Room to Swing: The Lost Edgar Winner
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by Ed Lacy
Category: Mystery/Crime/Suspense/Thriller Edgar Award Winner
Description: The Blazingly Tough Edgar Winner for Best Mystery Novel 1958! First time in eBook form! If you're Toussaint Moore, a private investigator from New York City, and a Negro, framed in your own city for a white man's murder, you are going to find it tricky sledding in a small Ohio town, close to the Kentucky border. But the small town was where Moore felt he had to be, to try to find proof for the police that he was innocent of the killing. To do so he would have to face raicism and the killer--and to survive he would need plenty of room to swing! Crime thriller giant, Ed Lacy, produced a trail-blazing story when he tackled the theme of a black detective in a dangerous small town years before In the Heat of the Night! An usual story--a very exciting one--which handles with exceptional insight a Negro's experiences in a large northern city and a small, bordering-on-the-South town. Writer and critic Ed Gorman writes: "Room To Swing" remains high on my list of hardboiled mystery novels. There was a lyricism, almost a poetry, to the writing that touched not only the powerful, melancholy storyline but also the elegant and evocative place descriptions. I've always regarded this as a true masterpiece. Certainly, its take on race makes it a milestone, too. But the sociology of it too often overshadows the sad truth of the tale itself. I liked several other Lacy novels very much, too, but Room is the one that got him to heaven....
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner Editions,
eBookwise Release Date: December 2007
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [226 KB]
Reading time: 151-212 min.
I BROKE par in Bingston. It's a little town of a couple of thousand in southern Ohio and you can take in the entire town in about three minutes. It took me less than a minute to learn all I wanted to know-that I'd made a mistake coming here.
The main drag looks bigger than it should because they get a lot of trade from nearby farms. I parked my car in front of the largest store-a drugstore-and went in. The few people passing stared at me like I'd stepped out of a flying saucer. Okay, even though my Jaguar is an eight-year-old job I picked up for six hundred bucks, any foreign heap attracts attention. A fact which was worrying me nuts at the moment; attention was the last thing I needed.
I was a positive sensation inside the store-everything stopped dead still. The fat soda jerk stared at me with disbelief, a guy having breakfast at the counter spun around, toast in mouth, and made big eyes, the druggist was getting some mail from an old Negro postman and they both looked startled. It was a well-stocked place, more like a general store. I saw the phone booths and walked over. The Bingston phone book is about the size and thickness of a Broadway theater program. There wasn't any May Russell listed.
Figuring there had to be more to the phone book than this booklet, I started toward the soda jerk to ask. He reacted like a ham actor, his round face showing horror, then a fat grin of relief as he glanced at the door. I turned to see a cop coming at me, coming fast. Some small-town cops sport musical-comedy uniforms. This one was a stocky, middle-aged joker in high-polished black boots, gray breeches with a wide purple stripe down the sides, leather wind-breaker with the largest badge I ever saw, and a kind of cowboy hat. There wasn't any doubt as to why he was coming; his gun was loose in its holster and he was actually holding a billy in his right hand. I didn't see how they could be looking for me so soon, but my stomach began turning somersaults. I got set; if I could flatten this cop and make the door I was safe.
The mailman was suddenly in my way, both hands on my right fist as he whispered, "Relax, son."
"Get out of my face!" I said, pulling my hand away. The cop was on top of us. The mailman nodded at him and said, "Hello, Mr. Williams."
"Hello, Sam. Anything for me?"
"I left a few letters at your office," the postman said, still blocking me.
The cop asked me, "Stranger in town, boy?"
"Yeah." I'd been called boy more times in the last half a dozen hours than in my whole life.
"That's what I thought. I'd better explain a few things to you."
"What things?" I said, my eyes on his billy hand. I pushed the mailman out of the way but the damn fool stepped right back in front of me.
"What you doing here, boy?"
"Looking in the phone book. That against the law?"
"Nope. I thought maybe you was thinking of eating in here. Being new, maybe you don't know it ain't the custom for colored to eat in here."
