Be aware that this story takes place in the deep South, 46 years ago. Times and attitudes have changed. You may find some of the language strong and offensive but please bear with it, the story is well worth it.
Friday, March 22, 1968
Army Corps of Engineers Service Road #12
The green pickup had vanished without a trace.
Beginning its silent roll down the steep boat ramp an instant after Bobby Fletcher reached through the shattered driver’s window and released the hand brake, the light truck had slid into the turbulent brown water without so much as a splash. Bobby had slipped on the muddy ground in his haste to get away. Now he stood slapping at the stained knees of his uniform trousers while Peebles stared at the thin trail of bubbles angling downriver away from the ramp.
And then there was nothing but the cold wind off the river and the slap of water against the side of a rusty dredging barge moored against the bank a few yards upstream of the ramp. Low black clouds were scudding across the river from the Arkansas side and wet flakes of snow were pelting the treacherous surface of the icy cement ramp.
“Is that it?” Peebles wiped his sweating hands on his pants legs and looked questioningly at the tall deputy. Bobby shrugged and looked up to the freshly cut service road at the top of the ramp. The glow of Dub McIntyre’s cigarette cast a small reflection on the windshield of the tan Ford. “Come on,” said Bobby. “Let’s get out of here.”
He started up toward the dark outlines of the cars parked on the road, taking care not to slip again. His and Peebles’ patrol shift would end in less than three hours and Bobby had already turned his thoughts to fabricating some sort of plausible explanation for the time they’d been out of their patrol sector; that and the condition of his uniform.
“Wait a minute,” Peebles whispered, grabbing his arm and almost causing them both to fall on the icy mud slicked ramp. “Is this supposed to be it?”
The diminutive deputy’s normally high voice cracked into an adolescent squeak at the end of the sentence and he looked back at the dark river. “I mean, we just dump them in the river at a public boat ramp and walk away?” A hysterical giggle bubbled through Peebles’ thin lips. “This is your fucking uncle’s whole brilliant master plan? That’s the dumbest damn thing I ever saw, Bobby! The truck didn’t go more than thirty feet out from the ramp. It’s gonna wash up on some sand bar before noon.”
Bobby glanced nervously up the boat ramp. The fiery dot of orange light flared impatiently behind Dub McIntyre’s windshield. “Listen to me,” Bobby hissed, bending close to the pale oval of Peeble’s face. “If Uncle Dub says this’ll work, then it will. Now you got to get your shit together, Marv. We been down here too long already.”
He reached out and gave the smaller deputy’s arm an encouraging squeeze. “Come on, man. It’ll be okay. Uncle Dub knows this business better’n anybody. I guarantee that anything we ain’t thought of, he’s gonna cover for us. Now you with me?”
Peebles nodded and gave him a weak smile. “Yeah…I’m with you Bobby. Look, I’m real sorry. I mean, about making’ you do all the shit work of moving the bodies and all.” An involuntary shudder ran through the deputy’s thin body. “This whole thing has just got me freaked out.” Peebles glanced at the river again and his voice trailed off in the wind. Man, them kids was just so messed up…I just couldn’t touch ’em, Bobby. You know?”
Bobby grimaced and started up the ramp. Peebles’ whining reminded him that he was massively pissed, and not just because the other deputy had suddenly turned ashen and fell puking into the dirt when it had come time for the gruesome but necessary things that had to be done to dispose of the corpses. Bobby’s anger stemmed from the dawning realization that, during the fast forward chain of events that had started the moment they’d pulled the truck over and directed it down the dirt road, he could not recall once having seen anything that had looked like a weapon.
Everything that had happened was Peebles’ fault.
For the past three and a half hours–terrifying and physically demanding hours, during which Bobby had been forced to handle the gruesomely chilly and blood-slimed bodies by himself–he had been thinking. During that whole time; while he’d been securing the corpses in the cab of the pickup with their seatbelts, changing a flat front tire and hooking the vehicle to a tow rope from the trunk of the patrol car, then crouching uncomfortably in the open driver’s door, steering over the lolling, shattered skull of the fifteen-year-old’s corpse–after Peebles had finally pulled himself together enough to drive the patrol car–slowly following the tan Ford down a succession of drifted dirt tracks to the river, Bobby Fletcher had been replaying the shooting over and over in his brain.
And what he remembered was that the erratically driven pickup truck with the two little nigger boys inside had immediately slowed when Peebles had hit the red roof flashers. Seeing that the blacktopped park road was too narrow for a stop, Bobby had yelled out his window for them to pull onto the side road. The driver of the pickup had complied. But then he had suddenly run a front wheel off into the ditch and slewed the truck around broadside to the patrol car. Mistaking the inexperienced driver’s clumsy maneuver as an indicator of how drunk he was, the two deputies had exchanged nervous glances, silently signaling one another there might be trouble.
But it was Peebles who had unholstered his service revolver as they stepped out of the patrol car, Bobby hanging back with his hand loosely on the butt of his own weapon, circling around behind the pickup just to be sure nobody bolted out the other side.
Then Peebles had yelled for the driver to come out with his hands showing. And, from the corner of his eye, Bobby had seen movement at the driver’s window. Almost simultaneously, he had heard a single shot. Certain that Peebles was being fired upon, he had pulled his own weapon.
At the sound of a second shot from Peebles’ side, Bobby had joined in, emptying his gun into the passenger door of the truck.
It was only later, after he had come down off the adrenaline rush of the shooting and the initial panic that had led to calling his uncle, that Bobby admitted to himself that he could not recall actually having seen anything that looked like a weapon, nor perceived any threat from the pickup. That had been Deputy Marvin Peebles’ call. And the cocky little bastard had fucked up royally, putting them both in the shit.
“Goddammit!” Bobby silently mouthed the curse as he slogged to the top of the boat ramp and stepped onto level ground. At his back he could hear Peebles grunting and bitching about the slick footing and the snow, and Bobby had a sudden urge to whirl about and push the stupid little fucker back down the steep incline into the cold river. In fact, he wished he could have strapped Peebles into the truck with the two dead niggers and pushed them all three to hell and gone beneath the filthy waters of the river.
Stopping to catch his breath, Bobby closed his eyes and tried unsuccessfully to drive away the persistent image of the moment the shooting had stopped: Ears ringing from the flat report of the dozen rapid shots that were echoing away through the empty forest, eyes still registering the after images of the strobing muzzle flashes that had eerily limned the denuded trees like an army of advancing skeletons, he had stood there in sudden, deafening silence, blinking at the truck. A haze of blue smoke hovered about the shattered windows, obscuring the interior of the dark cab.
Then the stillness of the forest had been split by a metallic click, and the fragile smoke cloud had swirled and vanished, stirred by the slowly opening passenger door.
Bobby had pointed his empty revolver into the inky void of the pickup cab as a bloody horror movie face stared out at him. He had imagined he felt the stopping of his own heart as a dark form had tumbled out and landed at his feet, splashing the tip of his dusty boot with an unspeakable clot of thick, viscous matter… “Bobby, what’s the matter, man?”
He looked up. Peebles was standing beside him, tugging urgently at his sleeve. Swallowing the burning glob of bile that he felt surging up into his throat, Bobby angrily jerked his arm free and spat on the ground. Then he strode down the road to the tan Ford.
McIntyre stared at his shaken nephew as Peebles came hurrying up behind him. “What the fuck were you doing down there, giving them a goddamned burial at sea? It’s way past time our asses was outta here.” The big detective stuck a freckled hand through the window and pointed at Peebles. “Marvin, you take Bobby’s car and drive on up to that little Methodist campground you passed on the way into the park. You know the place I mean?” Peebles nodded. “Bobby, you ride with me,” McIntyre ordered.
