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Streets of Fire

Thomas H. Cook

  Streets of Fire

  Thomas H. Cook


  Open Road Integrated Media ebook







  The author would like to thank his students,

  friends and colleagues at

  Packer Collegiate Institute for their kindness,

  stimulation and support.


  MAY 1963


  Ben scribbled into his notebook, balancing the radio mike on his shoulder while he wrote.

  ‘I’m on surveillance,’ he said irritably, ‘and King’s still talking.’ He glanced up toward the church. He could see the crowd shifting excitedly as the people stood packed together tightly on its wide cement steps.

  ‘I got to pull you off for a minute,’ the dispatcher said. ‘We got a body down in that old football field off Twenty-third Street.’

  ‘Twenty-third Street?’ Ben asked. ‘Why don’t you let the Langleys handle it?’ He kept his pencil poised on the page.

  ‘Nobody knows where they are,’ the dispatcher told him. ‘You know what it’s like at headquarters.’

  Ben knew exactly what it was like, and as he looked out toward the crowded cement steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, they reminded him of the chaos which had overtaken police headquarters as well since the demonstrations had begun. It was a hot May. The jails were already choked with everything from dentists and lawyers to half-blind old women, and every man in the department was on full duty to deal with them. Both uniformed patrolmen and plainclothes detectives slept in their cars or in makeshift dormitories which the department had set up in the hallways and storage rooms of City Hall. Sometimes, as Ben had already complained, the whole place looked more like a skid-row flophouse than a government building.

  ‘You read me, Ben?’ the dispatcher asked.

  ‘Yeah, all right,’ Ben said drearily.

  ‘That old football field off Twenty-third,’ the dispatcher reminded him.

  ‘I’ll get there as soon as I can,’ Ben said. He clicked off the radio, snapped it back into its cradle and hit the ignition. The engine groaned fitfully in the steamy air, and several of the people who stood crowded together around the old brick church glanced toward him, their brown eyes watching him silently as he pulled away.

  It took no more than a few minutes for him to make it all the way across town to the football field. There was almost no traffic, and scarcely anyone on the streets. It was as if all the people who lived in the downtown black district of the city had been drained out of it, so that the whole area now existed only in the ghostly remains of deserted streets and buildings. The sloping wooden porches were empty, along with the weedy yards and plain dirt driveways of the railroad shanties that lined the bumpy, potted streets. Occasionally, an old man would nod to him as he drove past, or a little half-naked child might wave, but it was as if all the rest of them, nearly the whole black population, had been funneled into the few concentrated blocks of the downtown business district. That was where they gathered to block traffic or seize lunch counters or simply march in long dark lines, silently, determinedly, either staring straight ahead or glancing about apprehensively, as if looking for that menacing white tank the Chief had brought in to control the situation.

  The football field at Twenty-third Street was as deserted as the surrounding neighborhood. Not even a single uniformed patrolman had been sent on ahead to stand guard over the body, and Ben guessed that someone had simply stumbled onto it and anonymously called in what he’d found, and that everyone but himself, now suddenly appointed as the lone centurion of Bearmatch, had already been far too busy to bother with such a little thing.

  He shook his head irritably, then took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his jacket. Across the field, the noonday sun struck piercingly toward him, and in its bright glare, he could see only the hazy outline of the goalpost which stood shakily at the opposite end of the field.

  For a moment he thought that it might all be a hoax, a prank call, or just some old wino whose imagination had gotten away from him. But as he made his way across the littered ground, his eyes slowly began to focus on what looked like a small dark ball perched motionlessly on the bare red ground beneath the goalpost. As he continued forward, the ball became a tiny fist thrusting out of the dirt, its fingers curled toward the palm as if trying to grab for something which still hung in the air above the ground.

  For a little while, he stood casually beside the gray sidepost, listening to the way it creaked and groaned in the summer wind. Bits of paper blew across the empty field, and when one of them came to rest against the small black hand, he nudged it free with the toe of his shoe. Far in the distance, he could hear the sound of sirens, and he knew that things had begun to heat up downtown. But they seemed far away compared to the whisper of the wind through the trees around him, the enveloping heat and the small curled hand that reached toward him from the dust.

