January 1, 1945
Five hundred yards from the beach, a gloved hand choked the outboard motor. All six black-clad men took up silent oars. They rowed towards shore, urging the raft through whitecaps with a strong wind at their backs. Two hundred yards out, where the breakers began to build, Judith in her wetsuit slid, practiced and liquid, over the side.
She said nothing to the men and they did not speak to her. She merely sucked in breath at the bite of the icy water through her rubber sheath, then pushed off from the raft to avoid a dipping oar. The boat eased away. She turned to kick for shore. Behind her, slaps of water against the raft faded beneath the wind.
Judith spit saltwater. Her dive mask barred water from her eyes but the immense cold clawed her cheeks and stung through the wetsuit. She kept her arms wrapped to her chest, letting the suit and knapsack and her fins keep her buoyant in the surging surf.
A hundred yards from shore, Judith lowered her legs to float upright. A wave boosted her. At the crest she took a quick look at the beach under a veiled quarter moon. The coming storm flung foam off the whitecaps, a rabid water. She lifted the mask from her eyes to see better. She sank into a trough but another, taller roller swept in fast. Judith scanned the dark coastline, peering over the gray-scathed backs of waves. She saw nothing but vacant sand flats. No light glowed from the blacked-out town four miles behind.
She lowered her mask. The last hundred yards to the shore went numb.
"It's sure blowin' stink," she said.
With a hand on his belly, the man agreed. Spray from the surf speckled the windshield of his pickup truck parked on the packed sand of Plum Island.
"Nor'easter," he said, pointing out the direction of the wind to the woman on the seat beside him.
"Forecast called for it," she replied. "Gonna be a bitch of a New Year's day."
"Yeah, happy New Year's."
The two leaned across the seat to the center and kissed lightly. He had to angle down because she was short. He patted her leg when he straightened.
"What time you got?" she asked.
He dug under his cuff for his watch. "We're getting here a little late. We left the party a little before two. So I figure it's...yep, two ten."
"What do you think?"
"I think it's blowin' stink, like you said. You dressed warm enough? You got a couple sweaters under them oilskins?"
"Yeah," she said, running palms over her waterproof coat, "but geez. Look at it. It's cold as a well digger's ass out there. Why we gotta be so gung ho all of a sudden? Who's gonna invade Newburyport?"
"Honestly, Bonny, don't start. You and me got the graveyard shift this week. You knew that. Take the good with the bad, that's how it goes."
"Yeah, but..." She raised a hand at the crashing surf out in the dim light, water bashing the sand so hard that mist spewed. The pickup rocked a little with the wind, but it might have been Otto's weight shifting to face her.
"This is what we volunteered for," he said. "Guarding the coastline. Think about the boys in uniform, they're doin' tougher shit than this all the time. You know that."
"Yeah, I know."
"Look, I understand we been kind of slack about this Civil Defense thing. All of us, the whole town. But I been doing a lot of thinking since that Battle of the Bulge started over in Belgium. You don't think our boys are cold over there?"
She spread her hands.
"Huh?" he prodded. "You think?"
"Yeah, but look at this."
"I am lookin' at it, Bonny. And I think it's time we started doin' our jobs here. That's all I'm saying."
"But Otto, geez Louise. Nobody's doin' nothing in this weather. You think the Germans are coming tonight? They're not gonna, okay? You and me are the only ones out in this."
"And that's a good thing. Come on, gimme another kiss. It'll warm you up."
"You. All you think about."
"Is you. Come on."
With a sigh, she considered him.
She gave him more than a peck.
"Yeah, that'a girl," he said, pulling back to sit straight again. His gut extended far enough to rub the steering wheel. "Hey."
She shook her nose at him, feigning annoyance that he wanted to get out of the pickup into this wintry, blustery night.
"Look, I gotta ask. You don't think Arnold knows, does he? He was acting kind of weird yesterday when he came in the store. And tonight at the party."
"Naw. He's always weird. He still thinks I'm crazy for joinin' the cee-dee. What the hell. I told him he should join, too, you know, do somethin'. But he just goes to work and comes home and sits with his damn stamp collection. All night. Every weekend. Unless he's fishing. I swear to God."
She lifted hands in front of her face, exasperated with the image of her husband. Slothful, skinny, only thinks about himself and his postage stamps.
"Okay," she said, fighting her temper, "okay, I won't do that. He's not your problem. He ain't here right now. Just you and me, right?"
The big man had tilted the back of his head against the window, away from her.
He watched while she took hold of herself.
"Okay," he said, "Look, I know what. You stay in the truck a little while, calm down. I'll make one trip down to the Rowley line, then come and get you. How's that? Okay? You stay here, baby."
"You gonna be warm enough?"
"I'm fine," he chortled, banging his stomach. "I got my winter fat on me. Be back in about an hour. I got some schnapps in the glove compartment there. Have a snort. What the hey, it's New Year's, right?"
"Right. You're a good man, Otto."
"I try. So, I'll be back. You bundle up. I'll leave the keys, case you want to run the heater some."
He squeezed her knee before opening the car door. He moved fast into the blowing chill to shut the door quickly. With a gloved fist he thumped the truck's hood, making one deep and hollow beat.
Inside the cab, she watched him walk up the beach. Moonlight lay across Otto's big back. He soon slipped it and stepped into the dark.
When he had disappeared, she pushed the starter to crank the engine and run the heater full blast. She took his bottle from the glove compartment for a single, long pull. She put the bottle away, and stared straight out to sea.
On hands and knees, Judith crawled over the last film of bubbles and saltwater. On dry sand, she dropped to her stomach. Her skin was so deadened she did not feel the grit of the beach against her frozen cheek. She closed her eyes and caught her breath, angry at the cold water but glad of the storm which blew her ashore; without the waves sweeping her forward, she might not have made it.