Peebles looked like he wanted to say something else, but he turned and walked back to the patrol car.
“Now,” said McIntyre when Bobby was in the car beside him. “You and me got to talk, son.”
Bobby nodded, waiting in silence while his uncle watched Peebles get into the other car and drive slowly away. McIntyre started the Ford and followed the patrol car to the end of the service road. When they had turned onto another dirt track paralleling the river, McIntyre looked over at him.
“Now you listen close, Bobby. Soon as we get up to that campground, you got to fix up your logs for the past couple of hours.” The detective reached into his shirt pocket and removed a crumpled slip of paper which he passed to the young deputy. Bobby flicked on the small gooseneck lamp attached to the dashboard. He scanned McIntyre’s scribbled notes, then looked questioningly at the big man behind the wheel.
“You boys must be living right,” McIntyre said, ’cause this freak spring snowstorm has got your dispatcher half out of his mind.” He reached over and tapped the slip of paper with a nicotine stained forefinger. “So I radioed in a couple of things for you, just to show you been busy: First you got stuck in a drift and had to put on your chains at a closed Texaco station over on Benjestown Road. Then you left the car for a while and went lookin’ for a possible prowler back in around that big new industrial park they’re building up by the county line. I wrote all the times down so you can log them in on your incident reports. Be sure you copy the exact times. You hear?”
Bobby nodded gratefully and folded the paper into his uniform pocket. McIntyre was silent for a few minutes. They made a right turn down another short access road, before finally pulling out onto a blacktopped county highway and spinning the tires on the deep blanket of new snow that was already beginning to cover the cindered road surface. “Now,” he said when they were driving slowly north toward Bobby’s normal patrol sector, “soon as you get them logs fixed up, you get your ass out on the highway and make a couple of traffic stops. This snow works for us. You might even get an accident or two out of it, but you can always cite somebody for driving too fast for road conditions.”
McIntyre thought for a moment. “Back time the traffic stops on your logs by 25 or 30 minutes. That narrows down your window of unaccounted time for tonight even more. Then, just before you go off shift, I want you to stop at that big truck stop cafe over by Mumford, where they know you–“
“I might have a little problem with that, Uncle Dub,” Bobby interrupted. McIntyre gave him a sharp look and Bobby pointed to his ruined pants. “I slipped down there on the boat ramp,” Bobby explained. “My knees are all muddy.”
“You go on and get your coffee anyway,” his uncle laughed. “And when you get in the cafe you make a lot of noise to Ruby, or whoever’s there, about your pants. Let them hear you bitch and moan about how you ruined ’em poking around that industrial park construction site for over an hour in this shitty weather.”
Bobby Fletcher was beginning to feel better already. Because it was clear that Dub McIntyre hadn’t missed a trick. Nobody would ever be able to connect him and Peebles to the pickup, even if it did get found. “Uncle Dub, I really appreciate what you’re doing,” he said.
McIntyre’s ugly head bobbed up and down, setting rolls of unhealthy flesh aquiver around his jaw. “What about your good buddy up there?” he queried, lifting a finger from the steering wheel to point at the taillights of the patrol car half a mile ahead. “You reckon old Marvin ‘preciates it too?”
“Peebles? Well, sure, I guess,” Bobby stammered. “I mean, he’s pretty nervous and all.”
McIntyre glanced over at his nephew. “I got to tell you, Bobby, I didn’t much like the way that boy handled himself out there tonight,” he said. “You sure you can trust him not to open his mouth if things get real tough?”
Bobby gazed ahead through the windshield. “I don’t know. He’s scared. Marv thinks it wasn’t too smart to put the truck in the river off a public boat ramp,” he murmured.
Dub McIntyre grinned. “Well, that just proves that old Marvin don’t know shit,” he replied. “That public boat ramp was shut down a year ago. Didn’t you boys see that Corps of Engineers dredge tied up there?”
They’re dredging the channel, starting a hundred feet out from the bank, to widen that stretch of river,” McIntyre explained. “They’re scoopin’ up thousands of tons of mud off the bottom and dumping it back in close to the bank: just about exactly where you boys put that pickup.” The big cop’s roar of gravelly laughter shook the springs of the front seat, bouncing Bobby up and down like a dancing puppet on a board. “Ain’t nobody gonna find them two little black boys, Bobby,” promised his uncle. “Not ever.”
Bobby Fletcher sighed and finally allowed himself to smile. “That’s great, Uncle Dub,” he said. “Really great.”
McIntyre pulled a fresh pack of Luckies from his shirt pocket and tapped it on the dash. “The only way anybody’s ever gonna find out about what happened in Shelby Forest tonight is if somebody tells them.”
He narrowed his beady, red-rimmed eyes and squinted at the car ahead. “So you better be sure about that boy up there, Bobby. You think about it real hard. ‘Cause old Marvin is the only living soul can connect you to this thing.”
Bobby leaned back in his seat to think about it, wondering if he dared to tell his uncle about the other worries that were running through his mind. Primarily he feared what might happen if old Hollywood and his girlfriend started talking about what they had seen.
“What happened to you, man? You look like baked shit.”
Advertising Director Reuben Julian-Smith III was sitting in his overly large office with his none-too-clean sandaled feet on the mahogany desk. In his ripped bell bottoms, dirty tee-shirt and scraggly brown pony tail, Reuben seemed the unlikeliest of candidates for executive status in a giant, rigidly conservative corporation, much less the job he was destined to inherit as president and chairman of Julian, Inc., the third largest cosmetics manufacturer in the United States.
But then, Thomas reflected as he dropped wearily into an Italian leather chair beside the cluttered desk, life did not ever seem to be particularly fair when it came down to deciding who got the perks and who got fucked.
For example, Reuben, who appeared to be healthy as a draft horse, was alleged to have a serious heart condition that could kill him without warning. At least the letter that had gone to his local draft board under the signature of a distinguished Memphis cardiologist had attested to that fact. And Thomas was certain that his father’s connections with several prominent U.S. senators and congressman had not hurt Reuben’s plea for a permanent medical deferment.
So, on the upside, Thomas concluded, Reuben was incredibly rich and 100% draft exempt too: blessed by the fates. And he wore whatever the hell he wanted to the office–on the days when he even felt like showing up at the office.
On the downside, if the bad heart story was actually true, then good old Reuben might just keel over and die at any moment, at the ripe old age of twenty-five.
Thomas, on the other hand, was not rich. He had to wear a suit and tie and come to work every day, whether he wanted to or not. And although his heart was, as the astronauts were forever fond of saying, A-OK, he might very well find himself being shot at in a stinking Vietnamese rice paddy by this same time next month: A great cosmic joke.
Trying to decide who was, cosmically speaking, getting the worst screwing, himself or Reuben, made his head hurt. “Janice and I went to the cabin last night,” he offered, by way of explaining how he had come to look like baked shit. “We stayed out there pretty late.”
Reuben, who was at the moment engaged in tossing darts at a life-sized color poster of Miss Bronze, the wholesome, bikini-clad model for Julian’s popular Suddenly Bronze line of suntan products, let fly a dart that landed dead center on one of the polka dots concealing Miss Bronze’s shapely bottom.
“I hope you didn’t leave any shit out there.” He did a bad job of feigning unconcern by nervously plucking a fresh dart from a coffee mug that also contained a Japanese seppuku knife and a switchblade with a cracked handle. “I mean, you do know that the old man likes to take his dogs out to the cabin once in a while,” he couldn’t help adding.
