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Mark Graham's
An Old Philadelphia Mystery Series
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Chapter One
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There were only five days left before the election. That would make it Friday, October 6, 1871. I'd spent that morning in court, testifying against a sneak I'd collared a few days before. His specialty was hair goods. When I pinched him he had a crate full of Fluffy Fedora Hair Curlers which he'd just appropriated from a parked dray. The sneak was no greenhorn when it came to the penitentiary. So he had a long bit coming to him. Turned out to be a two spot.
The owner of the hair goods shop was overjoyed. He wanted to give me a token of his appreciation. I waited until we were out of court. Then I let him give me five cans. Getting a reward for the recovery of stolen merchandise was standard back then.
The day was glorious, with gleaming clouds whisking past a deep blue sky. The sun, now hidden, now revealed, shone on us with a soft luster. In its light, the whole world was suddenly transformed into something mysterious and somber, yet still beautiful. That was how autumn always made me feel.
I was in no hurry to get back to City Hall. Things were very tense at the Central Office. Fox was on the way out. Anyone could see that. Ever since the negroes got the right to vote the Democrats had the shakes. Colored men
knew which side to vote for: the party of the man who freed the slaves. With their help it looked like Fox and his boys might get the boot. That meant a lot of coppers would lose their politically appointed jobs. And all the fat scale they squeezed out of grafters on their beat.
I wasn't worried, being a Republican.
On the way back from court I took the old green Chestnut and Walnut Street car. The horse team waited at the corner for a long time after I got on. They'd been working hard all day like everybody else. In no time the car was packed. There was usually room for about twenty people to sit down. All those seats were taken now as we neared Fifth and Chestnut. I jostled my way to the window behind the driver, facing the back platform where the ticket taker stood.
As the team started sliding the car along the rails, a gust of autumn wind knocked off my new soft hat. When I stooped for it, I caught sight of someone at the back of the car. I stood up with my hat held to my breast, brushing dust from the new black felt. Then I looked through the car again. That was the first time I really saw her.
The first thing I noticed was how beautiful she was.
Even in that crowded car she seemed alone, set apart. Her eyes were cast downward at a book in her lap. I wondered what the book was about. Then I shifted my gaze to the window.
After a few moments I looked at her again, this time noticing her clothes. She wore a mourning bonnet, trimmed and crowned with dull black crepe. Her suit was also black, and elegant. But not too flashy. The skirt was kilt plaited with folds of velvet. A cutaway basque with velvet collar and cuffs did a lot for the corset she wore underneath.
Thinking on the corset made me turn away again, ashamed of myself.
This hadn't happened in a long time. And now like this. With someone like her.
I tried to stop myself from watching her. I tried concentrating on the floorboards of the car. That didn't work too well.
I noticed she was tapping those same floorboards with her slippered foot. It was surprising to see her without boots. Of course the slippers would be more comfortable, but ladies usually didn't concern themselves with comfort if it got in the way of style. Still, her hands were covered with jersey gloves. If that wasn't the sign of a lady, I didn't know what was.
She kept tapping away as we rode toward the State House. I wondered what the rhythm was in her head. I watched her face, trying to see if she mouthed any words.
It was a handsome face. Dark and serious eyes, a shapely nose, and full lips which now and then parted in a lovely smile, responding to a private joke.
As the car came to a stop again I closed my eyes. I tried to hide in the darkness there, but her face kept coming back to me. At first I felt guilty. Then I asked myself why I should feel like I was doing anything wrong. There were plenty of answers to that question.
I might as well have kept my eyes open. I would have seen the same thing with them open or closed: all the details of her dress and her figure and her face.
And the brown color of her skin.
She was the handsomest negress I'd ever laid eyes on.
The car stopped and I watched as the new passengers packed themselves in. As we got started again I noticed three of them crowding around the colored young lady. Two wore cheap ready made suits with vests fit to burst from their bellies. The other looked like a wiry sport with plaid trousers and a silk neck tie. They were crossmen from the look of them. That is, criminals.
