7

The sergeant was named Frick. He was a lean, blackhaired man who suffered secretly from stomach ulcers. He looked now as though one of the ulcers had suddenly bitten him.

“Did you say your name was Alberta Wright?” he asked incredulously.

The woman, sitting on the stool in the cone of light that spilled from the 300-watt lamp, replied sullenly, “Yassuh, that’s what I said.”

The sergeant looked from the face of one of the colored detectives flanking him to the face of the other.

“Did you hear her?” he demanded.

“What about it?” Grave Digger Jones asked politely.

He stood like a farmer resting on his plow, his big, slack frame in the dark, wrinkled suit at a slouching ease.

“Yesterday around noon a call came into the bureau that she’d dropped dead at some kind of a religious festival,” the sergeant said.

“She looks alive enough now,” Coffin Ed Johnson remarked.

He stood on the other side of Sergeant Frick. In all but his face he was the counterpart of Grave Digger. But his acid-scarred face, the memento of an acid-throwing rumpus one night in a shanty on the Harlem River further uptown, looked like the mask of an African witch doctor.

They were both precinct detectives, but the Homicide sergeant had asked them to take part in the interrogation.

The sergeant looked down at the woman as though he expected her to take sudden flight. But she seemed attached to the stool, which was bolted to the middle of the bare floor in the sound-proof, windowless room in the Harlem precinct station known to the underworld as the Pigeon’s Nest. She still wore the dirt-blackened white maid’s uniform and white rubber bathing cap in which she had been baptized.

“You’re giving the Homicide Bureau a hard way to go,” the sergeant said. “Yesterday you were dead, and now here you are alive and killing someone else.”

“I ain’t been dead, and I ain’t killed nobody,” Alberta denied.

“All right, all right, start lying,” the sergeant said. “Tell me all that happened.”

She talked in the flat, whining voice she reserved for white persons who questioned her.

When she had finished talking, the sergeant said, “You took me at my word, didn’t you?”

“Nawsuh, what I told you is the truth,” she maintained.

The sergeant looked again at the colored detectives. “Do you believe that fairy tale?” he asked in the direction of the police stenographer, who had taken it all down, at his small desk in one corner.

The police stenographer said nothing.

“Some of it,” Grave Digger said.

Beneath a battered felt hat his dark, lumpy face flickered with secret amusement. He understood the art of lying.

“Take some, leave some,” Coffin Ed supplemented.

The sergeant looked as though he had been given a big dose of castor oil. He turned back to Alberta and demanded, “Let me hear that again. Maybe I didn’t hear it right the first time.”

“Hear what again?” Alberta asked. “You mean tell you all over again what I just told you?”

“No, just tell me that part about your finding the knife,” the sergeant said. “We’ll get back to the rest when we get that clear.”

She took a deep breath and wiped the sweat out of her eyes. “It ain’t nothing to get clear,” she began apathetically. “It were just like I said. I were sitting on a bench in Central Park-“

“Doing what?” the sergeant interrupted.

“I were resting.”

“By yourself?”

“Yassuh, by myself. And I seen this patrol car go past on a Hundred Tenth Street and turn into Manhattan Avenue.”

“What time was it?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t have no watch, and I weren’t interested in the time. Why don’t you ask them what was driving the car?”

“I have. Just answer my questions. What happened then?”

“I had a premonition.”

“Premonition of what?”

“I don’t know of what. Just a premonition, is all.”

“How did you feel? Faint? In a daze? Clairvoyant? Or what?”

“I felt just like I always feel when I has a premonition-like something bad was going to happen.”

“To who?”

“I didn’t have no feeling about who it was going to happen to.”

“Do you have them every time you see a police patrol car?”

“Nawsuh. I has them about lots of things. I don’t know why I has them. Some folks say I got second sight.”

“You didn’t have one just before the police arrested you, did you?”

“Nawsuh.”

“That’s too bad for you. All right, go ahead, what happened when you had your premonition?”

“I got up and followed the patrol car.”

“You said before that you ran after it,” the sergeant corrected.

“Yassuh, I ran,” Alberta admitted. “Wasn’t no use of dallying around. Premonitions don’t last forever.”

“What did you expect to happen?”

“I didn’t know what to expect. Just something bad, is all. Something told me I ought to be there.”

“Be where?”

“Where it happened.”

“Why you? Why should you be there? What did you have there? Who did you know there?”

“I don’t know. The ways of the Lord are mysterious. I don’t question them like you does. I had a premonition and I ran after the patrol car, and that’s all there is to it.”

“The way in which you keep carrying on about the Lord, I feel as if He’s right here in this room,” the sergeant commented sarcastically.

“He is,” Alberta replied solemnly. “He’s right here by my side.”

“All right,” the sergeant said. “So what happened when you got there?”

“When I got there I saw a crowd of people and policemens gathered around. I asked a woman what happened. She said some man were killed. I asked her who it were. She said she didn’t know. I asked her how he were killed. She said he were stabbed to death.”

“Who did you expect it to be?” the sergeant asked abruptly.

