Desperate for money, he accepts a straight job as a process server and eventually crosses paths with a powerful family from Chicago's North Shore. A captain of industry is dead, the key to his estate disappeared with the chauffeur, and soon Elliot is in up to his neck. The mixed-race son of Illinois farm country must return to the Windy City with the Chicago Police on his heels and the Syndicate at his throat.
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A Negro and an Ofay
The Tales of Elliot Caprice
By Danny Gardner
Down & Out BooksCopyright © 2017 Danny Gardner
All rights reserved.
As he came to, with blurred vision, he detected light. It didn't shine so much as claw at the brick walls, like the slender fingers of angry ghosts. An endless flight of concrete stairs coiled away from him. He was headed downward, though not by his own volition. He remembered drinking in a roadhouse joint. "Black Night" was playing on the juke. He understood how Charles Brown hated to be alone. A shot of corn. A friendly chippie. More corn. An offered dance. By the time Brown's brother was in Korea, he heard hard words behind him. "Get your hands off my woman, red nigger." The absolute wrong thing to say to him when he had been drinking. "Fuck you" this and that. A shove. The juke stopped. A fist for that fat, greasy, chicken-eatin' mouth. He heard something behind him.
His head hurt. He heard ringing. Assumed blood in his ears. A moment later, it sounded like jangling. He figured chains or keys. His hands were bound. His wrists were cold. He thought he was cuffed.
Hoped he was cuffed.
He had accommodated himself to incessant disorientation while in Europe, where he would climb out of his tank and find himself immersed in bullets and bombs and shouts and screams. In the din of war, he learned to disregard the senses that failed him and focus on his singular survival. That's how Elliot Caprice returned from the Battle of the Bulge with all his limbs. And most of his wits.
He shifted his feet.
"Take it easy, boy."
"Shit, I'm in the bing."
"Shut your hole," the fat jailer holding his feet said. He hadn't seen the skinny jailer holding him by his arms until he rolled over after they dropped him on his face.
"If you can talk, you can walk," Skinny said.
"Easy to see which one of y'all picks up the donuts in the mornin'," said Elliot.
"You are in the custody of the St. Louis County Sheriff. You'll be detained until you can appear before a judge. Got it, smart guy?" Fatty said, just before he kicked Elliot in the ribs.
Elliot rose to his feet. Skinny pushed him down the stairs.
"Why am I here when I vaguely remember bein' dry-gulched in Belleville?"
"You had a police issue thirty-two on your person," Skinny said. He produced a key ring. "Get comfortable. Make friends."
He shuddered as the cell door slammed behind him. It sounded eerily similar to the lid of his M18 Hellcat. The blast of body heat combined with the cold limestone felt just like ol' Lucille's air-cooled engine exhaust. He was rudely reminded of the involuntary smells men create when their glands respond to despair; sweat and filth, rushed through the air on panicked breaths. Elliot immediately turned back toward his jailers.
"Look here, constable. How's about my phone call?"
"No calls on Sunday. Gotta wait until morning. Could be in front of the judge by then," said Skinny.
"That'd be too bad for you, halfie. Beatty is a hangin' judge," said Fatty.
"I'm colored. They're all hangin' judges."
"Ya know, Nathan White," said Fatty, as he looked at the docket. "You keep that attitude, you may not get in front of the bench. You're in the Meat Locker, pally."
The infamous Meat Locker was the massive desegregated holding cell underneath the St. Louis County Courthouse. As broad as it was long, it was nearly standing room only. Only a few pendant lights hung overhead so inmates depended upon street light that passed through the barred, narrow windows above. Elliot wondered if anyone walking by knew what was down there, in the depths, stowed underneath St. Louis's poor excuse for a palace of jurisprudence.
Elliot was amazed at how, although drunk and disoriented, he managed to give his alias. Nathan was his middle name, the first name of the uncle who adopted him as a baby — Nathan "Buster" Caprice. White was for the most mysterious half of his racial heritage. He resolved to use only one name, unlike the litany of aliases of the con men he encountered during his time on the Chicago Police Department. A liar is only as good as his memory. Elliot's life depended upon his deceptions.
