This is the backstory to a character who popped up in another story I am writing. The other story is unquestionably a Tale from the Shack, but Belle Markham’s story isn’t really part of the Shack series. Still, her story is, at least to me, worth telling. I decided to write this in the style of a four page hardboiled detective pulp at about 4K words.
This story decided to became a nod to the great Chester Himes, the writer of “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and the characters of Detectives
Jones and Johnsons are clearly an homage to Gravedigger and Coffin Ed.
There is no graphic sex in this story. Special thanks to Sbrooks and no1inparticular for editing and beta read. Any remaining errors are mine, and mine alone, almost certainly inserted after their edits. And thanks to the readers, for the amazing support and encouragement.
I knew what day it was the moment my eyes opened.
I saw my badge and gun on the night table, right next to my locket. Sitting on top of the folded up Marker.
Today was the day. The day I called in the Marker. It’d been sitting there my whole life, waiting until I was ready. And today, I knew it was time.
It’d been seeing the girl yesterday. The girl’s body really. I didn’t even know her real name, and didn’t particularly care what it was.
She’d been a whore, working off a corner on 14th Street. Not anyone that mattered, not for a long time. Maybe she’d mattered once, to somebody. I wasn’t really sure of that, but she wouldn’t much matter to anyone ever again.
It wasn’t even a real mystery. Everybody knew. There weren’t any witnesses, of course – there’d never be any witnesses in the Dog Run. It was an impossibility, like a perpetual motion machine or an honest politician. The
Dog Run was the worst part of town, the old slaughterhouse district that seemed to be built of ruin and despair. Crime wasn’t just something that happened in the Dog Run, it was the foundation of it. Witnesses just didn’t exist in the Dog Run, even in broad daylight on a crowded street.
But everybody knew. Her pimp, a guy named Deke, had had a little too much blow and decided she’d been holding out on him. Maybe she had, maybe she hadn’t; only she could know for sure, and that door was closed forever.
He’d carved her up bad, especially her face, before he killed her.
And that, at least, mattered to me. Brought back a lifetime of memories, bright and dark.
I’d stood over the body, looking at the two detectives who’d been assigned to the case, Johnson and Jones. Even though I outranked them due to college, a few lucky breaks and a lot of ambition, I was under no illusion that I was better they were, and I knew the Department secretly had an even lower opinion of me than the two graying, scarred, black men. The
Commissioner was genuinely afraid of the two of them. Hell, the department was probably half inclined to keep Jones and Johnson on past normal retirement age just to be goddamned sure they knew where they were. And that was probably a smart move.
“Well Lieutenant, what’s it going to be?” Jones was looking down at the dead girl, head cocked one side.
He didn’t voice the real question, but we all knew what it really was. Take some witness statements, file a report, question Deke and watch him walk away again, or ... the other choice.
Let Jones and Johnson deal with it.
Law or justice. That was the question.
When I’d first been put over them, given the Dog Run, Jones and Johnson had made their initial contempt clear. They were certain I didn’t have what it took to do the job. Everything that everybody knew about me made it obvious.
I’d done the bare minimum time on patrol, passed the detectives test with flying colors, and made my moves up the ladder as quickly as I could. While everybody else tried to at least look like they were “playing fair” – whatever the hell that means - my ambition was clear to everyone. I made sure they knew it would work out for everyone – I’d be the face of
“Minority Programs” in the police department in exchange for promotion. In the face of a wave of civil rights complaints, they bought it. Smart, black
– but not too black - female and educated. I was perfect as that shining example of department progressiveness, refuting all the institutional racism that guys like Jones and Johnson had been dealing with all their careers and the reports of rampant sexism.
Once they were sure, the word went out – make a pass at Belle Markham or even treat her badly, and the Commissioner himself would kick your ass out the door. Other women had to put up with the casual sexism, and sometimes overt hostility, but not me. Others might have heard the word “nigger” whispered loudly behind their back, but not me.
I held up my end; showed up at the dinners, acted like a good little show pony. Stood wide-eyed and sincere in front of cameras and said I “couldn’t imagine a more fair-handed work environment.” I suppose I could have justified it to myself that playing the game was cleaning it up a little bit just because they had to pretend.
But I didn’t bother bullshitting myself. I didn’t care.