Their lidded eyes were full of malice. What they said to each other was not for polite ears. From the way they swaggered and pushed people out of their way, I got the feeling they were small time strong arm men. I knew their type well. They were the kind of robbers who slam bricks
into peoples' faces when a simple biff in the jaw might do.
All three took turns spitting long gobs in the cuspidor right by the colored girl. I averted my eyes a fourth or fifth time. Then I heard the men talking.
From the profanity they used I figured their back teeth were afloat. A few of the other passengers resented the strong language. They gave the men withering looks. But when they saw to whom the language was directed they turned away.
I tried to do that too, like the coward I sometimes am.
But I still heard the words.
'Me sport stroked his long side whiskers and said, "Looks like we don't have no room to sit down, Uriah."
"Yeah," said the fat one with a long thick mustache, "ain't no room. We gotta stand up."
"Imagine. We folks gotta stand and a nigger gets a seat. Now that don't make no sense to me. What about you, Brode?"
"They got a nerve, that's no joke," said the cleanshaven fat man. "I think they should get their ass on the front platform when a man wants a seat."
"What about it, darling?" the sport said, leaning toward the colored girl. "You gonna move like a good little gal? Or are we gonna have to kick you out?"
"Listen, you men," said an old fellow next to me. "You know the rail company lets niggers ride inside same as everybody else. Been that way for three years."
The old fellow was right. A battle had been fought for that right for years after the war. Before it was won, the negroes had to stand on the crowded front platform, exposed to the elements every day and night of the year, no matter what the weather.
The sport turned to the old man and said, "But we ain't talkin' to you, you stupid bastard."
At this point the ticket taker walked up to the men and said, "What's all this about?" The clean shaven fat man said, "Our pal wants the nigger's seat."
The ticket taker rubbed his chin and shook his head. Then he turned to the colored girl and said, "Why don't you just stand up and stop causin' all this trouble?"
I'd been watching her for some time now. She kept reading her book as if they were speaking a foreign language. Ever since they started she had betrayed no expression. No tear of outrage, or flush of anger. Just that cold look of detachment.
The bruisers didn't care for that look. They wanted some reaction. So the sport knocked the book out of her hand.
"You mind me when I speak to you!" he shouted for the whole car to hear.
She stared at the floorboards like the book was still in her gloved hands.
I remembered my feelings from a few moments before. And I still tried to snuff them out.
Then I saw her lower lip quiver, for just a moment.
I pushed my way over to where she was sitting.
Ignoring the three thugs I said to her, "Miss?"
My tone was different from the others. I put a little gentleness in it. Her dark brown eyes gave me a hesitant, wary look.
I said, "You want them to leave you alone?"
The brown eyes searched mine for not so long a time. Then she nodded.
I turned to the three men who by that time were surrounding me.
The ticket taker told me not to make any trouble. At the same time the sport put his hands on her.
I ripped his hand off her arm and sent my fist into his face. His teeth cut into my knuckles.
Then I kicked his knee. He fell down on the floorboards, crying and cursing.
Before I had a chance to make any other move Uriah and Brode pinned me against the side of the car. I struggled but their meaty arms must have had some muscle in them. The clean shaven one put his hand around my neck while his pal slugged my kidneys. I cried out with pain, feeling them twist my arms behind my back in a firm hold.
Uriah said to the sport, "Take him, Tommy boy! Take him out!"
My arms felt like they were about to burst from their sockets. I lashed out with my boots but wound up kicking air.
Tommy was pulling at the leather strap used to signal the driver when your stop was coming. I heard the bell clamoring on the other end as Tommy tore the leather apart.
I kept watching as he wound one half of the strap around my neck.
He squeezed. The leather bit into my skin, choking out any air I had left.
My head felt like it was going to explode. My tongue oozed out of my mouth.