He shambled through the bodies of poor unfortunates forced to integrate until he found a cot on the other side of the cell. The galvanized bucket chamber pots had overflowed. He'd missed the only meal of the day. He was booked on a Sunday. No small blessing. It gave him time to figure on his situation. The gun needed an answer. He was once a Chicago beat cop. His record would be examined. After that, the guards drop a dime. Elliot somehow hangs himself in the shower. The screws split the bribe. Fatty takes the bigger cut.
He laid on his back with nothing else to do but serenade himself with curses. One for drinking too much. Another for his weakness for the blues. A third for the corresponding weakness for big-legged women. Above all, he cursed himself for not playing the game well enough at Bradley Polytechnic. When life had him by the short hairs, he often fantasized about being a good student who graduated on the Dean's list. Then he could have traded on his near-whiteness to land a job in the front office of some industrial farm in Illinois. Could've had a nametag. Maybe a desk. Dated some chippie from the secretarial pool. Perhaps that would have kept him from enlisting in Patton's Third Army. He would have never followed every other discharged colored to the big city. He wouldn't have taken the police academy test while drunk, just to show how much smarter he was.
He wouldn't have ruined his life.
"Hey, yella. That's my cot."
Elliot opened his eyes. A mountain of a man had taken a seat on a cot across from him. He was dark as midnight and stood well over six feet, as tall as he was broad. He had the scarred hands of a fighter. The lines in his face outlined a massive skull underneath.
"Yeah, white boy. Get it up," came a much slighter voice.
"You a cannibal, big man?"
"What's that smart shit you say there?"
"How else you got a voice comin' out ya ass, if'n you didn't eat a fella?"
A smallish man, no more than five feet tall, stepped from behind Mountain. If he felt better, Elliot would've laughed.
"Watch it, light-skin," the big man's tiny flunky said.
"Seems like y'all got yaselves a couple of cots already. Push on."
Elliot closed his eyes again, until he felt the jump of Mountain's kick at the cot's legs.
"Ain't nobody tell ya? They all my cots."
"You want a cot, you gotta ask us," said Flunky.
"Ovah there, jawin' with the jailers, soundin' like you Jimmy Cagney. You-dirty-rattin' wit' them ofays," Mountain said. He assumed a fighting posture. "You ain't white yet, high yella, but you keep tryin'. Now, up it."
"What yo' name is, corn pone?"
"This here is Frank Fuquay. Folks around our parts call him Big Black," said Flunky.
"What parts would those be?"
"Yazoo County, Miss-sip!"
"Yeah, Lawd!" Big Black said.
"Is that so? My daddy was from around that way," Elliot said.
"Yo daddy, huh? No doubt sum' cracker that took the long way home one night."
That was the last slur of his mixed race Elliot intended to hear. Big Black's buddy was a short-stack, but it was still two against one. Uneven odds were nothing new to him, so he resolved to play it cool.
"Tell you the truth, he was 'bout as inky as you."
"What you say?"
"Yeah, boy. It took a whole lot o' snowflake to dilute that much buck. You a tall drink of Darkest Africa, Big Black. Whycome you got no white in you at all? Yo granny wasn't pretty enough for the slave foreman?"
"I know you ain't gonna take that, Frank!"
Big Black's swiftness would have startled Elliot, had he not set him up for it. From his lower position, he delivered a fierce heel kick to Frank Fuquay's left knee, just above the patella. Most folks don't know healthy joints have enough give in both directions to protect them from injury. Big Black found out the hard way. The glazed concrete floor, slick from the tears of the miserable, let him down. Frank fell forward. Elliot swerved out the way. Big Black hit the floor. Before his monstrous opponent could recover, Elliot knelt, grabbed him by the throat and placed his entire two hundred pounds behind the knee he slammed into Big Black's chest. It made a loud sound. The sort a paddle makes when one beats the dust off a rug. The air rushed out of the bruiser's lungs. Flunky stayed put, shouting commands.