Thomas sighed. Reuben Julian-Smith II’s habit of taking his prize English setters on early morning romps through Shelby Forest before stopping by his son’s cabin to brew himself a pot of coffee while he watched the sun rise over the river was only slightly less well known to Thomas than his own bathroom habits.
“Your dad goes out there?” Thomas gasped, pretending to sound astonished. “Jeez, I didn’t know that, Reuben. Wish you’d told me before. I hope he won’t be too upset when he finds all those used needles and rubbers we left laying around. Not to mention the dismembered chickens we needed for the voodoo ritual.”
Reuben dropped his big feet to the floor with an explosive slap-slap sound and swiveled around to fix Thomas in his sleepy green-eyed gaze. “Personnel has just informed me that there’s an immediate opening on the custodial staff,” he said in rude caricature of his father’s cultured Old-South accent, “Perhaps, young fellow, you all would be happier here at little old backassward Julian Cosmetics doing something involving mops and industrial disinfectants.”
“Sounds great,” Thomas shot back. “Where do I sign up?” He frowned and then snapped his fingers, as though he had just remembered something. “Oh damn! Wait a minute! That won’t work. If I transfer to custodial, then who’ll do your job?”
“Good point!” Reuben nodded thoughtfully. “I can very easily envision months of drudgery training a new asshole to lie, cheat and steal for me with even half your effectiveness or creativity, Thomas. In fact, now that I reflect upon it, I’m not sure there is anybody else who could do my job as well as you.” Reuben tapped the dart over an ashtray, then stuck it in the corner of his mouth like one of his father’s expensive cigars. “I guess you’ve got security here, young fella.”
“I appreciate your confidence, sir.” Thomas smiled, humoring the boss’s son. “And if there’s ever any extra ass kissing I can do, even if it involves unpaid overtime… Well, you know you can always count on me.”
“Now that’s very commendable.” Reuben wrinkled his forehead, managing, despite his rumpled hippie garb, to look remarkably like the elder Julian-Smith. “I like a man who knows how to grovel properly,” he intoned in near perfect mimicry of his father’s gruff, no-nonsense tone. “In fact, I think I can say with some degree of confidence that groveling is perhaps the most underrated skill in industry today. The major graduate school business programs just aren’t emphasizing it anymore…I’ve got half a mind to call Senator Stennis and launch a congressional investigation.”
Thomas got up to pour himself a cup of coffee from the carafe on the credenza. “You know, Reuben,” he said seriously, “some day your dad is going to walk in here and catch you in the middle of that act.”
Reuben smiled his slow laconic smile. “You know as well as I do the bastard hasn’t set foot in this place since he started lobbying his Washington cronies for that ambassadorship. Anyway, even if he did see me, the asshole would just think I was finally turning into him.” Reuben laughed bitterly. “He’d probably throw a fucking party.”
Thomas returned to his chair with the coffee, anxious to change the subject. He was, after all, supposed to be looking after Reuben, not encouraging his increasingly frequent tirades against the father that he feared and hated.
Thomas’s custodianship had begun early in the three years that he and Reuben had roomed together at UCLA. It was obvious to Thomas from the beginning that the strange, likable transfer student from Memphis had deliberately programmed himself to fail at whatever he tried. Partly out of friendship, and partly because he felt sorry for the soft spoken Southern kid, Thomas had ended up coaching, tutoring and prodding the slothful Reuben through almost all of his major courses.
When they finally graduated and said their goodbyes, although they had promised to keep in touch, Thomas had figured it was the end of their relationship.
Until a few months after graduation.
Reuben’s father had unexpectedly flown to L.A. and invited Thomas to a Beverly Hills restaurant that the unemployed graduate had only heard about. There, over an impressive dinner, the powerful CEO had graciously thanked him for “keeping my boy on track at UCLA.” And then, almost apologetically, had gone on to explain that he and his son had “difficulty communicating.”
Fueled by the unaccustomed effects of the several mixed drinks he consumed before dinner and the excellent wines that had accompanied each course, Thomas had expressed the sincere opinion that Reuben might just be feeling overwhelmed by his dynamic father’s expectation that he someday take over the huge family corporation.
His store of sincere opinions thus exhausted, and with the alcohol taking over, Thomas had next dredged up a few phrases from a sophomore psych course he’d been forced to endure. “I think,” he said “that the idea of taking over Julian Cosmetics is so intimidating to Reuben that he’s subconsciously trying to get out from under the pressure by proving to you in advance that he’d be a failure. And I also think,” he’d said, venturing off into the realm of pure bullshit, “that Reuben believes he can’t bring his concerns to you without exposing what he considers to be his own inadequacy.”
In fact, Thomas had known for years that Reuben’s so-called communications difficulties with his old man had little or nothing to do with either Julian Cosmetics or feelings of inadequacy. The truth was that his only son viewed Julian-Smith II as an arrogant elitist, whom he blamed entirely for having driven his quiet, gentle mother to suicide when the boy was only eleven. In Thomas’s opinion, Reuben had decided to avenge his mother by never growing up.
But, of course, Layton Thomas had only been drunk, and not deranged. And he had been well educated in the art of civility at UCLA, as well. So he had not even considered anything as stupid as revealing the truth. He had reeled out the psych class bullshit instead.
Reuben’s father had surprised him by agreeing that he had “pinpointed the problem exactly.” Then the conversation had suddenly turned to Thomas’s career goals. And almost before the tipsy Layton Thomas had realized what was happening, the senior Julian-Smith was selling him on the opportunities at Julian Cosmetics, luring him with an excellent salary and a tantalizing promise: If Thomas would come to Memphis and help Reuben “stay focused” in his new job as Advertising Director, as soon as Reuben moved up in the company Thomas would himself assume the top advertising spot.
Though he had only the vaguest idea where Memphis, Tennessee even was, and had never considered pursuing his business career anywhere but in New York or Chicago anyway, Thomas had accepted the job on the spot. Because, unknown to Reuben Julian-Smith II, Thomas had been, in the words of his college placement counselor, “at present, virtually unemployable,” owing to his status as an active Marine Corps reservist at a time when Marine casualties in Vietnam were rising at an alarming rate and more and more troops were being hurled into the seemingly unwinnable conflict every week.
So, Julian-Smith had snookered Thomas and Thomas had snookered Julian-Smith, and now he was Reuben’s keeper.
He was also responsible for seeing that Reuben’s department outshone all others at Julian, Inc. The latter task required Thomas to do virtually everything himself. For Reuben’s only interest in the company, he had cryptically informed Thomas on his first day there, was reserved for what he planned to do on the day he took over as president of Julian Cosmetics.
No one, including Thomas, had any idea what Reuben’s demented plans for that day were, although his friend had issued several dark hints–usually while drunk or stoned–indicating that they were fiendishly calculated to drive his hated father right out of his fucking mind. But, knowing Reuben as he did, Thomas didn’t take any of it too seriously.
And, until the day arrived that Reuben became president, or the day Thomas received his orders to Vietnam, which was certain to come first anyway, he had resigned himself to doing his childlike friend’s job as well as he could while Reuben occupied himself exclusively with his two favorite pastimes; partying and avoiding Reuben Julian-Smith II.
In the meantime, Thomas was gaining a great deal of practical business experience and socking away as much of his inflated salary as he could, against the day when he would be free to resume his real career plans. Lately, he had been thinking about grad school–An MBA from Columbia would go very nicely with the time he’d so far racked up at Julian Cosmetics. And after almost two years with the corporation–far longer than he had anticipated being stuck in Memphis–he had amassed nearly enough money to support the plan.
