In the first week of the new decade, an emergency phone call shatters Chicago Private Detective Smokey Dalton's hopes for a good 1970. His adopted son Jimmy and Jimmy's best friend and cousin Keith Grimshaw need help.
Smokey arrives at a South Side hotel across from the boys' school in time to clean up a horrible mess, one the boys mostly solve on their own. But the boys' heroic actions echo across all of Chicago. Smokey finds himself standing alone against street gangs, the mob, and the Democratic Machine.
If he fights this battle and fails, he stands to lose not only Jimmy and their future together, but also his life.
A finalist for the 2015 Shamus Award for Best Original Paperback P.I. Novel by the Private Eye Writers of America.
Kris Nelscott is the award-winning pen name of my wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Under Nelscott, she writes about about 1969 Chicago and 1969 Berkeley in ways that makes you feel like you are there. The books have been nominated for a ton of mystery awards, including numbers of Edgar Awards. /p>
This novel, Street Justice, might very well be the best fit of all the books on the topic of getting justice. Smokey Dalton knows how to get justice, there is no doubt about that. – Dean Wesley Smith
"Dalton's hard won small victory vividly illustrates a turbulent period of our recent cultural history."– Publishers Weekly
"Nelscott is a first-rate storyteller."– Kirkus Reviews
"... a gripping read that drags us deeper into [Smokey] Dalton's uneasy world."– Entertainment Weekly on War at Home
A NEW MONTH, a new year, a new decade. Somehow I had convinced myself that by the first Monday in January of 1970, I would feel better. Everything would be better.
Instead, the first Monday had come and gone, and I still had that jangly on-edge feeling, the feeling that I was barely holding myself together, even as the world around me was falling apart.
I opened the window in the living room of my small apartment, then stood back. No one saw me. I might have been the only person in the weekday-empty neighborhood. In cold like this, even the street kids went inside.
The thin January sunlight barely illuminated the three broken-down cars half-buried in snow. The plows, when they bothered to show up, had gone around them. None of the sidewalks on that side of the street were shoveled either. I always felt a moment of guilt about that, resolving to get my son Jimmy and his friends to shovel the walks, and then never acting on that resolution.
I wasn't acting on it now, even though some exercise would do me good. It would be better than suffering in the middle of my excessively hot apartment.
After more than a year of complaining, the landlord still hadn't fixed the heat. The radiator pumped enough warmth for the entire floor. Since I moved to Chicago, I had learned most radiators came with a hand-turned knob that allowed a little or a lot of hot water through. This radiator didn't have anything like that, and the landlord wouldn't replace it.
So I opened the windows whenever I was home, and I let in the cold winter breeze. This morning, as I drove the kids to school, a kindly but unfamiliar baritone on WVON, the R&B station, told me that today's high would be five to twelve above, but given how frosty Chicago looked, and how the wind was already blowing ever so faintly, I was beginning to think twelve was a pipe dream.
I had already pulled off the cable-knit sweater that Althea Grimshaw had made for me for Christmas and tossed it on the couch. I could grab it when I left again. I normally didn't wear sweaters like that, but I liked this one, even if I only wore it on days off. Cold days off.
Since this was Tuesday, it shouldn't have been a day off. I should have been working. I had quick, good-paying cases stacked in neglected files on my desk in the third bedroom that I used as an office. I couldn't quite bring myself to go in there.
These last few months had taken a hell of a toll on me.
My recent work had involved a lot of skeletal remains, cold cases, and survivor notifications. I had done most of the notifications, never knowing whether I would encounter someone who sobbed with relief when she heard that a loved one was really and truly dead, or someone who would scream at me to Get out! Get out now! Those screams were usually accompanied by some kind of flying object—whatever was at hand—and a couple of times, a shaking but loaded handgun along with a very real threat to use it.
I'd taken to wearing a concealed weapon myself and I was frightened I might get into a shootout with some grieving person. Friends of mine had been attacked at our work site last fall, so we decided that having a weapon on hand would be prudent. It still felt wrong to me.
The wrong feeling didn't stop me from wearing that weapon for weeks. I had just retired it to my safe-deposit box last month, even though I still kept my emergency gun in the glove box of my van.
Last fall's cases had given me more than enough of the past, but the present wasn't a lot better. Two important trials were taking place in the city. The Chicago Seven Conspiracy trial was in its third month, with every national news crew in the nation hanging on each word. I'd been avoiding the Federal Building for months, afraid I would see someone I knew, afraid that somehow my face would get on a national newscast and the wrong person would recognize me.
