The chill in the air was more than a matter of the descending mercury. On this gray January morning, tensions froze expressions into masks of caution and distrust, as frigid as the iced-over waters of Lake Michigan. Even from the Avenue, the grain elevators along the Illinois River were visible, their behemoth structures rimed with frost. Slight flurries were beginning to fall.
Shivering newsboys stood along major street corners hawking the Chicago Times, their high-pitched squeals only adding to the collective anxiety: “Bridgeport Paddies Trounce Nigger Trespasser!”
Andre Lawrence barely heard the words. He continued watching the woman standing before the W. M. Ross window admiring some feminine creation of taffeta and lace. Still, given the circumstances, he might have had reason to be concerned. The previous night, a gang of Irish marauders had swarmed on a hapless Negro who mistakenly crossed into Bridgeport territory, and beaten him to show him “what’s what.” Such attacks had increased since Lincoln’s proclamation, extending freedom to slaves in the Confederacy.
Many blacks were wary as they walked the Chicago streets, cautious of bumping into another body, unless a vindictive white should decide to challenge the black with not having his or her proper papers. The codified Black Laws allowed arrest just on this accusation alone.
Pro-war Republicans and supporters of Lincoln were no less worried about these turns of events. Many held strong views on abolition and saw Storey’s continuous trouncing of Lincoln in the Times as outright sedition. And every story of attacks on blacks seemed a victory for the hate-mongering editor, who was eager to rile up the Democrats.
It was not a good time to be a Negro, even in the North. And it was never a good time anywhere to be staring at a white woman. Her profile, complacent in study, might have belonged to another. Time had changed her: the once raven hair was now brilliant snow, the translucent skin that had been her pride was deeply grooved and sagged near the neckline. But he would never forget the winged arch of her brows, the slight flare of her nostrils nor the way she pursed her lips as though in a constant state of discontent. He often saw these same features, although considerably younger, in his nightmares, eternally frozen in a tableau of a child’s horror. He remembered that face well from those nights when as a nine-year-old he had crept up the stairs leading to the forbidden room, careful to avoid the creaky third step lest Madame should hear him and come down to investigate. Because if she had ever found him spying, his fate surely would have been that of the poor souls imprisoned in her attic. On those nights, he would stand outside the door and listen to sounds that only the damned in hell should know.
The Louisiana papers had claimed she fled the States nearly thirty years before when the fire destroyed her home on Royal Street – and after firemen discovered the vestiges that remained (some barely alive, others quite dead) in her attic. But the papers had been wrong. Very wrong.
Because here she stood on a busy, wintry Chicago street, far away from the lush New Orleans heat that grew pungent when the bougainvilleas were in bloom. She was a few paces in front of him, a space he could easily close in seconds. If he had had his knife on him, he would have plunged it into her heart and watched with pleasure as those dark eyes became vacant and her hellish soul pitched toward Purgatory. But he did not have his knife this day. It lay on the bed stand in his room back at the boarding house. Still, he might place both his hands around that lean neck and squeeze just so…. His right hand clenched into a half-fist at the thought. He was almost tempted, but his ardor cooled as he looked around. Too many people were out strolling this Saturday morning. Also, plowing in his direction at that moment was a blue uniform with a billy club in hand. The policeman, his eyes set on Andre, brushed past the woman, then stopped in front of his quarry, his scowl showing what he felt about a Negro staring too long at a white woman.
“You see somethin’ interestin’, boy?”
“No, sir, nothin’ at all…sir,” Andre said, his deference a survival reflex well-established. The woman whom he knew as Madame Delphine had now turned her attention from the window to the two men. Upon seeing Andre, she blinked first in puzzlement, then with a dawning recognition, at the same time slowly shaking her head as though she were seeing a specter. Andre held his gaze at the officer’s nose, knowing better than to look straight into the man’s eyes, knowing what consequences the billy club could bestow. Even with his limited focus, the ambit of his view allowed him to see the abrupt turn and hasty retreat of his former owner. The woman who had set out to destroy his soul those many years ago now hastened down the street like someone being chased.
