughed again. ‘Can you imagine that, even the whores and gamblers and such as that are out marching.’

Ben had never seen the fabled shothouses of Bearmatch, but he had heard of them for years. They seemed to swim in a hazy yellow light to the beat of honky-tonk pianos, and when they were spoken of by people who’d been in them, it was with a kind of distant, dreadful awe, as if life took on a wholly different texture as it moved southward toward the tracks. Down by the tangled iron railyard where the empty freight cars baked in the summer heat, you could hear the steady wail of the blues as it came from the shothouses and honky-tonks of Bearmatch. It was a slow, pulsing rhythm that seemed to sway languidly in the air, and Ben had often heard it during the years he’d worked as a young railroad guard. While searching the cars or patrolling the crisscrossed tracks, he’d glanced more than once toward the huge shantytown that spread out just beyond the high storm fence of the railyard. That was where it came from, the bluesy horns, sudden laughter and occasional gunfire. Others among the guards had sometimes ventured into it, looking for whiskey or a card game or a woman, but Ben had kept his distance in this, as in almost everything else.

Luther gave the tiny hand another peremptory glance. ‘They kill their kids down here,’ he said dully. ‘Sometimes the daddy does it. Sometimes it’s the mama.’ He took another drag on the cigarette, then tossed the butt out into the field. ‘Just ask anybody who’s been on the tour. They’ll tell you. It’s real different down here. Not the same world we live in at all.’ He shook his head despairingly. ‘Course, the Black Cat boys like it. But they’s something wrong with those two.’ He tapped the side of his head with a single, crooked finger. ‘You know, up here.’

Ben dug his toe into the dirt and made a ragged circle. ‘They should have a crew down here by now,’ he said impatiently. ‘It’s not right, leaving her in the dirt like this.’ He stepped away from the body and began pacing about, his eyes locked on the ground.

‘What are you doing?’ Luther asked after a moment.

‘Just looking around,’ Ben said. He walked a little further out into the field, his eyes still searching the tufts of brownish grass. Up ahead he could see the old man, still leaning against the post, his thin dark arms hugging to it loosely.

‘For what?’ Luther asked.

Ben shrugged. ‘Whatever you can find around a body.’

Luther laughed. ‘You’re lucky to even have a body. Most of the time they just load it onto a freight car, or take it out of town and dump it in the river.’ He shrugged. ‘Either way, it’s gone from our jurisdiction. It floats into the next county or rolls into the next state. Then it’s their problem.’

Ben continued to move outward slowly, his eyes latching onto bottle caps or scraps of paper. When he looked up again, the old man had vanished, and there was nothing but the naked post to block his view of the adjoining street.

Luther lit another cigarette and tossed the match onto the ground. ‘It’s the ones that keep on living that’s our problem.’ He glanced toward the distant buildings of downtown. ‘They’re probably piling into the lunch counter at Woolworth’s this very minute.’ He looked at Ben knowingly. ‘That’s why you’re lucky to be on the Bearmatch patrol right now, Ben. I’d rather be anywhere as downtown for the next few days.’

Ben eyed the last nondescript bit of paper which littered the ground at his feet, then looked up and saw two patrolmen approach from the opposite side of the field, both of them lugging shovels ponderously through the sweltering air.

‘They’re going to love this,’ Luther said. He glanced down at the hand. ‘Well, least it’s fresh. The smell won’t kill them.’

The two patrolmen began digging only a few minutes later. Slowly, they unearthed the body of a young girl. She was clothed in a flowered dress, white socks and dark-brown buckled shoes. Her eyes, nose and hair were matted with clay, and a single trickle of dried blood ran down from the left side of her mouth.

‘Turn her over,’ Ben said gently, after the body had been placed faceup beside the makeshift grave.

One of the patrolmen bent down and eased the body over, then stood up and stepped away.

Ben knelt down beside the body. The buttons at the back of the dress were missing, and its white collar had flipped open, exposing the dark back. A single shot had been fired into the base of the skull.

‘Looks like a twenty-two,’ Luther said as he stepped over and stared down at the body. He circled slowly around to the other side. ‘Have to be a twenty-two,’ he said. ‘Anything else would have blown the top of her head off.’ He scratched his chin slowly. ‘Pull her dress up.’

Ben looked up at him sharply. ‘What?’

‘Pull her dress up,’ Luther repeated matter-of-factly.