Despite their initial contempt, with their innate sense for danger groomed over decades on the worst streets of the city, Jones and Johnson soon saw me more clearly than all the supposedly smarter people all around us.
They knew what I was, and they let me know it in little ways. It finally culminated in a closed-door conversation in my office where I let them know where I stood. I didn’t give one holy damn how they did their jobs, as long as the jobs got done. They didn’t have to worry about me trying to nail them over their brutal methods. I’d cover for them as long as they made it possible, as long as they were discrete enough. If they weren’t, I’d deny everything and shove them right under the damn bus myself.
Jones just grinned at the end, but Johnson’s low voiced rumbled with a suppressed chuckle. “They think they’re playing you. They think they got themselves a pretty, light-skinned, green-eyed redbone puppet. Talking white, got the fancy degrees, black enough to count, not black enough to be scary. All honest and sincere sounding. The assholes at the top think they own you.” The suppressed chuckle escaped for a second, a low growling sound. “Hell, they’d be safer smearing themselves with barbeque and climbing down into the tiger pit at the goddamn zoo.”
I looked up at him from my seat. “Just do the damn job, Detective.”
Standing over the dead hooker, I repeated myself.
“Just do the damn job.”
A smile split Jones’ face. It was our code now. They were off the leash, able to do anything they wanted as long as it wasn’t traced back. The word would go out – Jones and Johnson were going to be out looking for Deke. If he was smart, Deke would head to the nearest patrolman and turn himself in with a signed confession in hand. Of course, I’d heard a lot of things about Deke, but the word “smart” hadn’t figured in any of them. So more likely Deke would just disappear like a pebble dropped in a pond, and, in a couple of weeks, I’d be buying another bottle of good bourbon for Jones and
Johnson. It was a ritual.
Sometime in the next couple of weeks, the girl would matter for a few minutes. She would matter to Deke, for the last few minutes of his life.
She would matter because Jones and Johnson would make her matter.
I didn’t feel bad about it at all. The dead girl’s face was split in a
“Glasgow Smile,” the corners of the mouth cut to make a mockery of happiness. Just like my mother’s. My mother’s face had healed and scarred, but the dead girl’s never would.
As I slept that night, I dreamt the same thing over and over. I kept seeing my mom lying on that sidewalk.
So when I woke up the next morning, I knew it was time. Time to find Jack.
Time to find my father.
Time to call in that Marker.
All things being equal, the most important thing was to find out where Jack
Church was holding court. Lots of people knew, there was no point in being a Feudal Lord if your subjects couldn’t find you. But not many would be stupid enough to tell a police lieutenant. Not about Jack Church.
Jack Church had been running most of the crime in the Dog Run for more decades than I’d been alive. Not quite a syndicate, but too organized and neat to be a simple gang, his outfit had managed to stave off attempts at hostile take-over by real syndicates, and attempts by the City and the
Police to salvage the Dog Run. His formula for success was pretty simple; inherit your father’s wealth, status and criminal organization, put a civil façade up, and be so brutal you simply weren’t worth the trouble.
Jones and Johnson almost certainly knew, but I didn’t need to owe them, and bringing them in would probably cause a bloodbath. Besides I had other things to learn.
Anyone dim enough to be give up Jack Church was too stupid to be certain they were right. Stupidity wasn’t reliable enough for my purposes, so I needed another way.
Greed. Now that’s reliable.
And if you wanted greed, everyone knew there was one place to go: The
The Chinaman, ironically, wasn’t Chinese at all. Or even Asian. He was probably the whitest old man I’d ever seen. He’d been a missionary in China when he was a very young man, and now, as a very old man, he was still remembered for that. Of course the missionary aspect was long gone. He was a fixer, a fence, and a broker of information.
It was mid-morning by the time I’d gotten down to his antiquities shop on the edge of the Dog Run. It was perfect for him. Low traffic, easy to launder money.
He recognized me as soon as I walked in, of course. We’d run into each other before as my people chased missing goods and assorted other crimes.
Although, to be honest, we’d never actually managed to catch him at anything serious.
“Good Morning Lieutenant Markham. What can I interest you in this morning?
Or is this visit in your professional capacity?” The crepe-skinned old man looked at me with enough interest that I felt a little unclean.
I walked over to a huge red-lacquered cabinet. There was no price tag on it, of course. There were no price tags on anything – I doubt any antiquities ever actually sold out of the shop anyway. “Just looking.”