The other trial had less coverage and more meaning, even though it wasn't a trial in the Perry Mason sense. In the Criminal Courts building five miles away from the Conspiracy circus, the Cook County Coroner's office was conducting an inquest into the December deaths of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
I had seen the apartment where Clark and Hampton were murdered. The police hadn't sealed the building after the raid, and the Black Panthers had opened the apartment for everyone to see. Thousands of people toured it over the thirteen days that it took the police to close the apartment off.
All of us saw the very clear evidence that the police had broken in, guns blazing, and shot one hundred rounds at sleeping teenagers, claiming the kids had fired first. Two days ago, the man now in charge of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Bobby Rush, held a news conference revealing evidence that Hampton had been drugged and unable to wake up, even when the cops broke down the door.
The firefight that the cops claimed provoked their overreaction had never happened, and the inquest going on now was only in response to the community's demands that something be done. Not just the black community, either. Every social organization, every church with its heart in the right place, every activist—white or black—had called for an investigation into the police's actions. It was clear from the evidence in that apartment alone that a violent attack had happened—but the attack wasn't from the Panthers.
The police had done their best to wipe the Panthers out.
That entire event, plus the coroner's inquest, still bothered me. Coupled with the horrid cases I'd finished the day before Christmas, and it was no wonder I felt jangled.
Not to mention the constant pressure of saying no. Tim Minton, one of the black community's de facto coroners, had asked me to give expert witness testimony at the Panther hearing. Minton knew I had seen a lot of crime scenes and believed I could help the Panthers' case. He also knew I had toured the crime scene twice, once alone and then with the older Grimshaw children.
I couldn't agree to help Minton, and I couldn't say why. I live in Chicago under an assumed name, thanks to my friends Franklin and Althea Grimshaw. People here believe that I'm Bill Grimshaw, who has the odd nickname of Smokey. Only a few people know my real name—Smokey Dalton—and even fewer know that Jimmy isn't my biological son.
I adopted Jimmy not quite legally after I had to get him out of Memphis two years ago. He had seen Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassin, and knew that the killer wasn't James Earl Ray. I knew—and still know—that if the killers ever find out where Jimmy is, he won't make it through the day.
Jim was ten then. He would turn twelve a week from Thursday, and the Grimshaws and I had a surprise party planned for the weekend. Until he moved to Chicago, Jimmy had never had a party for his birthday, or much of a birthday at all.
In fact, his mother had abandoned him a week before his tenth birthday, something I hoped he wouldn't focus on this year like he had last year.
I couldn't quite bring myself to work on this day, but I could plan Jimmy's party. I could go to The Little Shoppe on E. 71st and get Jim a handmade black-focused birthday card, and then buy myself some lunch at one of the delis nearby. Maybe I would even pick up some fried chicken for dinner. If I stretched the shopping long enough, it would take me until school got out, and then Jim and I could rest here at home.
I'd tackle the stacked-up investigations I had to do for Bronzeville Home, Health, Life, and Burial Insurance tomorrow. Maybe by next week, I could tell Laura Hathaway that I was ready to inspect houses for Sturdy Investments again.
The very thought made me shudder. I had to get past the events of the past few months or Jimmy and I would go broke.
As I had that thought, the phone rang. In the middle of the day, I always answered "Investigations," since my company didn't really have a name. I didn't want to appropriate the Grimshaw name for my own work—it was bad enough that I used it for everything else—and I didn't want to call the business by any other name. I tell people that I do odd jobs, but everyone knows I am an unlicensed private investigator.
I used to answer with a simple "Yes?" but that caused too many initial hang-ups and callbacks. I finally gave in to some sort of convention.
Even so, it still cause some people to question. And it's a bit risky, given that lack of a license.
"Um," said a female voice on the other end. "Is this Bill Grimshaw?"
So this was someone I knew outside of work. Most people who had hired me either called me Mr. Grimshaw or Smokey. I preferred Smokey.
"Yes, it is," I said, a bit wary.
"Oh, good," she said, sounding relieved. "This is Darlene Pellman."
It took me a moment too long to place her, because she added, "You know. From the after-school program."
I smiled so that she could hear it in my voice. "Mrs. Pellman. I'm sorry. I've been so busy today."
"It's all right," she said. "It's not like we see each other all the time."
She sounded relentlessly upbeat. I remembered her now. She was the wife of one of Franklin's friends, a cheery force of nature with reddish hair that she ironed straight and then flip-curled like a white woman would. She had three boys, and she was terrified they'd be recruited by the neighborhood gangs. She had helped Franklin and I organize the after-school program, which provided more actual learning than did the public school our kids were enrolled in.
