In Medias Res

Percival Everett

Hugh Derr, Hai Van Pass 6. Licensed via Creative Commons, CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

1969

To feel the back of his head to know there was blood there. He could smell it. But he reached back anyway. He knew he was in the trunk of a car, but that was all he knew. He kicked a couple of times at the cover, then did what his training had taught him. He pushed and tore his way through the back seat into the car. Outside, he breathed fresh air, found his balance, and worked out the kinks in his body. It was dark everywhere. He was not where he had been. Even adjusted to the darkness, his eyes could pick up few details of the tracks on the dirt road he was standing next to. So he chose a direction, remembering what they used to say in the army. Do something—even if it’s wrong. After a mile or so, he came to a gravel road, no more identifiable that the dirt one, but certainly one he had never driven over. There were no signs. Again he chose a direction. He heard a vehicle approaching from behind. He didn’t turn to face it but kept walking. This was the rural South; he didn’t need to advertise the color of his skin. The pickup truck passed him, then skidded to a stop on the gravel.

Mac stepped to the passenger door. The driver leaned over and cranked down the window.

“Need a lift?” The driver was middle-aged, with near-white hair. “Where you trying to get to?”

“Depends on where I am,” Mac said.

“Boyce is up the road a spell,” the man said.

“Boyce?”

“Virginia. How lost are you?”

“Pretty lost,” Mac said. “I’m trying to get to DC.”

“Well, you headed in the right direction,” the man said, then laughed. “If you got time to walk around the globe.”

“Shit.”

“Get in. I’ll give you a lift.”

Mac got in.

The truck was clean inside. The man was clean. Mac could see in the glow of the dash lights that his overalls were new.

“Thanks. I really appreciate this. Maybe in Boyce I can get a bus.”

The man turned the truck around on the road.

“What are you doing?” Mac asked.

“Hell, I ain’t got nothing to do. Hour to Georgetown. I’ll take you there.”

“Really, you don’t need to—”

“Really, I do. You out here walking these roads by yourself like this, well, you could get yourself into a bit of trouble.”

“Trouble?”

The man just smiled.

He was at least glad Raymond hadn’t taken him to a lynching.

“I got you,” Mac said.

“If you don’t mind me asking, how did you get way out here?”

Mac stared momentarily out the window. “Somebody hit me on the head and dumped me out here.”

The man whistled. “Want to me take you to the police in Purcellville? That’s the next town.” Before Mac could answer, the man said, “Naw, they’d just hang you.” He observed Mac’s reaction. “Just joking.”

“That’s some joke.”

The man nodded.

“My name is Raymond.”

“David,” Mac said.

“Well, David, you’re damn lucky I came along.”

Mac nodded.

“Anybody could have picked you up.”

“I suppose,” Mac said. “But you did.”

“You live in Washington?”

“Yes.”

“Me, I live in Leesburg.”

“What do you do in Leesburg?” Mac asked.

“A little of this, a little of that. How about you?”

Mac looked at his own clothes, his dress pants, his street shoes. “I’m an insurance adjuster.”

“Rough business?”

“Pardon?”

“I mean, how often do you get hit on the head and dumped?”

“Once a month.”

Raymond laughed. “That’s good. You’re a funny fella.”

“So, what, did you lowball some guy on his Eldorado?”

Mac pretended to laugh with him. “Insurance is a rough game.”

“Whoever dumped you out here sure doesn’t like you.”

“Aside from the fact that they hit me real hard, why do you say that?”

“You’re Negro. I’m right about that?”

“Yeah.”

“There’s this practice around here called lynching.”

“I’ve heard of it.”

“That’s good.” Raymond checked his mirrors. “You see where I’m going with this.”

“Ray Charles could see where you’re going with this.”

Raymond laughed loud, again. “He’s blind, right. That’s a good one. You need a sense of humor in this world.”

They rode on mostly in silence. Mac checked outside his door frequently.

Raymond stopped on the Virginia side of Key Bridge. “That there’s Georgetown.”

“Thank you, Ray.”

“That’s Raymond.”

“Thanks, Raymond.”

“You’re welcome.”

Mac shut the door.

“Y’all be careful now,” Raymond said through the half-open window as he rolled away.

Mac watched Raymond disappear into Virginia. He was at least glad Raymond hadn’t taken him to a lynching. He started the long walk across the bridge.

it was morning by the time Mac stepped into his office at 16th and U. It was in his kitchen, though he preferred to say that the kitchen was in his office. A difference without a distinction that somehow mattered to him. On his heels entered his client, Fischer Price.