While Thomas was sipping his coffee and thinking those thoughts, Reuben had abandoned his darts and gotten up to pour himself a cup. But instead of drinking the coffee, he remained standing before the credenza, gazing silently out through the long interior window overlooking the vast open office where the routine business of Julian, Inc. was conducted.
“Well,” said Thomas, placing his own empty cup on the end of Reuben’s desk. “I’d better get out of here. I’ve been going over the summer media schedules all morning and I want to finalize them this afternoon. Don’t suppose you’d be interested in seeing the demographics,” he asked half in jest.
Reuben did not respond. He just kept gazing out at the warren of desks and cubicles in the gigantic general office.
“Okay,” Thomas said. “See you later then.”
“I want you to look at something first,” Reuben suddenly turned to face him, his voice low and conspiratorial.
Thomas waited, expecting him to return to his desk. But Reuben remained where he was. “Out there,” he said, jerking his head toward the window. “Take a look and tell me what you see.”
Thomas glanced out into the general office. “Well, Harvey Booth’s secretary is wearing the see-through blouse again. And that asshole Carl Jackson over in Order Processing is trying to cop a feel off the new data entry clerk…”
“I’m serious, Thomas!”
“Look, Reuben, I really don’t have time for any role playing bullshit today,” he replied irritably. “I’ve got to approve those schedules and then–“
“Do you know how many desks there are in that one office?” Reuben interrupted. His green eyes were feverish with concentration. “Millie looked it up for me last month when I had to give that speech at the sales meeting.”
Thomas shrugged, resisting the temptation to snap back with a wiseass remark about not figuring Reuben could count that high on his own. “I give up,” he said, anxious to leave.
“Sixteen hundred and twenty,” Reuben told him, dragging out the numbers like a Disneyland tour guide. “In that one office alone.” He stared at his friend, obviously anticipating some response.
“Okay,” Thomas conceded, “It’s a really big office. The biggest fucking office south of Chicago. Millie put that in your speech too, didn’t she? So what?”
“But have you ever really looked at it?”
Alarm bells were ringing in Thomas’s head. Reuben wanted him say something; something that would confirm some obscure conclusion he had just reached himself. Thomas was all too familiar with the tactic: Reuben had been playing this particular game for as long as Thomas could remember. But this time he was completely baffled as to the objective.
“Look, I’m not too sharp this morning. Maybe you’d just better tell me,” he said, sneaking a look at his watch.
“The people, Thomas! What do you see when you look at them?” Thomas stared into the big office for a long minute. “I see 1000 miserable wage slaves,” he offered. “The other 620 are stuck in the snow someplace, praying they won’t lose their jobs. Which, by the way, makes your being here today nothing short of miraculous. Don’t tell me you’ve finally decided to join the Establishment.”
Reuben shook his head in wonder and resumed his staring. “They’re all white,” he said without looking at his friend. “Every last fucking one of them.”
“Is that supposed to be a profound observation?”
“No, you don’t understand.” Reuben whirled to stare at him, his perpetually sleepy eyes much wider than usual. “Julian, Inc. has almost 5000 employees here in the Memphis plant, and more than 40% of them are black. I looked it up this morning.” He turned to gaze out at the general office again. “But there aren’t any blacks out there, Thomas. None.”
Thomas stared at him. “You’re really serious, aren’t you?”
Reuben looked surprised. “What do you mean?”
“Reuben, buddy, what the fuck have you been shooting up with? Your missing colored folk are all out shoveling snow off the loading docks or down in back cleaning the goddamn toilets. Jesus, I don’t believe you! What put you off on this sudden tear of social consciousness anyway?”
Reuben’s face darkened. “There was a party at some English professor’s house over by Memphis State last night,” he muttered, returning his gaze to the window. “I was doing a little grass with this honey from Seattle or Colorado; some fucking place out West.”
Reuben looked at his friend. His eyelids dropped back to half mast and, for just a moment, he sounded like his usual lustful, dreamy self. “I swear to God, she’s a queen, Thomas: long, shining black hair all the way down to her ass and skin like a Greek statue.”
Thomas pressed his forehead against the doorjamb. “Reuben, man, don’t do this to me, okay? Not today.”
“Okay,” said Reuben, adopting his former scowl. “Anyway, it’s dark and there’s a fire and, like, a sexy Billie Holiday album playing… I’m pouring wine into this sweetie; blowing some primo smoke up her nose, agreeing to everything she says while trying to figure out how to unsnap this silver coin belt that’s keeping her pants up–She had these incredibly tight jeans, Thomas, tighter’n body paint.
“Anyway, she’s not helping, but she’s not stopping me either. Because as long as I keep agreeing with what she’s saying, I can do no wrong–“
“So did you get the belt off her or not?” Thomas was bored and edging out of the office.
“She ended up having to do it herself,” Reuben replied seriously. “And she was so good, man. I mean really good.” His voice drifted away for a moment. “The best ever.”
“I’m so happy for you, Reuben. What’s this got to do with white people in the office?”
Reuben blinked. “She’s a civil rights worker, man. Her name is Holly and she’s taking a year off from school to go down to Mississippi and register black voters. Isn’t that cool?”
Thomas nodded. “Don’t tell me. Let me guess the rest. She got you thinking, opened your eyes to the fact that you’re one of the corrupt and greedy white massahs,” he said with as much sarcasm as he could muster. “And it suddenly occurred to you that you’ve lived your whole pampered, useless life on the backs of the oppressed black man; something that you–being the shy, sensitive, totally tuned out dude that you are–never even dreamed you were guilty of until this passionate and perceptive beauty explained it all while, incidentally, letting you slip your big nasty tool into her.”
Reuben’s mouth fell open and though irreverent banter, and the raunchier the better, had always been one of the hallmarks of their friendship, Thomas instantly regretted his last remark, afraid that he might actually have gone too far this time. But his scraggly, unflappable friend only shook his head and peered back out into the general office.
“No, man,” he said in a husky whisper. “Holly doesn’t know anything about me, I mean, like who I am or anything. Shit, she wants me to take off and go down to Biloxi with her, right after the garbage workers march… Martin Luther King himself is coming, man. We were gonna walk with him today but they called it off on account of the snow.”
Reuben shook his head wonderingly. “Anyway, Holly told me all about the strike. Did you know two black garbage workers were crushed to death because the city won’t buy new trucks? Their families didn’t get anything, man. Not a fucking penny! That’s wrong, Thomas. Don’t you think that’s wrong?”
Thomas nodded. “Of course it’s wrong, Reuben, but–“
But Reuben was just getting wound up. He cut Thomas off with a wave of his hand. “I thought all night about some of the other stuff Holly said; about how the system screws poor people and minorities. And then I started looking around this place today.” He raised a finger to the window. The ragged nail had been bitten to the quick, and the finger itself was none too clean.
“Shit, look out there, man.” Reuben tapped on the spotless window for emphasis. “It’s right in front of us in that office. The bad system! I know you were just trying to be an asshole a minute ago, but what you said is true!” Reuben’s scowl deepened perceptibly. “This is all my father’s doing,” he proclaimed. “The evil bastard!”
“Are you trying to tell me that you just noticed today that all of the white collar workers in this company are white people?” Thomas’s tone made it clear that he wasn’t buying it. Not from a space cowboy like Reuben.
To his astonishment, Reuben dropped his chin onto his chest like a naughty child. “I swear to God, Thomas. I never actually looked at the people out there until this goddamned minute. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Thomas laughed. “Pal,” he said, “you are even more fucked up than I ever imagined. Now seriously, Reub, do you expect me to believe that you walk through this place every day and never notice something like that? Or maybe the real truth is that you always noticed, but just didn’t give a shit.”
