In the summer of 1963, freedom riders are crisscrossing the South, Martin Luther King is preparing for a march on Washington, and the people of Black River Falls, Iowa, are about to go to the polls. Senator Williams is cruising to reelection when a blackmailer starts sending him photos of his daughter arm in arm with a handsome black student. To save his campaign, Williams hires private investigator Sam McCain to talk sense into the crook, but the blackmailer is nowhere to be found—until McCain discovers him behind his shack, dead in the dirt, with a handsome black corpse beside him.
TV crews arrive with the police, to broadcast the horrible scene across the state. As Black River Falls threatens to erupt into all-out race war, Iowa will have much more to worry about than Election Day. Searching for the savage killer, McCain learns that quiet prejudice can be the most dangerous kind of all.
About the Author
Gorman’s other series characters include Robert Payne, a psychological profiler, and Leo Guild, a bounty hunter of the Old West, but his best-known character is probably Sam McCain, a gentle young sleuth of the 1950s, who first appeared in The Day the Music Died (1998). Besides writing novels, Gorman is a cofounder of Mystery Scene magazine.
Read an Excerpt
Fools Rush In
A Sam McCain Mystery
By Ed Gorman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2007 Ed Gorman
All rights reserved.
On the drive over, I decided to leave it in the hands of the gods.
If Richie Neville's cabin door was unlocked, I'd go inside. If not, I'd turn right around in my red Ford ragtop and head back to my office. I wouldn't pick his lock, as I'd considered doing. State bars frown on lawyers who work night jobs as felons.
Neville lived just outside the city limits of Black River Falls, which, in this August of 1963, had reached 37,000 in population, thanks to an influx of young marrieds who looked upon us as a suburb equidistant from Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
God had just flipped the switch and filled the early evening sky with stars. The stretch of river to my right was serving as a racetrack for speedboats, and on the far shore, among the moonglow birches, you could see campfires—hot dogs and s'mores and portable radios bursting with rock and roll—and in the ragged piney hills above, a freight train rattling through the prairie night.
Too good a night to risk my primary career as an attorney and my secondary career as a private investigator for the court of Judge Esme Anne Whitney.
But something ugly was going on, and it was that very same Judge Whitney, who was also risking some serious legal trouble of her own, who'd convinced me that we both had to put a stop to it now.
For ten minutes I traveled a narrow gravel lane, and then I descended into a wooded hollow that smelled of loam and skunk and apple blossoms.
I pulled the ragtop off the road and stashed it behind a copse of hardwoods.
The rest of the trip would be on foot.
"You mean her Negro boyfriend?"
"Yes, McCain, I mean her Negro boyfriend. His name is David Leeds."
We were in her courthouse office. This was about an hour before I left for the cabin. Thunder booming. Rain slashing the mullioned windows. And Her Honor, perched on the edge of her desk, shooting rubber bands at me and hitting me every other time or so.
She had a small box of the damned things on one side of her, and on the other side she had a snifter of brandy. Someday, years from now, when I was dying from a terminal illness and nothing mattered anymore, I'd find the courage to tell her about an organization called AA.
She tamped herself another smoke from her blue packet of Gauloise cigarettes. She was a good-looking woman in her early sixties. She escaped to New York whenever possible and that showed in the cut of the designer suits she favored and the faintly snotty way she dealt with plebeians such as me.
"Do a lot of people know about it?"
"They stay in Iowa City most of the time, thank God. He's in school there. But it's bound to get around. That's the first problem."
"Well, she's what, twenty, twenty-one? It's sort of up to her, isn't it?"
"Why don't you just call me a bigot and get it over with?"
I smiled. "I was saving that for later, Judge."
"The fact is, I'm not a bigot at all. I merely want to see Senator Williams get reelected. And since he's a Republican, I'm sure you're more than happy about his daughter seeing a Negro."
She hooked another rubber band to her thumb and finger and let fly. It struck my small Irish nose and bounced off.
"I've never met Leeds. But I guess he's very bright. He's in law school, I understand."
"He's a Negro. A very handsome young man of twenty-one, I'm told, but a Negro nonetheless. And I say that with no prejudice whatsoever. You'll remember that it was my party, the Republicans, that freed the slaves."
"Oh, I already knew you weren't a bigot. You have a Negro gardener, a Negro horse groomer, and a Negro maid."
"I know you're being sarcastic, McCain, but that's just because your party didn't free the slaves."
There were several hundred arguments that came to mind but they'd be lost on her.
"So what we have," I said, "is a semipopular Republican senator in a tight reelection race this coming fall who doesn't want it known that his innocent young white daughter is dating a Negro."
She eased off the edge of her desk and walked over to one of the long windows, where she looked out at the wind-lashed summer trees. The rain tormented the glass. She held her elbow in the palm of her right hand and smoked with her left. I saw a watery portrait of her in the dark pane.