Ben did not move.

Luther looked at him oddly. ‘What’s the matter with you?’

Ben snapped to attention. ‘Nothing,’ he said quickly. Then he slowly lifted the girl’s skirt. She was completely naked underneath it, and her private parts were raw and reddened. Tiny crusts of dried blood clung to barely visible tufts of black hair.

‘See what I mean?’ Luther asked confidently.

Ben nodded.

Luther’s eyes scanned the girl softly. ‘Pretty little thing,’ he said quietly. ‘It’s a shame she’ll never grow up.’ He looked at the two patrolmen. ‘How come you boys didn’t bring a stretcher?’

The two young patrolmen glanced awkwardly at each other.

‘Ah, never mind,’ Luther said with a frustrated wave of his hand. ‘You got blankets in your car. We can load her up in one of them.’

The two patrolmen took off immediately, and Luther laughed as he watched them trot off down the field. ‘They stay dumb for a long time, don’t they, Ben?’ he asked.

Ben did not answer. He continued to stare at the small girl who lay in the dirt beside him.

Luther’s eyes narrowed pointedly as he glanced right and left. ‘Well, I don’t see no burning crosses, do you, Ben?’

Ben looked up. ‘What?’

‘Burning crosses,’ Luther repeated loudly. ‘Or anything else that would make this look like some kind of race killing.’

Ben shook his head slowly. ‘No, I don’t see anything like that.’ Luther drew a small camera from his jacket pocket. ‘Don’t usually do this,’ he said, ‘but things being the way they are right now …’ He waved Ben away from the body. ‘Stand back,’ he said. ‘Let me get a quick shot.’

Ben stepped away from the body.

Luther snapped the picture and headed off down the field.

‘Wait a second,’ Ben said.

Luther turned back to him quickly. ‘Find something?’

‘No,’ Ben told him quietly. Then he took the hem of the girl’s skirt and drew it gently back over her slender brown legs.

TWO

Missing Persons had never been more than a single metal desk stuck in the back corner of the detective bullpen. Along with a lot of general paperwork, it was Sammy McCorkindale’s private beat, and as Ben shifted around the chaos of crowded desks and chairs, he could see McCorkindale’s enormous frame in the distance. He was leaning back in a padded swivel chair, his eyes scanning the sports page of the Birmingham News.

‘How you doing, Ben?’ he asked as Ben stepped up to his desk. He smiled. ‘I’m surprised you’re not working the demonstrations, like everybody else.’

‘I was on surveillance,’ Ben said, but they pulled me off of it’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Somebody found a little girl. Dead. Shot in the head.’

‘Where is she now?’

‘The diggers picked her up,’ Ben said. ‘I guess she’s at the morgue by now.’

‘Find any identification?’

‘Nothing around her,’ Ben said. ‘That’s why I thought I’d check with you.’

McCorkindale ponderously eased himself forward and rooted his elbows on the top of his desk. ‘Well, run the description by me.’

‘I’d say between eleven and maybe thirteen years old,’ Ben said.

McCorkindale took a pencil and paper and began to write it down. ‘Did you see any distinguishing features?’ he asked. ‘You know – warts, moles?’

Ben shook his head.

‘All right, go on,’ McCorkindale said.

‘Dressed in a white, flowered dress, brown shoes, white socks,’ Ben continued.

‘Okay, good,’ McCorkindale said, his eyes following the pencil as its tip scurried across the page.

‘The body was found buried in a football field off Twenty-third.’

The flight of the pencil slowed.

‘Negro,’ Ben said.

The pencil stopped. McCorkindale looked up. ‘You mean you got a little Bearmatch girl here?’ he asked.

‘That’s right.’

The pencil dropped to the desk and McCorkindale leaned back in his chair. ‘How old are you, Ben? Thirty-five? Forty?’

‘Thirty-seven.’

‘And been living in Birmingham all that time?’

Ben nodded.

‘Then you ought to know better than to waste your time on something like this,’ McCorkindale said. ‘They don’t report nobody missing out of Bearmatch.’ He squinted slightly. ‘Haven’t you ever done that beat before?’

‘No.’

McCorkindale shook his head. ‘Well, they got their own way of doing things over there. They don’t come to us with things like this. Right or wrong, they just don’t do it. If they got somebody missing, they do all the looking their own selves.’