Inside her rubber suit she wriggled finger and toes; they felt like cadaver's digits. She hacked up a slime of mucous and salt, barely lifting her face to spit. Judith opened her eyes and rolled to her back, finding the knapsack there. She sat up and shrugged the straps from her shoulders.
The pack was waterproof and difficult to pry open with clumsy hands inside thick gloves. With her teeth, she gripped one glove to pull it off. The effort drained her energy.
With the hand bared, she flexed it to flush blood to her fingers. The second glove came off with trouble too. She kicked the fins from her feet and hurried with the knapsack. The soaked wetsuit sapped her body's remaining warmth on this icy beach. Her hands trembled. She needed dry clothes, quickly.
The twin zippers of the pack slid reluctantly. Judith pinched the grips by sight, not by feel; her fingertips relayed nothing. The top item was a black wool watch cap. She peeled the hood of the wetsuit off her head, rubbed her ears hard to animate them, then tugged on the cap, tucking up her wet hair. She kept her eyes cutting into the darkness and mist. She'd made landfall right on target. The beach road should be about a hundred yards north from where she knelt.
Judith hauled down the zipper of her wetsuit. Her hands remained slow to thaw, even in leather gloves.
She spread apart the wetsuit from her naked chest, molting the rubber off her shoulders and arms. The thin moonlight milk diluted her coffee skin to a pallor. Her breasts and sternum prickled with chill bumps. From the pack she plucked a flannel long john top and a heavy wool fisherman's sweater. Quickly, she spread her arms into them. She brushed sand from her buttocks, skimming the hard, cold muscles there, then shoved her legs into the bottom of the long johns and a pair of oilskin pants, cinching the waist. Using socks to swipe sand from her feet, she sensed nothing of her toes. The laces of her boots were tied badly, in a rush. A dark pea coat unfolded out of the bag, and Judith was dressed like a New England lobsterman. She rolled her wetsuit around the fins and mask to cram them into the satchel. She was ready to move off the beach. The last item taken out of the pack was a long, sheathed blade. She tucked this in a boot and covered the haft with her trouser leg.
Judith looked left and right. At her back, breakers unfurled and pounded, wind drove froth and sand; snow would fall out of this storm before morning. Intelligence stated that this part of the beach, a mile south of the Coast Guard station and summer homes of Joppa, near the head of the Plum Island road, would be clear for fifty minutes following every hour dusk to dawn. The report said the townspeople guarded their territory haphazardly, like a community hobby.
Judith stood, warm now and limber.
She took three steps and did not see or hear the idling truck before the headlights nailed her.
Bonny muttered, "Who the hell...?"
The figure caught in the headlights stopped. The guy just popped up out of the sand, maybe forty yards straight ahead down at the water's edge. How could Otto have missed him, just standing there?
And what the hell was the guy doing out in this godforsaken weather? Watching the waves on a freezing New Year's morning? Drunk?
The man started walking again towards the truck. He didn't look drunk, he strode erect and on the beam. A little in a hurry. He had one hand up to his armpit, tucked in the strap of a sack or something on his back. Dressed like a fisherman but he was slender; those men tend to be thick, hard, and bearded. Besides, with the war on, all the young ones were gone. Bathed in the headlights, coming on, he seemed tan skinned, maybe one of those Portuguese up from Gloucester. Bonny watched in a quandary, wishing Otto hadn't left.
"Son of a bitch," she grumbled to Otto, him and his do-the-job-for-the-boys-overseas bullshit. If he'd stayed right here in the warm truck, he'd be getting the chance, instead of leaving her alone to do it.
She opened the glove compartment. Losing sight of the stranger for seconds, she took one more pull on the schnapps. She screwed the cap back on, growing nervous, and tossed the bottle on the bench.
"Okay," she breathed. "Okay."
Without taking her eyes off the advancing stranger now, she reached her arm over the seat, down into the space behind. She rattled her hand through trash, oil cans, rags and coffee mugs until she found what she was looking for, a tire iron. She grabbed it.
Bonny clapped it once into her palm, satisfied it had enough heft. She left the motor running, the headlamps on, and got out of the truck.
"Can I help you?" she called the moment her boots were on the sand, even before she slammed closed the truck door. The wind blew her words back. "Sir?" she shouted louder, "Can I help you?"
The figure, washed in the lights, walked closer, unconcerned. Bonny held the tire iron out where the fellow could see it. Maybe he didn't speak English.
"Sir? You understand this is a restricted area after dark? There's a curfew in effect."
Bonny took a few strides to the stranger, to put herself in front of the lamps where she could be seen and appreciated as an authority figure with a weapon in her hands. The slender man stayed silent, raising a gloved hand in greeting. He smiled.
"I need you to stop right there, sir."
He came ahead, waving, friendly but ignoring her command.
Bonny gripped the tire iron with both hands.
When the stranger was a dozen steps away from the truck and casting a long shadow on the beach, he held his position.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I did not hear you. The ocean."
He had an accent. Bonny couldn't place it. Probably one of the Portuguese.
"I said, sir, that this is a closed beach after dark. There's a curfew. I need to see some identification." Bonny enunciated clearly. The guy must be stupid and foreign since he wasn't drunk.
The stranger screwed up his face. It was a lean face on a tall frame. He raised his hand to his dark watch cap. He pulled off the hat and black hair tumbled to his shoulders.
Bonny eased her grip on the tire iron.
"Honey, what are you doin' out here like this? It's the middle of the damn night in a damn storm. Where you from?"
The woman shrugged, hat in hand. "I had a fight, with my husband. He tried to hit me. I took a walk, that was all."
The accent was French-like. Some kind of European, anyway. She had blue eyes, odd to go with that skin.
"I was here, just here." The woman pointed off with the headlights, to the water's edge. "Sitting when you drove up."