"You know what people see on television every night on the news, McCain. All these civil rights marches. All these threats those people make. Everything was fine a few years ago. I just don't know what happened. Anyway, most people are already stirred up by everything they see on the evening news. And if it were to be known that their beloved senator—and he is beloved no matter what you say, McCain—if they knew that the daughter of their beloved senator—a very beautiful young girl who has had every advantage a wealthy father could possibly have given her—if they knew that she threw everything away, including propriety and moral values ... well, how could they ever vote for him?"
Now I got up, grabbed a bunch of her rubber bands, and walked over by the window. I began firing them at her from the side.
"So let me understand this, Judge. When you see all those impoverished people who haven't been able to vote or find decent jobs or send their kids to decent schools or do anything about all the police brutality generation after generation—it irritates you?"
She picked a rubber band from her hair and said, "Nobody has the right to break the law and march in the streets without a permit."
I couldn't keep the bitterness out of my laughter. "I'm glad you weren't one of Lincoln's advisers. He never would've gotten rid of slavery. And if you shoot one more rubber band at me, I'll start charging you a buck for every time you hit me."
She was mad and so was I. Most of the time our arguments had to do with her snobbery. She was, to her credit, able to rise above most of her prejudices in her courtroom. But when she wasn't in her judicial robes, she reverted to the coddled, cuddled old-money imperialist she usually was.
The arguments rarely got personal. This one was different. How could you see the shacks the marchers lived in, the degradation they had to put up with every day of their lives, and not in some way share their grief? How could you possibly watch the freedom marchers and not see how righteous they were in their simple but profound demands?
Who gave a shit about parade permits?
"But that isn't all, McCain."
"Pick up the gray envelope on my desk."
I did so. There were photos inside of Lucy Williams and her boyfriend. Not dirty photos. If Lucy Williams and David Leeds had both been white or both been black, there'd have been no problem. Walking across the U of Iowa campus, his arm around her. Sitting on the same side of a restaurant booth. Her sitting on the handlebars while he was pedaling.
Innocent pictures. Two clean-cut, nice-looking young people in love.
"I see what you're talking about. Some people'll be offended by these, but they're really innocuous."
"These were sent to the party office in Des Moines. Imagine if they made it into a newspaper." Then she said: "You once had a client named Richie Neville."
Maybe I was as slow as the judge frequently accused me of being. I didn't connect Neville to the photos until I remembered that he was a photographer now. When I'd represented him as a teenager he'd been nothing more than a harmless, garden-variety punk who'd gotten in juvie trouble in Chicago and had been shipped out here by his parents to live with his overly devout aunt.
"You're kind of jumping to conclusions, aren't you?"
"The senator's wife said she is sure she saw him two or three times driving past their house."
"How does she even know him?"
"He did yard work for them a few times. And now he's a photographer."
"Well, gosh, let's go lynch him then, since we've got such solid evidence against him."
"You're being ridiculous as usual, McCain. But I'll bet we could learn a lot by getting into his darkroom."
"You're ordering me to break the law?"
She had such a serene smile. "I'm not ordering you to do anything, McCain." The smile grew richer, deeper. "I'm just saying that if somebody were to be in the vicinity of Mr. Neville's cabin ..."
The river sparkled in the moonlight. The rain had ended and all the foliage gleamed. Above me a raccoon was placing calls to other raccoons in a loud and endearing voice. The pines on both sides of the small, tidy cabin smelled sweet as a summer morning.
The raccoon was still jabbering as I surveyed the place. The exterior of the cabin was brown-painted sheets of plywood. A large window had been cut into the front of it, exposing the darkened interior.
Somebody, probably during one of Richie's notorious parties, had torn the door off the outhouse. Nobody was sitting in there reading Playboy in the dark.
Night birds and the sad solemn cry of an owl. The raccoon had fallen into a peeved silence. Screw them if they didn't want to answer back.
I wanted to make sure that nobody was around before I approached the door. It looked safe. I walked through the grassy space that served as yard. Before I touched anything, I slipped on the brown cotton gardening gloves I'd bought earlier at the A&P. Not for nothing was I a reader of hard-boiled paperbacks.
Despite the cool night breeze that carried the smell of pine, I felt myself sweating. Something was wrong here. I'd learned never to make assumptions, but I couldn't ignore the subconscious warning signals my body was sending me.
I reminded myself of my earlier decision. If the door was locked, I wouldn't go in. And I was assuming the door would be locked, what with all the expensive photography equipment inside.
I stabbed a finger at a piece of mid-level door and damned if the pine slab didn't swing inward.
The gods had decided.
Before going in, I played the light across the first few feet of scuffed and cracked linoleum inside. No evidence of blood.
I went in and played the beam across the destruction that somebody pretty angry had left behind. Neville's cabin was usually orderly. I'd done some legal work for him and he'd let me fish off his small pier. But the cabin was orderly no longer.
Neville's pride was his collection of blues records from the thirties and forties. Seventy-eight rpms and forty-fives, flung, broken, and smashed, lying across the debris that had once been a couch. A stuffed armchair, a nine-inch TV, as well as books, magazines, ashtrays, beer cans, Pepsi bottles, and smashed framed photos that had probably meant something to Neville littered the floor.