‘This little girl had to belong to somebody,’ Ben said.

‘I’m not saying she didn’t,’ McCorkindale said. ‘But it just don’t matter, because they don’t report nobody missing out of Bearmatch.’ He shifted slightly in his chair, and the springs groaned painfully under his weight. ‘How long you been a detective, Ben?’

‘Five years.’

McCorkindale smiled confidently. ‘Well, I been sitting at this same desk for a lot longer than that, and they’s not ever been a missing person report done for anybody out of Bearmatch. They just don’t come to us with stuff like that.’

‘Well, it’s not just a missing person,’ Ben said, ‘it’s a murder case. Somebody shot this little girl in the back of the head.’

McCorkindale smiled slyly. ‘And the guy that did it, he’ll end up with a bullet in his own head, too, or sliced up like a big old piece of pie.’ He laughed quietly. ‘Don’t worry, Ben, he won’t get away with killing no little girl. Not in Bearmatch. Not for a minute. Because they’ll handle it among themselves, and to tell you the truth, they’ll get the job done a lot faster than we ever could.’

Ben stared at him, unconvinced.

‘I mean it,’ McCorkindale said emphatically. ‘They’ll give the son of a bitch a real fair trial. Probably in some alley somewhere, or in the back of a shothouse. Then they’ll cut his goddamn throat and that’ll be the end of it.’

‘All right,’ Ben said wearily. It seemed useless to argue any further. ‘But if anything does come in, let me know.’

‘You’ll be the first to hear about it, Ben,’ McCorkindale assured him. ‘The very first.’

*

Ben walked back to his own desk, then sat down. Besides McCorkindale, he was entirely alone in the cramped detective bullpen. Several metal cots had been set up to accommodate the increased manpower which had been brought in to deal with the demonstrations. They remained rumpled and unmade, their sheets and blankets spilling over the sides or resting in tangled heaps on the bare mattresses. Outside the dim, unwashed windows, sirens rang continually as one paddy wagon after another made its way down the avenue, then turned abruptly and dove toward the basement of the building. In that dark, concrete cavern, the demonstrators would be hustled out of the sweltering wagons and rushed upstairs to the large holding cells the Chief had set aside for them. It had been going on like this for days, and everyone was exhausted. As the demonstrations had continued, everything had become increasingly on edge. At first there had been some talk of handling King as the police in Albany, Georgia, had, killing him with kindness, ‘filling up the jails, of course,’ as Luther himself had put it one day in the detective bullpen, ‘but doing it politely.’ It was a way of handling things that quite a few people in the department had rallied behind at first. But as the weeks had passed, the better part of that idea had gotten buried under a steadily darkening cloud of anger and exhaustion. Sit-ins at the segregated lunch counters of major department stores and mass marches through the central business district had turned the city into a riot zone. And now, as Ben let his eyes drift over the bullpen, he could sense that Luther had grown harder, along with almost everybody else, that the whole city had tightened up, that there was no more give anywhere, in anybody. By six in the evening, a few withered detectives would trudge in, slump down on their cots and get whatever sleep they could for the next three or four hours. Then they’d hit the streets again, dirty, smelly, sitting four to a car as they patrolled the colored sections of the city, or kept a round-the-clock surveillance on some designated leader, staring blankly at the darkened windows of his house or motel room while they balanced coffee cups on the shotguns in their laps.

‘Well, ain’t you the lucky one.’

Ben turned and saw Harry Daniels as he made his way through the scarred double doors of the bullpen.

‘You mean to say that in the middle of all this shit, there’s one cop with nothing to do but sit on his ass?’ Daniels added loudly. He turned and called to his partner. ‘What do you think about this, Charlie?’

Charlie Breedlove strolled up to Ben’s desk. ‘I hear they kicked you onto the Bearmatch beat, Wellman,’ he said.

Ben nodded.

‘Of course, that beat’s pretty much the whole city these days,’ Breedlove added. He smiled mockingly. ‘So you shouldn’t feel like you’ve been singled out or anything.’

‘I don’t,’ Ben said.

Daniels took a long slow drink of Coke, then wiped his mouth with his fist. ‘So what they got you working on, Ben?’

‘A little girl somebody found in that football field off Twenty-third Street,’ Ben said.

Daniels leaned forward and cupped his hand behind his ear. ‘Found where?’

