Smokey Dalton and Jimmy, the young boy he protects, have settled into a new life on Chicago's South Side. But when Smokey gets hired to investigate the death of a black man in a local park, he realizes that the murder might not be an isolated case. The Chicago Police Department doesn't really investigate black deaths, particularly near the South Side. Smokey thinks the case easy, until he digs deeper into the history of the area, a history that includes gangs, racism, and secrets so dark they threaten his very existence.
Chosen as one of the top ten mystery novels of the year by the Chicago Tribune, Thin Walls shows why Publisher's Weekly gave it a starred review, and Booklist calls it "another fine entry in an outstanding series."
"The Dalton books are fast, realistic, full of powerful atmosphere, compelling characters and telling analysis of American history and what it means to be black in the land of the free. They get better every time."– The Statesman Journal
"Thin Walls can't hide an engaging murder mystery."– The Oregonian
"Nelscott is a first-rate storyteller."– Kirkus Reviews
ON THE DAY it all began, I stood in the center of my small apartment, arms crossed, looking at the blank wall behind the door. The radiator clanked beneath the window, pouring in enough heat to make me uncomfortable.
I hated the heating system in this place—an hour of unbearable warmth, followed by a gradual cooling, until Jimmy and I grew chilly enough to grab sweaters. The brick walls were insulated, but the windows were thin and on windy days, a draft came through so strong that the curtains moved. I'd meant to caulk, but I hadn't gotten to it yet. I found that I had an aversion to working on an apartment that wasn't my own.
It was a few minutes after noon on December 6, 1968, and I was feeling out of sorts. I had just had a conversation with Amos Bonet, one of the other fathers in the neighborhood. He'd asked me if I wanted to join him and the rest of the group to get a Christmas tree.
I had been about to say yes when I realized he was talking about stealing one.
"It's no big deal," Amos said. "We do it every year. We've never been caught."
Not being caught wasn't the issue; the issue was the theft, especially of a Christmas tree. I didn't like the symbolism.
But before I could say anything, he added, "It's not like we're hurting anybody. We go up to one of the state parks in Wisconsin, take a few tiny trees. We don't steal from the real tree farmers."
As if that made it better.
"We make a day of it—something to look forward to. Thought you might enjoy it."
Somehow I managed to thank him for his consideration—my judgmental response wasn't going to discourage a neighborhood tradition—and make it up to the apartment.
The place seemed less like home than it had in the summer, when we had been sharing it with all seven members of the Grimshaw family. Althea had managed to keep the living area and half-kitchen clean at all times, despite the crowded conditions. Something was always on the stove, and the place had felt like it was full of love.
It seemed empty now. Part of that was because the Grimshaws had taken most of their furniture with them when they moved to a house more suited to their family's size. The furniture I'd found didn't fill the space nearly as well. We had a dilapidated sofa covered with an afghan Althea had given us, a presswood coffee table that needed refinishing, two floor lamps that didn't match, and the only thing I'd purchased new—a twenty-inch black-and-white television set that dominated the corner beside the door to the hallway.
The whole idea of a tree seemed novel to me. When I lived in Memphis, I had always celebrated Christmas with friends, but I had never made much of an effort myself. I hadn't decorated my home or put up a tree. Usually I helped my friend Henry Davis by running the Christmas dinner for the poor at his church—giving him time to spend at least part of the holiday with his own family.
This year would be very different. I barely had enough money to make the rent. I had no idea how I'd find more cash to spend on presents, a special meal, and all the trimmings a tree required.
A knock on the door made me jump. It was probably Amos. He was trying to be neighborly—the invitation was yet another sign that I was becoming accepted—but I simply couldn't imagine celebrating a holiday of peace and light with a stolen tree in my front room.
I pulled the door open without looking through the peephole and was startled to find a stout, middle-aged woman standing at the threshold. I'd never seen her before.
"Hi," she said, her voice shaking. "Are you Bill Grimshaw?"
