From down the alley, a voice cut through the falling night like a honed blade.
Sharp whispers were not such an odd thing in the shadows off Decatur Street, nor was it so strange when two shapes abruptly
animated and split apart, like stage actors who had just heard the call to places. Swept by the swirling wind, they kept their faces
hidden and disappeared in opposite directions.
Central Avenue was on fire. The gambling and sporting houses along the street that stretched south from the rail yards pulsed with
light and motion this December night, as men who were low on funds tried to win some in advance of the holiday, and those who had
received something extra in their pay envelopes went looking for a bottle and a drink to spend it on. There was much coarse laughter
over the sounds of tinny brass and clunking pianos from the horns of Victrolas. Though shades were drawn, there was no doubt what
kind of commotion was going on inside the houses. It looked to all the world a typical Saturday night on Atlanta's scarlet boulevard.
And yet a certain unease was hanging about like a guest in a bad humor. The veteran rounders sniffed the air like dogs catching a bad
scent. Sports who knew better snarled at each other over card tables, and fisticuffs broke out left and right. In the upstairs rooms, the
sporting girls bickered back and forth, hissing with venom. The whiskey in the speaks tasted a little raw even for moonshine, and too
many of the gamblers couldn't get a decent hand or make the dice roll their way to save their souls.
Still, the action on the avenue never missed a beat on this, one of the last Saturday nights before Christmas. Those who believed the
rumors that business was going to be shut down after the first of the year bet harder at the tables or ponied up for lookers who had all
their teeth and spoke in complete sentences, instead of one of the homely and sullen country girls who did it for a half-dollar and never
smiled. No one with sense could deny there was something strange in the air.
On this same night, less than two miles distant, the Payne mansion was splendid in its annual yuletide glory. Every window glowed
with festive light, and the ten-foot blue spruce trees on either side of the front door were festooned with little globes inside which
cheery candles flickered. Even the tall wrought-iron fence that surrounded the corner property was draped in ropes of holly. Indeed,
the massive two-story brick in Greek-revival style with solid columns at its portico had been decorated with such élan that the society
scribblers would fairly swoon as they filled their columns with the kind of fawning attention to detail that would make their readers
think they had been there. The charity Christmas party was such an event that every year brought rumors that certain unexplained
deaths among the affluent class had actually been suicides over being left off the guest list.
The night had brought a bustle of excitement that rippled in and out the heavy front doors with the guests, dressed to the nines, the
women aglitter in gems and swathed in gowns from the Davison and Neimen stores, and the gentlemen stiff in tuxedos of inky black.
Music from an eight-piece orchestra was barely audible over all the gay chatter and clinking of glasses.
Outside, a line of automobiles stretched along the Euclid Avenue and Elizabeth Street curbs in four directions. There was not a single
Model T in their number; indeed, it appeared that a parade of luxury models had come to a stop: Duesenbergs, Wintons, Chryslers,
Whippets, Cords, and a dozen other marques, their nameplates basking in the glow of the streetlights. Chauffeurs were de rigueur, of
course, and so Negroes in fancy livery stood around stamping their feet and clapping their gloved hands against the cold. Every few
minutes, a pint bottle of homemade whiskey would appear, make a round, and go back into hiding.
Local wags would note that half the automobiles had either been parked there purely for show or had owners who were impossibly
lazy, as their homes were within a few minutes' stroll.
It was such a hectic event, with so much frantic activity, that no one paid attention when one of the colored maids passed a slip of
paper to another, who gave it a quick read and with an absent smile folded it into her apron pocket.
The second maid, dark skinned and sharp featured, made her way to the door that led from the bustling, overheated kitchen to the
basement stairs. Keeping her face intent, as if on a pressing errand, she stepped through the door and closed it behind her. She lingered
in the basement only a minute or two before coming back upstairs and was not missed.
The party bubbled merrily on until the stroke of midnight, when tradition demanded a toast. This year, the glasses were raised to the
great city of Atlanta, to those upstanding citizens who had made such generous donations to the Christmas fund, surpassing the
previous year's, and finally to new mayor John Sampson for his exemplary efforts in maintaining their safety and protecting their
interests. With that, the couples in their tuxedos and furs began to take their leave. The foyer rang with hearty farewells as the guests
went out the door and down the walk to their waiting automobiles.
It was when the last of the wraps were being collected from the second floor that Mrs. Charles Payne stepped into the master
bedroom and noticed a zebrawood jewelry box that had no business being out sitting atop the dressing table. Lifting the lid, she found
it empty, cleaned of a half-dozen pieces of her best jewelry. She let out a gasp and called faintly, then louder, and one of the maids ran
down the hall and down the stairs to fetch her husband.
|An excerpt from "The Dying Crapshooter's Blues"