‘Off Twenty-third,’ Ben repeated. ‘In a football field.’

Daniels straightened himself slowly. ‘Football field?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Who called it in, one of the Black Cat boys?’

‘No,’ Ben told him. ‘Front desk said it sounded like an old colored man.’

‘How old’s the girl?’

‘I don’t know for sure. Twelve, thirteen, something like that.’

‘Down in Bearmatch, that’s old enough to whore,’ Breedlove said. ‘You ought to check with Kelly down in the file room. He knows a lot about the whores down there.’ He laughed. ‘Matter of fact, the talk is that he had something sweet going on with one of them a few years back.’ He draped his arm over Daniels’ shoulder and gently moved him toward the row of cots on the other side of the room. ‘Let’s get some sleep, partner,’ he said. ‘We got a long night ahead of us.’

They were asleep almost instantly, and even from his place at the far end of the room, Ben could hear Breedlove snoring loudly as he lay faceup beneath the window.

For a while Ben remained at his desk. He expected to get a call that would put him back on surveillance or send him circling Bearmatch again, idly circling, as he’d done for a few slow rounds after leaving the football field, and which, after a few minutes, had begun to make him feel more like a prison guard than a homicide detective. Within that circle, life might well go on as McCorkindale had described it. But outside the circle, from the fake antebellum mansions to the bleak trailer parks and greasy spoons of the sprawling industrial neighborhoods, Ben could feel a kind of dreadful trembling in the atmosphere, one that was as palpable in the station house as it was along the reeking drag strips of Bessemer and Irondale. He could feel it like a thousand knifepoints in the air, and after a time, it urged him from his chair, and he walked out of the bullpen and headed out into the steamy day.

THREE

The phone was ringing urgently as Ben struggled up from sleep. He looked at the clock. He’d come home for a brief nap, but slept for over an hour. He stepped over quickly and answered the phone.

‘Ben, this is Captain Starnes,’ Luther yelped. ‘Where the hell have you been?’

‘I waited around headquarters for a while,’ Ben explained. ‘Then I came home for a nap.’

‘You can nap at the station like everybody else,’ Luther said irritably. ‘You missed the Chief’s speech.’

‘What speech?’

‘The one he all of a sudden decided to make to the whole goddamn department,’ Luther snapped. He paused, as if waiting for a response, then continued. ‘Now you get back down to headquarters right now.’

Ben nodded wearily. ‘All right, Captain.’

A few men were still lingering in the briefing room when Ben arrived at the station house. Plainsclothesmen and uniformed patrolmen milled about, along with the top brass who’d come along with the Chief. Clouds of tobacco smoke hung heavily in the air, and the harsh, sporadic clack of police radios could be heard clearly over the murmur of the crowd.

‘Get anything on that little girl yet?’ Charlie Breedlove said as he walked up to Ben. He was smoking a thick black cigar clenched tightly between his teeth.

Ben shook his head.

‘Probably never will,’ Breedlove said. ‘It’s over and done with.’

Ben glanced toward the front of the room. The Chief stood in the distance, chewing his cigar. One of the Langley brothers huddled next to him, listening intently.

‘Chief made a real barn-burner,’ Breedlove told him.

‘He knows how to get them going,’ Ben said.

‘Told us we didn’t have to take shit from anybody. Now, I agree with that.’ Breedlove plucked the cigar from his mouth and glanced at the tip. ‘Lost my fire,’ he said. ’Got a light?’

Ben took out a packet of matches and relighted the cigar.

Breedlove took a deep draw, then blew a tumbling cloud of thick blue smoke into the already stifling air. ‘You didn’t see Harry on the way in, did you?’

‘No.’

‘He disappeared on me,’ Breedlove said. ‘It’s rough having a partner who’s always disappearing on you.’ He smiled. ‘They give you a partner yet? I mean, since Gifford left?’

‘No.’

‘So you’re just working that Bearmatch thing yourself?’

‘Yeah.’

Breedlove shrugged. ‘Well, when all this shits over, they’ll give you a new partner. They just got all they can handle right now.’

‘I don’t mind working alone,’ Ben said:

‘You’re a loner type, is that it?’ Breedlove asked.

‘I guess.’

Breedlove’s eyes narrowed somewhat, as if he were studying him. ‘Well, I’m not like that,’ he said finally. ‘I like a partner. Speaking of which, I better find the rotten son of a bitch.’ He nodded quickly, and left the room, his thin, wiry frame disappearing into the pale green corridor like something caught up in a wave.