Actually, my name is Smokey Dalton, but I had been using the name Bill Grimshaw since I'd come to Chicago in May. Bill was my legal first name and people assumed my last name was Grimshaw because I had been living with Franklin and Althea.
It was safer to use the assumed name, and once I decided to stay in Chicago, I decided to keep it, even having fake identification made out in the name of William S. Grimshaw.
I almost smiled as I realized the irony. I was willing to go to illegal means to get fake identification, but I wasn't willing to have a stolen Christmas tree—an untraceable stolen Christmas tree—in my apartment.
"Yes," I said. "I'm Bill Grimshaw. What can I do for you?"
She licked her lips, then pressed them together as if she were wearing lipstick. She wasn't, although it took a moment to see that. Her cheeks were ruddy with the cold and she had magnificent, almond-shaped eyes that needed no enhancement at all.
"I hear you help people find things."
I nodded and stepped aside, letting her into the apartment. Since September, I'd gone back to what I did best—doing odd jobs for people who needed help. Most of the time, those odd jobs involved detective work, although in the early days of the fall, I'd found myself doing truly odd work—a bit of carpentry for people who needed an extra hand on the hammer, helping families move, driving people to the emergency room when there was no one else to help.
That work was becoming less and less common now that I was getting an occasional referral from black area lawyers. It still wasn't enough to make ends meet, and I took way too much work in trade, but it had been a start.
She hovered just inside the door, clutching her cloth coat closed around her neck. Apparently I made her nervous, which wasn't a surprise. I was six feet tall and broad-shouldered. I made most people nervous, even when I didn't tower over them the way that I towered over her.
"We don't have to talk in here if you don't want to," I said. "We can talk outside or go to a restaurant."
She shook her head, then gave me a crooked smile. "That's all right. I just wasn't expecting this."
She was looking at the living room. It was clean, more or less—no dirty dishes or grime on the surfaces. But the afghan was crumpled on the side of the sofa, and yesterday's Defender was spread on the coffee table, a large picture of O.J. Simpson with the banner "Player of the Year!" spread across its back cover.
"My office is down the hall." I'd had this reaction from clients before and I wished that the apartment was set up differently. If I had lived alone, I would have put the office in the front room and the living area in the back, but I couldn't—not with Jimmy coming in and out. In the back, at least I could close the door for privacy. In the front room, a client and I would have had none.
I led her through the living room to the hallway and turned into the first bedroom. It had once been the boys' bedroom, small and dark, with a single window that overlooked the alley. The heat was even worse in here. I flicked on the overhead light, opened the window, and settled behind my desk.
This room was neat—I tried to keep it as spotless as possible—with old wooden filing cabinets lining one wall. The window filled the other, letting in thin light from the gray, overcast afternoon.
The woman settled into the chair in front of my desk. The chair was wooden and square and looked expensive, even though I bought it cheap at the same yard sale where I had gotten the filing cabinets. The chair, cabinets, and desk made me look more prosperous than I was—a good thing, I thought, essential for reassuring clients.
"How can I help you, Miss—?"
"Mrs.," she said, and to my surprise, teared up. "Mrs. Louis Foster."
I braced myself. Obviously this was going to be a lot more serious than helping her find a lost dog.
She blinked but didn't sniffle, as if she could compose herself through sheer will. "Your cousin, Franklin Grimshaw, told me to come see you. He says you do detective work, even though you don't advertise."
"Yes." Franklin wasn't my cousin, but most people believed he was. It was a fiction we had created when Jimmy and I had arrived last May, when we were running from the Memphis police and the FBI. "I do detective work."
"But you're not one of them agencies?"
I shook my head. I never believed in going through the state—any state—to gain a license to do my own business. I would have had to follow white rules and white regulations, even if I worked for one of the many black detective agencies in Chicago. I preferred working for myself, without submitting to forms and paperwork and tests. There were enough rules in my line of work.