“You look like shit,” Price said.

“I feel like shit.” Mac sat at the table and rubbed the back of his head. “Those two guys you steered me to, well, they ain’t the ones.”

“They do this to you?”

“Yeah, but they didn’t kill me.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Price said.

“Jury’s out.” Mac got up and put fire under the kettle on the stove. “You might have to face it, counselor. Your client is guilty.”

“She’s not, though.”

“Walk me through it again.”

“Tessa Hillman arrived home from the hospital at six-thirty just like she did every Tuesday through Friday for the last six years. This time she found the front door open and the house torn apart. In the dining room she found her husband, Mitchell Hillman, in a pool of blood on the table. Two to the back of his head.”

“Why was Mitch home? Did he work?”

“Yeah, he serviced typewriters at a shop near Dupont Circle. Tessa says he was never home before seven. Neighbors corroborate.”

“Any guns in the house?” Mac asked.

“None. Apparently, Mitchell was terrified of guns.”

“Turns out he was right to be.” Mac poured water for tea. “You want some?”

Price shook his head. “They didn’t fight. They went to church. No children. Usual debt. Met in high school.”

“From DC?”

“Anacostia. Both of them.”

“Last day at work?” Mac asked.

“Came in late, left early. Nobody knows why. He took a machine with him. Shop owner said that was odd.”

“A typewriter?”

“A Remington Rand. Wait a second.” Price looked at his notebook.

“That little notebook makes you look like a cop.”

“Remington Rand, Model three-eleven-twenty-eight.”

“Oh, that one.”

“Yeah, well, it’s a detail.”

“Where’s this machine now?”

“It was at his house, sitting on the coffee table just like it was any other Thursday. Still there.”

“Why are the cops so set on the wife as the shooter?”

“She’s poor, she’s black, and they don’t want to do their fucking jobs. How’s that? That and the insurance policy. Ten grand.”

“Anybody at the house now?”

“Nope. Police tape. Here’s the key.”

“I’ll look around. I’ll take the typewriter back to the shop and see if I can find out who it belongs to. You know those two dudes, the ones that roughed me up and dumped me? Why’d you even put me on to them?”

“They were hanging around the court after the arraignment. Seemed kind of strange. Certainly glad they didn’t kill you.”

“I appreciate that.”

“Good investigators are hard to find.”

mac let himself into the Hillman house with the key Price had provided. A crew had done a sloppy job of cleaning the sloppier scene. Some of the rags used to smear the blood around had been left to fester and stink in a damp pile. The rooms had a metallic stench. He found the typewriter and opened the case. It looked like any typewriter, except that it was extremely clean. He closed it up and left.

He drove to the typewriter shop to find that it was as much a pawn shop as anything. He stepped to the cage and asked for the manager. She was a fat white lady dressed in jeans and a lumber­jack shirt.

“What can I do for you, doll?” she said.

Mac had never been called a doll before. It wasn’t bad. “I want to ask you about this typewriter,” he said. “It’s the one Mitchell Hillman took home with him the day he…”

“Got his ass handed to him,” she said.

“Yes.”

“I thought it would be evidence for a while.”

“Evidence is something you collect if you’re doing an investiga­tion. Black corpse. Black spouse. Case solved.”

“Sorry to hear that,” she said. “Not surprised, but sorry.”

“I’m working for the wife’s lawyer. Anything about this machine I should know?” He set it on the counter. “Like who owns it.”

“I wish I could tell you,” she said.

“You mean you know and wish you could tell me or you don’t know and would tell if you could?”

She replayed his words in her head. “The first one.” She lit a cigarette, offered Mac one. He waved it off, and she said, “Or the second. One day Mitch was just cleaning that machine up. I said, ‘Whose is that?’ He told me that a guy was paying him a hundred dollars to work on it.”

Mac whistled. “To do what to it?”

“Hell if I know. Tell you what: let’s see if it works.”

People often made the mistake of putting bodies in the trunk.

That was a good idea, and Mac said as much. “By the way, my name is Mac.”

“Cloris,” she said. She slid a sheet of paper onto the drum and gave it a couple of turns. “Turns smooth,” she said. “Mitch was good with these things.” When she tried to type, nothing hap­pened. “The keys are frozen.”

He turned the machine so he could try and had the same result. “It looks perfect,” he said.

She took the typewriter off the bottom of the case and turned it over. “Well, looky here.”

