The smell of human odors and wet woolens enveloped Detective Lieutenant Khalil Jimmy Zamzar as he entered the Boston Police Department Headquarters on Tremont Street. A patrolman wished him good morning, the man’s good humor shining in a wide smile. On the second floor, which housed the Homicide Unit, Zamzar was stopped by Mrs. Drake, a grizzled stenographer widowed on account of her husband being blown to bits in the War.
With unusual sweetness, she said, “Sir, good morning. Captain Horman would like to see you, please.”
He wondered at the inconsistency of people’s traits, including his own, given how happy he had been enjoying the morning rituals with his wife and son. He unlocked his door, which he felt led to a cell, closed it with a kick, hung his hat on a hook, and said, “Boston. Murders. Immigrants. Anarchists. Early winter.”
He stared up at the board on the wall. From grainy photographs the eyes of the disappeared and the murdered stared back. Under a handwritten notice that said Unsolved, he saw in those eyes deep, collective disbelief. The whole world was unsolved, and unresolved, and there was President Wilson and President Millerand and Prime Minister Lloyd George trying to piece together declarations, treaties, and alliances which they had torn up in that vast war. “Like Humpty Dumpty,” thought Zamzar. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again. And so, our world.” He smiled and imagined his mother reading that wisdom to him as a child, and of him reading from the same battered book to his son, seated in the same chair in the same room, some thirty years later.
At the window, he looked out at the yard that was filled with the detritus of police work including barrels which before Prohibition would have contained beer. He had the sweet memory of entering a bar and the ordinariness of buying a bottle of wine. “American puritanism,” he said. As the imaginary hint of a Cabernet entered his nostrils, the gates to the yard creaked open. From off Harold Lane entered two patrolmen astride their respective horses. A flock of pigeons flew up, which he thought of as the disturbed and harried world, “Just like my people starving in Mount Lebanon because of the Ottomans.”
He watched the patrolmen dismount. It was a scene as ordinary as anything he could ever imagine, and he felt in its very civility and ordinariness that there was hope. But, as the groom led the horses into the stables, and the patrolmen left the scene, hope went with them. What he saw instead were the morning’s headlines from The Boston Globe: Three Negroes Lynched Outside Chicago Police Station.
The door opened and Captain Norman Horman entered, his squat face grim. He shut the door and said, “You look upset, Lieutenant.”
From his jacket, Horman took a packet of Capstan and a kerosene lighter, which he flicked at a cigarette. He stood with his short legs spread, “A corpse was found floating on this side of the river last night, near Harvard Bridge. It’s in the morgue. Apparently, a hobo. I want you to look into it.” Horman, too, wore civilian clothes, his suit a cut from the early 1900s, the lapels and cuffs narrow and dated. “It’s a busy time with these raids rounding up illegal immigrants and anarchists.” He pulled out a chair, flicked his cigarette at the floor, and tried to smile.
“Just like the Irish were in the last century,” said Zamzar. “When they were hated.”
“You could pass for Russian or Italian,” said the captain. “Jew even. But your folks have been here a while, isn’t that right?” His teeth, dark from nicotine and tannins, he tried to hide when he grinned, but couldn’t, his lips being too thin.
“It had to be Sacco and Vanzetti who killed the bank guards, but who helped them?” Horman said, more to himself than his colleague. He drew on his cigarette and exhaled. “Khalil Zamzar. You’d better not say that name in certain places, what with the Wall Street bombing. This is America. How can forty people get blown up by anarchists?”
At thirty-eight, Norman Horman was five years younger than the man at whom he had just tossed the grenade, and his eyes signaled his victory. “The same bunch had to have bombed the Attorney General’s house. Why do these immigrants hate us so much?”
The forced starvation of the Christian Syrians in Mount Lebanon had been orchestrated by the Ottoman Turks, in collusion with the British. Zamzar watched this ginger-haired, red-nosed man, whose people had died in a potato famine due to much the same forces of greed and colonialism, stub out his cigarette on the floor. In Zamzar’s mind, Horman was suddenly swinging from the same tree as the three men in Chicago. But that scene had a different conclusion from the one in the paper: he saw the Negro men being cut down from their ropes, alive. The Irishman was still swinging, back and forth and back and forth in the wind off Lake Michigan.
“I’ve assigned you to work with a…Negro.” For effect, Horman paused, “Given how shorthanded we are with this anarchist situation. He’s a darkie. Myssiah Pomare. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it?”
“Myssiah Pomare,” said Zamzar. “That’s a strong name, sounds Southern, and something to do with royalty.” He looked over to the Unsolved board and thanked God that he was not among those dead souls. It was a familiar refrain, but again he told himself that he was Khalil Jimmy Zamzar, that he had a wife he loved, a son at MIT, that he owned properties, spoke four languages fluently and, had he desired, and he often did, that he could walk unguided from his ancestral village across the Lebanese mountains until he reached the blue Mediterranean. “And I know Boston,” he thought, “unlike this upstart from Philadelphia.”
“Well?” said Horman.
Zamzar added to his list of attributes, “And I’m not a short, red-faced, freckled Irishman with a wife who looks like a pumpkin.”
“Negroes can’t be trusted. Look at how they drink and steal,” Horman offered.
“When does he start?” Zamzar studied his adversary, seeing only the lost eyes of a bigot, and deep within them, the boy who hated himself.
“Now. He’s a new patrolman, ex-serviceman back from the War. Got some decent education too, speaks well, can write a report, polite. Been on the beat a few weeks and well behaved. You can work with one of them, can’t you, Jimmy?”
“Train him up, you mean?”
“Yeah. All these…Negroes flooding in from the South, we have to recruit a few, let them keep an eye open, track down their kind.”
“Prohibition’s causing the crime, not Southerners. They work hard when they get it.” Zamzar heard his own words as pleading and pious. He looked at the captain’s eyes, saw self-satisfaction, and felt the sting of being sidelined in the Homicide Unit. Still a lieutenant but Horman with the right name and the right color appointed captain after the failed police strike and subsequent purge. He thought, “Get up, Khalil. Go now. You can.”
“If this experiment with Negroes doesn’t work, then so be it, but the commissioner ordered it. I called the boy in. Apparently, he met the French President for bravery, probably an untruth, but he’s been good on the streets and what the commissioner says, we do.”
“He’ll have to be a plainclothesman, I’m not going around with a uniformed cop. Is he a detective? What status, rank?”
“Don’t think fancy, he’s a boy. A field training officer, I suppose. Call him detective if you must in front of folks. He’s a patrolman and he can stay there for pay purposes. French President, medals, all rubbish.”
Norman Horman got up and from the door hollered to someone who hollered in turn. Facing Zamzar, he said, “We don’t have a vehicle to spare. Think of this as getting fit on foot,” and walked off.
Zamzar shut his eyes. His temples pounded. He forced himself to imagine sun, beach, trees, birds calling. But from the sheer anger he said, “I think you’re shit.”
“Do you, sir?” he heard someone say, and laugh. “I’m Myssiah Pomare.”Read on