No you weren't, Bonny thought. Otto would've seen you, missy.
"Let me see some ID." Her right fist closed again around the base of the tire iron, the knobby end in her left palm. She didn't know and couldn't guess who or what this woman was, or what her business was out here in a restricted area with a nor'easter on its way in the dark. Or how she got here. But all that would be hashed out before this gal walked on.
"Yes, yes," the woman answered eagerly. "I have here."
She dug into her pea coat for a slip of paper, then held it out. Bonny held back, making the woman step up to hand it over.
Bonny raised the slip to the headlights. A Massachusetts driver's license, made out to Arcadia Figueroa of Newburyport. On East Boylston Street.
This woman wearing a New England waterman's clothes carried a lot of unanswered questions about her. But one thing Bonny was certain of: this gal was not living on East Boylston Street. Not with that hair and smile and those blue eyes. Bonny would know. Every married woman in Newburyport, and maybe Ipswich and Rockport, would know.
Bonny returned the driver's license. The black leather of the glove the woman extended was thin, not made for warmth, not waterproof, not fit for hauling lobster pots and nets.
"How long you lived on Boylston?"
Long enough to get yourself a driver's license, though you walked out here four miles from town in wicked cold.
"What's in the knapsack?"
The woman dropped the bag from her shoulder, settling it between her boots.
"I thought I would leave my husband. I packed clothes. Is all."
"Let me see."
The woman cocked her head. Her eyes flickered.
"Just let me go my way." Her voice had changed, withdrawing something.
"Can't do that, honey."
"Why do you want to look in my bag?"
The accent was gone.
Bonny stared at her, lit up in the headlights. The first new year's snow flakes tumbled into the beams.
"I don't know. Belgium, I guess."
The woman shook her head. She did not understand. Bonny almost did not.
Bonny stood as firm as she could, not tall but dutiful. She held the tire iron ready, while the mystery woman kneeled to her satchel in the sand.
No other way presented itself.
Judith sprang. She swept the knife right-handed out of the sheath, clutching the haft so the long blade lay flat against her forearm, hidden, lunging up and forward, as though throwing a punch. Three steps away, the woman had only a second to brace herself and raise the iron bar in her hands. Judith timed her own move just slowly enough, telegraphing it to allow the woman to gather her instincts and counter with a swing of the bar. This was what Judith wanted.
Ducking the rod aimed at her head, Judith jabbed her own fist up inside the sweeping circle of the woman's arms. With a snap of her wrist, the blade jutted like a jackknife, slashing across the inside of the woman's right forearm, through her coat sleeve and deep into the meat.
Judith retracted her knifehand, flipping the hilt without thinking to a thrust grip. The woman's right arm fell away, unable to clench now, with all the tendons slit. She held the bar only with her left. The inside of her good arm lay bare to Judith's next rip. One more swift slice in the other coat sleeve dropped the iron bar to the sand.
No blood dripped yet.
The bar lay at the woman's feet. She stumbled away from it, sliding down the auto's bright beams toward the ocean. Now she was the one lit up. Snow spangled around her, a halo of fresh, dry crystals. She held her short arms out, both hands dangled off the wrists like broken necks. She was open, begging. Judith closed the distance in three swift steps. The woman's lips moved but she said nothing, or Judith did not hear her.
One cut across the windpipe, and Judith could move on out of these lights.
She waggled the blade to confuse the woman where the final gash would be aimed. The woman picked up her backwards pace, foolish, blood at last rolling off her dead fingers, spotty trails on the sand. Judith ignored the woman's face and focused on her neck, the flowing carotids left and right. Backhand. Forehand. Judith leaped.
She hung stymied in the air. Her knifehand swung and missed, her own head yanked backwards, eyes wide on snowflakes.
"Get off her!"
A man's bellow. A powerful hand clenched her hair.
A fist or knee buried hard in her kidney. Judith gasped at the pain and arched. She saw false stars. The big hand in her hair combined with his other hand crushing her knife arm to force her to her knees.
"Otto!" the woman blubbered. "She...look what she did!"
"Shut up, shut up!" the voice behind Judith shouted. "I see!" The hand in her hair twisted. "Put the knife down, lady! Put it fucking down!"
The strong mitt in her hair hauled back more, stretching her neck as if the man had a knife as well, to slice her throat instead. Judith looked upside-down into the night, to get a fix on his silhouette.
The woman in front bleated, "Bitch!" Judith did not see the blow come and fought to stay conscious when the boot smashed her ribcage.
"Lady, one more time! Put down the knife or I swear to God I'll snap you in two!"
Judith drew what breaths she could with her throat strained backwards and her ribs on fire. She could not twirl on the man and slash at him, not with her head pulled back and her right shoulder pinned, her knees ground into the sand. She bent her elbow to hold out the knife, to show him she was accepting his command. She lowered the blade slowly, gaining seconds, scrambling for fragments of clarity.
With the sand just at her knuckles, she took one more pained and reverse glance at the man. Was he to the left or right? He was centered, straight behind.
The fist tightened in her hair. She felt rip out of her scalp.
"Put it down! And I fucking mean now!"
"Bitch!" the bleeding woman screeched again.
Judith opened her hand to release the knife.
Before it could roll from her fingers to the sand, she flipped the balanced blade --- a thing she knew intimately --- to her waiting left hand. The move was instant; her left arm started before the knife arrived. Judith collapsed at the waist, allowing the man's press to buckle her. This brought his weight forward, locking him in place, letting her reach the knife farther back.
She stretched the blade behind him, then yanked the razor edge across the top of his boot, through the Achilles tendon. She carved as fiercely as she could. Bone scraped the blade, and she levered against it. She pulled the knife through, then waited for the man to fall. She looked the bleeding woman in the face.