“And what might you be looking for?” My skin crawled as he looked me over.
“I just want to get to know someone.”
“That might be less than wise. He’s a bit stand-offish with people in your profession, no matter how ... decorative they might be. Especially someone whose interests are so firmly, so diametrically opposed to his vis-à-vis our lovely neighborhood.” He certainly had a rather wordy way of saying that the crime lord running the place might not want to meet with the police official tasked with cleaning it up.
“I have a Marker.”
“Indeed. I’ve never heard of Jack Church giving out markers.” I definitely had his interest. Just what a Marker from Jack Church might be worth would be of interest to anyone in the City, even more in the Dog Run.
“It’s a very old Marker.”
“Then he might well feel that the Marker is past its expiration date.”
“I’m sure he’ll want to see it.”
“Even if he does, he might hand you off to Danny.”
Danny O’Brien aka Danny the Dragon. Jack’s enforcer. I’d looked into him.
He’d started off in the boxing ring as Irish Danny O’Brien, but it seemed there’d been an awful lot of “Irish Dannys” back then, so a tattoo acquired in the Navy had given life to the new nickname. “So the Dragon is still around?”
“Oh yes. Always Jack’s right hand. He hasn’t changed much in all these years. You should have seen him fight before the accident.” His eyes lit a little at that. Danny had been hit by a car one dark night, ending his boxing career. Rumor on the street had it that The Chinaman had contracted that. Word had it that the only reason The Chinaman was still alive was that Jack needed him. “Didn’t have the sheer power of some, but he was so quick, so precise. He could land three or four punches for every swing by an opponent, by far the fastest hands in the ring.”
With few other options, Danny had gone into business for Jack. In keeping with his fondness for precision and speed, he was known to use a .22 automatic, supposedly a Colt Woodsman, for his more final “business transactions.”
“I wish I’d seen it.” I honestly meant that.
The Chinaman snapped out of his reverie. “So, what is the offered price for the location of Mr. Church?”
“It’s just an address. I could have had Jones and Johnson come down here and get it from you.”
“The mere fact that you didn’t speaks volumes.” He gave a particularly sickly smile. “Maybe a favor, a small one of course. Simply order the aforementioned over-eager and less than-cultured law enforcement officials not to enter my establishment. I tend to suffer significant breakage during their visits. Coincidental, I’m sure.”
I nodded; I was sure there was no camera, but he might just have a recorder.
He handed me a slip of paper with an address, his papery dry fingertips lingering just a bit too long on my palm; I decided that leaving my gun at the apartment had probably been a wise idea. I had a job to do and hiding
The Chinaman’s body would have eaten up most of my day off.
When I arrived at the address, I immediately started to have second thoughts; the street was nearly empty and I couldn’t see the kind of activity I’d expected. Still, I’d never visited a criminal headquarters, so
I couldn’t be sure.
I wasn’t exactly trying to sneak up on them, so I knocked on the dented metal door.
Nothing. Not a sound. I tried the handle and the door opened with a groan.
It was immediately obvious that nobody had been there in months at least.
No footprints in the thick dust on the floor at all.
The sick feeling in my stomach warned me that going back to deal with the deceptive Chinaman was probably going to be secondary to getting through the day. As I stepped back out into the sunlight, I wasn’t terribly surprised to see a thug with a revolver leveled at me.
“Hands where I can see ‘em Princess, turn and face the corner.”
I moved slowly, and turned towards the corner, finding myself facing a tall gangly guy whose overlong arms hung too far out of his jacket sleeves.
Another figure with a rust colored crew cut sat on the hood of a long dark sedan.
The guy with the gun seemed to be in a bit of a hurry. “Search her, Abe.
Jack will have our ass if she’s packing.”
“Abe” stepped forward. I raised my hands, letting Abe check me. He was professional at first; searching me rather more thoroughly than was comfortable, but understandable. I was still damn glad I was wearing slacks and a jacket rather than a skirt.
Until he grabbed both my breasts with a leering grin. He started to say something, but I was far more worried about him finding and looking at the
Marker than a stupid grope. I lunged forward, slamming my forehead into his nose in a vicious Irish Kiss, sending him staggering back, gushing blood.
“Hands off the goods, Asshole.”