“You know better than to stare at a white woman! You better keep your ape eyes where they belong, you hear me?” The billy club tapped a steady three-quarter beat.
Andre nodded, his eyes downcast, his every senses aware of people passing, aware of the curious who stopped to watch his humiliation. He heard the murmurs, a few guffaws. The hatred that rekindled upon seeing the woman who had nearly destroyed him flared inside, burning hot enough to consume those who stood near him, especially this officer taking obvious pleasure in bullying whom he presumed to be just another cowering nigger.
But they were all wrong. They did not know whom they were disparaging, did not know the fortitude that had allowed him to survive tragedy and loss, that had let him rise above soul-crushing circumstances. They could not know the many places he had traveled, the wealth he had accrued, the blood he had shed -- and would shed again.
Yes, Madame thought she had escaped him.
She would find she was wrong.
Livia Delacourt was reaching to disentangle the thread snagging her skirt hem to the top button on her boot when the office door opened. She sat up quickly, thinking that after so many days, she had a new client. She barely cut off the sigh of disappointment when she saw it was only Churly.
“I’m sorry, Miss Livia. Didn’t mean to get your hopes up. Mr. Ranchet told me there was a loose floorboard in here.”
“Yes, Churly, right over there beneath the window.”
Churly’s six-foot-seven frame nearly touched the low ceiling of her office as he walked the few feet to the window. The bit of gray at his temples was the only sign of his age, or more specifically, age range. Born to slaves who’d escaped from Alabama, but who’d been killed when Churly was just an infant, Churly’s foster mother could only estimate an age for the young toddler. He never knew how old he really was. All this Churly had told her weeks after they’d met nearly a year before, after she’d saved him from certain imprisonment for a murder he hadn’t committed. His luminous black skin bore very few wrinkles, and his burly frame belonged to someone much younger.
He set about nailing the floorboard as Livia settled her eyes back to the papers on her desk. They were notes from her last case, and she studied them wistfully, remembering the triumph when she had finally unearthed proof that one Cecil McCullough had been smuggling young girls into the city for the purposes of prostitution. Because these girls had been younger than most of those found working the brothels, and because they were usually innocent farm girls from Wisconsin, Ohio and the southern parts of Illinois, lured or kidnapped into this life, the public outcry had forced the hands of the local constable to elicit the help of the Pinkerton Agency. And, Pinkerton had in kind turned to the women who work for him as agents. Although not officially affiliated with the agency, Livia on occasion provided extra eyes, hands and feet. As a black woman, she was invisible even at her 5’7 stature. Dressed as a cleaning woman, eyes and ears opened, she had often walked the streets around Wells and Madison, the square block where many of the city’s brothels operated, listening to the food hawkers and peddlers, the nightlifers that included gamblers, saloon patrons, even the girls themselves. Lips were loose around the invisible folk.
It hadn’t taken but a couple of weeks for the bits and pieces of conversations, rumors and hearsay to point to a common source. Certain people knew about the girls, knew how they were broken in with drugs and rape, how they were made to feel so sullied that they wouldn’t go back to their families if given the opportunity.
Pinkerton and his agents, with the help of the police, had raided one particular brothel run by a David and Lois Plant, a husband and wife from Liverpool. The owners were arrested along with McCullough, but strangely, charges hadn’t stuck against the couple. Only McCullough was still behind bars. Obviously, the Plants had friends among the police force. Enough palms had been greased beforehand as a matter of insurance.
“I’m done here, Ms. Livia.” Churly said, pulling up from the floor. He walked to the door, paused. “So, I take it things been pretty slow for you lately?”
Livia nodded. “I guess I should go back to teaching, but I just don’t want to give up so soon.”