The big man bellowed and toppled to his left. His right hand pulled off Judith's shoulder, his left stayed in her hair. She fell with him, keeping her gaze on the woman who'd kicked her, with a look that said I will attend to you in a moment.
Judith let herself fall to her left shoulder, still turned away from the man. When they were both down, he tried to regain his hold on her, flailing for a grip. Before he could attach his other meaty arm, she flicked the knife back to her right hand and, blind, just by the feel of where he lay behind her, raised the knife and pounded it down in one lighting hack, pegging hard into his heart.
The man reacted like he'd been touched by a live wire. His body spasmed, the gushing left calf sprayed murky blood. Judith lost her grip on the hilt sticking out of his chest. The woman screamed again. Judith pivoted to her. Still shrieking, the woman hoisted both arms. With the loose wrists, she looked like a chimp. Judith watched her turn and run out of the headlamps.
Judith leaped from the jerking body and took off. The woman ran awkwardly. She did not get far out of the beams before Judith caught up.
From behind, Judith dragged her down by the collar. Gamely she beat her damaged hands in Judith's face, slapping and slinging blood. Judith sat on the woman's torso and strangled her. She left the body where it lay.
This had all gone wrong. She would need help making it right.
She trod over the beach towards the man's body. He had crawled backstroking out of the headlights, and now lay motionless in the pale spill of the beams, only ten yards from the water's edge. The falling snow thickened, dancing on the cold sea breeze. Judith ignored the big corpse for a moment and went to the idling truck. She opened the cab door and cut the engine and headlights. Fumbling on the floorboard, she found a rag to wipe her face, neck and gloves of blood, pocketing the cloth. She picked up her knapsack and walked along the man's trail in the sand.
The knife was gone!
Judith dropped to her knees to look. He must have wrenched it out of his chest and thrown it. Some stupid, dying instinct. But where, how far?
She ran back to the pickup truck, got in and started the engine. She shifted into gear and goosed the headlights around to stare across the body. Again on her knees, then on her feet running back and forth, she searched the ripples of sand for the knife. Nothing. She searched for as long as she dared. He must have thrown it into the water, that was the only answer. Good, she thought. In these breakers it will roll out to deeper water.
Judith shut off the headlights, glaring at a corpse on the beach, then cut the motor. She shouldered her pack, looked once at what she'd done, and set off jogging for the road to town, to make this right.
Judith dodged only one car, seeing it come from a long way off on the Plum Island Road. She moved from the paved surface to wait beneath a bridge, out of the snow. She caught her breath in steaming wisps. The car rumbled overhead. Judith noted it was a police car, cruising New Year's morning, probably looking for locals stumbling away from parties, to take them home and tuck them in, in that American small town way. She watched to make sure the police car did not go all the way out the beach road, to check on the man and woman guarding the sands with their lives. Instead, the car turned left, north towards the Coast Guard station and the few rows of ocean homes there. Judith clambered out from under the bridge and resumed her run.
On the outskirts of town, she slowed to a quick, quiet walk. The snow ghosted the streets and earth and began to build. Judith stepped through the blacked-out central village, keeping to the narrow residential lanes of old clapboard seaman's homes from another century, pastels and battered shutters, some finer homes in brick. She located Woodland Street, and found the house and garage on a rise with a view of the river.
She crept behind the house to the garage. The combination in her head worked the lock. She parted the slat doors and peered inside. The garage smelled musty and unused, but there in almost complete darkness sat the car. Judith slipped inside the garage, feeling down the driver side for the door handle. She opened it. The keys were in the ignition.
Closing the garage, she crunched across the mounting snow to the back door of the house. An old step creaked under her boot. Before she could take the knob of the screen door, the inner door flung open. The hammer of a pistol cocked.
"What are you doing here, dearie?"
Judith stopped at the bottom of the steps.
"Something went wrong at the beach. I need to come inside."
"No, you need to get in that car and drive away, like you're supposed to. Now be a good girl."
"I need your help."
The voice issued through the screen door, from the blackness of the house. Judith could make out only the snub barrel of a revolver and a white, steady hand.
"I've been plenty of help already. You've found the car. A map's in the glove compartment with a gas ration book. The registration's over the visor and it's an excellent fake. Everything else you asked for is in a bag in the trunk. That's all I was told to do, and I've done it."
Judith moved her gloved hand to the screen door handle.
The voice hissed, "If you open that door, my dear, I will shoot you where you stand and tell the police you were a burglar. You're certainly dressed like one."
Judith pulled open the screen door and spoke up the peeling painted steps, into the inky house and the black eye of the pistol.
"Then I think someone might come and ask for their money back. And perhaps a bit more than money."
Judith laid her boot on the step.
"Ten minutes. No more. Then I'm gone. Now put that away before I take it from you."
Judith strode into the house. The revolver floated backwards, still trained on her, then disappeared. A match scratched and flared, drifting to a lantern on a table. Judith stood in a kitchen, with an old woman in a cotton nightdress who set her gun on a countertop beside a toaster.
The old woman said, "Wait here. Don't touch anything." She left the kitchen.
Judith eyed the revolver, an out-of-place thing, like her.
The woman returned garbed in pants and a flannel shirt.
"What happened?" she asked.
The woman pulled out one kitchen chair for herself and sat at the table. She slid the lantern out of the center of the table, and in this way told Judith to sit opposite her. Judith did not know her name and would not know it.
Judith pulled off her wool cap, letting her hair fall. The gesture was intended to tell the woman she was the younger and more powerful, and for the woman to be careful. Judith pulled off her knapsack, dropped it, and sat.
"Your information was wrong."
"No," the woman denied. Judith gazed at the liver spots on the woman's hands spread on the table, tiny shadows between the creases of her knuckles. The hands flexed.
