I took a quick breath and then another. There was an electric tingle over my right cheekbone and for a moment the room was tinged in red.

“Brother,” I said. “You got to go.”

“Are you talkin’ to me, niggah?”

“You heard me,” I said in a tone that you can’t make up. “I been in the house for some time now, trying not to break out and start doin’ wrong. I’ve been patient and treadin’ softly. But if you say one more word to my friend here I will break you like a matchstick and throw you out in the street.”

“I want my shoes,” the big beautiful man said with tears in his voice. “He owe it to me. It don’t matter what they did.”

I heard his cracked tone. I knew that he was just as crazy as I was at that moment. We were both black men filled with a passionate rage that was too big to be held in. I didn’t want to fight but I knew that once I started, the only thing that would stop me would be his lifeless throat crushed by my hand.

“Here you are, sir,” Theodore said.

He was handing over a ten-dollar bill.

“Your shoes were old, you know,” the shoemaker said. “And they both needed soles. It was a good make and I would have bought them for seven dollars. So here’s ten.”

The burly man stared at the note a moment. Then he looked up at me.

“Forget it,” he said.

He turned around so quickly that he lost his balance for a moment and had to reach out for a broken, charred timber for support.

“Ow!” he shouted, probably because of a splinter, but I can’t say for sure because he blundered out, tearing the front door off of its last hinge as he went.

There was a sleek antique riding saddle on the floor, under a shattered wooden chair. I moved away the kindling and picked up the saddle. Theodore had received it from his uncle who was a riding master in Munich before World War I. I’d always admired the leatherwork.

Setting the riding gear on a fairly stable part of his ruined worktable, I said, “You didn’t have to pay him, Mr. Steinman.”

“He was hurting,” the small man replied. “He wanted justice.”

“That’s not your job.”

“It is all of our job,” he said, staring at me with blue eyes. “You cannot forget that.”

“Ezekiel Rawlins?”

It was a question asked in a voice filled with authority. It was a white man’s voice. Putting those bits of information together, I knew that I was being addressed by the police.


He wore a rumpled green suit and a white shirt that had yellowed from too many launderings. He didn’t wear a hat but it was already almost eighty degrees and too hot for the kind of hat that unkempt white man would own. His tie was like a muddy creek bed with a few murky jewels showing through.

“Are you Ezekiel Rawlins?” he asked. “I was up at your office. A man across the hall said you’d gone downstairs.”

I waited for him to say more.

“Detective Melvin Suggs,” the man said.

He held out a hand.

I looked at it. Not many policemen had offered to shake hands with me. Outstretched hands of the law held wooden batons and pistols, handcuffs and warrants but rarely a welcome and never an offer of equality.

“What is it you want, Detective?”

Melvin Suggs first closed his hand and then opened it to rub his fingertips together. His smile held little friendliness and that was fine by me. I didn’t need a friendly white cop right then. Enough of my world had already been turned inside out.

“Are you here about the damage to the building, officer?” Theodore Steinman asked.

I could have told my friend that the policeman hadn’t come for our structural troubles. The cop was there for me. He needed me to help him—that’s what I thought at the time.

“No sir,” Suggs said. “There will be a unit here later in the week to investigate every act of arson and looting. But right now I have to speak to Mr. Rawlins.”

“That’s too bad,” I said, “because right now I have to help my friend clean up what’s left of his store.”

“This is important,” the policeman said, again in that tone of authority.

“People got problems all up and down the street, Officer. Every doorway got some kinda mark on it. People lost their businesses, their jobs. Some little old ladies got to take a bus five miles just to find a store to buy a quarter pound of margarine.”

“But only thirty-four people lost their lives,” he said.

“Radio said this morning that it was thirty-three dead,” I said, feeling the need to contradict him.

“One went unreported,” the policeman replied. “It’s a special case and we would like you to take a look at

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