"Kick his ass, Frank!"
"Shut up, Tony."
"Yeah. Shut up, Tony," Elliot said, as he looked around at the other inmates. All were too miserable to get involved.
"Let me see if I can tell it. Sixty-six runs right up through Yazoo. You two jackasses steal some shoes and make the trek on up to the big city. Ain't that many pigs to stick up this way, so you opted to break the law. That's how you in heah. That 'bout right?"
"Fuck you," the big man said. Tony finally fell silent.
"See here, Big Black," Elliot said. He squeezed his fingers tighter around the bully's neck. "Instead of wastin' ya time pickin' on folks — Lord knows who you tryin' to impress — y'all need to get your stories straight. In a minute, them ofays gonna slide some confession papers in front of you. As I doubt you know how to read, there's a good chance your black ass gon be puttin' his X on somethin' someone else did, on top of your own mess."
"You fo' real?"
"Happens all the time. They'll string you up and have ya mama pay the shippin' on your body. She'd have to take up a collection for your big ass. Better stop makin' hay and start makin' friends, Big Black. Somebody gonna have to write to yo' mama about how her big, dumb baby boy wound up hangin'. Or you could write it yourself. If'n you know how to write. Okay there, Big Black?"
Frank attempted a struggle. Elliot put more weight behind his knee.
"Okay, Frank Fuquay. All the way from Yazoo County, Miss-sip?"
Elliot glared into the Big Black Mountain's eyes.
"What?! Teach this yella nigger a lesson, Frank!"
"Shut up, Tony," Big Black said.
Elliot let his hand go slack. He lowered his voice to a whisper.
"We's all afraid up in here," Elliot said. He allowed Frank Fuquay up off the disgusting floor. "And get rid of the little guy. He's trouble."
"Fuck you, high yella!"
Elliot took to his cot. He was content to rest after getting himself through a scrape without anyone coming up dead.
For once.CHAPTER 2
Even in the din of the jail, he was tired enough to sleep away the headache were it not for the memory of Izzy Rabinowitz's voice, as clear as if he were in the cell with him.
"The straight path ain't for you, kid. You're neither fish nor fowl. You're meant to play the margins."
Truth told, the longest he stuck with anything was when he collected for Izzy's outfit, which was from the time he was twelve until he went off to college at twenty. From the time he could walk, he was resentful. An abandoned baby, bequeathed all of his parents' piss and vinegar. A city boy trapped in farm country. Father meets Mother in Chicago, makes her pregnant. Dies in the race riots. Mother finds Father's brother to abandon her bastard. Doc Shapiro, there at bastard's breech birth, takes him under his wing to keep him out of trouble. Shapiro's cousin, Izzy Rabinowitz, the loan maker, shows up at the back door of Doc's small office. Out in the car was a thumb-breaker suffering six stab wounds to the torso. Bastard cleans up the blood without a flinch. Asks a lot of questions about what happened. Finally, bastard finds purpose. No more overnight stays in the Southville County jail for mischief and mayhem. No more beatings with the mule strap in Uncle Buster's barn. Belonging. Acceptance. Praise. He was good — great — at doing dirty work for the most powerful Jew in the Midwest. That he never had the stomach for it was his little secret.
Yet Bradley Polytechnic Institute was his choice. He applied. Passed the entrance exam. Even made the grade for a year. At an advisor's suggestion, he allowed himself to join the forensics team. He even made a friend: John Creamer of the Lincoln Park, Chicago Creamers. It was a funhouse mirror pairing, as John was far too much of everything that Elliot lacked altogether — money, charm, good social standing. At least they shared some whiteness. They studied together. Ran together. Allowed each other into their respective worlds. Their friendship almost made Elliot forget how much he hated college.
In the south, it was Jim Crow. In the north, an understanding. Upward past the Mississippi, outside of farm country, it was hard to find anything as explicit as a hung sign or body. A Negro needed to know his place. Though Elliot knew, he really didn't give a shit.