Churly shook his head. “I know my opinion ain’t worth no more than what you could get from an ole plow horse, but I think what you’re doin’ has gots to be the Lord’s work. I know how grateful I am you were here to help me. If it weren’t for you, I’d be locked up in (prison name) for the rest of my life. So if you’re ever thinkin’ on givin’ up, just think on those souls who ain’t got nobody to look after ‘em but somebody like yo‘self.”
Livia smiled. “Well, Churly, I think if anyone’s being used by the Lord right now, it’s you. Those are very kind words. And very much needed.”
“It’s just the truth, anyhow. If you needs any more work done around here, jus let me or Mr. Ratchet know.”
He stood quietly for a second as though he wanted to say more, but only gave his head a slight shake. “Good day to you, Miss Livia,” then shut the door behind him.
Livia rose from her desk and walked over to the makeshift bookcase Churly had put together some weeks ago. From there, she pulled a copy of Friedrich Rauch’s Psychology, or A View of the Human Soul. She’d been meaning to make time to read through it, and today was as good a time as any, given it was almost noon and there didn’t seem to be a need for her services. At least not today. Nor yesterday -- or the whole week, for that matter.
She sat back down, book in hand, opened it to the first page. Since she’d taken up the science of detection, she had become obsessed with the frailties of the human mind, the blight of the soul. The people she’d encountered in her cases gave her reason to pause, to wonder about the depths of evil rampant in mankind - because there was no easy way to explain the things she had seen people visit upon one another. Fathers assaulting their wives, children. Mothers murdering their own young. Decadence, villainy… She often turned to the Bible for comfort, but there was so much more to be discerned with science and study. And if she wanted to be fully prepared to anticipate those she would have to investigate, predict their moves, determine their motives, then she would have to know how and what to observe. What to prepare for. Evil came in many guises, some of them quite innocent in appearance.
Friedrich Rauch, German-born educator and theologian teaching at a college in Pennsylvania, also seemed preoccupied with the true essence of mankind. In his premise, Man, guardian over all living things on this earth, with knowledge of the stars and the earth, had yet to fathom his own soul. Know thyself, words inscribed on the temple of Apollo, opened the preface. In the next sentences, Rauch questioned whether it was feasible to confront this directive from a theoretical or practical standpoint. All well and good, but it was further down that Livia found the impetus of her study:   “He that will understand himself must observe those around him, but to understand them, he must look into his own heart. Thus he may indeed obtain a knowledge of man, but one, that is without systematic connection, incomplete, partial and imperfect. While we cannot do without such a knowledge of man, the admonition of Apollo will only be listened to fully, when we connect with this experimental knowledge a systematical development of all contained in man, especially of his reason and will.
She leaned back, sighed. Like Rauch, but in her own uneven way, she was an apprentice on the study of man - and woman. But the looking into one’s self she had yet to conquer. Because any self reflection often brought with it doubt. Even after a couple of years, she still couldn’t quite comprehend her desire for this path she had chosen. Her parents, her ex-fiancé, and sister had admonished her that she would regret her choice of not settling down to a home and family, not picking up the middle class mantle of a good home, a decent career allotted to decent ladies. Why had she given up teaching? Why did she choose to associate with the criminal element in some godforsaken lark that made no sense? Why did she repeatedly put herself in danger and sometimes for people not her own kind?
Any answer she gave them would be insufficient. She had become a stranger to them all. And, more disturbingly, she had become a stranger to herself.
She scanned the rest of the preface, her eyes drawn to one sentence in particular: “Unless I know my reason and my will, I possess neither fully, only partially.” What was her will, then?
She didn’t get time to reflect on it further as the door to her office opened again. Roland Maddux strode through the door, his face contorted with fury. In his hand, he held a copy of the Chicago Times. His medium frame seemed almost gargantuan, and his light brown complexion was suffused with blood. He marched to her desk with the zeal of a soldier about to face his enemy, and practically slammed the paper down on the corner of her desk.
“Roland! What the…?”