I got a little mad and I relaxed, almost sagged with relief. I was still in the clear. The crazy thing that stuck in my mind was that this cop had a kind face, and if anything, he was talking very gently--with the billy ready for action. I told him, "I wasn't planning on eating the phone book."
The cop grinned, his eyes taking in my Fifth Avenue clothes-and he'd sure seen the Jaguar outside. Then his eyes went over my broken nose and the fact I had about a half a foot and at least sixty pounds on him, and he looked a trifle unhappy again. "Understand, I don't want no trouble. Being you're a new boy around here, I want to straighten you out."
"Then we're straight. That all there is to the phone book?" I nodded toward the booths.
"That's the phone book. Who you looking for?"
"Must have the wrong town. I didn't see the party listed," I said, walking around the mailman, heading for the door.
The postman said, "I know about everybody in Bingston," and his brown face said plainly, "As one Negro to another, let me help you."
"That's okay, forget it." I walked outside and looked up and down the main street, saw it all without straining my neck. A movie, two small hotels, several supermarkets, a couple dozen stores, and maybe another "business" street crossing this one about a block down.
The town letter carrier was standing beside me. He said, "Guess you must be from up North. Bingston isn't a mean town for coloured, just a little old-fashioned. No sense getting into trouble, son."
"Skip the race-relations lecture, Uncle. You know a May Russell?"
A darker anger flooded his brown face at "Uncle." He started to walk away, saw the cop watching us from the store door. He turned back and told me, "Look, we don't want trouble in this town. I've lived here all my life and our people have made progress in Bingston."
"You going to straighten me out, too? I stop to look at a phone booth and I'm trouble. How far south is Ohio?"
"Asking for May Russell will start real trouble. She isn't for coloured men."
"What's that mean?"
"She's a ... a ... scarlet lady!" he whispered.
I broke down and laughed. I hadn't heard that phrase since I read The Scarlet Letter in high-school and was disappointed that it wasn't hot stuff. The mailman laughed a little, showing crooked teeth. "Got me wrong, Pops. There a hotel where I can put up for a couple of days?"
"No hotel here, for coloured. We only have thirty-nine Negro families in Bingston."
"Hell, doesn't Ohio have a civil-rights law, or any-?"
"We're right on the border of Kentucky, so--" he waved a stubby brown hand southward-"we don't get many out-of-town coloured persons. Mrs. Kelly takes in roomers but she's full up. How long do you plan on staying?"
"Couple days. I'm a ... a musician. I'm on my way up to Chicago; thought this May Russell was the friend of a guy I knew."
"I knew you were theater folk. What's the name of this friend you're looking for? Knowing everybody here is my business."
"An army buddy. Just called him Joe.... Must have the wrong town," I said, lying wildly. "Tell you the truth, Pops, I've been on the road a lot and have a slight cold. I want to rest up for a few days."
"You certainly don't look sick. I'm Sam Davis. I suppose I can put you up at my house."
"Thanks. I'm Harry Jones," I said, picking a clever name out of the air.
As we shook hands he said, "Will two dollars a night and a dollar for meals be all right?"
"I'll phone Mary, my wife, that you're coming. You turn left on Elm, at the traffic light down the street. Then you keep walking for about five blocks and you'll see a brick house with wooden ducks on the front lawn. Wire fence. That's mine. You'll be in the coloured section. Ask anybody for Sam Davis' house. Not too much of a walk."
"I'm on rubber," I said, nodding at the Jaguar. He was impressed, asked, "Can you do a hundred in that?"
"With the gas pedal off the floor. Thanks for the room. I'll go right out and grab some sleep. Think it would cause a riot if I buy the local paper first?"
"Now, now, Mr. Jones, Bingston isn't that bad. The News don't come out till noon, unless you want yesterday's copy."
"Yesterday's will do. Like to read myself to sleep."
"You can buy one at the Smoke Shop across the street. I'll phone Mary that you're coming out."
I got the paper and, as I slid behind the wheel, the cop walked over and asked, chummy-like, "This a European auto?"
He was really friendly, yet if I wanted to get a cup of coffee in the drugstore he would bash my head in. "English."