Mac looked. Shoved up under the carriage was a black envelope. He had to work hard to pry it free.

“What’s in it?” Cloris asked.

Mac looked back at the door.

“Aren’t you going to open it?”

“I’ve never seen a black envelope before,” Mac said.

“Me, neither,” she said. “You gonna open it?”

“Yeah.” Mac looked at it. He tried to work open the flap as smoothly as possible.

“Remind me not to spend Christmas with you,” Cloris said.

Inside was a small, torn sheet of white paper. There were num­bers written on it. It was clearly the combination to a lock or safe. R’s and L’s.

“That mean anything to you?” Mac asked.

Cloris shook her head. “Won’t open my safe. Anything else?”

There was another piece of paper, this one with a phone num­ber. “Cloris, can I use your phone?”

“Toll call?” She held her face serious and then laughed. “Here.”

Mac dialed the number.

“Rosen’s Jewelers.”

He hung up.

“What was it?” Cloris asked.

“Western Union,” Mac said.

“That’s weird,” she said.

rosen’s was down in Georgetown. It was a high-end shop, and Mac attracted a lot of attention by entering while black. The guard didn’t say anything but stood close to him.

“May I help you,” a slight, well-dressed man asked.

“I’m not certain. Are you the manager?”

He appeared offended by Mac’s question. “That would be Mr. Rosen,” he said. “Does Mr. Rosen know you?”

“I’m certain he doesn’t.”

“May I tell him what this is regarding?”

“I wish I knew. You can tell him that I’m a private investigator. The kind that doesn’t carry a gun,” Mac said for the benefit of the armed guard standing even closer now. “Listen, I need to ask him one question, and then I’ll be gone.”

Their conversation had commanded the attention of everyone in the store. Before the salesman could say whatever he was going to say, a shorter, wider man, one with more presence, showed up.

“What is it, Snoots?” the man said.

“‘Snoots’?” Mac said.

“Mr. Rosen, this, this gentleman…”

Mac broke in. “Mr. Rosen, just one question. Does this look familiar to you?” Mac showed him the combination.

“Where did you get this?”

“Do you recognize it?”

“Where did you get it?”

“Is there someplace we can talk?” Mac asked.

“Snoots,” Rosen said. “Take care of the customers. We’ll be in the back.”

Mac followed Rosen down a corridor into his private office. “Have a seat,” the man said.

Mac sat on the long velvet sofa. “It’s your combination, isn’t it? Don’t worry, I’m not interested in robbing you.”

“You don’t understand,” Rosen said. “That’s not the combina­tion to my business safe. That’s my personal safe. The only thing in there is papers.”

“What kind of papers?”

“Why does that matter?”

“A woman is being railroaded for murder, and I think it has something to do with this combination. For all I know the guy who got killed believed this was your business safe combination or somebody believed that or there’s something in your personal safe. Listen, I have no interest in causing you trouble. But this woman, my client. Think of her.”

“How did you get it?”

“It was hidden under a typewriter. Does mean anything to you?”

“What was the man’s name?”

“Mitchell Hillman.”

“A colored man?” Rosen asked.

“A black man.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean.”

“It’s okay. Black man. Black wife. What’s in your papers?”

“Proof.”

“Proof of what?”

“Proof that someone is a Nazi war criminal. Someone you’ve seen on the news.”

“How did Mitchell get ahold of your typewriter? Did you take it in to get serviced, and then he just happened to find the envelope? A Remington typewriter.”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about. I don’t own a Remington typewriter. I don’t know any Mitchell.”

“I found your combination and your telephone number in a black envelope stuffed into a Remington typewriter.”

“I don’t know anything about that.”

“Well, somebody had your combination. And a man named Mitchell got killed for it. At least I believe he was.”

“I know nothing.”

“Who’s the Nazi?”

“You want to be dead, too?” He looked out the window. “I have to move my things.”

“Why don’t you just change your combination?” Mac asked.

“That safe doesn’t work that way.” Rosen became very nervous, started tapping his nails on the desk. He looked out the window into the alley. “Listen, this is scary business. The fact that I don’t know you is perfect.” He knelt and opened the cabinet behind him. He opened a small safe. “I want you to take these files.”

“What?” Mac stood.

“I need you to take these papers. Hide them. If anything happens to me, take them to this man.” He wrote on a pad. “He’s at the Post. Give the papers to him. Covertly. Do you know what that means?”

“I know what it means.”

“Promise me.”

“I promise.”