  Luther arrived a few minutes later, walking briskly up the field, his belly spilling in a doughy mass over his broad black belt.

  ‘What you got, Sergeant?’ he asked breathlessly as he stepped into the dusty oval beneath the goalpost.

  ‘Looks like a child,’ Ben answered.

  Luther groaned uncomfortably as he squatted down beside the hand. Instinctively, he reached out to touch the fingers, then drew back. ‘What do you think, boy or girl?’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  Luther got to his feet. ‘Well, they’re sending a couple of diggers,’ he said. ‘They should be here anytime.’ He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his jacket and offered one to Ben.

  Ben took one and lit it.

  ‘Don’t guess they’s a public John around here,’ Luther said as he glanced up and down the field.

  ‘I don’t think so,’ Ben said.

  Luther’s eyes shifted back down to the small black hand. He shook his head wearily. ‘Bad time for this to happen.’ He looked at Ben. ‘They’ll try to make a race thing out of it. That’s why they sent me down here, to make sure it was just a plain old Bearmatch killing, nothing to do with white folks, trash or otherwise.’ He blew three large smoke rings into the air, poking a stubby finger through the center of each one as it drifted upward. ‘Can you do that, Ben?’

  Ben shook his head.

  Luther smiled. ‘Trick my daddy taught me.’ He did it again, then leaned lazily against the unsteady goalpost. ‘Where were you when you got the call?’


  ‘Anybody in particular?’


  Luther looked surprised. ‘Who put you on him?’

  ‘The Chief.’

  ‘He didn’t mention it to me,’ Luther said.

  ‘He just caught me in the lobby this morning,’ Ben said.

  Luther nodded. ‘Yeah, that’s the way he works sometimes,’ he said, his voice faintly disgruntled. ‘Once in a while it screws things up down the line.’

  Ben nodded, and for a moment the two of them stood in silence. Across the field, under the opposite goalpost, an old Negro man watched them cautiously, his ancient face half-hidden beneath a tattered straw hat.

  ‘Place is empty,’ Luther said, after a moment. ‘I guess everybody’s downtown raising Cain.’

  ‘Did it start up yet?’ Ben asked.

  ‘Oh, yeah,’ Luther said. ‘Same old thing so far. But they say the shit’s really going to hit the fan before long.’ He laughed. ‘You know, Ben, it’s a good time to be working Bearmatch. Hell, the whole place
’s deserted.’ His eyes widened. ‘Down by the tracks, they say even the shothouses are empty.’ He laughed again. ‘Can you imagine that, even the whores and gamblers and such as that are out marching.’

  Ben had never seen the fabled shothouses of Bearmatch, but he had heard of them for years. They seemed to swim in a hazy yellow light to the beat of honky-tonk pianos, and when they were spoken of by people who’d been in them, it was with a kind of distant, dreadful awe, as if life took on a wholly different texture as it moved southward toward the tracks. Down by the tangled iron railyard where the empty freight cars baked in the summer heat, you could hear the steady wail of the blues as it came from the shothouses and honky-tonks of Bearmatch. It was a slow, pulsing rhythm that seemed to sway languidly in the air, and Ben had often heard it during the years he’d worked as a young railroad guard. While searching the cars or patrolling the crisscrossed tracks, he’d glanced more than once toward the huge shantytown that spread out just beyond the high storm fence of the railyard. That was where it came from, the bluesy horns, sudden laughter and occasional gunfire. Others among the guards had sometimes ventured into it, looking for whiskey or a card game or a woman, but Ben had kept his distance in this, as in almost everything else.