Reuben shrugged. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “But it’s got to be changed, man. I mean, it’s not fair, is it?”
“As far as I know,” said Thomas, “it’s not even legal. In fact, I’ve been trying to figure out for two years how the company gets away with it.”
Looking seriously depressed, Reuben slumped behind his desk. “My father gets away with shit worse than that all the time,” he said bitterly.
“We’re talking about federal laws here, Reuben, not some rinky-dink good ole boy network of local political hacks.”
“I think they owe him,” Reuben intoned darkly. “People in Washington must owe him. Important people.”
Thomas suddenly found himself back on familiar ground. Anticipating another delusional rant against the elder Julian Smith, who was in fact just another businessman, no better or worse than the rest, he threw up his hands. “Okay, are we all finished with this shit for today?” he snapped. “When you take over the company you can put a black person at every other desk, like a giant fucking checkerboard. You’ll get your picture in Newsweek! In the meantime, I’ve got to get the summer media schedule out, or Julian, Inc. is going to be spending 20 million bucks for dead air and you won’t get another gold star in your junior executive book.”
Reuben shook his head and peered through the window again. “This is real serious, Thomas,” he solemnly murmured. “I called Personnel and they said they’re ‘seeking qualified minority applicants.’ What the fuck’s that supposed to mean? Something needs to be done right now.”
“Yeah, well I’m sure you and Holly can handle it, Reuben,” Thomas said with no hope that his sarcasm would be noted. “But if your father catches you marching with Martin Luther King and the Memphis garbage brigade, I’m pretty sure he’ll just come in to the office and feed you to his prize hunting dogs. Maybe you ought to start off a little slower. You could take a black guy to lunch or something.”
He left the office shaking his head. Because, while he would have liked nothing more than to see Julian, Inc. move into the 20th century in its racial policies, part of him firmly believed that Reuben’s sudden startling revelation was just another of the elaborate ruses he was forever concocting to vilify his old man. But after two years in Memphis he wasn’t absolutely positive that was the case. Like Janice’s good churchgoing folk, who discerned no basic conflict between the teachings of Jesus and the outrageous words painted on the gas station fence, a large percentage of the “nice” white people Thomas had met since his arrival here didn’t seem to have a clue what all the fuss about civil rights was over.
Nice white people, he had observed, talked about “The Negro Problem” in hushed tones, always glancing around first to be sure no one would be offended. And they were forever setting up impossible criteria, like selecting certain exemplary blacks–usually safely dead ones–whom they designated “a credit to their race,” to demonstrate that they weren’t really prejudiced at all. “Now if all negroes were like George Washington Carver,” a typical conversation would begin, “then of course we would have no objection to…”
Making matters worse, Thomas found the attitudes of many Southern whites who openly espoused racial equality almost as maddening as those of the racists themselves. Eager to expiate their guilt at having prospered from the unjust system that had nurtured them for generations, or maybe just to prove they were hip and cosmopolitan, they seemed bent on wanting to transform every black family in America into their own comfortable suburban versions of “Father Knows Best,” never pausing to consider that perhaps the objects of their zealotry might not be particularly interested in becoming darker versions of their own smug, white middle class conformity.
The problem, Thomas had decided after long deliberation, was that few of the “nice” white Southerners in either camp had ever actually known a black person in any capacity other than as a menial laborer. So they couldn’t relate to them as people.
Not, he admitted to himself, that he had that many black friends himself back home in California. But at least there had been a few. And though Thomas had always been vaguely aware of the festering and dangerous ghettos of East L.A. and Watts, growing up in the leafy, placid suburb of Pasadena, where he had played and gone to school with middle class Blacks, Latinos and Asians, race had never seemed to be much of an issue. While newspaper and TV reports about places like Birmingham and Montgomery confirmed that injustice and bigotry existed in the world, it was a world far removed from the one in which he had lived.
When he was very young, he recalled, had wondered why all the poor unhappy black people didn’t just pack up and move to Pasadena.
Until college, Thomas had never really grasped what the civil rights fuss was all about. Then he had learned a bit, on an intellectual level at least, at UCLA. He had learned a whole lot more on the practical level in boot camp the year he had dropped out of college and joined the reserves to avoid the draft. But, in college and the Marines, everyone around him, black and white, had been, nominally at least, on equal footing.
Not until he came to Memphis had Layton Thomas begun to fully understand the real meanings of the words prejudice and racism.
When he had accepted the job with Julian Cosmetics, Thomas had known nothing more of Memphis, Tennessee than its reputation as the home of Elvis and a sentimental destination beloved of a whole generation of plaintive blues singers who always, for some unknown reason, wanted to get back to Memphis.
With that pitifully scant information at his command, he had conjured up in his imagination a kind of real life Disney attraction: Memphis would be a friendly, sleepy Southern town, complete with steamboats on the river, music in the streets and genteel aristocrats living on elegant plantations.
Two weeks after his dinner with Reuben’s father, and lugging everything he owned in the back of the ancient Pontiac he’d driven all through college, Thomas had arrived in the real Memphis.
Tucked into the farthest corner of southwestern Tennessee, with its city limits bordering Mississippi to the south and Arkansas across the river to the west, Memphis had seemed to him at first like a bad joke. The downtown business center, a few blocks of ugly stone skyscrapers dwarfed by the immensity of the turgid brown river and flanked by rows of shabby brick cotton warehouses that blocked the spectacular view from almost everywhere, was surrounded by miles of low-rise urban blight.
Dotting the endless sea of scabrous slums and cheerless housing projects, the beautiful city park and zoo, the world famous medical center, the art school and the universities rose from the squalor like lonely, besieged islands.
Undoubtedly the most vivid impression that Layton Thomas had gleaned from the city on his very first day there was its stark, unapologetic economic division of blacks and whites. Only suspicious black faces peered at him from the sagging porches of the unpainted slum houses and drab brick projects within the city. Only whites lived in the pleasant green suburbs scattered through the picturesque rolling farmland beyond the encircling beltway.
Within a week, he had come to understand that the true nature of the interaction between the races in Memphis, Tennessee was perfectly demonstrated twice a day Monday through Friday, in the two-way flow of traffic from city to suburbs; black nannies and maids crowding inner city bus stops for the long ride out to the outlying greenbelts, prosperous whites driving their automobiles to their jobs in the banks, brokerages and industrial centers in town. Every afternoon the black and white commuter flow reversed: whites returning to their barbecues, lawns and fireplaces; blacks to their squalid shacks and housing projects.
But the worst part, if you asked anyone about it, was that, like Reuben, most of them professed not to have noticed that that was the way things were. How anyone could have lived an entire lifetime in a place like Memphis, Tennessee and never seen their beloved city in such starkly racial terms had always strained Layton Thomas’s not inconsiderable powers of comprehension.
Old Railroad Café
Dub McIntyre was at his usual table in the far back corner of the drafty, high ceilinged restaurant–Good Food Served Plain: Since 1927–polishing off his second rack of country style ribs. The huge detective belched contentedly and lifted his empty coffee cup into the air. The cup had barely cleared the green Formica table top before Grace Hutchings, a buxom fortyish waitress with a flyaway cloud of brassy red hair, swept down the crowded aisle bearing a fresh pot of brew. Bypassing several coffeeless diners before him, she homed on McIntyre and filled his cup to the brim without spilling a drop.