"Pretty expensive, I bet?"
"You win the bet," I said, starting the Jag.
"Any better than our cars?"
"No," I said, backing out, I made the turn at the traffic light and pulled over to the curb. Elm Street was a lot of big houses with even bigger lawns. The paper had used the wire story from New York about a Richard Tutt being found beaten to death in his room, and that the police were looking for "a" Negro. Fingerprints had revealed Tutt's real name to be Robert Thomas and that he was a wanted criminal. At the bottom there were a few puff paragraphs about Thomas having been born in Bingston and wanted by the local police for the last six years. There wasn't anything I didn't know already, so I put the paper down and drove on.
The postman's house was better than I expected: old, but solidly built. In fact most of the houses in this "Negro" section looked pretty good. There was a driveway and a garage in the back. I parked in the driveway, in the rear of the house, locked the car. My license plates were muddy enough. A plump woman with a warm brown face opened the door, said, "You must be Mr. Jones. Come in. I've hardly had time to straighten up the guest room. Haven't used it since my cousin Allen, from Dayton, was here. Take me a minute to dust and--"
"I'm pooped," I said, suddenly aching with tiredness. "I'd like to go to bed now."
"You must think I'm a terrible housekeeper."
"I don't. I'm too tired to think anything. Can I go to my room now?"
"As you wish. You do look tired. I'll get you a towel. Where are your bags?"
"In the car," I lied. "I'll get them later."
I followed her upstairs to a large room filled with old, heavy furniture. The bed looked wonderful. She gave me a towel, said the bathroom was down the hall, and kept chattering about the dust and things. The room looked neat as a pin to me. I stopped her mouth by hanging my Harris-tweed overcoat in the large closet. She stood in the doorway, said, "Mr. Davis told you two dollars a night and--"
"Yeah." I gave her a five-dollar bill.
"Well, he was wrong about the meals. Food's gone up. It will be two dollars a day instead of one for meals."
"I'll give you your change later." She hesitated, pulled at her apron with the money hand. "I hope you're not a drinking man, Mr. Jones."
"I'm only a tired man. Good day, Mrs. Davis." When she left I hung up my coat, locked the door, hid my wallet and badge under the mattress, the data on Thomas under the rug. Taking off my nylon shirt and underwear, I made sure the hallway was empty and sprinted to the bathroom. It was the largest I'd ever seen. I took a fast shower, washing my shirt and stuff, toweled myself dry, and made another nude sprint down the hallway. I hung up the shirt and underwear carefully, pulled the shades down, and jumped into bed.
I wanted to think; I had to think if I wanted to get out of this mess. But I hadn't slept in two days and the bed was soft as a good dream. When I jerked myself awake the pale green hands on my wrist watch said it was ten o'clock. I'd pounded my ear for a dozen hours. I felt great-and mad as hell at wasting all that time.
I pulled up the shades; it was very dark outside, the dim street lights blocks apart. My wash was dry and I got my pipe working as I dressed. It wouldn't be safe to hang around this burg for more than a day or two, if it was safe at all. Normally it would be a cinch to shake a little town like Bingston clean in two days, only it was south and I had dark skin. I'd stand out and somebody would peg me as "the" Negro being hunted by the New York police.
I was too much of a stranger. If I only had a contact, somebody in town to do the more obvious asking around. Old super sleuth me, what asking? I didn't have one idea as to what I was looking for. A hick town could be either a wonderful hideout or a trap.
Taking out the TV data on Bob Thomas I read through it for the tenth time. I felt a little better, still had a hunch the killer had to come from Bingston. Unless it was a freak job, one that didn't fit any pattern. If it was a crazy killing, then I might as well go back and put it down in the electric chair.
The house was so quiet I knew the old couple were asleep. And I was hungry enough to see what the refrigerator held. The TV was on, giving the parlor an unreal glow. There was a young girl watching the screen. I could see her face clearly, a lean dark face, skin as dark as mine, hair piled atop her head au naturel. When she saw me she stood up and turned on a lamp. She was wearing a simple knitted gray suit that clung to her tall, strong figure. In the light she looked older than I thought, about twenty-seven. Her nose was short, her eyes large and deep, and she had full, heavy lips.