Ben lingered in the room awhile longer, standing idly to the side as the last of the people filtered out into the hallway. Like all the world around them, they seemed to move in pairs. Partners on patrol went home to their separate wives, coupling up once again. There were times when it had appealed to him, this notion of someone at his side. But each time he’d moved toward it, it had slipped beyond his grasp. A secretary in the Records Department had moved abruptly to Galveston. A bank teller at First Alabama had finally decided to go with what Ben himself imagined to be a better man. Each time he’d taken it well, but each time it had worn him down a little, so that he’d made few attempts in the last few years to be anything but alone. Each night he made his supper, read the paper, then fell asleep on the sofa or in his large orange recliner, his ears tuned to the muffled wail behind the black and white Indian-head test pattern on his television screen. And each morning he awoke needing less and less to make it through the day. It was a life that seemed to suit him, and he no longer felt it necessary to apologize for it, or to look for some way out of it. Even Gifford’s wife had finally stopped trying to marry him off to some perfect woman she’d met while squeezing oranges at the A&P. Now it seemed to him that she had been his last hope, and that when she’d finally given up, he’d been able to curl into his aloneness like a bed.

*

Luther was waiting for him when Ben got back to his desk. He was sitting in his chair, his hair lifting lazily with each pass of the large rotating fan that stood near the back of the room.

‘When you left the ballfield, where’d you go, Ben?’ he asked immediately.

‘Back on surveillance,’ Ben said.

Luther rose slowly from the chair, then eased himself onto the top of Ben’s desk. ‘You mean King?’

‘Yes,’ Ben said. He pulled the small notebook from his jacket pocket and handed it to Luther.

Luther glanced at it idly. ‘Anything new?’

Ben shook his head.

Luther pocketed the notebook. ‘So what did you do then?’

‘I came back here,’ Ben said. ‘I talked to Sammy.’

‘About what?’

‘That little girl.’

Luther looked pleased. ‘Good. What then?’

‘I went home for a rest, and then the phone rang.’

‘So then you came back to headquarters?’

‘Yeah,’ Ben said.

‘Okay,’ Luther said thoughtfully.

‘What’s this all about, Captain?’ Ben asked. ‘All these questions, I mean.’

Luther looked at Ben as if he were a small child in need of basic instruction. ‘Well, like I said at the ballfield, this little girl could be a problem for us. If you want to know the truth, she could be a problem in several ways.’ Luther lifted his hand and shot a finger into the air. ‘First, they’ll be certain people who figure this is some sort of KKK killing or something like that. We have to make sure that it’s not.’ A second finger poked the air. ‘And we also have to make sure that we’re looking into this killing, that we’re not just letting it go because the victim is colored.’ The two fingers curled back into Luther’s fist. ‘See what I mean? We want to cover ourselves in both directions.’ He smiled quietly. ‘That’s why it’s important that you really work this case, Ben,’ he added. ‘That’s why it looks good that you checked with Sammy. But that’s also why it looks bad that you went home and took a nap after being at the ballfield. That makes it look like you don’t give a shit one way or the other about this girl.’ He looked at Ben closely. ‘You see what I mean, don’t you, Ben?’

‘Yes.’

‘It’s not like we’re checking you out in particular,’ Luther said. ‘It’s just that things being the way they are, everybody has to be careful.’

‘I understand,’ Ben said.

Luther rose slowly, then squeezed Ben’s upper arm affectionately. ‘I knew you would.’ He stepped away, stopped suddenly, then turned back toward him. His face seemed suddenly strained, and his voice took on a tense and apprehensive tone. ‘Things are going to be real hard over the next few days, Ben,’ he said, ‘and I’ll tell you the truth, the closer you stay to this little case, the better off you’re going to be.’ He turned again, and this time pressed forward without stopping, head down, his back slightly hunched, his feet slapping loudly against the checkerboard tile floor.

FOUR

There was a note on Ben’s desk when he got back to the detective bullpen. It was written on a plain square of white paper, and it was from Leon Patterson, one of the medical examiners in the Coroners Office. It said that he’d finished with case number three-zero-six, which Ben figured was the number he’d assigned to the little girl, and that he’d be in his office at Hillman Hospital until six.

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!