"No, I'm sure everything was right. Two o'clock to six, every night. Mile and a half walk each way, one hour back to the truck. I been taking cookies and coffee out to that goddam beach in the middle of the night a dozen times. Every time the same. No."
The woman stirred in her chair. She wiped a hand over her lips. Judith watched.
"Tonight was Bonny and Otto. I know those two. Otto's a stickler, he would've been on time, no matter what."
The woman put her hands in her lap, below the cool table. A deep breath escaped her. She took the measure of Judith with a long glance, then said:
"Oh my God, girl. What'd you do?"
Judith would remember them now as Bonny and Otto. She had their blood in her pocket, on a rag.
"Bonny stayed in the truck. She saw me leaving the beach."
The old woman dropped her eyes.
"Both of them."
The lantern guttered, the kitchen jittered to the flame. The old woman returned a hand to her mouth.
"Don't tell me. I don't want to know. I'll find out when everyone else does."
"I wasn't going to."
The old woman cut her eyes across the kitchen to the pistol on the counter.
"This wasn't my fault," she said.
"It doesn't matter."
The old woman could not tell if this was forgiveness. Judith passed a gloved hand between them, a gesture to wipe away blame. The woman nodded.
"I need more information."
"Then you do what I tell you. After that, you go back to sleep."
The old woman chuckled at the notion.
Judith said, "Bring me some water."
"Get it yourself. Cabinet to the right of the sink."
Judith rose. She found a glass and drank from the tap. She kept her back to the woman, looking out at the flurries. She imagined the beach, snow flattening and covering everything by now. It would be useless to go back and search. No, that was done.
"Were Bonny and Otto lovers?"
Judith waited, assuming some silent reaction behind her back, marvel perhaps. The old woman could not know what emerges in the last seconds of a stolen life. Secrets, truths, purity. This old woman knew only coffee and cookies, lies and greed, and this little town.
"There might've something going on. Everyone figured."
"They were both married?"
Keeping her back turned, Judith asked, "Can this pistol be tracked to you?"
"Where do you keep your knives?"
"Left of the sink."
Judith slid open the drawer. She chose an eight-inch blade and pressed her thumb to the sharp point. Lifting her boot to the countertop, she slid the knife into the empty sheath.
JUDITH STEPPED OUT THE front door of the Commodore Hotel. Across the street, beyond the corner of North Capitol and F, sprawled the immense station house and acres of rail of Union Station. She’d come to enjoy the sounds and dark diesel exhaust of the trains coming and going at all hours. Taxis and crowds arrived and departed; many times Judith waded into the tides of people to listen, walk like them, observe their clothing, and speak on occasion.
She’d spent the last six days in shops, in restaurants, on sidewalks, listening to the radio, reacclimating to America. She’d practiced her Midwestern flat tones and her Negro accent. She’d made herself facile at the humility of the colored girl, the springy step of the pretty American white girl, and could instantly switch between the two. She’d assembled a small wardrobe for her poses in both races. This morning, a blue and crisp day, Judith was ready. She wore a dark blue woolen dress with a ribbon at the throat, bought at a thrift store in the Trinidad section of the city, along with a cobalt pillbox hat and blue flats without nylons. Before leaving her room, she’d made sure to put on a mismatched brown coat, slightly but unmistakably secondhand.
The walk to the Public Welfare Building lasted only eight blocks and took her closer to the White House. The last time she’d been in Washington, this nation was not yet at war, and this city was not the capital of the Free World. Now, the classic dome rose high against the sky with a deeper meaning, a sort of proud puffing of America’s white chest at a world saved by its hand. Judith nodded at the dome. She relished the increased power of Washington and America now, better adversaries than the last time they met.
At the P.W. Building, she found the listing on the wall for the District Housing Assistance Office. Moving deeper into the building, she rounded a corner and halted at two signs. Arrows pointed different directions: right for WHITE, left for COLORED. Judith turned left.
Quickly she stepped into the rear of a long line. Most of the Negroes waiting in it were dressed like her, in proper but worn clothes, while a few of the men stood out in pressed suits and fedoras, carrying leather briefcases. More brown men and women filtered around the corner to fill in behind Judith. Several in the line recognized one another, but voices stayed low. The corridor smelled of hair products, soap, and wool.
Judith listened to the talk in the line. The Negroes made smiling reference to yesterday’s Amos ’n Andy radio show, at how Kingfish had snookered Andy Brown again and landed in hot water with wife Sapphire. A few held open the Washington Post; many nearby leaned in to read the spread pages. They remarked on the banner headline: U.S. Forces Land on Luzon, Philippines. They tapped the pages approvingly over articles describing the imminent victory, mostly Patton’s credit, of beating back the Nazi winter offensive in Belgium. One proud lady’s boy was “over there.” The sports section gave rise to laments about the Redskins’ heartbreaking season. Quarterback Sammy Baugh got hurt and only played eight games, and had his worst statistical year. The Redskins got knocked out of the championship by losing twice to the New York Giants at the end of the season; the last game, without Sammy, was a 31-0 humiliation. A few women knit from bright balls of yarn secreted in oversized handbags. Most of the folks just stared ahead and shuffled forward when the line crept ahead.
Forty minutes passed before Judith reached the head of the line. She stepped through an open door into a small room divided into two cubicles. The desk on the left was busy with the woman who’d been in front of her in the line. From behind the righthand desk, a
squat, sharp-faced white lady beckoned her.
“Over here, honey.”
Judith took the seat before the desk. The woman greeted her with eagerness, an odd energy since she’d likely seen several dozen people in Judith’s seat already this morning.
She put forth her hand, tweeting, “How’re you? I’m Miz Sanderson.”
Judith took the lady’s hand for a firm shake.
“What’s your name, honey?”