“Have you seen today’s paper! This is the third attack in as many weeks! I told you, Livia, I told you that Storey’s race-baiting would lead to violence! It’s a wonder there isn’t out-and-out rioting in the streets!”
Livia looked at the headline. With bold, oversized lettering, it blazed up at her. The language was offensive and was meant to incite venom of the basest sort. She read the first few paragraphs, shaking her head. But little surprised her these days.
She looked up at her friend. “Roland, you must calm down. It won’t do to become apoplectic about every injustice you encounter or read about.”
“How can you be so calm, Liv? They might have murdered that fellow and you can believe there wouldn’t be a hue or cry about it. None of us is safe as long as this rag continues to exist. Storey’s calling a war on all of us, and there are those too eager to take up weapons in his army. He would replace one war with another.”
Livia shook her head as she finished the article. The victim had been beaten with rocks, bats and sticks. The way the attack was sensationalized in its glory, there was no question that the editor was praising the assault. There was no other description of the victim but that he was a Negro. No name was given, no telling of his age. For all the readers knew, the man could have been elderly, someone’s grandfather or great-uncle, set upon by rousties. To someone like Storey, such information was irrelevant. A Negro was a nigger, no matter. She saw that no arrests had been made (or probably ever would be) and that the poor soul was laid up at a medical facility reserved for Negroes. Which meant that his care would be negligible at best as Negro hospitals were often without the basic medical necessities. Besides that, most of the nurses and doctors in the city were aiding the war-stricken over at Fort Douglas. The victim here might still die.
By this time, Roland had sat down in the wooden chair opposite her desk, his hat balanced on his knee. His body seemed less tense, but his face was no less thunderous. From her desk drawer, she pulled a glass and her private stash of whiskey. She rarely imbibed, but there were occasions where a small swig was needed to settle nerves. Now was such an occasion. Without asking, she poured a quarter of the liquor into the glass, pushed it in front of him.
“Drink this,” she instructed. “It’ll calm you.”
He pushed the glass away. “Nothing is going to calm me but being able to give Storey a good thrashing…”
“Which will get you a good lynching. Roland, be rational! Now, if you want to do something constructive, you might actually track down the man, see that he’s getting decent medical care, make sure he’s got money for food while he recovers.”
“Well, I…” he started, hunching his shoulders, a good indication that he was feeling guilt.
“Is that bit of charity too much to ask? Considering how this particular incident has apparently affected you, I would think you would want to do whatever you could to help the poor man out. Or are you satisfied with just trumpeting bad news?”
“Well, I..I…well, of course, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to see to his immediate needs. That is, if the poor fellow survives at all. But for God sakes, Liv, don’t you see how this threatens us all?”
“Of course I do. I’m not blind, deaf nor dumb to what’s happening. Lest you forget, it is my job to observe. But reacting with violence will only breed more. Now, what we both can do is stay calm and look at this situation rationally. We can do whatever it is in our power to do.”
“Such as?” he asked. She couldn’t help but notice the sarcasm.
She paused, her mind momentarily blank. It was easy to utter platitudes, but a plan of action had to be thought through carefully. After a few moments, an idea arrived.
“Well, the first thing that might be done is put out the word that everyone with a means of transportation can offer rides to those without. Also, one or two people can offer escort services. That way, no one need walk alone, as it seems was the case here. There is strength in numbers.”
Roland shifted, nearly causing his hat to fall to the floor. “Do you actually think that will stop these attacks? I don’t see that this is any solution.”
Livia looked at him impatiently. Roland was a good man, but one often blind to the larger picture. A former pugilist, his first instinct was to strike out.
“Yes, I believe it may stem some of the attacks, if not all. I believe these hooligans are cowards at heart and are only eager to set upon the vulnerable. If they see one or more, or better yet, groups of Negroes, they may think twice before picking up a stick or bat.”
He sat quietly, pondering her suggestion. As stubborn as she knew he could be, she also knew that he would eventually see reason. They’d been through similar arguments, and it usually took him thinking over an idea a couple of times before he could see the sense of it.