"Mr. Jones? I'm Frances Davis. Mom said you might want supper. Do you?"
The voice was low and sullen, maybe even bitter. "Where is everybody?"
"Asleep. It's after ten-late for us."
"Sorry I kept you up. I'll go out and grab a bite."
"Where? There ain't any 'coloured' restaurants here. You didn't keep me up; I'm a TV bug. If you want to eat follow me into the kitchen."
"Doesn't seem much worth getting up for at any time in Bingston," I said as she walked by me toward the kitchen. She was about six feet tall, and in flat shoes.
"Not if your skin isn't pale." She stopped in front of me. "Your shoulders make you seem short. You're not. And your clothes-they're the end. You're really togged down."
Up close her face looked a little on the cute side, the heavy lips and eyes interesting. "Thanks, honey. I like your suit too."
"Bought it in Cincinnati last year. How did you break your nose?" she asked, opening the kitchen door.
"Played football a lot of years ago. Had a pigskin scholarship-till the war came." The kitchen was big and bright, and a little crazy: very modern refrigerator and freezer, electric washing machine and electric grill-and an old-fashioned coal-burning stove polished a glistening black. She pointed toward a white table and I sat down as she took various pots out of the refrigerator, which was stocked with food. "Greens, rice, roast pork, biscuits, potatoes, and pie. Coffee or tea. Okay?"
"Fine, but I'll skip the biscuits and potatoes. And tea."
"What's your instrument and what band are you with?"
"Drums. I'm not with any outfit at the moment. Been playing a few club dates down in New Orleans and Lake Charles-heading up to Chicago for some more. Mostly wild-cat jobs."
"How's New Orleans?"
"Hot and damp. I was glad to blow the city."
"Man, I dug your Jaguar outside. It's the greatest."
"Honey, why don't you cut the phony jive talk?"
She turned from the coal stove, which must have been going all the time-the kitchen was overwarm. "I was putting it on for you, being you are a jazz man. Speaking of phony things, stop calling me Honey."
"Okay, Miss Frances. And I didn't mean to talk out of turn."
She gave me a quiet stare as she started loading my plate. "I took it as a compliment, Mr. Jones. Tell me, why did you come to Bingston?"
I didn't get the compliment angle. And it was time I started asking questions. Between mouthfuls of the fine food I said, "No reason, merely passing through and thought I'd rest up for a couple of days. I was reading the Bingston paper this morning; seems like you had a little excitement here-a local lad was killed in New York. Did you know this Tutt-or Thomas?"
"I remember him but I didn't know him. He was white. I read about his being killed. You know, the older I get the more I'm convinced whites are crazy."
I nodded, swallowed a lot of rice. "You remind me of my old man. He was a nationalist. Last thing I expected to find ... here."
"You mean in this wide-spot-in-the-road," she said, sitting opposite me, nibbling on a small hunk of pie. Her brown skin looked velvet smooth, and the kitchen light showed rather high cheekbones. "We didn't have to fight for integration here-this isn't really 'South.' Yet Bingston is a prison with colour bars. A Negro girl can only work at certain jobs; she has a choice, or a chance, of marrying only two or three single men; must live within a certain area; can't eat anyplace but--But you know that too."
"A small town is a small town, even for whites."
"And ten times as small for us!"
"Must be buses leaving here every day. This Thomas guy took off, and look how he ended up. What does Bingston think of his murder? Any-eh-fuss because a Negro was supposed to have done it?"
"It was different for him here; he was white, although a poor one. They even were doing a TV show about him. Sometimes I think of trying to make it in New York or Los Angeles-but I'm scared. You can be lonely in a big city too. Be different if I knew people there. And I've seen pictures of the Harlem and South Side slums, know they aren't any paradise."
"True, but at least you have more room to swing. Maybe this Thomas swung too wide?"