The inside of the car grew hazy, like I was watching it from behind a curtain.
Then Tommy screamed. I didn't know why or care. For a moment I collapsed to the floorboards, my eyes watering with pain. I heaved air into me and looked up. The colored girl was gripping the handle of a knife now. The business end was imbedded in Tommy's right hand.
Uriah took the girl and wrenched her from his pal. His fat leg swung up as high as he could get it and kicked her over to me. All the passengers looked ready to scramble out the windows.
Then the car halted, quite suddenly. The passengers, the strong arm men, and the two of us tumbled all over each other. About two or three people landed on top of me. I felt their hot breaths in my face.
It was getting hard to breathe again. There was plenty of air but somehow I couldn't breathe with those people scrambling all over me. It made me angry and scared. Panic got me to my feet. I hauled some passengers off the colored girl, and wasn't too gentle about it. I had the feeling of not being able to breathe again. I used to have that feeling sometimes in prison, cooped up with thirty thousand other men. I used to look up at the guards and want to tear their hearts out. That hate was coming back to me now.
This time I had a new focus for my rage: the three thugs piling out the rear.
A sane man might have left them there and gone about his business. All I wanted was to thrash them to my heart's content.
I sprang at Uriah as he tried squeezing himself down the stairs to the curb. My elbow rammed into the back of his skull and we both spilled onto the cobbles. For a second I rolled with him until we landed in a rather filthy gutter. Uriah's head bumped against the curb. He lay where he was as I stood up, brushing the ash and horse manure from my jacket.
I turned around to the other two who watched me with horror.
"Which one of you nancy boys wants to take a crack now?"
The sport cradled his lame hand. He wasn't in the mood.
Brode was game. He came at me like an artillery barrage.
It was so fast I didn't have time to get out of the way. The fat man slammed me back a few feet. My back ran up against a metal pole supporting an awning. The pole came loose from the sidewalk and clattered to my side. He was on top of me by then, driving fists into me that could have been steel girders for all I knew. Before he could crack a rib I had the pole in my hands. I lifted it from the asphalt and into a few of his chins. Brode sunk against the vendor's stand of tomatoes. As he slid to the pavement the little red tomatoes bounced from the stand and onto his prone body.
I stumbled to my feet, running my tongue over my teeth. One felt a little loose but not enough to worry me.
Something was wrong with my eye. At first it felt like a gnat got caught in it. Then I realized it was just a twitch of the lower lid. I hoped no one could see it.
I turned to walk back to the streetcar and clean up. I was going to arrest all three of them for mayhem. They belonged in a cage.
Just as I turned from Brode's tomato covered body, a fist hit me square in the bread basket. I dropped to my knees. I guess I didn't kneel close enough to the pavement for his liking. Something hard crunched the back of my head and sent me sprawling.
Trying to see who did it was a little hard. A wound must've opened on my scalp. The blood got into my eyes, almost blinding me. I took my handkerchief out. Or I tried to. Before I even got to my pocket, he slammed a boot on my fingers. I howled and said, "Just a wipe!"
A big hand tore through my pocket and dropped the handkerchief in front of my face. I pressed the cloth on a small gash on my scalp. Then I wiped the blood off my eyes.
The first thing I saw, being stretched on the pavement, was a pair of incredibly shiny boots. The leather seemed to sparkle over the India rubber soles.
Above the gleaming jet black shoes were pant cuffs. The material and cut were quite familiar. Then I saw a wooden club dangling in front of me like a pendulum.
When I tried to lift my eyeballs heavenward they protested with a sharp jolt of pain. But I'd seen enough to have an idea of who brained me. At least I knew his occupation.
"Put the mace away," I said. "I'm a police officer."
He let me pick myself up. I held the handkerchief in place with one hand. The other brushed dust off my vest and necktie. My watch chain had snapped. That made me swear a little. A guttural voice, full of malice, said, "Well, well, well. If it isn't Special Officer McCleary."
