Read The Devil's Own Rag Doll Online
Authors: Mitchell Bartoy
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For my mother
This novel could not have been completed without the help, encouragement, and sharp criticism of dozens of people. For their enthusiasm and support and for their leap of faith on my behalf, I am deeply grateful to my agent, Andrea Somberg, and to my fine editor, Ben Sevier. Dorene O'Brien has offered years of solid friendship and keen analysis. Dr. Renata Wasserman and so many others at Wayne State University helped to make the book possible as well. I am especially indebted to Christopher Towne Leland for his boundless generosity, trenchant commentary, and simple kindness. Lastly, of course, I must thank Julie Bartoy, my patient and long-suffering wife, and my fantastic children, Jackson and Allison, who are present in every page I write.
Thursday, June 10, 1943
Bobby Swope looked over at me and grinned with smoke curling out between his long teeth. “Just remember, Pete, first thing, these niggers are always going to lie to you.”
“It ain't just the niggers,” I said. “Seems like nobody can talk straight anymore.”
“So long as you remember,” said Bobby. “You keep it at the back of your mind that he's going to be putting on a show for us, that's all.”
I ran a finger around the inside of my collar. I had worn a tie just as tight and a heavier, darker shirt as a uniformed officer, but the new shirts and suit jackets I had to wear as a detective seemed to cut into me more sharply. It didn't help that June had brought thick heat so early in the year.
“Well,” I told him, “I don't figure on thinking about it too much. I'll go along, just so long as you keep it simple for me.”
Bobby blew more smoke through his big yellow teeth. “Okay, okay. We just go in, see what he knows, right? Not too complicated. I'll do the playacting, and you can just put that mug on him. He tells us what we need to know, we find the girl, and that's thirty-five easy simoleons for you.”
“Sure,” I said. “It
simple.” Simple enough: Big-shot auto company man Roger Hardiman had a daughter with a taste for trouble. Young Jane Hardiman liked to run around with the shines on the dark side of town, hitting the nightspots in Paradise Valley and Black Bottom. We were to find the girl, put a scare into whoever she was with, drag her home to the mansion in Grosse Pointe, and collect the money. A little side job Bobby had cooked up. With Bobby, though, you never knew when the shit started to flow. Bobby thought he had a line on the job even before we walked into it. We had driven to the edge of Black Bottom to roust a local character named Toby Thrumm, who would tell us just where to find the girl. At least this was Bobby's expectation.
But though I had been made a detective only a little more than a month earlier, I knew from my own long time of shaky luck that nothing ever turned out to be so neat or tidy. My new badge lay heavily on the underside of my lapel as I reached in to unhook the leather strap that held my gun in the shoulder rig. I guess I took in my breath in a way that let on how it struck me.
“Hardiman's on the level?” I asked. “You're sure about it?”
“I've got a line on him,” Bobby answered. He narrowed his eyes and squinted through smoke over the rounded hood of the auto. “I know him well enough, I guess. You can bet your good eye he can afford what he's paying us.”
Bobby always kept so many pots simmering that I couldn't blame him for being cagey, even with me. He was so affable that you had to let it go.
even I don't let on everything I know. That Hardiman girlÂ â¦
I could remember when Black Bottom didn't look half bad, but now it had gone to seed. Maybe the war had pulled something away. But stepping back from it, I knew it was just the way things worked. All the houses needed something: a coat of paint, a new roof, caulk on the windows. It wasn't a place where you could afford to let your guard down. But the tenants and the landlords couldn't figure out who'd pay for any repairs, and so water ripped hell out of every old building, running down and sneaking into the tiniest crack, freezing and thawing or just soaking into unprotected wood, softening and weakening. The renters couldn't see putting any money into a place that wasn't theirs, and the landlords never had a reason to set foot in such a bad part of town. If the rent didn't come, they just called in the muscle to dump the tenants, and a dozen other colored families would line up for the empty place. With the war on, nobody from the city or the department had any interest in the situation, not down in Black Bottom or Paradise Valley, where it was only colored folks piled up on top of each other.
We left the car and stepped onto the sagging porch of Toby Thrumm's place. The wood felt soft under my heavy shoes. In the colored district where Toby Thrumm rented the bottom flat of a leaning wood house, we stood out like ghostsâbut Bobby preened like he was stepping onto a stage. He shook out his jacket and straightened his tie as we stood on the porch. Then he rapped a bony knuckle on the door, loud and happy like he was selling brushes. I shifted my weight back and forth behind him. The scalp on the top of his head looked pale and weak below the thin black hair. Through his clothes you could see how his bones were set, shoulders and elbows angling without any meat. I was half again as wide as he was. We kept waiting, and I kept shifting, and the loose boards under my feet creaked and pulled at their nails.
Bobby rapped again, and kept rapping until the heavy bolt rasped back.