She shrugged her shoulders, seemed to have larger breasts than I'd thought. "I dream a lot about leaving here. Sometimes Bingston seems a living cemetery for me. Then I tell myself I'm living in a comfortable house with my folks, why should I run away? This is my town as much as the ofays'-why give it to them?"
"Doesn't Ohio have a civil-rights law?" I asked over another forkful of rice and gravy. Her words were giving me an idea-if I worked it right maybe I'd found my local helper.
"You mean do we fight back? Sure. As I told you, it isn't the actual law here as much as custom. But in the long run they mean the same thing. We're only a handful and most of us have 'good' jobs. For instance, I could make and save a lot of money as a domestic. But a few of us try to raise some sand-we've just won a two-year fight to sit in the orchestra of the movie house instead of the balcony. Big deal." She shook her head. "I shouldn't say that, it was a big thing. Only-damn, there has to be more to living than sitting in the orchestra."
"What do you do? Going to college?"
"My brother is at Howard. It makes me burn, Pop insisted on sending him to a coloured college. I wanted him to go to Ohio State. Another lost battle. I couldn't go to college. It wasn't a question of money-I'm just a female and marriage should be my career. Bunk!"
"Your folks are old-fashioned?"
"Pop finally sent me to a business school up in Dayton, as if anybody needs a brown secretary in Bingston. I work as a part-time typist for Mr. Ross, a mealy-mouthed tan lawyer and real-estate hustler. Has a family and a hobby--making passes at me. I also have a part-time job in a bakery a few blocks from here-result of another battle. That's what kills me; you have to fight for a lousy job selling cakes. Want your tea now?"
"Yes, thanks." I cut into the pie. It was wonderful. "Has this Thomas killing started any feeling here against coloured?"
"No. If anything, people are relieved that he's dead."
"According to the papers he was a one-man crime wave before he took off."
"He broke out of jail."
"He was in for rape and assault, wasn't he?"
She got up to get the tea. For no reason I noticed her legs were strong and not skinny. I sugared the tea as she sat down again, took out a pack of butts. I pointed to my pipe sticking out of my breast pocket as I got a match working. She blew a small cloud of smoke at the ceiling, said nothing. "Rape and assault. He must have been a sweet character," I said, trying to get back to Thomas.
"That was a joke-the rape part. Porky Thomas never had to rape May Russell."
"Porky?" This wasn't down on my data sheet.
"He was always hungry as a kid. He'd eat anything, like a pig. But why talk of him? He just got what a black boy gets every day If he steps out of 'line'-framed. Did you buy your Jaguar in England?"
"No." I wondered what she meant by Thomas being framed. "Did Porky...?"
"I thought maybe you traveled abroad with a band. I'm saving for a trip to Europe. My favorite daydream."
"That's one thing we have over the ofays; leaving the States is more of a joy for us."
Her eyes sparkled. "Have you been abroad?"
"Paris, Berlin, Rome, Leghorn. I was a captain in the army," I said, talking too much. "What did you mean by saying Thomas was framed?"
"A captain-well! I wanted to join the WAC's once, to travel. How is Paris, really, how is it?"
"Wonderful. Look, about--"
"Imagine being able to walk anyplace without even wondering if you're welcome. Seeing your car set me dreaming again. Those bucket seats, they're so different."
"Care to take a ride? Any place we can stop for a drink?"
"Thank you but I don't want to take a ride," she said, but I knew she did. "There is an after-hours shack out in the country where they sell bootleg stuff. But it's a depressing, dirty place."
I stood up. "Then let's just take a ride."
She didn't get up. Looking at the table she said, "No."
"Come on, I want to see the city."
"At night? No, Mr. Jones, it sounds too much like the well-dressed city smoothie giving the country-bumpkin gal a break."
"What?" I laughed. "I'm not going to make a pass at you. Not that you ain't pretty, but I won't make play. Or do you think I will?"
"I think you're a liar, Mr. Jones." She said it softly, staring up at me with bold eyes. "You told Pop you were driving all yesterday, why should you want to drive some more? You talk of New Orleans and Chicago but your car has New York plates. Exactly what are you doing in Bingston?"
"I told you, merely resting..."
"I know what you told us."