“Everything all right, Dub? Can I get you a couple more of them good ribs?” Grace’s pronunciation of the last word–rey-ebs–would have thrown Professor Henry Higgins into paroxysms of scholarly delight. “This woman obviously hails from the rural environs of Tunica in northwestern Mississippi. She has spent her adult life among white laborers in the old industrial region of Memphis: probably close to the rail yards…” And the breathless, honeyed tone of Grace’s voice as she addressed McIntyre made it clear that she would gladly walk barefoot over broken glass should he simply give her the nod.
McIntyre, a lifelong bachelor, decorously stifled the next great gaseous eruption working its way up from the depths of his enormous gut and smiled amiably around the wooden kitchen match with which he had been probing his back molars. “Thank ya, darlin’,” he gurgled. “Couldn’t touch another bite. You tell old Charlie that his barbecue takes the prize though.” McIntyre had been taking his evening meal at the same back corner table in the Old Railroad Café every day for close to 30 years, which was nearly how long Grace Hutchings had been fawning over him.
She leaned close as she dared now, allowing her full breasts to brush his arm, and making sure he got an eyeful of the two inches of creamy cleavage showing at the neck of her sheer pink waitress uniform. “I saved you something real special for dessert,” she whispered seductively.
“Grace, you’re gonna be the death of me yet,” McIntyre laughed. “You know the doctors told me I got to watch what I eat.” He pretended to think for a moment. “Or are we still talkin’ food here?”
She squealed like a schoolgirl with a frog in her drawers. “Why Duwayne McIntyre, whatever are you suggesting?” He reached around and appraisingly patted the slick fabric stretched dangerously tight across her round bottom. “Well now,” he allowed, “a man could be tempted by just the right dessert.”
“You are just terrible!” Grace giggled, scandalized.
“That is a fact,” he proudly agreed. “Terrible.” The big cop pulled a fat black cigar from his coat pocket. He struck the kitchen match on the bottom of the table, touched the flame to the tip of his cigar and appraised the undersides of her torpedo shaped bosoms through a cloud of blue smoke. “I got a little business to take care of here in a while,” he softly growled, “but I hear they got a real good band in that room on top of the Rivermont. Maybe later you and me could go over there and have a drink together. That sound okay?”
For once in her life, Grace Hutchings was at a loss for words. “The Rivermont Club?” she whispered. The revolving lounge atop the city’s only high
rise hotel was a place she had dreamed of going. And Grace, who had never been taken anyplace half so nice, not even by any of her three ex-husbands, felt tears welling up in her throat. She was sure her mascara was running all over her makeup as she gasped, “Oh my God, Dub, you aren’t just teasing me?”
Dub McIntyre laughed. “Now, sugar, I never tease.” He arched a bushy eyebrow. “Not like some pretty girls I could name.” He looked toward the front door of the cafe as a blast of frigid air stirred the hazed atmosphere. A lean man with severely slicked back gray hair entered the barren room and squinted distastefully at the blue collar clientele.
The newcomer’s expensive overcoat was out of place among the nylon parkas and wool shirts of the other customers, marking him for McIntyre as the one who had phoned earlier in the day. “My man just walked through the door now,” he told Grace. “So why don’t you run on back and see if Charlie saved me any of that peach cobbler. Then after while you and me’ll go have us a time.” He gave her bottom a reassuring pat and she scurried off to the kitchen. McIntyre half stood and waved to the man in the overcoat. Settling back into his chair, he puffed on his cigar and watched the other work his way back through the tightly packed tables.
Detective Dub McIntyre was feeling extraordinarily good. If his vocabulary had contained the word ironic, that’s how he would have described this meeting, coming as it did on a day that had begun with having to cover his stupid nephew’s ass. And though a couple of loose ends left over from the business in Shelby Forest still nagged at him, after a lifetime of petty shakedowns and smalltime payoffs, this was the day McIntyre had finally connected with some serious money. He stood and pulled out a chair for the man in the expensive overcoat.
“Why are we meeting here?” The newcomer’s sullen black eyes darted suspiciously around the noisy room and he made no move toward either the proffered chair or the detective’s outstretched hand. “I told you I needed to talk,” he complained.
“Look up there.” McIntyre raised his eyes and the stranger followed his gaze to the painted tin ceiling fourteen feet above their heads. “You see anyplace to hang a mike?” the big cop queried in a low voice. “The noise level in here’s sure as hell way too damn high to use a remote.” He next swung his head from side to side, indicating the bare brick walls that formed the corner they were in. “Solid brick. Two feet thick. No place for a wire.” He pulled a black plastic case the size of a cigarette pack from his pocket and extended a small chrome antenna. Switching the device on illuminated a green light. “You seen one of these before?” he asked.
Overcoat nodded, for he recognized the black box as the latest in electronic detection equipment. If there was a hidden transmitter or wire located within fifteen feet, a flashing red light would replace the green one. He watched with interest as McIntyre scraped his straight backed wooden chair across the worn checkered linoleum and ran the device around under the table like a magician performing a feat of levitation. “Satisfied?”
The other rubbed a chin dark with five o’clock shadow. “I suppose it’s okay,” he concluded taking a chair.”
When they were both seated, McIntyre leaned forward and jabbed the air with his cigar, anxious to prove at the outset that he wasn’t just some dumbass yokel cop. “No, it’s better than okay,” he insisted. “I also know the owner of this place for 30 years. And if it wasn’t for some key evidence that just happened to get lost, his boy would be doing life for armed robbery and attempted murder, instead of raising a nice family and running a profitable little appliance store out in Colorado. I do my business here because I know it’s 100% safe.” The old detective’s bloodshot eyes narrowed. “Because on the day it stops being safe, that lost evidence might just pop up again. You never know about those things.” McIntyre puffed his cigar and grinned like a fat gargoyle. “And the food’s not bad either.”
A hint of a smile played at the corners of the visitor’s full lips. “My apologies.” He reached across the Formica with a manicured hand. “I like your style. Our mutual friend in New Orleans says good things about you.”
McIntyre shook hands and waved for Grace to fetch another cup of coffee. She brought it, along with the last of the peach cobbler, which the other man politely declined to share.
“So,” McIntyre said after his guest had spooned enough sugar into his coffee to make syrup, “What can I do for you, Mr…?”
“Jones,” said overcoat. “Jon Jones.”
“Ah yes, Mr. Jones,” the fat detective smiled indulgently. “And what’s your business in Memphis…Mr. Jones?”
Jones sipped his sweet coffee and added another spoonful of sugar. “You might say I’m sort of a talent scout,” he replied. “Like in the movies. And I’m here looking for some special talent.”
McIntyre nodded happily. The money he expected to make aside, this was turning out to be the most interesting thing that had happened to him in a long time. “Jones” exuded a mixed air of menace and power that was almost palpable. And the fact that McIntyre’s friend in New Orleans, a retired state cop he’d once helped to spring a wealthy fugitive from custody, had flatly refused to say who or what the man coming to see him was only made it more intriguing.
“Ah, what sort of talent did you have in mind?” The wily detective probed delicately, because he could see that Jones was still a little nervous, despite his assurances that their conversation was absolutely secure: But then the beginning was always the most dangerous time for illicit transactions between strangers.
“I want some bad boys,” Jones replied. “Some very bad black boys.” He smiled, revealing a trace of unusually crafted gold bridgework.”
“Well we certainly got lots of that kind of talent hereabouts,” McIntyre laughed. “Got ’em runnin’ out our asses, matter of fact.”
“Ah, but the particular bad boys I’m seeking must also be completely controllable,” said Jones. He moved his head slightly, indicating the noisy room around them. “Like your friend the restaurant owner,” he explained. “They must understand that there will be very unpleasant consequences if they should be tempted to disobey their instructions or discuss them afterwards.”