"How can I help you, Mrs. Pellman?" I asked, and hoped she wasn't bringing me a case. Like so many families involved in the after-school program, hers was hanging on financially and the older boys wanted to make money instead of learn. We'd managed to keep most of them in program so far, but it was a daily struggle against the seemingly easy money the gangs brought into the neighborhood.
She said, "I saw something in the Defender yesterday, and I thought immediately of you, but I thought I'd better check before I volunteered your name."
I got a lot of referrals from cases first reported in the Chicago Defender. It wasn't just Chicago's black newspaper. It had subscribers all over the country. I'd read the paper long before I moved to Chicago. The Defender was one of the many reasons I was glad I had changed my name, but I still feared that someone would mention me and the wrong person would see the paper.
"Volunteered?" I didn't like that word. It got me into a lot of trouble.
"Yes," Mrs. Pellman said quickly, and I realized she was nervous. "The Chicago Economic Development Corporation is looking for people to run the Model Cities program here, and they're asking community organizations to volunteer the names of possible candidates. I know for a fact that the pay for the top-end positions is pretty good, better than most of us get around here, and since our neighborhood is a target neighborhood—"
"Why don't you volunteer, Mrs. Pellman?" The last thing I wanted to do was work for a government agency, especially a government agency in Chicago.
"Oh, Mr. Grimshaw," she said, "I haven't worked full-time since the boys were born. Besides, I'm just a waitress. They won't look at me, a black woman who barely finished high school. But you. You clearly have an education and you have done work for that housing firm—"
"I'm sure everyone connected with the after-school program would be happy to refer you, Mrs. Pellman." I didn't want to hear how much she actually knew about me. What she'd already said made my jangled nerves worse. And I was very aware that I was saying no to her. Just like I'd said no to Tim Minton. The more active I became in this community, the more it wanted to co-opt me in ways that I couldn't do and couldn't explain.
"Mr. Grimshaw," she said, and then my phone clicked, buzzed, and I heard, of all things, traffic noise. A boy's voice cried, "Uncle Bill?" and my heart literally froze.
A professional woman's voice came over the line, loud and important. "This is the operator. Will you accept an emergency call from Keith Grimshaw? There will be a charge added to your account."
Keith? I glanced at the clock on the wall in the half-kitchen. It was twelve-thirty-five. He should be in school.
"Yes," I said. "Yes."
"Uncle Bill?" Keith still sounded far away.
"I'll reverse the charges," the operator said. There was one more click, and then Keith:
"Uncle Bill, Jimmy said I had to call. It's an emergency, and they made me use a pay phone, but I don't got no money. I'm sorry. I thought the call would be free, but they said only if I called the police, and Jimmy said don't do that."
"Mrs. Pellman, I need the line," I said. "I'm sorry."
"No, I'm sorry," she said, and hung up.
I let out a small breath, not sure if I should have wasted that precious second on Mrs. Pellman, but unable not to.
"Where are you?" I asked Keith.
"The Starlite Hotel," Keith said.
I shook my head just a little, trying to figure out what he had said. Somehow I thought he would tell me he was in the school yard and Jimmy had gotten into a fight with the Blackstone Rangers again, or something worse had happened. But if that had happened, wouldn't the school have called?
The Starlite Hotel. In my mind's eye, I could see the faded neon sign, but couldn't place the hotel. I had no idea why the boys would even be at a hotel at this time of day or what they were doing there or why no one would let Keith call me. Why wasn't Jimmy calling, anyway?
"It's about a block from school," Keith said. "You know, near the Starlite Café."
Then I knew the place he was talking about. It had once been one of the premier black hotels in the 1930s, but now it had become a by-the-hour rental filled with alcoholics, drug addicts, and hookers.
"What's going on, Keith? Where's Jimmy?"
"He's upstairs." Keith sounded suspiciously close to tears. "He said I needed to call you. I was supposed to even call Miss Hathaway if I had to and tell her it was an emergency and to track you down. He said I'm supposed to tell you that Lacey's in trouble."
I nearly cursed out loud. I should have seen this coming. Now everything made sense.
"I'll be right there," I said. "You stay outside of that hotel and don't go in, you hear me? You wait for me."
Then I hung up before he could even answer. I grabbed my keys and heavy winter coat, and ran out the door, pressing just the doorknob lock as I went. I was probably inviting a robbery, but it didn't matter.
Keith's older sister Lacey was in trouble, and if I didn't get to her soon, we might never see her again.