‘The Cold Millions,’ by Jess Walter: An Excerpt

Waterbury, 1909

Darkness came on that town like a candle being snuffed. This was my wife’s primary complaint about Spokane after two years of me copping there, what Rebecca called the “drastic dark” of autumn. We’d come from Sioux City, a town she still called home, and where I’d walked an easier beat. I found Spokane in a land-spec ad, but the piece I bought turned out to be cliff-face basalt and not arable, so we took four rooms in a brick apartment north of the river, and I got on with that roughneck police force. These were hard years, ’08 and ’09, everything about Spokane hard, bringing to mind Rebecca’s word, drastic. Steep hills, deep canyons, cold winters, hot summers, and those dark autumn evenings that made her so melancholy, when five felt like midnight.

It was one of those nights Chief Sullivan pulled me aside. A burglar was prowling the big houses on Cannon Hill, and he needed good, sober cops on it. Nothing got up the mayor’s ass like someone prying south-side windows, stealing candlesticks from the Victorians on the hill, the mayor quick to remind Sullivan that he was acting police chief and his act was to make the moneyed wives of those mining millionaires feel safe. Sullivan assigned me and two other cops to patrol the lower South Hill and catch this master burglar.

It was vagrant season. “So all’s you’ll miss is bum harvest,” Chief Sullivan said. Good by me, as I preferred real police work to the endless roust-and-run of tramps anyway.

[ Return to the review of “The Cold Millions.” ]

Sullivan talked up this South Hill window-crawler like he was the dastardly demon of hell himself. One of the silver barons had threatened to bring in a Pinkerton, and nothing ate at Sullivan like someone hiring private. There were six detective agencies in Spokane, three nationals—Pinkerton, Thiel, and Allied—and three local thug shops used by the mining companies for union busting. The national detectives treated us city cops like horse clods, fine for running bums and whores but about as helpful solving crime as a blind ranch dog. I thought this perception not entirely unfair, and had complained more than once about the laziness and graft of the old brute cops. I’d even considered putting in papers with the privates myself.

If I stayed a cop, it would be for John Sullivan, for I admired the man. Sully was honest and affable, off-the-boat County Kerry, six-four and 220, five of those pounds brush mustache. He’d come on the force just after the Great Fire of ’89, with brutes like Shannon and Clegg, and to hear them tell it, those three had singlehandedly driven out the last of the Indians and tamed the whole frontier town.

But unlike those others, Sullivan wasn’t only brute. He was brave. Savvy. In ’01 two holdup men set up shop on the north end of Howard Bridge, like fairy tale ogres, robbing every wagon that crossed. When Sullivan came to arrest them, one man pulled a pistol and squeezed off a couple before big John could knock the gun from his hand. As he was beating the robbers, Sully realized his boot was filling with blood. The ogre had shot him in the leg, below the groin. He dragged both outlaws to jail, then rode his horse to the hospital, where he promptly underwent surgery, met a nurse half his age, and married her.

How could you not want to work for such a man?

Sully could grow nostalgic for the rough old days, but he was also clear: the old Klondike town had grown into a proper city and the time was up for a brute like Clegg, who saw his job as hassling tramps and whores into paying him for protection, and was not above running a girl himself if she came up short. “Nah, it’s the last shift for them old boys,” Sullivan said when I complained about Clegg taking booze from the evidence room.

He made a point of promoting cops like Hage and Roff and me, for our brains and our rectitude, I guess, but also because we didn’t care if Bill Shannon could throw a keg through a window, or that Hub Clegg once rode a patrol horse through a burning tavern to rescue a favored sporting girl.

That’s why he put us three on the Cannon Hill burglar. But three men was a big commitment during vagrant season, with the east end full of floaters and union men coming from all over to agitate the Stevens Street job agencies. I was not unsympathetic to their cause, for there was no denying the corruption of those employment agents, who charged the poorest men a dollar for suspect job leads. But the IWW protested by filling the town with stinking foreign rabble, and this brought out the tavern girls, opium and faro boys, mystics, seers, and pickpockets, a cloud of vice that swarmed the tenderloin like mayflies over a putrid stream.

“Take this window thief down fast, boys,” Sullivan told us, “for we’ll need your batons the other side of it.”