The night of Elliot's first speech competition he won his debate. John pulled him away to celebrate. That meant they'd both be white that night. The two found a union hall speakeasy in Champaign where they could drink and dance with white girls from the University of Illinois. At the height of the party, they found themselves surrounded by angry white boys.
"Lookin' colored tonight, I guess," Elliot said, with a cackle.
Creamer was plucky when drunk, so he took off his tie and put up his dukes. Elliot pulled a snubbed-nose .32 from his ankle, concealed just how Izzy taught him. Saved them both a lot of trouble. Once the mob dispersed, Elliot ordered another bourbon from the bar. John Creamer pleaded to dangle, but Elliot paid him no mind. The snowflakes were dazzled by their show of joie de vivre.
Officers of the Urbana Police Department arrived.
"Give me the gun," Creamer said.
Something in the way Creamer took it upon himself bothered Elliot. The insistence. The eagerness.
"They won't search me. Give it to me, now."
The pistol was out of Elliot's hands for three seconds before John Law was upon him. He was dragged out to the squad car. Behind the police station, he tasted paving gravel.
"The colored part of me tries to follow the rules," Elliot said. "Only the white boy in me figures they don't apply to him."
He was sober by the third boot heel to the ribs. Silent by the fourth blow of the nightstick. Creamer finally arrived when he was unconscious.
They were halfway back to Bradley when Elliot told John Creamer to take him back to Southville. Once the car pulled in front of the Caprice family farm, they exchanged handshakes. John returned Elliot's gun. The moment was somber, yet hollow. Whatever commonality the two shared was trumped by the reminder from the college town dicks. The most they'd ever be able to do was stick up for one another. Moreover, Elliot knew stashing the gun for his colored friend made John Creamer feel good.
That made Elliot feel as if he owed the wrong white boy a favor.
It was late, five hours until morning. Elliot didn't have his key. There was no waking Uncle Buster once he was asleep, so Elliot let himself into the barn, the place where he once took his beatings. The discomfort of hay on hardpan was buffered by the return of his most dependable friend.
Resentment. It never left him. Not for a second.
The only clue that morning had come in that windowless cube of misery was the sound of wood on iron. Fat and Skinny had returned.
"When do we get grub?!" one voice said.
"I wanna talk to a lawyer!" went another.
This triggered a cacophony of pleas, all of which would be ignored. Elliot saw his jailers had been joined by a third man dressed in a suit. This was what cops referred to as a barrel check — once suspects in a crime are identified, the investigating detectives first search the lock-ups for faces matching descriptions. Depending upon the detective, near matches worked as well as exact.
"Shaddup, you mooks!" No one complied, so Fatty attacked the bars once more.
"Shut up! Or Christ on tha cross, I'll turn the boiler on!"
"This is Detective Sergeant Molak from the Chicago Police Department," Skinny said. "He's looking for two suspects wanted for narcotics trafficking."
Tom. Molak. The Polak.
Elliot remembered him from the Chicago Police Academy. Spoke fluent Polish. Politically connected uncle in the Hegewisch community. Too weak to pass the fitness test. The sort everyone figured would quit. Or wind up superintendent. He was slight of build, had hunched shoulders, smallish eyes, and a Sephardic nose that he stuck everywhere it had no business. No way he was in St. Louis for the department. Not by himself. Elliot hoped he wouldn't be spotted. His number might be up.
"I'm looking for two men — one colored, one white — both known narcotics traffickers. They were last seen Thursday evening in the Clifton Heights neighborhood," Molak said. "Anyone sharing information leading to their arrest will be looked upon favorably."
"We have a bunch of new shines as of Friday," Fatty said.
"That'd be a good start, Andy."
"My name isn't —"
"The Negroes, yeah, pally?"
Fear crossed the minds of even the recidivists. Frank Fuquay, only just prior so cocksure, now sweated bullets.
Excerpted from A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner. Copyright © 2017 Danny Gardner. Excerpted by permission of Down & Out Books.
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