"I work for myself."
"And don't advertise?" The point clearly bothered her.
"I figure that people who need me will find me." I smiled gently, hoping I could reassure her. "You did."
She swallowed and pulled her large black purse onto her lap. Her gloved fingers clutched the clasp, as if she were still debating about using my services.
"Why don't you tell me what happened, Mrs. Foster, and we'll both decide if I'm right for the job?"
She teared up again, then blinked, straightening her spine. I pretended I didn't notice. I didn't want to scare her off, not when something was bothering her like this.
"You didn't know my Louis, did you, Mr. Grimshaw?"
"No, ma'am," I said.
She bit her lip again. "He was a dentist. His offices are in the oldest part of Bronzeville near the Loop."
Her gaze met mine and again I was struck by the beauty of her dark brown eyes.
"Three weeks ago," she said, her voice shaking, "he was murdered."
I had known he was dead from her tone, but somehow I hadn't expected her to say this.
"I'm sorry," I said, and realized how inadequate the words were.
She waved them off with a slight movement of one gloved hand. "The police say he was mugged."
The radiator had stopped clanking. Already a chill was seeping into the room.
"You don't believe the police?" I asked.
"He was a big man, like you, Mr. Grimshaw. People thought twice about doing anything to him."
They thought twice about attacking me, too, but it had happened. "Did you mention that to the police?"
She nodded. "They said that maybe there was more than one mugger."
"But you don't believe that."
"I don't know what to believe." Her voice cracked and this time, a tear strayed down her cheek. She opened her purse, took out an embroidered handkerchief, and wiped her eyes. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right," I said. "It hasn't been that long."
"It has too, Mr. Grimshaw." She crumpled the handkerchief in her hand. "It's been three weeks, and the police won't even return my calls. They said he should have known better than to be out alone. They said there's too many murders to solve all of them. They gave it enough time, they said, but there aren't any leads."
"These were white cops?" I asked.
She nodded. "I called the Afro-American Patrolmen's League. They said they'd see what they could do, but they said sometimes there weren't any clues and there was nothing to learn."
"They said this the first time you called?"
"And the second. I've spent all my time since he died trying to get help on this, and no one is listening."
I leaned forward so that she knew I was paying attention. I also didn't want her to know that the police were right; often there wasn't enough evidence to gather from a scene to make an arrest.
"Tell me what happened, Mrs. Foster."
Her fingers slipped inside her purse and clutched something, but she didn't pull it out.
"He didn't come home from work that day," she said. "It was the week before Thanksgiving and his mother was coming on Monday. We had a lot of errands to do, and he promised he'd be prompt. When Louis said he'd be prompt, he always was."
"So you knew something was wrong."
She nodded. "I called the police at eight that night, and they said I should wait. He'd come home. Then when he wasn't back the next morning, I called again, and they asked me to describe him. That's when I knew."
Her eyes were dry now and her voice steady. She'd told this part of the story a number of times, and the emotion behind it wasn't sorrow. It was anger.
"I did describe him. They said they'd found a man meeting that description in Washington Park and would I come see if that man was my husband? My Louis had no reason to go to Washington Park, and I told them that, but they insisted."
She stopped and closed her eyes, clearly remembering that morning.
"Was it him?" I asked gently, hoping to move her past what was obviously a painful memory.
"Yes," she whispered. Then she set the folder on my desk. "Here's what happened to him."
I opened the folder. On top were a series of clippings, the largest from the Chicago Defender and the rest from the other newspapers in town. A cursory glance told me that most of the clippings were about the discovery of Louis Foster's body, but a few were his obituary, which would be useful in its own way.
I moved the clippings aside and was surprised to find a number of clear black-and-white photographs of a dead body leaning against a tree. Cops moved around it, clearly examining it and the site nearby.
"Where did you get these?" I asked as I turned the top one over, looking for the answer even before she gave it.
"The Defender," she said.
