July 29, 2014
It was Wardell found the body.
He was walking along a cutbank north of town, snapping heads off cattails with his cane pole and checking the river for sunfish. The corpse lay face down in the mud between the railroad tracks and the river path. A man, hard to say what age. His jacket was pulled over his head and his shirt was ripped. The skin on his back was a mess of ugly.
A colored man, like him.
He ran along the railroad tracks towards the city. Couldn’t get the tore-up body out of his mind. Ahead, the packing houses and railway yards wiggled in the hot air. He crossed the bridge and ran past the factories, breathing like a plow horse. Tarred road burning his bare feet. He followed Grand all the way to the Negro district. By the time he reached Jesse’s house he was hog-sweaty and shaking like a jitterbug.
They sent for Mr. Watkins.
“Go on, Wardell. Tell the man. Go on, now.”
He wore a pin-stripe suit with a gold tie clip and a fancy watch chain hanging from a belt loop. Bald-headed and dark around the eyes, but kindly.
Wardell told him.
Watkins listened and nodded and said to Jesse’s dad, “You did right to send for me, Les.” He asked Wardell if he would like some lemonade.
Jesse’s mother fetched him the drink. Her dress rustled like old straw. Wardell’s fishing pole leaned against the piano, leaf shreds wedged in the guide holes. Jesse stood near the back door.
Under his breath, Mr. Watkins said, “Not good, Lester.”
Wardell peered at them over the lip of the glass. Not enough sugar in the lemonade, but cool and smooth down his dry throat.
“Where’s his folks?”
“Mondays Arlene does maid service down Plaza way.”
“Arlene Gray? The singer?”
“On the road, I believe. Some time now.
Mr. Watkins nodded.
“He can stay here,” Alice said. She smiled, touched her straightened hair. “Wardell, you have supper with us this evening. Till your mama free.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Watkins checked his gold watch and looked at Jesse’s dad.
“Alice,” Lester said. “Take the boys out back.”
The men talked for a spell and drove off in Mr. Watkins’s Oldsmobile. They came back an hour later, followed by a black sedan with a ten-foot antenna. A white man in a seersucker suit climbed out, fanning himself with a straw hat. He looked around the parlor like he was in a museum. He asked Wardell some questions. Lester and Mr. Watkins watched from the doorway. Wardell had never before seen a white man inside a colored folks home.
The man led Wardell to his car. Mr. Watkins followed.
“You want me to come along, officer?” Mr. Watkins said.
“That won’t be necessary.”
Watkins’s face was saggy and scared looking. “The boy’s had a fright,” he said.
The man put his hat on. “I’ll bet he has.”
He led the man to the body. Afterwards, the man spoke into the car radio for a while. He didn’t say a word to Wardell until they pulled up in front of Jesse’s house.
He grabbed Wardell’s arm. Tight. His teeth were dirty and his breath was bad. But his eyes were the worst. Wolf eyes. “You listen to me, boy. You forget where you took me today, you got that?”
“Those people inside ask where we went, you tell ’em you can’t remember. I don’t care how many times they ask you.”
His grip was so hard Wardell wanted to cry.
“I will find out if you say anything. I will find out, you hear me? And I’ll come looking for you.”
Wardell nodded. His throat was too tight to make words.
He and Jesse played in the back yard while Alice fixed supper. Jesse was a blabbermouth, but he wasn’t saying squat. They threw the baseball back and forth, pitches first then grounders and fly balls. Next door, old Mrs. Aldridge was singing in her kitchen.
Steal away, steal away
Steal away to Jesus
Steal away, steal away home.
Alice called them in and they ate. Everyone acted like nothing happened. Wardell kept glancing over his shoulder. Like someone was at the kitchen door. All the windows were open and the sound of the crickets was way too loud. The air smelled like trash.
He ate all his biscuits and gravy, said his thank yous and yes ma’ams, waited for his mama on the porch with the cane pole between his knees, all quiet and polite like he was supposed to. But he was running scared. Something was out there.
That night he dreamt of a hoodooman chasing him with a Randall knife. When he woke his throat was on fire and his mother was stroking his forehead.
“There now, Wardell. You safe with your mama. You safe with your mama, child.”
“Emmett, will you help me with this?”
Fay sat at her vanity, head bent so that her hair draped over her shoulders. The delicate lines of her neck caught the bedroom light. Between her fingers she held the ends of her pearl necklace. He secured the clasp and, on impulse, kissed the white skin. Slightly, but obviously, she flinched.
He stepped back.
“Thank you, darling,” she said. With fierce strokes she brushed her hair. Its copper tones glowed against her clear skin and silk dress. In the mirror her green eyes were stony and glinting.
Since the miscarriage there had been this distance. Nearly a year now. As if it was his fault.
He buttoned his suit coat. “You’ll need to get a move on, we don’t want to be late.”
“Don’t worry about that. Isabel will be a half an hour late. At least half an hour.”