"Sergeant Duffy," I said. Then after hesitating for a moment, I added, "Sir."
For a moment I forgot about the pain erupting in my limbs, spine, and skull. When Sergeant Duffy was talking to you, you didn't think on much else.
If I hadn't hated him so much I might have been afraid of him.
Duffy was an ox of a man. His body bristled with muscles just beginning to go to seed. At five feet ten I was a little taller than most. But the sergeant towered over me.
I watched his thick, meaty hand curl around the mace in his fist. The knuckles had a lot of scars on them. They'd collided with plenty of teeth.
The copper's uniform was barely large enough to contain his solid, dangerous bulk. Straining from the collar, his neck was like a tree trunk. Perched on top was that ugly mug of his. A long, well oiled mustache stretched from cheek to cheek. Absurd freckles covered his broken nose.
And then there were his peepers. Always with the lids half covering them, like he was coming out of a an opium induced swoon.
Duffy's intoxicant of choice was pain.
"Why don't you tell me what this is all about, Wilton?"
He made my name sound like a synonym for sodomite.
I spat a defiant gob of blood on the pavement. My eyelid kept twitching. The last thing I wanted to do was answer to him. But I didn't have a choice.
Sergeant Walter Duffy was one of the most powerful policemen in the city of Philadelphia. His rank didn't fool anybody. He liked being a sergeant and getting juicy details like breaking up riots. The desk and inkwell weren't his fancy.
Since I joined the force in '66 I'd heard rumors about Duffy. Vaux was the one who appointed him to the force.
That was before the war, when the Rangers and the Killers had their names painted all over the waterfront. Mayor Vaux got a body of men together to get rid of the gangs. Those men were selected for their ability to hurt and nothing else. Duffy was one of them. The gangs didn't last long.
When I joined the force Duffy was the house sergeant in my district station house. 'Mat was the Nineteenth district, which took up the whole Seventh Ward. Of all the wards in the city the Seventh was and still is the worst.
Duffy and I first brushed up against each other when I refused to collect his scale for him. A few days later I got my beat: Seventh, Eighth, and Lombard streets by day, and Walnut, Sansom, Eighth, and Ninth by night. That was the colored slum, the home to the lowest scamps in the city.
I used to think Duffy kept me on that beat in the hopes I'd get croaked. He didn't know what I was used to in the war.
After McMichael's term as mayor expired in '68, 1 became a special officer at City Hall. Duffy became the sergeant of the Reserve Corps. The reserves were handpicked men whom the mayor kept on hand in case of emergency that is, when a lot of heads needed to be cracked, like in a riot or an election.
The corps also patrolled the Reserve District. From Chestnut to the Delaware lay the city's mother lodebanks, trust and safe deposit companies, shops of all kinds, jewelry stores, diamond stores, large hotels, the Post Office, and the Mint. A robbery never happened without Walter Duffy knowing about it. And profiting from it.
Ever since I discovered Sergeant Duffy at the Central Office I'd kept my distance. He was too powerful a man to have as your enemy.
Now all my months of hard work were ruined. I got the feeling the crack on the head was just an appetizer.
Duffy's gnarled hand grabbed my lapel and pulled me into his face. I was close enough to smell the oil on his whiskers and the tobacco in his mouth.
"Let's have it, Wilton."
"I'm arresting those three scamps for mayhem."
"And which three scamps might you be referrin' to?"
"That bloke in the gutter, this fellow here sitting in tomato juice, and the sport holding his hand right behind
Duffy didn't even look where I gestured.
"Is that so, Officer Wilton? Now try this on. I'm arresting you for mayhem."
"Are you out of your bloody mind?" I bared my teeth like an angry dog. My mustache poked over my lip like hackles.
"Wilton, you were always such a joker." With a gesture of mock affection his hand patted me on the head, right where my wound was.