  Luther gave the tiny hand another peremptory glance. ‘They kill their kids down here,’ he said dully. ‘Sometimes the daddy does it. Sometimes it’s the mama.’ He took another drag on the cigarette, then tossed the butt out into the field. ‘Just ask anybody who’s been on the tour. They’ll tell you. It’s real different down here. Not the same world we live in at all.’ He shook his head despairingly. ‘Course, the Black Cat boys like it. But they’s something wrong with those two.’ He tapped the side of his head with a single, crooked finger. ‘You know, up here.’

  Ben dug his toe into the dirt and made a ragged circle. ‘They should have a crew down here by now,’ he said impatiently. ‘It’s not right, leaving her in the dirt like this.’ He stepped away from the body and began pacing about, his eyes locked on the ground.

  ‘What are you doing?’ Luther asked after a moment.

  ‘Just looking around,’ Ben said. He walked a little further out into the field, his eyes still searching the tufts of brownish grass. Up ahead he could see the old man, still leaning against the post, his thin dark arms hugging to it loosely.

  ‘For what?’ Luther asked.

  Ben shrugged. ‘Whatever you can find around a body.’

  Luther laughed. ‘You’re lucky to even have a body. Most of the time they just load it onto a freight car, or take it out of town and dump it in the river.’ He shrugged. ‘Either way, it’s gone from our jurisdiction. It floats into the next county or rolls into the next state. Then it’s their problem.’

  Ben continued to move outward slowly, his eyes latching onto bottle caps or scraps of paper. When he looked up again, the old man had vanished, and there was nothing but the naked post to block his view of the adjoining street.

  Luther lit another cigarette and tossed the match onto the ground. ‘It’s the ones that keep on living that’s our problem.’ He glanced toward the distant buildings of downtown. ‘They’re probably piling into the lunch counter at Woolworth’s this very minute.’ He looked at Ben knowingly. ‘That’s why you’re lucky to be on the Bearmatch patrol right now, Ben. I’d rather be anywhere as downtown for the next few days.’

  Ben eyed the last nondescript bit of paper which littered the ground at his feet, then looked up and saw two patrolmen approach from the opposite side of the field, both of them lugging shovels ponderously through the sweltering air.

  ‘They’re going to love this,’ Luther said. He glanced down at the hand. ‘Well, least it’s fresh. The smell won’t kill them.’

  The two patrolmen began digging only a few minutes later. Slowly, they unearthed the body of a young girl. She was clothed in a flowered dress, white socks and dark-brown buckled shoes. Her eyes, nose and hair were matted with clay, and a single trickle of dried blood ran down from the left side of her mouth.

  ‘Turn her over,’ Ben said gently, after the body had been placed faceup beside the makeshift grave.

  One of the patrolmen bent down and eased the body over, then stood up and stepped away.

  Ben knelt down beside the body. The buttons at the back of the dress were missing, and its white collar had flipped open, exposing the dark back. A single shot had been fired into the base of the skull.

  ‘Looks like a twenty-two,’ Luther said as he stepped over and stared down at the body. He circled slowly around to the other side. ‘Have to be a twenty-two,’ he said. ‘Anything else would have blown the top of her head off.’ He scratched his chin slowly. ‘Pull her dress up.’

  Ben looked up at him sharply. ‘What?’

  ‘Pull her dress up,’ Luther repeated matter-of-factly.

  Ben did not move.

  Luther looked at him oddly. ‘What’s the matter with you?’

  Ben snapped to attention. ‘Nothing,’ he said quickly. Then he slowly lifted the girl’s skirt. She was completely naked underneath it, and her private parts were raw and reddened. Tiny crusts of dried blood clung to barely visible tufts of black hair.

  ‘See what I mean?’ Luther asked confidently.

  Ben nodded.

  Luther’s eyes scanned the girl softly. ‘Pretty little thing,’ he said quietly. ‘It’s a shame she’ll never grow up.’ He looked at the two patrolmen. ‘How come you boys didn’t bring a stretcher?’

  The two young patrolmen glanced awkwardly at each other.

  ‘Ah, never mind,’ Luther said with a frustrated wave of his hand. ‘You got blankets in your car. We can load her up in one of them.’