I didn't know what to say; wondered why I was suddenly frightened of this young girl. I stood there like a dummy for a second, then for no reason I pulled out my wallet, asked, "Should I pay you now for...?"
Her eyes stopped me, although she didn't say a word for a moment; then she said, "Oh ... put your damn money away! Do you think I'm asking because I'm afraid you'll run out on your bill? Maybe you're right, money-grabbing is another small-town hobby. My God, Pop and Mom, they just sock it away.... All the time I was a kid, even when I was in high school, I rarely saw Mom. She was cooking and busting suds in a white house, even bringing home leftover food for us. And Pop making as much as anybody else in town!"
She looked away and I stood there, liking Frances, feeling sorry for her-and still afraid. She broke the awkward silence with "You can stay here the night but I want you to leave in the morning. You're not a drummer. I'm a jazz nut, and I know the name of every bandman in the country. I don't believe you came up from New Orleans in that Jaguar: if you'd been in the deep South you never would have walked into the drugstore acting like you wanted to slug Mr.-the cop. Pop told me about that."
"I seem to have been quite a conversation piece," I said, thinking I had no choice now, I had to trust her before she asked too many questions.
"Any stranger causes talk in a small town. You want to stay in Bingston, that's your business. But you're also in our house and that makes it my business. All during supper you've been trying to quiz me about Porky Thomas and ... Well, I even doubt your name is Jones."
"You're right. I'm Toussaint Marcus Modre from New--"
She clapped her hands and laughed, the laughter lighting up her face. "How wonderful! Marcus after Marcus Garvey, of course!"
"Yeah. My father ... naming me like that I don't have to tell you any more about him. Frances, you've made a lot of big talk about rights. I'm a private detective-there's a coloured man being framed for the Thomas killing back in New York. That's why I'm here. I need help badly--your help."
She stood up. "A private eye?"
I flashed my badge.
"I'll be glad to help in any way I can, Toussaint ... Touie."
I said cautiously, "Wait up. Something else you have to know-it won't be safe or easy. Remember I said a coloured man is being framed for the murder. I certainly won't involve you, but at the same time helping me is ... messy."
"I don't care, I'll--" The bitterness came back to her face abruptly. "You?"
I nodded. "The New York City police are looking for a Negro they found with Thomas' body. That's me; I was there. You have to believe I didn't do it. New York or down in Cotton Patch Corners, when a black man is found around a body it's all the same-he's guilty."
She was staring at me with wide eyes. "But you're a detective."
"I was shadowing Thomas. Frances, I think the answer to the killing has to be in Bingston. I have about twenty-four hours to come up with the answer before 'a' Negro is known to be me. Still want to help?"
She was looking at me as if she was about to cry. Then she turned and started stacking the dishes in the sink. I waited a moment, feeling sick. I said, "Okay, I don't blame you. But give me one break, don't tell anyone what I've--"
"I'd like to take that ride now. I'll get my coat."
I went upstairs and got my coat and hat. Frances was waiting at the door dressed in a plain cloth coat that looked baggy and worn, an ugly woolen stocking cap on her head. A door opened upstairs and Mrs. Davis stuck her gray head over the banister, asked, "Where are you going, Fran?"
"Mr. Jones is taking me for a ride," she said, opening the front door.
"At this hour? Fran, I want to talk to you for a--"
"Mama, it's perfectly all right. Go to bed, please. We'll be back soon."
Outside it was cold and dark. Unlocking the car door I turned to look at her dark face, tried to remember a poem I'd once read about the "night being dark like me." Then I wondered if I was being taken; perhaps the ride she meant was directly to the local police station? But somehow I trusted her-not that I had any choice.
The Jag was dirty. I'd been refused service on the trip down, and had to eat in the car. "Excuse the condition of the car. I--"
"Let's drive. It's cold." She shivered.
We got in and I backed out of the doorway and headed for noplace, just drove. I opened the heater. After a long silence Frances asked, "Can you tell me what happened, Touss ... Touie?"
"Sure. I want to. All started three days ago-seems like a lifetime now. But three days ago I was sitting in my office..."