That surprised me. The newspaper's stamp wasn't on the back. Instead, someone had written a name and address on a piece of masking tape and pressed it onto the surface.
I closed the folder. I would study the photographs later. She didn't need to see them, a reminder of the horrible way her husband had died. "I don't remember the Defender running anything like this."
Her smile was small. "They didn't. They ran an article on his death, though, and it had more information in it than the police told me, so I went there. They gave me the photographs because they had no use for them, but not the notes."
Too bad. I could have used the notes.
"I didn't know newspapers gave away photographs," I said.
She shrugged. "It took a bit of persuading."
I was just beginning to discover how persuasive Mrs. Louis Foster could be. "Mrs. Foster," I said, "there is a good possibility that I won't find out anything more than the police have."
"Of course you'll find out more, Mr. Grimshaw. You'll actually investigate. The newspaper had more information than they did. You'll find out something."
"Maybe," I said. "But it's been weeks. A lot of evidence disappears in that amount of time. We've had rain and some snow, not to mention other people tracking past—"
"Mr. Grimshaw," she said. "I have a lot of questions that no one has been able to answer. Why was my Louis in Washington Park? He was supposed to come home at four. But his receptionist said he had left around noon. His body wasn't discovered until the next morning. Where was he between noon and four? What was he doing?"
My hands were getting cold and so were the tips of my ears. I closed the window and then faced Mrs. Foster again.
This was the part of my job that I didn't like. Prying into someone else's secrets often meant I would disillusion his loved ones. "You might not want me to follow up on this investigation after all."
"Because you might discover that my Louis was having an affair?"
"Possibly." I returned to my desk. "There are a hundred other things that I could find out, none of them pleasant. Are you sure you want to risk learning these things?"
She sat up even straighter. "I thought of that, Mr. Grimshaw. I've thought of everything, and I've decided not knowing is worse than knowing."
"People often have hidden sides, even spouses. You might discover a Louis you never dreamed existed."
She nodded. "I'm prepared for that."
"I hope so," I said. "Investigations like this sometimes bring out the worst, things you never expected, things that could shake you down to your very soul."
"Louis's death was the worst thing that could have happened to me," she said. "I doubt anything else can be worse than that."
I didn't. I knew that surprises had a way of being worse than expected, much worse.
"What do you charge?" Mrs. Foster asked.
I had set rates for the businesses I worked with, but I had learned long ago to be flexible with my individual clients. "What are your circumstances, Mrs. Foster?"
"I'm all right," she said. "Louis had a good salary and I have a good job. We own our home, and he even had a life-insurance policy that paid me fast enough to get him properly buried. I can afford you, Mr. Grimshaw."
I would check on that, just like I always did with clients who claimed they could afford me—and clients who claimed they couldn't.
"All right." I quoted her my weekly rate, which did not include expenses. For that, she would get an update and a final report. At the end of each week, we both had the option to terminate the job. That way, I wouldn't feel obligated to pursue a case that was going nowhere, and she wouldn't have to pay me if I got too close to a secret she didn't want discovered.
The amount didn't upset her and neither did the fact that our agreement was closed with a handshake. She did insist on writing the rates down, something I wished more clients would do, and then she tucked the slip of paper in her purse.
Then she gave me her address and phone number. "I suppose you have questions for me."
"Not yet." I wanted to study the pictures, see if I could find the newspaper article, discover if I agreed with the police—that this was a random act of violence. "I'll call you when I know what questions to ask."
She nodded and stood, shaking my hand again. "Thank you for taking me seriously, Mr. Grimshaw."
"You're welcome," I said, hoping she would still be grateful later. Then I showed her out.
I went to the window that overlooked the street, waiting until she reached the ground floor. I wanted to see how she had gotten here. That alone would tell me a lot about her.
She left the building, walking out purposely toward a gray sedan new enough to confirm her claims of a middle-class income. I wouldn't use that as my final determination of course, but it was a good start.