“Well, I know somebody who knows somebody who works at a printer. He may be able to put together some flyers after hours. Then maybe we can get a group of folk to hand them out. Of course, we’ll need a central office to coordinate responses…”
He looked at her with a gaze that dared her to refuse. She sighed inwardly. She couldn’t possibly say no considering her own dare to him. “Alright, I guess if people respond, I may be able to find a few boys to carry messages around town, help set up appointments for the parties to meet. It’s not as though I am overwhelmed with a case at the moment.” She swept a hand over her nearly empty desk.
Roland stood up and set his hat squarely on his head. Well clad in a gray garbadine suit, his gold fob chain spanning his waist, he cut quite a nice figure. “Not to worry, Liv. Things will pick up, I’m sure. You’re never without something for too long.”
She stood up, led him to the door. “I hope you’re right. Rent will come due pretty soon, and I am down to the last few rutabegas.”
He reached into his pocket, pulled out his billfold. Already she was shaking his head. “Roland, you know I will not accept charity.”
From the billfold, he extracted two twenties. “This isn’t charity nor a loan. Consider it payment for services and time rendered. Your offering your space is worth this, at least. Just for the inconvenience alone, in addition to everything else this enterprise will entail.”
He pushed the bills into her resistant hand, then bent to brush a kiss against her cheek. “Thank you for giving me something constructive to do. I always know I can count on you to make me see reason.”
She thought tears might well up if she didn’t get him out of there soon. She couldn’t begin to express how much she needed the money, and how grateful she was to have so fine a friend.
“Thank you so much, Roland. This will be put to good use, trust me.” She tucked the money in her skirt pocket.
He smiled. His was a face that women often settled their eyes on unabashedly, taking in the long lashes and a dimple that winked whenever he gave his large smile. There was a time a few years ago when his smile would have made her blush. But that was when she was more child than woman, and long before she had met Henry and they became affianced. Still, since she had broken off the engagement, she wondered why she didn’t gravitate toward her first crush. Nor did she have to wonder why he never sought suit with her. The lovely Renata Sutton had since monopolized his affection, and his heart was moved by no one else.
Livia opened the door for him, and both were startled to see an older man standing there, his cane lifted to rap on the door. The stranger looked surprised for only a second, but quickly assumed an air of authority.
“Miss Delacourt?” he asked, looking from Livia to Roland then back again.
“Yes, I’m Livia Delacourt. How may I be of service?”
His wariness at Roland’s presence was now obvious. He stood without responding. Livia squeezed Roland’s arm, a signal. “Roland, we will, of course, talk later. And again, thank you…for everything.”
Roland hesitated a second, then nodded at both and proceeded down the rickety stairs to the exit of the two-story building. With a wave of her hand, she indicated that the visitor should enter her office.
She led him to the chair Roland had just vacated and took her place behind her desk. The gentleman removed his hat, and settled it on his knee, much as Roland had. His cane was settled against the leg of the chair. She noticed that it was tipped with ivory and gold. From his dress alone, she could tell he was a man of consequence and money. His black double-breasted coat, vest and pants, though plainly cut, were trimmed with black velvet. Many freedmen had amassed wealth through commerce and overwhelming luck against the odds. It seemed her dry spell might be at an end.
“Thank you for seeing me, Miss Delacourt. References indicate you are the one I should speak with regarding a matter of finding a missing person.”
“Well, Mr., ahh…”
“Lawrence. Andre Lawrence. I apologize for the oversight.” She noted a slight continental inflection in his voice. He had been overseas. Many Americans, most of them repatriates, affected a similar accent after a prolonged stay in Europe.
“No apologies needed Mr. Lawrence. And yes, I have dealt with finding missing persons. Whom are you seeking?”
“First, I have to be assured that all that I tell you will be kept in the highest confidence.”
“Rest assured, Mr. Lawrence, that I keep my clients’ business theirs and only divulge that which is needed to help me advance forward in the case. All confidences are weighed and measured carefully.”