  The two patrolmen took off immediately, and Luther laughed as he watched them trot off down the field. ‘They stay dumb for a long time, don’t they, Ben?’ he asked.

  Ben did not answer. He continued to stare at the small girl who lay in the dirt beside him.

  Luther’s eyes narrowed pointedly as he glanced right and left. ‘Well, I don’t see no burning crosses, do you, Ben?’

  Ben looked up. ‘What?’

  ‘Burning crosses,’ Luther repeated loudly. ‘Or anything else that would make this look like some kind of race killing.’

  Ben shook his head slowly. ‘No, I don’t see anything like that.’ Luther drew a small camera from his jacket pocket. ‘Don’t usually do this,’ he said, ‘but things being the way they are right now …’ He waved Ben away from the body. ‘Stand back,’ he said. ‘Let me get a quick shot.’

  Ben stepped away from the body.

  Luther snapped the picture and headed off down the field.

  ‘Wait a second,’ Ben said.

  Luther turned back to him quickly. ‘Find something?’

  ‘No,’ Ben told him quietly. Then he took the hem of the girl’s skirt and drew it gently back over her slender brown legs.


  Missing Persons had never been more than a single metal desk stuck in the back corner of the detective bullpen. Along with a lot of general paperwork, it was Sammy McCorkindale’s private beat, and as Ben shifted around the chaos of crowded desks and chairs, he could see McCorkindale’s enormous frame in the distance. He was leaning back in a padded swivel chair, his eyes scanning the sports page of the Birmingham News.

  ‘How you doing, Ben?’ he asked as Ben stepped up to his desk. He smiled. ‘I’m surprised you’re not working the demonstrations, like everybody else.’

  ‘I was on surveillance,’ Ben said, but they pulled me off of it’

  ‘Why’s that?’

  ‘Somebody found a little girl. Dead. Shot in the head.’

  ‘Where is she now?’

  ‘The diggers picked her up,’ Ben said. ‘I guess she’s at the morgue by now.’

  ‘Find any identification?’

  ‘Nothing around her,’ Ben said. ‘That’s why I thought I’d check with you.’

  McCorkindale ponderously eased himself forward and r
ooted his elbows on the top of his desk. ‘Well, run the description by me.’

  ‘I’d say between eleven and maybe thirteen years old,’ Ben said.

  McCorkindale took a pencil and paper and began to write it down. ‘Did you see any distinguishing features?’ he asked. ‘You know – warts, moles?’

  Ben shook his head.

  ‘All right, go on,’ McCorkindale said.

  ‘Dressed in a white, flowered dress, brown shoes, white socks,’ Ben continued.

  ‘Okay, good,’ McCorkindale said, his eyes following the pencil as its tip scurried across the page.

  ‘The body was found buried in a football field off Twenty-third.’

  The flight of the pencil slowed.

  ‘Negro,’ Ben said.

  The pencil stopped. McCorkindale looked up. ‘You mean you got a little Bearmatch girl here?’ he asked.

  ‘That’s right.’

  The pencil dropped to the desk and McCorkindale leaned back in his chair. ‘How old are you, Ben? Thirty-five? Forty?’


  ‘And been living in Birmingham all that time?’

  Ben nodded.

  ‘Then you ought to know better than to waste your time on something like this,’ McCorkindale said. ‘They don’t report nobody missing out of Bearmatch.’ He squinted slightly. ‘Haven’t you ever done that beat before?’


  McCorkindale shook his head. ‘Well, they got their own way of doing things over there. They don’t come to us with things like this. Right or wrong, they just don’t do it. If they got somebody missing, they do all the looking their own selves.’

  ‘This little girl had to belong to somebody,’ Ben said.

  ‘I’m not saying she didn’t,’ McCorkindale said. ‘But it just don’t matter, because they don’t report nobody missing out of Bearmatch.’ He shifted slightly in his chair, and the springs groaned painfully under his weight. ‘How long you been a detective, Ben?’