After a moment, the handle turned and the door opened a sliver. The crack grew slowly until the blinking yellow eye of Toby Thrumm appeared. It was hard to make out any expression from just the one eye, but I saw it look sharply out, scan Bobby quickly, then flutter a little as it lit on my own dark mug. The door opened a bit more and the inside chain pulled taut. “Well,” Thrumm said, “what's it all about, fellas?”
“What's with the chain, Toby? Worried about hooligans?” Bobby flicked his cigarette at the chain, dusting the threshold with gently falling ash.
“Well, it's a war on, I heard somethin' 'bout that. Maybe there's enemy agents about orâ”
I slipped past Bobby and shouldered through the doorway without pulling my hands from my pockets. The chain pulled loose from its mooring in the dry wood of the doorframe, and Thrumm staggered backward with his hands fluttering up to his face. I kept moving and muscled Thrumm to a seat on the sofa. I wasn't muscling him to be hard so much as to keep things moving. Slogging through trash can easily take up a whole day, and still you end up with nothing but trash. I stood close to Thrumm for a few moments until Bobby could catch up. With the sunny windows at my back, my face lay deep in the shadow of the wide brim of my hat, and I didn't move to let Thrumm get a good look. His rheumy eyes sneaked toward Bobby a few times, and I could see that it wasn't the first time they'd been in a room together; but I kept it to myself. Thrumm's tongue darted over his shipwrecked lower teeth to wet his lips.
Bobby nudged a bit of splintered wood aside so he could close the front door and then moved slowly toward Thrumm. He pulled off his hat and glanced about for a clean place to put it down. Finding none, he held it by the brim and tapped it lightly against his leg. He said, “We'd like to ask you a few questions, Toby. Is that all right?”
“Well,” said Thrumm, “youâyou all know meâthey know me down to the station. I'm always willing to help outâ”
“Save all that malarkey.” Bobby kept his usual grin but squinted at Thrumm. “We're not selling tickets to the policemen's ball.”
I hovered nearby until it was clear that Thrumm would offer no resistance. Then I stepped away and started to form a picture of the dim little flat. My anger eased and my attention spread out, and I noticed that the place reeked of sour milk, smoke, and salami. I kept quiet, and I suppose that was why Thrumm kept glancing at me, stealing looks at the black patch over what used to be my eye.
“Like I say, fellasÂ â¦ don't I know you from somewhere?” Thrumm tried to compose himself. He tried to sit up, but the sofa was too soft. Then he tugged vainly at his open fly, crossed his legs, and said, “I don't guess you got some badges you could show, right? Everybody got some kind of badges these days, don't they?” His eyes skated about, never meeting Bobby's for any time, now and again darting to the telephone table near the kitchen. I picked up on Thrumm's nervous concern and let myself drift that way.
Bobby hiked up his foot to the arm of the sofa and pretended to wipe a smudge off the shiny leather of the lighter part of his two-tones. You could see the well-worn leather sap tucked into his garter and the top of his sock, as well as a good portion of white skin, blue veins, and patchy black hair.
“Just one thing to get straight, boy,” Bobby said. “We don't like having to deal with all the backwoods country shit that's been coming up here lately. Especially criminal trash like yourself. If you want to leave Grandmaw down on the farm in Shitville, Mississippi, and come up here sniffing for work, we can't stop you. It's still a free country, so they say. But while you're here, you'll do things our way, right?” Bobby scratched up and down his shin. “We're all set up here to take away everything you ever thought you had in this world. We do it every day to folks better made than you. It's like a system, the way we do it. Try to think about how it might be if we locked you up for a few days and you came out to find your stuff all gone and somebody else living in your houseâand if you found yourself blackballed at all the factories.”
Bobby looked at him sharply, then softened his expression, leaned close, and grinned. He dropped his foot to the floor and began to show a little drawl in his speech. “Let's not be funny, Toby. You can see that my partner here, Detective Caudill, is an unhappy man. You can see how his face hangs. I've tried to get him to look to the brighter side of things, but he just doesn't seem to lean that way. I don't think he likes niggers as much as I do. He doesn't like anybody, as far as I can tell. I guess he'd just like to get out of this stinking hole as soon as he can. So you can see that he'd appreciate it if you'd answer the few simple questions we have just as fast as your little brain can start to turn over.”
“I see how it is,” said Thrumm, giving me the eyeball. When he saw me turning toward him with some heat, he quickly looked away. “Seem like that's the way it always is.”
I turned away and pretended an interest in the decor. I was afraid that my cheek might start twitching, because I always got tickled when Bobby started in with a spiel. Whether or not Bobby's act was effective, it was always good for a laugh. Bobby's ridiculous tough-guy routine wasn't all that different from the slick, breezy attitude he used in dealing with people with money or position. Maybe it was because I knew him, but neither routine seemed convincing. It was like he learned his words from watching movies, and he was willing to try anything out, even if it couldn't fairly sit on his jumbled bones and his weasel face. Somehow he got by, though. With me it was easier and duller: I treated everybody the same kind of bad, and I didn't care that nobody liked me.