Judith hesitated, needing to adjust to the thickness of the woman’s accent, a southern twang Judith had not heard before. To Judith it sounded as if she’d been asked for her “nime.”
“My, that’s a bee-utiful name. Where your people from?”
Miz Sanderson touched her breast with an open palm. “Oh, my stars, I was there once before the war and I am still tryin’ to recall how much fun I had. Well, welcome to Washington. You just get in?”
“Where you stayin’ now?”
“Well, that cain’t be cheap. Let’s us see if we cain’t find you someplace to live . . .” she scrunched her features and turned her face sideways, “. . . a little more reasonable. Okay?”
Judith watched the woman work through the typewritten sheaves on her desk. While she dug, Miz Sanderson asked questions: “How much education you got, sweetie?” “What kind of work you expectin’ to do?” “How much experience you got?” “Your folks sendin’ you any money to help out?”
Finally, she lit on two specific pages that she felt best matched pay and expectations to Judith’s abilities.
“Okay, we ought to have somethin’ here. You’re a nice-looking girl, I’m gonna bet you’ll find some good job lickety-split. Now, Desiree, as you know, the federal government works with a couple hundred real estate firms here in the District to help find places for
folks just like you.”
“You mean blacks.”
Miz Sanderson reached across the desk with a touch to Judith’s arm. “Honey, I’m sorry, but yes. Even so, you’ve done yourself a big favor by coming to this office. It’s gonna save you a lot of heartache. Comin’ from New Orleans, I’m sure you understand.”
“Yes, ma’am. But isn’t this America’s capital?”
“You sound surprised, darlin’. Don’t be.” Miz Sanderson considered Judith for a long moment. She looked up at the long line waiting to follow into Judith’s chair, then made some decision to spend a few extra moments with this pretty and naïve colored girl.
“Desiree, let me tell you how things work here in America’s capital. You know Washington is a federal district, don’t you? We don’t have our own city government; Congress administers us. And to be honest, Congress, in the middle of a war, couldn’t care less about us.” Miz Sanderson lowered her voice. “The District Committees in the House and Senate are the two worst assignments in Congress. All they got is junior members or ol’ bastards they’re tryin’ to punish. And let me tell you, sweetie, sometime you should meet the ancient sumbitch who heads the District Committee in the Senate, the honorable Theodore Bilbo from the enlightened state of Mississippi. He hates everybody—Communists, unions, Jews, foreigners, and, of course, coloreds. Last month he recommended on the Senate floor that all America’s Negroes be deported to Africa, and that Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt be sent with them as their queen.” Miz Sanderson put her fingers to her lips, fearing she’d said something too volatile for Judith’s ears. But Judith laughed, squelching her own grin behind her fingers. It was too ludicrous to believe, this secret America.
“Go on,” Judith prodded.
“Well, honey, honestly, it’s not going to get better for a while yet.”
“What about President Roosevelt? Hasn’t he done anything for the colored people here?”
Again, Miz Sanderson paused in scrutiny of Judith, a hint of surprise on her face. Judith reproached herself: She’d exposed her lack of knowledge about being an American Negro in the South. And no mistake, Washington, D.C., was southern.
The woman answered, “For all the good works of the New Deal, racial issues were left out. There’s no way Roosevelt is ever going to antagonize his power base, and that’s the southern Democrats. So no, Desiree, don’t look to the President for much help. Not this
Judith repeated the phrase in her head. Not this president. Miz Sanderson lifted the two pages. Looking over them, she smiled sympathetically.
“Desiree, I trust you are not looking for the Ritz-Carlton. This city is crowded, tight enough to bust. Once the war started, D.C. grew by leaps and bounds, it seemed overnight. There’s work here, there’s opportunity, yes. But I want you to know, it’s not all good. Our murder rate is twice that of New York’s. Last year alone there were more than fifty thousand cases of venereal disease. The telephones and water systems are ready to explode from overwork. Traffic is terrible. And, like you noticed, this city is still very segregated. Washington is packed solid, confused and doggone stubborn. Half the places I can offer you have no indoor plumbing. The other half are only a little bit better, but twice as expensive. Everything on this list is run-down and in a dangerous neighborhood.”
The woman paused, blinking at Judith with concern.
“One last thing. If you’ve come to Washington to find a romance, honey, forget it. With almost every man good enough to hear thunder gone off in uniform somewhere else, the ratio of women to men here is about eight to one. So before I help you find a room, I got to ask if you’re sure you want to be here?”
Judith stood from the chair. She’d taken more than her share of this kindly woman’s time. The others in the line, the coloreds who would make the real difference in this city and country, stirred expectantly. She stretched out her hand.
“Thank you, ma’am. I’ll take the list, please.”
JUDITH RESTED HER LUGGAGE. This was her second frustrating day of hauling her two bags around Washington’s inner city, working her way down the rental list in her purse. She stood on the porch of the only apartment she’d found that was available for a single colored woman. Everything else on Miz Sanderson’s list had already been rented when she got there, or was shared space like a dormitory.
On the porch next door, an old, dark woman wrapped in a patch quilt tilted in a creaking cane rocker. The woman pulled a corncob pipe from her mouth and raised it in greeting.
In front of the locked door, the landlord fiddled with a ridiculous ring of keys, jangling and cursing under his breath. He had a lazy eye and a bristled gray chin. Behind him, his teenage son had the same wandering eye. The eye probably kept him out of the military.
He wore a black-and-white jacket too thin for the weather.
“Jus’ a minute,” the landlord muttered, not looking up. He tried several keys. The old Negro woman chuckled in the cold afternoon, shaking her head behind her pipe. At the man’s rear, his son edged into impatient fidgeting, waiting for the door to be unlocked. The boy ran hands along his temples to smooth down his slicked hair. He chewed a toothpick and lightly tapped a foot to a song in his head, as if he were standing at a microphone. Judith smiled at the boy, who jerked his shoulders in response, cool, eager to be older and not standing behind his clumsy father who was keeping them all waiting.