And so, Hage and Roff and I ventured out into that cold dark evening. We took an empty trolley up the South Hill, got off at the first stop. We were in plainclothes and overcoats, with fur hats for warmth and so my bald head wouldn’t reflect the streetlights. The plan was for Hage to amble the alleys while I walked the street in front and Roff the street behind. We’d square each block this way, work our way up the hill starting at Seventh. There was a low ceiling of chimney smoke, and the streetlights cast shadows long and eerie. As I walked, I peered past split curtains into grand houses that burned gold with wood fire and candlelight, and I missed my own home fire, Rebecca and the kids, the night so cold and quiet I doubted our thief could be afoot.

After Seventh, Hage and I met on Adams, at the alley entrance, where Roff had stopped to piss on the knuckled root of a maple.

“I don’t like it,” Hage said.

“Roff pissing on trees?”

“I don’t like that, either, but I mean walking up this hill hoping to bump into some ace burglar on the job.”

“Well, we won’t find him rousting bums downtown with Clegg.”

“We will if he’s a bum.”

“Fancy work for a bum.”

“I suppose so.”

Roff had finished pissing. We turned the next block and split up again at Ninth, where I was admiring the pillared porches of the big houses and paused to light my pipe. I wondered then if Rebecca’s feelings about Spokane might change if I could ever get us off poverty flats and into one of these grand houses on the hillside.

Wasn’t likely on a cop’s salary; Chief Sullivan himself lived in the flats. Anyway, I didn’t think even these grand houses could make my wife happy. Not anymore. Not here. What was it about these steep, western, water-locked cities—Seattle, Spokane, San Francisco? All three I’d visited, and in all three, the money flowed straight uphill. It made me think of something I’d heard about the Orient, that water drained the opposite way there. Who wanted to live in a place where water spun backward or money flowed uphill? These towns that had no business being towns, straddling islands and bays and cliffs and canyons and waterfalls.

I fell deeper into this somber mood and was thinking Rebecca’s word, drastic, when Roff stepped from the shadows.

“You got something?” I asked. “Or—”

I couldn’t say what came next: the crack, me yelling, “Stop,” or the flash, or realizing this wasn’t Roff. As to what came last, I have no doubts, for I doubled over and held my flaming, open guts. There was another order that made sense (not Roff, “Stop,” flash, crack, doubled over, flaming guts), but I couldn’t place it—

The man who was not Roff was running away, his long black coat flapping, his shoes clicking on cobblestone, and I thought of Sullivan taking a gunshot to the leg and still bringing in his man, and I managed to get my revolver and squeeze four off, but I fired wildly and the man ducked between two houses down the block.

I was folded in half, pitched forward on my knees in gravel, my guts a sinkhole, and I cried out, to my shame—

Hage was first to me, saying my name over and over, “Alfred, Alfred, Alfred.”

“He shot me!” What grave disappointment, my lack of imagination. When I think of all the things a man could say. Shakespeare or Greek or even the Bible. Proper last words. But all I could manage was “He shot me.”

“I know, Alfred,” Hage said. “I’m sorry.”

Hage reached into my coat, around to my back. “Roff!” he yelled. I could hear in his voice that there was no exit hole. The bullet was inside. They would have to go for it.

I’d heard from the old cops that a mortal wound did not hurt as much, but this, like everything about the brutes, every word out of their fat mouths, was a fairy tale, a justification, a pernicious lie.

“Roff!” Hage yelled. “Waterbury’s shot!”

“How could they know?” I said.

“What?”

“How could they know what a mortal wound feels like?” Even to my ear the words were garbled, like I was talking underwater. My thoughts, too, leaked out: A gut shot could take hours, days, but the result was the same: agony and—

Other thoughts crowded: Had I eaten dinner? Was that to be my last meal? Who would tell Rebecca? Would she mend this shirt? Maybe she could sell my clothes and make a little money. I reached down to feel if the bullet had gone through my coat.

“Coat’s fine,” I said, but my voice sounded far off.

“Roff!” Hage yelled again. “He shot Alfred!”

“Lay me down,” I said, and Hage helped me onto my side.

“Roff!” Hage yelled again.

“Rebecca,” I said, but it was bubbles in water. I wanted to make sure that she knew—what? I could not think. “Rebecca,” I said again, clearer this time. And even if I had memorized all of Shakespeare and the Bible, I suppose this is what I would have wanted to say at the end, Rebecca on my lips, Rebecca, Rebecca, over and over, into the dark.

[ Return to the review of “The Cold Millions.” ]

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