McIntyre was growing more comfortable with Jones by the minute. “I can fill that bill for you,” he replied without hesitation. “In fact, I got me a string of very troubled niggers as long as your arm. How many you think you’ll need?”
Jones sipped his coffee in silence. “Let me first emphasize,” he said after a long pause, “that the number is not as important as the quality. I may want as many as a dozen young men, but I would rather have only half that many if that is the most I can count on to be absolutely reliable. This is critical. I hope you understand.”
McIntyre understood only that whatever Jones wanted the men for must be very big. “They’ll be 100% reliable, or you won’t get them from me,” he declared. “You have my personal guarantee on it.”
The other man’s expression did not waver.
“Now, uh, exactly what is it you’re gonna want my boys to do?” McIntyre pushed on, digging for the details in order set the highest price that the traffic would bear. Though, in fact, he was feeling a bit confused. Because he couldn’t imagine what anybody would do in Memphis with twelve bad niggers, much less why they would want to recruit and hire them through an intermediary; bad niggers being available for a song on every street corner in South Memphis.
“As you are certainly aware, a very divisive labor action is presently being waged against the city of Memphis by its black sanitation workers,” Jones began.
McIntyre’s face reddened and his heavy jowls flopped up and down with the bobbing of his head. “Those sons of bitchin’ garbagemen,” he grunted. “Got the whole fucking city on its ass. The bastards were supposed to march through town today, but they got snowed out,” he said with satisfaction.
Jones nodded. “A freak spring snowstorm. Unfortunately, the city can’t count on another of those to solve its problem. The garbagemen will be back on the streets within a few days. At any rate, the postponement of today’s march has probably worked in their favor. With every day that passes they’re gaining more sympathetic attention from the press.”
He took another sip of coffee and his black eyes glittered above the rim of the cup. “When they march the next time, the whole country will be watching,” Jones predicted. No, make that the whole world.”
Dub McIntyre sighed and flicked the ash from his cigar. It landed with a hiss in a saucer damp with spilled coffee. “You’re probably right,” he admitted. “But what’s your interest in the garbage strike?” His thick brows beetled into a frown. Then a sly grin tugged at the heavy folds of flesh around his mouth. “Wait a minute! I just got it. You’re some kinda union buster and you’re here lookin’ to see a few smartass strike leaders get their heads kicked in a little!”
Jones dismissed the speculation with a flutter of his pale fingers. “No one is to be injured, and I have no interest in the strike per se,” he said. “Like any other strike, it will be settled sooner or later anyway.
“No. It’s only the next demonstration that interests me.”
“The march?” McIntyre was baffled.
Jones leaned back and took a flat red box of imported cigarettes from his coat. He casually lit one with a small gold lighter and blew out a thin stream of fragrant smoke. “Certain, ah, interested parties are convinced that such demonstrations set a dangerous precedent,” he explained. “These black activists were tolerated as long as they restricted their protests and their marches to civil rights issues. But here in Memphis they have crossed into entirely new territory. Martin Luther King in particular is attempting to use his mass resistance tactics to influence the outcome of a labor dispute. Many important people in the business community find that very disturbing.”
McIntyre, whose long suit was not political analysis, was nonetheless fascinated. He nodded and slurped his coffee.
“Furthermore,” Jones continued, “there is no reason to believe that King will stop with labor. He’s already turning his focus onto other issues: He has spoken out publicly against Vietnam, for instance.” Jones leaned forward and his voice dropped to a sibilant hiss. “King’s brand of black radicalism will spread like a virulent disease if it is not stopped right here in Memphis. Think of the widespread urban riots of two years ago multiplied a hundred-fold. Picture well armed black rebels–rebels who are even now learning at first hand the arts of guerrilla warfare in the jungles of Southeast Asia–returning home, disaffected and angry, being organized under a charismatic leader, rampaging out of the inner cities to attack business and government targets.”
“Jesus!” McIntyre wheezed. “I didn’t think it was so bad.”
The man who called himself Jon Jones smiled. “It’s not,” he said. “But many serious analysts believe that it could be. The point is that no one knows what will happen. One prestigious West Coast think tank has predicted, for example, that, paired with the right running mate, Martin Luther King could be elected President of the United States by 1980. Think of that.”
“A goddamned black communist president!” McIntyre snorted. “Tell you what I think: Somebody ought to put a bullet through that goddamn nigger’s head.”
Jones opened his mouth to reply, then hesitated. McIntyre looked up to see him watching a muscular young negro busboy who was standing frozen beside the next table. “James, get your ass over here!” ordered the cop.
James Samson, twenty-two years old and a junior at Memphis State University, left his tray of dirty dishes and came to the table. “Yessir, Mr. McIntyre?”
McIntyre shifted his stub of cigar to the corner of his mouth and scowled at the handsome youth. “James, did you just hear what I said ought to be done to that troublemaker Martin Luther King? Now don’t you lie to me.”
James Samson’s face was a perfectly composed mask. “Nossir,” he replied. “I didn’t hear what you said.”
McIntyre nodded. “Well if you had heard me say something–and you know the way some white men like to mouth off when they’re pissed or had a few drinks–I mean something bad; like maybe how somebody ought to shoot that fool nigger; what would you think about that?”
James smiled. “I think I wouldn’t keep my job very long if I started hearing things like that around here, Mr. McIntyre,” he answered.
“James here is a college student at Memphis State,” McIntyre reported to Jones with a proprietary air. “Gonna be an engineer. His mama, Ivory, has been workin’ in this place as a cook–For how long, James?”
“Twenty-two years, Mr. McIntyre.”
“Twenty-two years!” McIntyre marveled with a grin. Why I used to bounce this boy on my knee when he wasn’t no bigger than half a pint of piss. Ain’t that right, James?”
“That’s right, sir. You did,” James replied.
“I got that big brother of yours out of a little scrape a couple years back when your mama come cryin’ to me about him, too, didn’t I James?”
The busboy nodded solemnly. “Yessir, Mr. McIntyre.”
McIntyre reached out and squeezed one of James’s bulging biceps for Jones’s benefit. “I want you to look at this big fella,” he told Jones with a grin. “He’s a full grown man now. He could wipe the floor with my fat ass anytime he felt like it,” couldn’t you James?”
James Samson’s muscles tensed beneath the white man’s loathsome prodding. But his neutral expression did not change as he replied, “Well, I wouldn’t want to try that, Mr. McIntyre.” The cop stuck a folded five dollar bill into the pocket of the young man’s blue jeans. “There! That’s for your college. You’re a real good boy, James. Gonna make us all proud. You can go on back to work now.”
His face betraying no hint of emotion at the humiliating and potentially dangerous encounter he had just endured, James inclined his head slightly.
“Thank you very much, Mr. McIntyre.” He went back to cleaning up the other table, then quickly carried the dirty plates through the swinging kitchen doors. “There’s nobody you can trust more than a good nigger that knows his place in the world,” McIntyre told Jones. The detective splayed his big hands out flat on the table. “Now, before we was interrupted, you filled me all full of political theories,” he said impatiently, “but you never said how these bad boys you want me to get you are gonna put Martin Luther Koon in his place.”
Jones lit another foreign cigarette. “King’s greatest strength lies in the financial and political support of moderate blacks and liberal whites,” he said. “But that support is almost wholly based on his commitment to non-violent passive resistance. These people see him as a latter day Gandhi–the image that won him the Nobel Peace Prize.”
