ONE OF THEM • by Walter Lawn

Face down on the street, hands locked behind my head, I lay still while Plainville’s Finest held a gun on me and Second-Best rifled through my pockets. Where had I gone wrong?

My client had announced he chose me based on my website photo. “For this job,” he’d said, “I need a person of color.”

I hadn’t asked which color. The name on my PI’s license is Hamm, the Ellis Island bastardization of Hammarskjold. I’m tall and pale, with a cap of ash-blond hair, but the thing people notice from my Swedish heritage is a very full pair of lips. With disturbing frequency, blacks approach me to ask if I’m passing. Whites lock their car doors as I walk by. As a PI, I often try to pass as something I’m not, but white isn’t one of them.

He had said he needed evidence — any kind — for divorce. That he didn’t like the crowd she ran with. And that he “needed a black dick.” I had smelled a rat — was a black detective likely to provoke her friends? — but I was too hungry to turn him down. Besides, I’m white.

With a button cam in my shirt, I tailed his wife east on Elm, staying out of her mirror by keeping a cop car between my Prius and her Maserati. The cop stopped short of a green light, and I stopped short behind him. Someone nearby locked their car with a loud beep. The cop leaped out of his vehicle and stalked back toward me. Thin lips and short white hair gelled into spikes. The Kevlar vests make them all look fit and tough. The flushed face made this one look pissed off.

“Did you beep me?”

“No, sir, I did not. I think someone locked their car.”

“I was letting a lady park her car. You beeped me.”

“I heard it, officer, but it wasn’t me.”

Then he said the N word, drew his gun and stepped back. “Out of the car. Face on the ground, hands behind your neck.”

I don’t know whether my PI license helped or not. In the end, they let me off with a vague warning that amounted to “Don’t beep a cop in the performance of his duties.” I gave them my word of honor. I gave them the name of my client. And just to be sure, I slipped them a little something else.

The lady, though, she sure was something else. I caught up with Darleen, her car parked outside the Makes Free grill, and walked in after her. Given the street spectacle, I figured I was blown anyway.

When I cornered her, she came back at me fast and cute. At her suggestion we moved to the bar, to “catch us some bare.” As she leaned across me to tap her cigarette in an ash tray she asked, “Is it true about you people? Your… endowment?”

 “Well, I am often told my people are gifted at cross-country skiing.”

She gave a non-committal laugh, and turned toward the runway behind the bar, where the dancer was working her tips. Darleen’s right shoulder brushed my left and I caught a whiff of perfume above the alcohol and sweat. “Anyway,” she said without looking at me, “this one’s more to my taste.” Darleen stuffed a bill into the dancer’s g-string.

“How decadent,” I said blandly. “In a sort of pre-Stonewall way.” Darleen’s fingers slipped up my neck to tangle themselves in my hair, then snapped my face down on the bar. The last thing I saw was the glass ashtray, with a smoking cigarette marked by her cherry lipstick, coming toward me.

***

The first thing I saw when my eyes cleared was a smoking cigarette between her cherry lips. Darleen sat across a drink-stained table. My wrists were roped to my chair arms. I agreed with her expression of pitying contempt.

Darleen was quite the reader. The bookcase behind her was packed with everything from Alma Birdwell White through David Duke. Turning my head right, I saw a desk with a CSA flag behind it. Turning the other direction, I saw a hooded figure.

“Now that you’re awake, boy,” he said, “you can start talking. Sing.”

“What about?”

It didn’t really matter: he was more interested in his own singing. He sang a Wagnerian aria about NFL players taking a knee; the bigotry implicit in “Hate has no home here”; the NAACP; the black man as sexual threat; the importance of the Mexican border wall; and Bashar al-Assad as a role model. My phone buzzed twice during his performance, but I couldn’t get at it, and he ignored it.

The longer he talked, the more I sweated. Even occasional glimpses of Darleen’s splendid profile did not lift my spirits. It would take a miracle to get me out of there.

Miraculously enough, the cops busted in. When Darleen’s buddy drew a gun, I hastily tipped my chair over. I ended up face down on the ground (again), but I dodged the bullet. The supremacist in the hoodie had supremely bad aim; he nicked a water pipe. A cold drenching did nothing to improve the cops’ mood. They seemed inclined to take it out on him.

Plainville’s Second-Finest cut me loose. “Good job, Hamm,” he said, “giving us your client’s name. He gave us the scenario… and your number. When your cell went to voice mail…” he nodded toward the busted-in door.

Darleen twisted in the come-along, long enough to face me as they led her away. “So, asshole,” she said, “it looks like black lives do matter to Plainville cops.” I reported back to the client with the details. He seemed satisfied. The pix from the strip club in particular seemed to give him what he wanted. “Thank god,” he said, “it was lesbians. Imagine if it had been one of you people.”


Walter Lawn writes poetry and short fiction. His work has been published in Every Day Fiction, River Poets Journal, and the anthology Unclaimed Baggage. Walter is a disaster recovery planner, and lives outside of Philadelphia.


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