The wedding was at Trinity Episcopal; the reception, for two hundred and fifty guests, at the Muehlebach Hotel. Highlight of the Kansas City summer calendar. Fay’s Uncle Robert was not shy about showing off his wealth, and Isabel was her father’s daughter. Maine lobster on the August menu, Dom Perignon to wash it down. Her dress by Philippe Marchand in Chicago and a cream-colored 1935 Rolls Royce to ferry her from the Perkins mansion to the church.
“Your dad,” Emmett said, “wouldn’t appreciate us ducking in just ahead of the bride.”
Fay stood, checked her earrings. “Father gets difficult I’ll deal with him.”
“I didn’t say difficult.”
Today, anything he said or did would annoy her. She was miffed that she hadn’t been asked to be her cousin’s bridesmaid. It’s because of you, her manner said, though she would deny it. Assistant county prosecutor, sure, but still on a shitheel salary that forced her to go to Daddy for handouts. And way down the social scale. Whereas Isabel’s catch, Dickie Brewster, was heir to one of Kansas City’s biggest fortunes and, at twenty-seven, already on the board of the National Union Bank.
“Bring the car around,” Fay said. “I have to give instructions to Hattie.”
Driving down Prospect Street, the sun’s rays fierce and fragmented on the windshield, he thought back to their own wedding two years ago. His mother wearing a frumpy frock when Fay’s mother had offered to have a gown made for her at Goodman’s. His father in his cups before the first course, his arm around Pat O’Malley as they forgot the lyrics to “Shamrock Shore.”
“If Peter Lawson is invited,” Fay said as he drove, “I will die.”
“Who is Peter Lawson?”
“Darling, I must have told you a hundred times. He proposed to Isabel at Nancy Chatham’s debut.”
“There’s a Lawson on the Star. Sportswriter.”
Languidly she took in the passing streets. “Really, Emmett, you don’t have a clue, do you? The Lawsons own Missouri Asphalt, though they’d be fools to let Peter anywhere near it. Not the brightest of the clan, I’m afraid. Isabel did right to cut him.”
And no-one could cut like the Perkins girls.
Fay fidgeted throughout the ceremony, picking lint from her dress and adjusting her hat with the tips of her fingers. The high-windowed church was stifling. The ceremony was long and formal. Like a Catholic mass, Emmett thought, though his mother would not have agreed.
Outside the church they paid their respects. The Brewster parents stiff and correct, smelling like old money. Big Bob Perkins with his hands behind his back, morning suit impeccable, huge head perfectly bald. Underwriter of all he surveyed. Beside him Fay’s Aunt Claire, thin as a ferret, round eyes taking in the smallest social detail. And the newly married, a couple of mummies in their glad rags, phoney smiles pasted on their faces like paper moons.
Fay and Isabel hugged and wept, all differences forgotten. Emmett pumped Dickie’s hand.
“Thought the minister would never get to the ‘I do’s’,” Dickie said, running a finger under his collar. “Hot as hell in there.”
Emmett could tell by the way he avoided his gaze that Dickie could not remember his name.
It took a while for a crowd that size to move from church to hotel, and what with the high sun and river air, Emmett’s courtroom suit was dark at the armpits by the time he plucked a soft drink from a waiter’s tray in the tea foyer of the Muehlebach. He took a long pull from the soda and wiped his face with his handkerchief. Fay was across the room, hat in hand, perched on the edge of a wicker chair opposite the society columnist Henrietta Kincaid and busting a gut trying to impress.
A dance band played Guy Lombardo tunes. Faces well-fed and familiar floated past. The guest list was long but not diverse. It was south-side and deep-lawned. Made up of Mission Hills and other Ward 16 residents who voted a straight Republican ticket, shopped at the Plaza, and lunched at the Terrace Grill. The kind of people his mother would call “quality” and his dad “country-clubbers”. The kind of people who wouldn’t let him forget where he came from.
No country-club stiff ever called him that. He turned and saw Mickey McDermott behind the bar, hair unruly, eyes morose.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Emmett said.
“That’s funny. I was about to ask you the same thing.”
“What does it look like? I’m a guest.”
“Then I’m your man. Name your poison.”
Emmett raised his glass. “OK for the moment, Mick.”
“Go on. Bird never flew on one wing.”
“Soda water, so.”
“Off the drink two years now. You not know that?”
Mickey topped up his glass and poured a shot for himself. They clinked. Like being back in the old neighborhood.
“How’s Mrs. Mac?” Emmett asked.
Mickey grimaced. “Touch of the arthritis. Had to give up work.”
“And the Da? Still pouring cement for the boss?”
“When he’s not losing his shirt at the track.”
“Here’s to their health.”
Again they touched glasses, drank, went silent. Behind the bar the long mirrors reflected the foyer’s floral-chintz lounge chairs and silk-shaded lamps. Mickey ran a cloth along the gleaming counter, a solid slab of mahogany lying between them like the run of life itself.
“How long you been moonlighting, Mick?”
His face darkened. “You didn’t hear?”
“I am not.”
Emmett put his glass on the bar. “Since when?”
“Eddie Plunkett’s the manager here. Gave me a start two months ago. No WPA make-work for me, Emmo.”