You always see rooms tossed on the silver screen. What you don't get is the violence of it, the jagged pieces of glass, the splintered thrusts of wood, and the stench of various liquids mixed together.
The beam revealed the chaos that extended from inside the front door to Neville's "church," as he called it. His darkroom. He was a local photographer of weddings, rodeos, and various civic and cultural events. People admired his work and he was always in demand.
I worked my leery way across the cabin, stumbling here, tripping there. The darkroom ran the length of the far wall. The door stood open.
The darkroom was more of a mess than the living area. An enlarger, a print washer, a print dryer, several lenses, a negative carrier, pans, and numerous other darkroom fixtures had been hurled to the floor. The chemical stench filled my nostrils.
Time to get out of here.
I'd just about worked my way across the rubble to the front door when car headlights swept across the front of the cabin.
Company had arrived.
The slight man who emerged from the white Valiant sedan was maybe thirty. He was dressed in the kind of tight dark suit you saw in dance clubs where everybody did the twist—the slash pockets, the pegged pants, and the porkpie hat that the better grade of Chicago hood was wearing this year—and he was altogether as sleek as a stiletto.
But the shades were the startling part of his ensemble. Who the hell wore sunglasses out in the country at night? He leaned in through the open car window and doused his lights and cut off the engine. But he left the shades on.
I stayed inside, hiding. I wanted to see who he was and why he was here. This time when I took a quick look out the window, I saw he'd added one more piece to his outfit. A .45 that he'd just slid out of a shoulder holster.
This was Black River Falls, Iowa, where the worst violence we generally have is limited to high school kids getting into shoving matches after football games with fans of rival teams and engaging in that favorite working-class pastime, bar fights.
I decided to step into the door frame rather than wait for him in here. Scare him less than if I was lurking inside the cabin.
I held up the badge I got as a court investigator. "I need you to identify yourself."
"Shit," he said.
He was turning and running back to his car before I was able to speak even one more syllable.
He ground the ignition key until the motor exploded into life and then he backed up like a bullet, never turning the lights on. His tires found the gravel road and he fishtailed away with his porkpie hat, and the .45 I doubted he had the legal right to carry. I took my nickel notebook from my back pocket and wrote down the number of his Illinois plates.
I was walking to my car when I heard the whimpering in a wooded area west of the cabin. A dog. I remembered Neville's beautiful little border collie. Princess had one of those sweet faces that you want to carry in your wallet for emergencies. When the blues get bad, her face could help you get through.
The wooded patch was so dark I couldn't see anything resembling a path. I let her voice guide me into maybe three feet of undergrowth and then into the woods itself. A half dozen creatures crashed away from me in the bramble. Princess's whimpering never wavered.
The mournful sound of it scared me. I was afraid of what her voice was leading me to.
And it turned out my instinct was right. I had a damn good reason to be afraid.CHAPTER 2
"This must be Lucy's boyfriend," Police Chief Cliffie Sykes said after arriving at Neville's cabin. "The Negro kid who was seeing Lucy Williams." He raised his flashlight high enough so that the edge of the beam washed across my face. "Or didn't you think I knew about that? I bet the judge and the senator sure didn't want that to get around."
It's hard to say which of us Cliffie hates worse, the judge or me. Probably Judge Whitney because he knows that she represents all he and his kin will never be—intelligent, reasonably open-minded, and eager to serve the greater good, the latter stemming not from virtue so much as simple patrician obligation. The best dukes always took care of the peasants.
This particular branch of the Whitney family fled New York due to a bank scandal created by the judge's grandfather. They came to what was little more than a hamlet and created the town of Black River Falls. They frequently took the train back to New York for a few weeks at a time. I imagine they needed respite from the yokels, my people. Various Whitneys served in all the meaningful town and county offices and ruled, for the most part, wisely and honestly.
But then the Sykes family made a fortune after winning some government construction contracts. They were rich and dangerous. And they moved fast. Before anybody quite understood what was going on, the Sykeses had planted their own kin in most of the important political offices. Within two election cycles all that was left of the Whitney clan was the judge's office.
She hired me for a simple reason. She wanted to do her best to humiliate Cliffie. Whenever a major crime occurred, she put me on the case. After law school I'd gone back and taken night-school courses in criminology and police science, something, it is safe to say, that neither Cliffie nor his hapless staff had ever done.
We usually identified the culprit—bank robber, burglar, arsonist, and the occasional murderer—before Cliffie did. And thus the animus.
"Somebody had it in for these two," Cliffie said.
About that, he wasn't wrong. I'd found two bodies in the woods, Neville and the Negro whose name, Cliffie assured me, was David Leeds. Neville had been shot in the face twice. Leeds had been shot in the neck.
Excerpted from Fools Rush In by Ed Gorman. Copyright © 2007 Ed Gorman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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