Another three keys were rejected by the lock. Before another could be slid into the slit, the boy stepped up. He snatched the key ring from his father—Judith thought it impatient and disrespectful—to locate the proper key. The man raised his hands to surrender to the boy and sighed, but did not scold his son.
Waiting, Judith looked up and down the alley of rotting steps and tar-paper shingles, careful to keep her face impassive. Litter rolled across the old cobbles; two Negro boys chased a paper cup caught in a wind devil. The only other time Judith had been in Washington, D.C., had been winter, too, four years ago, ten months before Pearl Harbor. The weather then was just as freezing and damp. But she had seen none of this squalor, only the central train station, a trolley, the lobby of the Bellevue Hotel, room 310, and, again, the train station.
With a triumphant grin, the boy found the right key. He jiggled the rickety door open. The glass pane in the door was spider-webbed and held together by tape.
The father did not touch her bags, but the son made a show of lifting the heavier of the two. The boy held the door for her to enter first, crooning “Missy.” The father, oblivious, stepped inside ahead of her; the son grimaced at his back. Judith hefted her smaller bag and followed into a dim hall lit by one bare dangling bulb. The smells of greasy cooking clung to the green walls. The man led her to the third door. The son stayed one stride behind. Judith smelled the fustiness of cigarettes on them both.
“Here you go.” This time the man had the room key ready. When Judith flattened her palm to receive it, he drew the key back.
“First month’s rent.”
“May I see the room first?”
“Sure, but I got three gals just like you waitin’ for it, if you don’t want it.”
Judith cut her eyes to the boy, who made a scrunched face and nodded sharply, telling her to take it. She set down her bag and took from her purse a small wallet, to give the man a ten and four ones. He pocketed the money, handing over the key. The boy winked; his toothpick jumped on his lips.
The father said, “I’ll be around the first of every month. Cash only.”
Judith asked, “What if something breaks?”
“Fix it or wait to the first of the month to tell me about it.” She smiled prettily into the wandering eye.
“Or, you know,” the son piped up, pulling out the toothpick and sliding in front of his father, “you can leave a note at the front office and I can maybe drop by, if you need somethin’ bad enough.”
“I can fix most anything.”
The father elbowed the son aside. “Alright, Josh.”
The man turned away. Josh the son lingered long enough to wink again and mouth “Anytime” to her. Then he followed his father down the hall.
Judith slid the key into the lock. Opening the door, she caught her breath at the condition of the room; nothing seemed without a stain. The doorknob came off in her hand. She stood beside her bags in the threshold, then awoke, striding for the front door, hoping
to catch them to at least repair the knob. Reaching the porch and the cold slap of air, she saw father and son already far down the alley, turning a corner, and gone. Judith looked above the tin roofs of the alley. One mile to the south, the white dome of the U.S.
Capitol jabbed into a sulky sky.
The old colored woman in her rocking chair nodded, still sucking her corncob. Judith acknowledged her, raising the doorknob in her hand. The woman laughed.
“Oh, I can see already. You gon’ love it here, darlin’.”
JUDITH MOVED DOWN THE hall, matching sounds to closed doors. At the wail of an infant, she knocked and found a hefty black woman with a fat baby on her hip and two others on the floor. Judith borrowed a broom and dustpan. Next, she followed the sound of a radio and scored a box of suds, given to her by a large yellow-eyed man in a torn undershirt. From a third door, oddly hiding a practicing violin, she secured a scouring brush and a sponge. The little pigtailed girl who gave her these was alone.
Judith cleaned her room. Hot water flowed amply in the sink, where she soaked the bed linens in the soap powder. She chipped baked clots off the hot plate and used the wet sponge to lift dust from shelves. She unpacked her bags into an old chifforobe and bureau, both of them peeling veneer. Driving south from Boston, she’d passed through New York City. In Harlem she’d purchased the luggage, two dresses, a winter coat, slacks, shoes, undergarments, a sweater, and the pillbox hat. She shoved her passports, identifications, cash, and kits under the blue tick mattress. The Nash she’d driven from Massachusetts waited in a rented garage three blocks away.
Once the room lost its musty odor, Judith scrubbed the floor. She stood after an hour on hands and knees, ignoring the curtains on the dingy window. She’d wash them some other afternoon. She walked outside to let her floorboards dry.
The old woman had not left her rocker but had finished her pipe. Judith walked to the railing separating the porches, determined that it would hold her weight, and sat. She swept a curl of hair from her face.
“Girl,” the woman said, “you bes’ go back inside and put some clothes on. You catch a death out here.”
“I’m alright. Thank you.”
“Come over here and set with me, then.”
Judith left her porch and took a stool beside the woman.
“What’s your name, child?”
“That’s pretty, that’s nice. Kinda rhymes. Everybody calls me Mrs. P. My husband was Mr. Pettigrew.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. P.”
“Where your people from?”
“Laws.” Mrs. P. rocked and cackled. “I love that town! Bourbon Street. Yes.” The woman composed a memory and did not share it. Judith put her arms around herself. Her sweat began to chill in her clothes. Mrs. P. undid the comforter and wrapped it around
“You jus’ skin and bone. But we gon’ fatten you up. I used to look just like you, ’cept them pretty blue eyes. What are you, girl, one of them Creole Negroes?”
Judith had no reason to object, it seemed a fine explanation.
“Well, welcome to the capital of America. When you get here?”
“Last week. I’ve been staying in a motel, looking for a room to rent.”
“A mo-tel? That must’ve been ’spensive.”
Judith thought of the six thousand dollars she’d just stashed under her mattress. In addition to her fee, she was allowed to keep whatever she did not spend.