“I didn’t expect it to be nobody.”

“All right, so when you got there somebody slipped you the knife. Who was it?”

“Ain’t nobody done no such thing and I ain’t said nobody did,” she replied angrily. “I stepped on something, and, when I looked down to see what it were, I seen it were a knife all covered with blood.”

“Where was that?”

“It were in the gutter.”

“Exactly where?”

“In front of the playground.”

“And you tried to conceal it because you knew who had used it,” the sergeant charged harshly.

But Alberta was not intimidated. “Nawsuh, I didn’t do no such thing,” she contradicted heatedly. “It were just like I said before-suddenly the Lord tapped me on the shoulder and told me to take the knife and throw it into the pond in Central Park and I would save an innocent man’s life.”

“How?”

“By throwing the knife in the pond, that’s how.”

“All right, who was the innocent man?”

“The Lord didn’t say.”

“Well, ask Him, then,” the sergeant snapped. “You say He’s right there by your side.”

“Yassuh,” she replied impertubably, and turned and spoke to the emptiness. “Lord, who were it?”

The stenographer stopped writing and looked up sharply. For a space of time no one spoke.

Then the sergeant asked sarcastically, “What did He say?”

“He said He weren’t going to tell,” Alberta replied stolidly.

The police stenographer giggled, but the faces of Grave Digger and Coffin Ed remained impassive.

Sergeant Frick looked at them and rubbed the palm of his hand violently across his forehead. Every time he came to Harlem on on a case he got a violent headache.

“What is it you believe about this fairy tale?” he asked the colored detectives.

“What she said she did is probably true,” Grave Digger replied. “Why she did it is another story.”

“Do you mean to say you believe anybody is stupid enough to try to hide a murder weapon from the police without even knowing who the murderer is?” the sergeant said incredulously.

“Sure,” Coffin said. “I believe it. Not that this woman is doing that, but there are people in Harlem who will.”

“Why, for Christ sake?”

“Most people in Harlem consider the police as public enemies,” Grave Digger elaborated. “But no doubt but what this woman has a good notion of who the murderer is.”

“That’s what I would think,” the sergeant said, then turned back to Alberta and shot the question, “When was the last time you saw George Clayborne?”

“I ain’t never heard of him,” she denied.

“He was a crony of your husband’s,” the sergeant ventured.

“He were?” she said unconcernedly, ignoring the bait. “Do tell!”

The sergeant colored.

“What did you say your husband’s name was?”

“I didn’t say, but, if you wants to know, he’s named Rufus Wright.”

“Where does he work?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care. I ain’t seen him in nearmost a year, and what he do don’t interest me.”

“Who is your man?” Grave Digger asked.

“My man? He named Sugar Stonewall.”

“What was he doing at Clayborne’s house?” the sergeant slipped in cleverly.

“He ain’t been there,” Alberta maintained doggedly. “He left for Detroit on the nine-fifteen, like I said.”

“No, he didn’t,” the sergeant said. “He was waiting for Clayborne in front of Clayborne’s house when Clayborne came home. He had some business to transact with Clayborne. You were waiting in the park for Stonewall to come and tell you the outcome of the business. When you saw the patrol car pass you knew something had gone wrong. You rushed to the scene. When you found out that Clayborne had been killed, you knew Stonewall had killed him. You found the knife Stonewall had thrown away. You recognized it. You knew it could be traced to Stonewall. That’s why you were going to throw it into the lagoon. All right, Why did Stonewall kill him?”

“If you know all of that what you asking me for?” Alberta said stubbornly.

“I’m just trying to make it easy for you,” the sergeant said. “I sympathize with you,” he went on, looking as sympathetic as an executioner. “I don’t want to see you take the rap for a no-good man who runs away leaving you holding the bag.”

“He ain’t left me holding nothing,” she contradicted doggedly. “Sugar Stonewall wouldn’t kill a fly.”

“Why weren’t you at home?” Coffin Ed asked.

“I told you why. I were lonesome with Stonewall gone. I just walked down to the park and watched the young folks boating in the pond. I had just set down to rest when I seen the patrol car pass.”

“Alberta, I am damn tired of listening to your lies,” the sergeant said. “I am going to book you on suspicion of murder and keep you in solitary confinement until you decide to tell the truth.”

“The Lord will be with me,” she said defiantly.

“I am going to put out a reader for this man, Sugar Stonewall,” the sergeant informed the colored detectives. “And I will wire the Detroit police, too. I want you fellows to check this woman’s story.”

“Right,” Grave Digger said. He waited until the police stenographer had followed the sergeant from the room, then turned to Alberta and said invitingly, “Now that we are all colored folks here, you can tell us the story and let’s get it over with.”

“I done told all there is,” she maintained stubbornly.

“Okay, we’ll find out,” he said roughly. “Where are the keys to your flat?”

“How do I know,” she muttered. “They took them at the desk.”

“Let’s lock her up,” Coffin Ed grated. “She’s getting on my nerves.”

“Get up,” Grave Digger said.

They took her out and turned her over to the matron.

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