“I don’t know you, and that’s for the best. Put this under your jacket.” He handed Mac the files.

“This is a lot of pages,” Mac said. “I don’t know if I can hide all of it on me.”

“You have to. No one can see you leaving here with anything. Do you understand?”

Mac nodded. He spread the material around his body under his jacket and started for the door. “Am I in danger?” he asked Rosen.

“I’m afraid so.”

Rosen followed Mac back onto the floor and signaled Snoots and the guard to let him pass.

mac was reading through the loose pages when Price came in through his back door into his kitchen.

“It’s polite to knock,” Mac said.

“Courtesy is overrated,” Price said. “What’s all this?”

“It might be bullshit. It might be the answer to your client’s troubles.”

“I’m listening.”

“Hidden in that typewriter was a phone number and a safe com­bination.” He told him the whole story. “And so this Rosen, who I’d like to point out is scared shitless, gave me the contents of his safe. Maybe thinking that no one will look at a black private eye in a matter of international intrigue.”

“That’s your story? This is why I’m paying you twenty bucks a day?”

“Here’s a picture. Karl Linnas.”

“Yeah?”

“He was in charge of the Tartu concentration camp in Estonia. Killed twelve thousand people. He lined people up along a ditch and shot them.”

“What’s this have to do with Tessa Hillman?”

“Her husband had the info to put this guy away.”

“Are you telling me we’re up against Nazis?”

“If the swastika fits.”

Price lit a filterless cigarette.

“What do you want to do?”

“Nazis in DC in nineteen-sixty-nine. It’s hard enough dealing with Whitey without dealing with Whitey’s Whitey.” Price got up and walked to the window, looked out. “I want to say I’m sorry I got you into this. But Tessa Hillman is still locked up.”

“Yeah, I know.”

The glass of the window broke. Price seemed to spin on his heel. He gave Mac a questioning look before he turned his eyes down to his chest. Mac watched as Price’s white shirt exploded red under his suit jacket. The spinning move stopped for a moment before Price collapsed to the floor.

In a second Mac was kneeling beside him, his hand instinctively seeking to apply pressure to the wound, but there was nothing to do. Mac muttered “Fuck fuck fuck” as he tossed himself into the wall and reached up to extinguish the light. He crawled down the hall to his bed and opened the drawer of his bedside table. He pulled out his old service .45, checked the clip, then pushed it back and racked one.

Involving the police was clearly a one-way ticket to a cell.

He went back to the room with Price and slid along the wall to the window, looked out at the alley and at the windows across the way. He looked at Price and shook his head. Here he was with a corpse in his apartment and no idea who wanted him, Price, or both of them dead. He had a hole in his window, but no one out­side seemed to notice or care. Why would they? This was black DC. White people in Arlington had to live with the sounds of pass­ing DC-9s; black people near Fourteenth and T had to contend with the sound of gunfire. You got used to either. He didn’t believe what he was considering. He was going to have to either dispose of Price’s body or put it on ice for later. Involving the police was clearly a one-way ticket to a cell, perhaps adjacent to Tessa Hillman’s. That is, if he ever made it to a cell, given what had happened to Price.

Mac rolled Price up in the carpet from his bedroom and waited. He sat in his kitchen, light off, away from the window, and stared at the burrito that was Price. Dealing with Nazis was above his pay grade, as the cops he’d met liked to say whenever they didn’t understand something. They said it a lot. For Tessa Hillman and everyone in his sections of Northwest and Southeast DC, proximity equaled guilt.

The alley was completely quiet at two in the morning. Mac car­ried Price down the rickety stairs and stowed him in the back seat of his car. He put him on the floor. That was the best place for him in the event he got pulled over by police. People often made the mistake of putting bodies in the trunk. Cops always looked in the trunk. Hell, the spare tire is in the trunk.

Mac turned the key of the Olds Eighty-Eight and was relieved when it roared. He headed down 16th Street, then cut west on P all the way to Georgetown. He drove across Key Bridge and then deep into Virginia woods, a place he had never imagined visiting. He pulled into a firebreak and pulled the carpeted Price out through the back door and even deeper into the forest, across a little creek and over a berm. He found his way back to the road. He tried to cover his tracks that led into the woods and then a sharp pain found the back of his head. The world went black.

When Mac came to, he didn’t need…

Percival Everett is the award-winning author of thirty-four books of fiction and poetry, among them Erasure, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, The Trees, and Telephone. He is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles with his family.
Originally published:
December 11, 2023

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