“You gon’ stay long?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure neither, forty years ago when I come to town. Things sure done changed.”
Judith accepted the respite beside this affable old woman. Nestled inside the quilt, which smelled crisp and clean, she let Mrs. P. ramble.
“This war is what done it. Yes, ma’am, jus’ six years ago this was nothin’ but a sleepy little town. Then people start comin’ after that Pearl Harbor. White people comin’ on trains and buses, like pigeons goin’ after corn, flockin’ here.”
She waved her cool pipe to encompass all around her, the capitol spire in the sky.
“Gubmint workers. Throwin’ up temporary buildings all over D.C. You seen ’em, big ugly things on the Mall and both sides of the Reflecting Pool. Oh, my, this war is big business. And black folks, too, comin’ here lookin’ for work, like I reckon you doin’. City got twice as many people since the war. Now, tell me somethin’. Where everybody gon’ live? Where they gon’ put all them new office buildings to run they war? You think the whites gon’ knock down they homes? No, ma’am.”
Mrs. P. pointed her pipe west. “ ’Cross the river, they knocked down homes of two hundred Negro families to put up that Pentagon. And more Negroes was kicked out when they took more space for Arlington Cemetery. Black homes been busted up all over this city, for offices and highways and homes for white folk. Like in Foggy Bottom where I lived for nineteen years. Kicked out so the gubmint could build theyself some buildings and such. Same thing over in Georgetown, blacks just been shooed out. And we ain’t got nary a thing back from them. Didn’t build us nothin’. Jus’ about every new home goin’ up is restricted.”
Judith did not know this term or idea. “Restricted?”
“Girl, whites only. Can’t sell to no black folks; it’s the law. What you talkin’ ’bout, you don’t know restricted?”
Mrs. P.’s surly moment passed. She patted Judith’s knee.
“So here we are, right where we supposed to be, I reckon, right where we started out. These alleys been here since the War Between the States. White folks been ownin’ these shacks for a hundred years, makin’ a dollar off of black folk. Coloreds been on these
stones since Abe Lincoln, and it ain’t gon’ change no time soon. You can hang on to that quilt. I’ll get it back sometime after you settle in.”
Judith nodded her appreciation.
The old woman stood on swollen ankles and bowed legs. She asked, “Desiree, you don’ talk much, do you?”
“No, ma’am. I don’t have much to say.”
“Child, everybody got somethin’ to say.”
The woman stepped close. She lifted a hand to Judith’s chin, moving her face side to side, examining. “Mmm, somethin’,” she said. “Somethin’ here, I dunno.”
Mrs. P. stepped back. “Jus’ not everybody uses words to say it. That’s all.”
Judith smiled. “Yes, ma’am.”
The woman pivoted on her legs, so arched she seemed to straddle a barrel. She opened her own door, and before stepping off the porch said, “You need anything, you come see Mrs. P.”
“That’s right. Whatever you come to this capital to do, girl, now you got a friend.”
POVERTY WAS SHOT THROUGH the veins of this capital city, not unlike Cairo or Algiers. But when Judith walked onto the broad boulevard of New York Avenue, the poorness of the alleys vanished; the city’s Negroes and their shantytowns were neatly tucked away. The ten-block walk to the White House took her along a streetcar route, past many large buildings, many of them still glittering with Christmas decorations, among them the Hippodrome Theater, a department store called Goldenberg’s, a Greyhound bus station, and, closer to the White House, more theaters and playhouses. The one-mile walk was trivial; Judith could have run it full bore. But the flashing green and red bulbs and golden bows from the holiday colored the sundown and slowed her gait. Streetcar bells tolled their stops. The stroll was pleasant.
Traffic on New York Avenue thickened as the end of the business day neared. The sidewalk buzzed with pedestrians, mostly women in rich fabrics and furs. Judith ducked into a store just before it closed. She did not speak with a Negro accent and did not avert her eyes, so the salesclerk was pleasant. She bought a scarf and thicker woolen gloves than what she’d been wearing.
At a quarter to five o’clock, Judith stood on the lawn of the Ellipse, the vast oval expanse two hundred yards south of the President’s residence. Guards manned two gates left and right, checking the credentials of cars pulling onto the grounds. In the distance, other guards patrolled the vast green expanse at the foot of the big columned building. Judith pulled up her scarf against the wind, narrowing her focus.
Tonight she watched only the southern face of the White House. For the past week, she’d walked the perimeter, studying the routes in and out, the State Department and its barracks, the Treasury building, the guards, gateways, the visitors and how they dressed, when they arrived and left, where they came from, the types of cars and limousines allowed to enter, the security checks. Tourist groups entered, too, gaggles of schoolchildren herded by teachers and parents.
How to get inside? How to get to the President of the United States? Then, when the time came, how to kill him?
The building across from her and the man inside were the most heavily guarded in the world. Judith felt no impatience. Every lock had a key, no matter how hard to find. That was her profession, and her heritage, finding the key, the way in. Franklin Roosevelt might be the most powerful man on earth, but no power in history had yet Been great enough to avoid an assassin. That required luck. And Judith knew her luck was as good as Roosevelt’s.
This thought of luck was rewarded. At precisely five o’clock, the southern gate to the White House swung inward.
A large black Ford rolled past the checkpoint. The Marine guards saluted, ramrod-straight. Judith counted four men inside the car in overcoats and felt hats. Another Ford followed, but larger, heavier, perhaps armored. At the rear, a third car matching the first, with four serious-looking men, closed ranks. The little motorcade turned left, past the statue of some old American general, and headed into the windy warren of the city.
“So,” Judith murmured inside her scarf, “every once in a while, the great man comes out.”
Excerpted from THE ASSASSIN'S GALLERY © Copyright 2011 by David L. Robbins. Reprinted with permission by Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.