Emmett and Mickey had grown up a mile from each other, graduated high school together, and played ball for the same American Legion team. Mickey had been the best shortstop in Jackson County and spent two seasons with the Kansas City Blues. After busting up his knee he quit the club and applied for the force. Turned down twice because of the injury, he finally took his old man’s advice and climbed the stairs to the second floor of the Jackson Democratic Club on Main Street. Boss Pendergast asked him where his dad worked then nodded at Jim Aylward. Like that, Mickey was in. So why was he out now?
“I don’t get it, Mick. What’s the deal?”
He shrugged, swirled dregs in his shot glass. “It’s tough out there. Not like when I was coming up. They’re going for a higher class of recruit. College boys.”
A glance at Emmett’s serge.
“But you’re a veteran. They don’t – ”
“Hey. The breaks.”
From the get-go Mickey had been a good cop. When Emmett was still in law school, he was on a detective track, shrewd and ambitious, always popping up in the right place at the right time. Beneath the cowlick and surly manner was a mind keen and analytical. Emmett would often have a drink with Mickey at Billy Christie’s, pick his brains on who was on the take, who was muscling who, how far a watch commander or cranky captain could be pushed outside the lines. A Pendergast boy but straight as a rail and straight with an old friend.
But he was holding back now.
“You gonna tell me?”
“What’s to tell?”
“If I know, maybe I can help.”
Mick rapped his knuckles on the bar and shook his head. “What’s the point? You of all people should know. Used to be you kept your mouth shut and they’d leave you alone. The Union Station massacre changed everything. The Feds are breathing down everybody’s neck, Milligan is out for blood, the ministers are pushing for reform.”
“All good things.”
“Sure, Emmett, good. But what do you think happens on the inside? With the bagmen and juicers and fixers? The grease that keeps the wheels turning?”
Emmett raised a palm. “Whoa, Mickey. Lower your voice.”
“You think they’re the exception? I was the fucking exception. The way it’s turned, those boys feel the heat they come down on the good guys. You join the club or they cut your balls off. And I wasn’t joining.”
He turned his back in disgust, rearranged the pewter measures beside the whiskey bottles. His shoulders were high and his head was forward, reminding Emmett of the view from left field as a pitch was thrown and Mickey readied himself for a ground ball.
“Mick, listen to me.”
He waved dismissively. Near the entrance to the ballroom, Fay talked to a man in a drape cut suit with big shoulder pads. Something he said made her laugh, and she let her hand rest on his arm.
“Come to my office on Monday,” Emmett said. “Any time during the afternoon. Come on in and we’ll talk.”
“Mick. Promise me you’ll come in.”
He wouldn’t turn around.
Emmett rejoined Fay and they filed into the ballroom. The band played “We’re in the Money.” Oriental carpet beneath their feet, potted palms in the corners. The vast room a dazzle of white linen and fuchsia.
“Who was that you were laughing with?” Emmett said.
“That awful bore Peter Lawson.”
“You didn’t look bored to me.”
“Why on earth were you talking to staff for so long?”
Staff. It was amazing the shape ordinary words could take as they fell from Fay’s lips.
“That was Mickey McDermott.”
“An old friend. Fallen on hard times.”
She made a face as if she’d eaten something rotten.
During dinner his father-in-law came to their table and put a hand on Emmett’s shoulder.
“Don’t get up, Emmett. You youngsters enjoying yourselves?”
“Oh yes. Very young from this old man’s vantage.”
Lloyd Perkins didn’t look like an old man. Sixty years old, he was lean and leathered, still the wiry Rough Rider he had been nearly forty years ago, when he won a Purple Heart helping Teddy Roosevelt take San Juan Hill. Unlike his brother, he owned a full head of iron gray hair. His face was thin and crowded: eyes set close together, front teeth overlapping. A hunter’s face. His law practice was one of the most successful in Kansas City, thirty years in business and the firm of choice for corporations nationwide needing counsel in western Missouri. Early in the century he had bartered his war-hero rep and friendship with Teddy R to land several large anti-trust cases. Successful young and hadn’t looked back.
“How’s my girl?” Lloyd asked. “Not used to being out of the spotlight, are you?”
“I can handle it, Daddy.”
He barked a laugh, gazed at the head table. “Isabel looks fine today,” he said. “Though not in your league, sweetheart.”
He looked down at Emmett.
“No argument from me, Mr. Perkins.”
Lloyd nodded curtly, cleared his throat. Scanning the room, he said to Emmett, “You busy tomorrow?”
“No, not busy,” Emmett said, glancing at Fay. “I’m free.”
“Meet me at Mission Hills. Two o’clock. Some men I’d like you to meet.”
He touched his daughter’s shoulder and moved off. Short strides, parade-ground swing of the arms.
Fay raised her eyebrows. “Mission Hills Country Club,” she said. “That’s an invitation you don’t get every day.”
A gust of warm air stirred the curtains, a whiff of moisture and a change of pressure. White-coated men hustled to the windows and extended long, brass-hooked poles to close the fanlights. Bad weather on the way.
“He didn’t invite me to play.”
“One step at a time, Emmett.”
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