"I want you to take a look at Uriah Strunk there. He's still unconscious. You could've killed him. Now is that a way to treat a brother officer?"
I stared at the fat man in the gutter. My mouth stayed open.
"And what about Reserve Officer Tommy Murphy? What did you to do his hand? If he's not crippled for life it won't be on account of you, will it?"
"Listen, Duffy ... 11 "I ain't finished. Last but not least we have Reserve Officer Brode. It's a fucking disgrace. No. I take that back. You're the fucking disgrace, McCleary."
His using my surname wasn't a good sign.
"See," Duffy said, "I had those officers on special duty. We've been havin' some trouble on the streetcars. Some color trouble. The mayor don't want that kind of thing. Respectable folks don't either."
"So you detail your Reserve Corps thugs to the cars to start a little trouble, right?"
"I don't know what you're talkin' about," he said. But his half smile said otherwise.
"Let me guess. Those two yesterday. That was your affair, wasn't it?"
"You mean the two niggers who got on the streetcar smelling like shit? Caused a whole lot of ruckus. Complainin', a little fisticuffs. No reason why respectable folks gotta ride with men who smell like shit."
"Course not," I said. "And shame on the men who paid those two negroes five dollars each to ride a streetcar after they'd worked in a cess pool all day. Did you dip into your own savings for those ten dollars?"
"Well, now. Someone made a donation, Wilton. You know how it goes. That's one thing I always admired about you, if you can believe it. You keep those ears open."
With a sigh he said, "Maybe I'll have to nail you right now. Hell, the Central Office is only half a square away. I bet Mulholland'll have your star within a minute."
I jerked myself out of his grasp and smoothed my lapel. Looking over his shoulder I noticed the colored woman for the first time since we'd hit the cobbles. The sport had his good hand clamped to the ribbon of the bonnet wound around her chin. He yanked it like you would a stubborn dog's leash.
"We got the little darky who started it. How'd you like to join her? You like dark meat? That why you gave my boys grief?"
I stared at his cold eyes with undisguised hate. The funny thing was, I wanted to argue with him, to deny it. And I did deny it. To myself.
"Looks like I hit the nail on the head. No wonder you liked the Nineteenth so much."
Duffy never laughed. He just pursed his lips in a halfsmile. Then his eyes grew big and round like an imbecile's.
"You know, when I look at you in this light you're sure as ugly as a nigger."
The insults were invitations I didn't accept.
He must've seen my knuckles growing white. Maybe he didn't like something he saw in my eyes. At any rate, he stopped jeering and said, "All right, let's get you to the Central Office. You're under arrest."
From his belt he pulled a pair of bracelets.
"You're actually going to put those on me? In front of all these people?"
"Chains and niggers go well together, don't they, Wilton?"
Go for his eyes. That's what I was thinking. Go straight for his eyes and don't stop till you've reached the back of his skull.
Then he relented again and said, "I got a better idea. Special Officer Wilton can take the young lady to the station house and have her booked for mayhem. We have plenty of witnesses who saw her cut up poor Tommy Murphy. But who needs witnesses when old Duff gives his say so, huh? You collar her and we'll forget the whole thing. Just make sure the police intelligence column gets wind of it by to morrow, hear?"
My body, still tense, made no move. The sergeant said, "You got two choices. Pinch the bitch or lose your star. Can you do that arithmetic?"
I brushed past him and walked over to Murphy and the colored woman. I stopped to pick up my new soft hat from the gutter, where Strunk was coming out of his nap. Duffy said to the crowd, "All right, get movin'. Nothin' to see here. Get movin', you."
Murphy whispered something in the girl's ear. Then he pushed her into me and said, "I'll be seein' you, pal."
It was nothing I looked forward to.
I took the girl firmly by the arm and headed for the Central Office. As I headed down Chestnut Street, I looked over my shoulder. Duffy was watching me, twirling his mace with an expert's nonchalance.

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