The Twelfth Card
His face wet with sweat and with tears, the man runs for freedom, he runs for his life.
“There! There he goes!”
The former slave does not know exactly where the voice comes from. Behind him? To the right or left? From atop one of the decrepit tenements lining the filthy cobblestoned streets here?
Amid July air hot and thick as liquid paraffin, the lean man leaps over a pile of horse dung. The street sweepers don’t come here, to this part of the city. Charles Singleton pauses beside a pallet stacked high with barrels, trying to catch his breath.
A crack of a pistol. The bullet goes wide. The sharp report of the gun takes him back instantly to the war: the impossible, mad hours as he stood his ground in a dusty blue uniform, steadying a heavy musket, facing men wearing dusty gray, aiming their own weapons his way.
Running faster now. The men fire again. These bullets also miss.
“Somebody stop him! Five dollars’ gold if you catch him.”
But the few people out on the streets this early—mostly Irish ragpickers and laborers trooping to work with hods or picks on their shoulders—have no inclination to stop the Negro, who has fierce eyes and large muscles and such frightening determination. As for the reward, the shouted offer came from
a city constable, which means there’s no coin behind the promise.
At the Twenty-third Street paintworks, Charles veers west. He slips on the slick cobblestones and falls hard. A mounted policeman rounds the corner and, raising his nightstick, bears down on the fallen man. And then—
And? the girl thought.
What happened to him?
Sixteen-year-old Geneva Settle twisted the knob on the microfiche reader again but it would move no farther; she’d come to the last page on this carriage. She lifted out the metal rectangle containing the lead article in the July 23, 1868, edition of Coloreds’ Weekly Illustrated. Riffling through the other frames in the dusty box, she worried that the remaining pages of the article were missing and she’d never find out what happened to her ancestor Charles Singleton. She’d learned that historical archives regarding black history were often incomplete, if not forever misplaced.
Where was the rest of the story?
Ah . . . Finally she found it and mounted the carriage carefully into the battered gray reader, moving the knob impatiently to locate the continuation of the story of Charles’s flight.
Geneva’s lush imagination—and years of immersing herself in books—had given her the wherewithal to embellish the bare-bones magazine account of the former slave’s pursuit through the hot, foul streets of nineteenth-century New York. She almost felt she was back there, rather than where she really was at the moment: nearly 140 years later in the deserted fifth-floor library of the Museum of African-American Culture and History on Fifty-fifth Street in Midtown Manhattan.
As she twisted the dial, the pages streamed past on the grainy screen. Geneva found the rest of the article, which was headlined:
THE ACCOUNT OF A FREEDMAN’S CRIME
CHARLES SINGLETON, A VETERAN OF THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES, BETRAYS THE CAUSE OF OUR PEOPLE IN A NOTORIOUS INCIDENT
A picture accompanying the article showed twenty-eight-year-old Charles Singleton in his Civil War uniform. He was tall, his hands were large and the tight fit of the uniform on his chest and arms suggested powerful muscles. Lips broad, cheekbones high, head round, skin quite dark.
Staring at the unsmiling face, the calm, piercing eyes, the girl believed there was a resemblance between them—she had the head and face of her ancestor, the roundness of his features, the rich shade of his skin. Not a bit of the Singleton physique, though. Geneva Settle was skinny as a grade-school boy, as the Delano Project girls loved to point out.
She began to read once more, but a noise intruded.
A click in the room. A door latch? Then she heard footsteps. They paused. Another step. Finally silence. She glanced behind her, saw nobody.
She felt a chill, but told herself not to be freaked. It was just bad memories that put her on edge: the Delano girls whaling on her in the school yard behind Langston Hughes High, and that time Tonya Brown and her crew from the St. Nicholas Houses dragged her into an alley then pounded her so bad that she
lost a back tooth. Boys groped, boys dissed, boys put you down. But it was the girls who made you bleed.
Get her down, cut her, cut the bitch . . .
More footsteps. Another pause.
The nature of this place didn’t help. Dim, musty, quiet. And there was no one else here, not at eight-fifteen on a Tuesday morning. The museum wasn’t open yet—tourists were still asleep or having their breakfasts—but the library opened at eight. Geneva had been waiting here when they unlocked the doors, she’d been so eager to read the article. She now sat in a cubicle at the end of a large exhibit hall, where faceless mannequins wore nineteenth-century costumes and the walls were filled with paintings of men in bizarre hats, women in bonnets and horses with wack, skinny legs.
Another footstep. Then another pause.
Should she leave? Go hang with Dr. Barry, the librarian, until this creepy dude left?
And then the other visitor laughed.
Not a weird laugh, a fun laugh.
And he said, “Okay. I’ll call you later.”
A snap of a cell phone folding up. That’s why he’d been pausing, just listening to the person on the other end of the line.
Told you not to worry, girl. People aren’t dangerous when they laugh. They aren’t dangerous when they say friendly things on cell phones. He’d been walking slowly because that’s what people do when they’re talking—even though what kind of rude claimer’d make a phone call in a library? Geneva turned back to the microfiche screen, wondering, You get away, Charles? Man, I hope so.
Yet he regained his footing and, rather than own up
to his mischief, as a courageous man would do, continued his cowardly flight.
So much for objective reporting, she thought angrily.