He paused to take another sip of coffee while he composed his next thought. “Martin Luther King walks a very narrow line,” he said after a long pause. “Because he knows full well that if he ever crosses the line into violence, his white supporters in particular will flee from him in droves and his strength will evaporate.” Jones smiled. “Now King is returning to Memphis this coming week to lead the postponed sanitation workers march…”
Understanding flared at last in McIntyre’s brutish eyes. “And something tells me that march is gonna get just a little bit violent!” he chuckled.
“That’s part of it,” the other man confirmed. “There will be looting, bricks thrown, perhaps even a few shots fired. And your people–your bad boys–are going to get themselves arrested on a variety of minor charges associated with that violence. That’s why they must be men with serious criminal records; rapists, armed robbers, killers if you can manage any. Because the press is certain to closely scrutinize whoever the police haul in following the rioting. In attempting to explain what went wrong, they will naturally be looking at the backgrounds of King’s followers.”
Dub McIntyre gleefully slapped the table. “Now that is out-fucking-standing,” he proclaimed. “That’s a plan I can understand: The head nigger leads a bunch of black felons on a looting and burning spree through downtown Memphis and his pansy-ass liberal supporters all go runnin’ off screaming into the night. “Jones, I sure do like your thinking.”
McIntyre suddenly frowned. “Before it got snowed out yesterday, I heard the MPD was expecting five thousand protestors for that garbageman’s march. Maybe more. You sure a dozen men can handle something like you’re talkin’ about?”
“Your bad boys are not going to take any part in the actual rioting, except to the extent required to get themselves arrested on misdemeanor charges,” Jones said. “Looting in plain view of the police should suffice.”
The big cop thought about that one for a long moment. “But if my niggers aren’t gonna be the ones firing up the real rioting, then who–?”
Jon Jones raised an index finger and wagged a cautionary warning. “That is not your problem.”
“Jesus!” McIntyre breathed. And despite his own assurances of the safety of their surroundings he glanced around to be certain that no one was listening. “You mean there’s other people gonna be involved in fucking up the march?”
Ignoring the obvious answer, Jones neatly extinguished his cigarette and removed a thick manila envelope from an inside pocket of his overcoat. “Now, let’s discuss the matter of fees, shall we?”
Three feet below the creaking floorboards of the Old Railroad Cafe, Charles “Deacon” Smith, James Samson’s best friend since third grade, lay stretched out on his back in the narrow, dirt-floored crawl space. Plugged into his ears was a somewhat battered but otherwise ordinary medical stethoscope which he held up to a small white X chalked on the dark wood directly beneath Dub McIntyre’s table.
Having noticed McIntyre’s recently acquired habit of sweeping the area for electronic bugs, James Samson–whose major field of study at MSU was in fact electrical engineering–had at first been fascinated with the technology of the portable device. It had only slowly dawned on him that the odious white detective must have something important to hide.
Finding a way to eavesdrop on McIntyre had begun as a matter of personal revenge for James Samson. For, while McIntyre had indeed seen that burglary charges against Samson’s older brother had been dropped two years earlier, James was certain that the fat detective himself had placed the stolen television set in the trunk of Roland’s old Chevy the night he was arrested. At least, James had seen McIntyre’s tan Ford parked next to Roland’s car when he arrived for work at the restaurant on that evening. And, until Roland’s arrest at least, the Samson family had been the only employees of the Old Railroad Cafe who did not owe Dub McIntyre.
For months, James had laid awake nights, thinking about how sweet it would be to discover some dirt that he could throw back in the fat detective’s face: something that would take his mother and Roland off the hook. But the electronic box with which McIntyre regularly swept for bugs was a problem. Known as an interference magnetometer, the battery operated device was capable of detecting the most sophisticated electronic plants. When its antenna crossed the magnetic field of a hidden transmitter or microphone, the detector box lit up or beeped.
Samson had thought of a hundred ways to circumvent McIntyre’s black box by electronic means. But none of them had shown any promise, and he had almost given up. Then one night he had mentioned the problem to his pal Deacon Smith. Smith, a physics major, had laughed right in his face. “The trouble with you, James,” he had said, “is you’re too damn smart for your own good. You obviously lost sight of your objective in some maze of circuits and magnetic fields. All you really want to do is listen to the man, right?”
Baffled, James had conceded the obvious. “Well,” Deacon told him, “then you have to go back to your basic principals of physics. Why not just climb down in that crawlspace we cleaned out under the cafe last summer and put a stethoscope up to a leg of the man’s table. The top of that table is gonna collect and amplify the sound of his voice and conduct it right down the table leg into the stethoscope. And there you are.” Deacon had given him a superior smirk. “Man, where were you when we were doing experiments on the conductivity of sound in high school physics?”
James had returned the smirk. “I was probably trying to figure out how to ask your sister Wanda to go to the homecoming dance,’ he replied. “You don’t seriously think that stethoscope idea would work, do you?”
The next day before the restaurant opened they had spent an hour tapping around on the floor and talking into the top of Dub McIntyre’s table. To James’s astonishment, the old stethoscope, which Deacon had borrowed from Wanda, a recently graduated R.N. in a city hospital–had worked perfectly.
That had been three weeks ago. The two friends had been taking turns listening in on Dub McIntyre’s dinner conversations a couple of times a week ever since. But so far all they had learned was that the hulking, bad tempered detective belched and farted a lot, and that he seemed on the verge of going to bed with Grace Hutchings.
“What are they talking about now?”
Deacon raised his head and waved James away. “Wait a minute,” he whispered. “Go back outside and keep watch, man.” He pressed the stethoscope tightly to his ears and shook his head in disbelief. “Aw shit!” he murmured. “You sons of bitches!”
He continued to listen for another minute or two. Then the sounds of chairs scraping on the floor above resonated through the crawlspace, signaling the end of McIntyre’s meeting. Deacon folded the stethoscope, tucked it into his pocket and slid his six foot-five frame to the square opening thirty feet away under the back steps of the cafe.
“James?” he called softly, when he reached the entrance to the crawl space. “Is it all clear out there?”
When there was no answer he stuck his head out into the frigid night air. A screen door suddenly screeched above him and he ducked quickly back into the shadows of the crawl space. An instant later, McIntyre and Grace Hutchings came down the steps. They crossed the snow-filled parking lot to McIntyre’s car and stopped to fumble through a clumsy bear hug that involved the huge detective’s hands sliding up under Grace’s imitation leather coat. Grace let out a high-pitched giggle, then they got into the car and drove away.
“Deacon? You can come out now.”
James’s head appeared in the crawlspace opening. And despite the freezing outside temperature Deacon could see drops of perspiration beaded on his forehead.
“Damn, I’m sorry,” James apologized as his friend pulled himself out from under the building and scrambled to his feet. “He’s never gone out the back door before. I didn’t even have time to warn you.”
“Another second and the bastard would’ve caught me halfway out that hole,” Deacon gasped “with a damn stethoscope hanging out of my pocket. Shit!”
“What did you hear?” James prompted. “All I picked up by the table was some shit about hiring some bad black boys.”
“Did you get a look at the other man?” Deacon queried.
James nodded impatiently. “Sure. He was a middle-aged white man with gray hair. Had on a dark suit and an overcoat: I couldn’t tell if he was a cop or a gangster. What did you hear, Deacon, dammit?”
“Charles “Deacon” Smith sat down on the back stoop of the Old Railroad Cafe and stared at his trembling hands. “We have to talk to somebody,” he muttered.
James Samson was frantic. “Tell me,” he insisted.
Deacon looked up and his best friend saw tears glistening in his soft brown eyes. “It’s a setup, James. “That garbage strike march next week is being set up to destroy Doctor King.”
“How?” asked James. “How can they do that?”