“That doesn’t hardly reassure me, Miss Delacourt. Because what I have to divulge is very sensitive and may mean life or death for some.”
Livia leaned back in her chair, hands folded on the desk, her normal curiosity heightened. “I can promise that whatever you tell me, will remain between us for now. If I take up the case, then as I said, I may need to use nuggets of the information to gain other information. That is the way of detecting, Mr. Lawrence.”
“At least, you are upfront with the issue. Again, I am not reassured, but given the time constraints…I only plan to be in Chicago for less than a fortnight…I guess I will have to trust you. First of all, Lawrence is not the surname I was known by in my youth. I was a slave and carried the name of the mistress who owned me. That name is LaLaurie and my given name was Andre LaLaurie.”
He leaned forward, and by the way he stressed the name, she knew that he thought she might have heard it before. She had not. She hid the surprise that he had not been born a freedman. Even so, he obviously had had the resilience to escape his circumstances and re-invent himself.
“OK, then Mr. LaLaurie…”
“I no longer go by that name!” he snapped. She sat up straighter, reassessing the man, wondering whether she wanted to take this case. He did not seem to be a man of an easy temperament. She had learned from past cases that an uncooperative client made her job that much more difficult. But even as she pondered turning down the case, she knew she would not. She could not afford to. Her reputation alone depended on the good word of those she helped. It wouldn’t do to have someone of Mr. LaL…Mr. Lawrence’s stature speaking ill of her services.
“I apologize…again. It is just that I have not gone by that name for half my life now and would rather see hell than ever have to be referred to by that name again.”
“I understand, Mr. Lawrence. Now, please continue.”
His eyes became distant, and she knew that his mind was no longer totally with her. He had gone somewhere, and from the pain in his face, somewhere quite unpleasant.
“I need not tell you the hardships…no…the horrors…I had to endure under that woman’s roof. I need only tell you that she is here in this city, possibly living under an alias. That means an assumed name…”
“Yes, I know,” she nodded impatiently.
“The things that this woman has done against humanity, and that she has never been made to pay... Even her own would have had her put away for those cruelties she meted out to her slaves, her chattel. We were no more than animals to her, but even animals are owed their due of charity and that she denied to us in full. Well, for the matter at hand. I saw her just this morning and I could not believe my eyes. I had thought her long dead and in hell. I would have waylaid her right then, but I was…rudely detained.”
He paused, and she waited. “She recognized me…after all these years, she knew me,” he said with wonderment. “Even so, she escaped, and I need you to find her before I am to leave for England. I must find her again.”
Livia waited out his pause, and realized he was waiting for her to respond. She leaned forward, looked straight into eyes so dark, she could see her miniscule reflections in them. “Mr. Lawrence, I sympathize with your desire to…to…” She stumbled. “Why exactly do you want to find her? It would seem to me that you would take steps to avoid her, seeing as she could deny your freed status, have you sent back to whereever you came from.”
“She wouldn’t dare. As I said before, she is the criminal now. She would have to reveal herself if she were to reveal me. No, I am not worried about her on that count.”
“Still, Mr. Lawrence, why the need to find her? Are you expecting some expatiation from her?”
He laughed slightly and it was a bitter sound. “No, Miss Delacourt, I do not expect the demoness to even acknowledge her sins. Once I realized that I must find her, I asked around at the boarding house where I’m currently staying whom I might engage for this task. I was told that you would be the best one to go with. Imagine my surprise…a woman.”
Livia’s back stiffened. “My sex is not an impediment to my work. On the contrary, I find that being underestimated because of it makes me effective at what I do.”
“I meant no disrespect. It seems that I have been apologizing this whole meeting.”
“Mr. Lawrence, you still haven’t answered my question. Why do you seek out your former owner?”
She would always remember the look he gave her at that moment. Not hard, not even vindictive, but so matter of fact it made his words the more blood-chilling.
“Why, to kill her, of course.”