For a time he evaded his pursuers. But escape was merely temporary. A Negro tradesman on a porch saw the freedman and implored him to stop, in the name of justice, asserting that he had heard of Mr. Singleton’s crime and reproaching him for bringing dishonor upon all colored people throughout the nation. The citizen, one Walker Loakes, thereupon flung a brick at Mr. Singleton with the intent of knocking him down. However,
Charles dodges the heavy stone and turns to the man, shouting, “I am innocent. I did not do what the police say!”
Geneva’s imagination had taken over and, inspired by the text, was writing the story once again.
But Loakes ignores the freedman’s protests and runs into the street, calling to the police that the fugitive is headed for the docks.
His heart torn, his thoughts clinging to the image of Violet and their son, Joshua, the former slave continues his desperate run for freedom.
Sprinting, sprinting . . .
Behind him comes the gallop of mounted police. Ahead of him, other horsemen appear, led by a helmeted police officer brandishing a pistol. “Halt, halt where you are, Charles Singleton! I am Detective Captain William Simms. I’ve been searching for you for two days.”
The freedman does as ordered. His broad shoulders slump, strong arms at his sides, chest heaving as he sucks in the humid, rancid air beside the Hudson River. Nearby is the tow boat office, and up and down the river he sees the spindles of sailing ship
masts, hundreds of them, taunting him with their promise of freedom. He leans, gasping, against the large Swiftsure Express Company sign. Charles stares at the approaching officer as the clop, clop, clop of his horse’s hooves resonate loudly on the cobblestones.
“Charles Singleton, you are under arrest for burglary. You will surrender to us or we will subdue you. Either way you will end up in shackles. Pick the first and you will suffer no pain. Pick the second, you will end up bloody. The choice is yours.”
“I have been accused of a crime I did not commit!”
“I repeat: Surrender or die. Those are your only choices.”
“No, sir, I have one other,” Charles shouts. He resumes his flight—toward the dock.
“Stop or we will shoot!” Detective Simms calls.
But the freedman bounds over the railing of the pier like a horse taking a picket in a charge. He seems to hang in the air for a moment then cartwheels thirty feet into the murky waters of the Hudson River, muttering some words, perhaps a plea to Jesus, perhaps a declaration of love for his wife and child, though whatever they might be none of his pursuers can hear.
* * *
Fifty feet from the microfiche reader forty-one-year-old Thompson Boyd moved closer to the girl.
He pulled the stocking cap over his face, adjusted the eyeholes and opened the cylinder of his pistol to make sure it wasn’t jammed. He’d checked it earlier but, in this job, you could never be too certain. He put the gun into his pocket and pulled the billy club out of a slit cut into his dark raincoat.
He was in the stacks of books in the costume exhibit hall, which separated him from the microfiche-reader tables. His latex-gloved fingers pressed his eyes, which had been stinging particularly sharply this morning. He blinked from the pain.
He looked around again, making sure the room was in fact deserted.
No guards were here, none downstairs either. No security cameras or sign-in sheets. All good. But there were some logistical problems. The big room was deathly quiet, and Thompson couldn’t hide his approach to the girl. She’d know someone was in the room with her and might become edgy and alert.
So after he’d stepped inside this wing of the library and locked the door behind him, he’d laughed, a chuckle. Thompson Boyd had stopped laughing years ago. But he was also a craftsman who understood the power of humor—and how to use it to your advantage in this line of work. A laugh—coupled with a farewell pleasantry and a closing cell phone—would put her at ease, he reckoned.
This ploy seemed to work. He looked quickly around the long row of shelves and saw the girl, staring at the microfiche screen. Her hands, at her sides, seemed to clench and unclench nervously at what she was reading.
He started forward.
Then stopped. The girl was pushing away from the table. He heard her chair slide on the linoleum. She was walking somewhere. Leaving? No. He heard the sound of the drinking fountain and her gulping some water. Then he heard her pulling books off the shelf and stacking them up on the microfiche table. Another pause and she returned to the stacks once again, gathering more books. The thud as she set them down. Finally he heard the
screech of her chair as she sat once more. Then silence.
Thompson looked again. She was back in her chair, reading one of the dozen books piled in front of her.
With the bag containing the condoms, razor knife and duct tape in his left hand, the club in his right, he started toward her again.
Coming up behind her now, twenty feet, fifteen, holding his breath.
Ten feet. Even if she bolted now, he could lunge forward and get her—break a knee or stun her with a blow to the head.
Eight feet, five . . .
He paused and silently set the rape pack on a shelf. He took the club in both hands. He stepped closer, lifting the varnished oak rod.
Still absorbed in the words, she read intently, oblivious to the fact that her attacker was an arm’s length behind her. Thompson swung the club downward with all his strength toward the top of the girl’s stocking cap.
Crack . . .
A painful vibration stung his hands as the baton struck her head with a hollow snap.
But something was wrong. The sound, the feel were off. What was going on?
Thompson Boyd leapt back as the body fell to the floor.
And tumbled into pieces.
The torso of the mannequin fell one way. The head another. Thompson stared for a moment. He glanced to his side and saw a ball gown draped over the bottom half of the same mannequin—part of a display on women’s clothing in Reconstruction America.
No . . .
Somehow, she’d tipped to the fact that he was a threat. She’d then collected some books from the shelves as a cover for standing up and taking apart a mannequin. She’d dressed the upper part of it in her own sweatshirt and stocking cap then propped it on the chair.
But where was she?
The slap of racing feet answered the question. Thompson Boyd heard her sprinting for the fire door. The man slipped the billy club into his coat, pulled out his gun and started after her.