The living room was still too hot. I debated opening the window, then decided against it since the outdoor air had chilled my office so fast and there was no way to know when the heat would come back on. I poured myself a glass of water and went back down the hall.
Mrs. Foster had seemed pretty strong, but I couldn't imagine the impact those photographs had on her. She had seen her husband's body in the morgue and that had been bad enough. But I'd learned over the years that seeing the actual murder site, the body in the last position it had assumed in life, the first position it had taken in death, was somehow worse. Seeing the death pose always made the violence come clear.
I sat down and opened the folder, turning first to the newspaper article from the Defender. It was from the Monday, November twenty-fifth edition, two days after the body was discovered.
Body Found In Washington Park
Two teenage boys found the body of Louis Foster around 9:00 A.M. Saturday morning as they walked through Washington Park. Mr. Foster's body lay against a tree in the east end of the park. He had been fatally stabbed and his wallet was missing.
The boys, whose names were not revealed, called the police, who arrived on the scene nearly a half an hour later. When asked about the tardiness of the response, the police acknowledged that they first thought the call was a prank….
I set the article aside. The other articles from the Tribune, the Daily News, and the Sun-Times were much shorter, mostly acknowledging that a man had been found stabbed in the park. I skipped the obituaries and turned to the photos.
The first was of two police officers staring at the tree, whose naked limbs twisted crookedly toward the sky. It was an artistic photograph instead of a newsworthy one—the composition clearly something the photographer cared about.
I set that photograph on top of the newspaper articles, knowing I'd comb through all of this later. Then I grabbed the second photograph, and froze.
It was of Louis Foster's body. He was big, as his wife had said, and he was still wearing his coat, a dark cloth coat that covered his long frame. His eyes were open and so was his mouth, the face's slack expression making him look like a caricature of surprise.
But it wasn't the expression that caught me. It was the position of the body itself. It had been posed against the tree, one arm outstretched, the other across his stomach. His feet were extended and a shoe dangled off his left foot.
I held the photograph up, as if moving it would change the image. My breath caught, and I felt myself shake. I wondered if Truman Johnson had seen these photographs. I would have bet anything that he hadn't.
Johnson was a detective with the Chicago Police Department. Our paths had crossed in August, and he had told me about two cases similar to this one.
The first had occurred in April and another in July. But both of the victims in those cases had been ten-year-old boys, not grown men, men so large that no one thought they'd have trouble defending themselves.
Foster had been stabbed, the newspaper said, and I didn't have to talk to the coroner to know exactly how. Once, through the heart. A quick, sudden movement, guaranteed to kill anyone—no matter how big or how small—in a matter of seconds.
The cops who were photographed at this scene were white. They wouldn't call in a black detective, and they probably hadn't looked up similar killings. Even if they had, they might have missed the boys.
And, I was willing to wager, Johnson hadn't combed the cold-case files for adult victims. He'd told me last summer that he thought the M.O. was for young boys. That was the information he'd given to the FBI as well.
The FBI. The very thought of them made me shudder. They had issued an APB for me and Jimmy last April, after they realized that Jimmy had witnessed Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. Jimmy had seen the sniper who shot King—and it wasn't James Earl Ray, the man they'd arrested in London in June.
It had become very clear, very quickly, that both the Memphis police and the FBI had been involved in Martin's death. They came after Jimmy even before they started looking for the "real assassin." I managed to get Jimmy out of Memphis, and so far, I'd kept us from being caught, but I knew that if I made one mistake, Jimmy would die.
I looked at the photos again. They held a lot of information. The body's position remained the same in all of them. No one had touched it—at least not while the photographer was working.
I closed the file, feeling unsettled. I didn't want to go to Johnson—not yet. The longer I kept the police and the FBI out of the investigation, the better it would be for both me and Jimmy.
But I had a hunch that what was good for us wouldn't be good for others. And I knew I couldn't, in good conscience, be able to keep this quiet for long.