Precinct House, St. Louis, 10:45 a.m.
Benjamin Free, Estelle and Dee Dee all stood before a perplexed and flummoxed desk sergeant.
“There is not a way in the world that you are going to get to see Romeo Beck, let alone get him released!” The sergeant bellowed.
“You will let me see him now, or I will see that badge ripped from your uniform before the day is out,” Benjamin replied as he tapped his index finger on the desk.
“Look here, Mister,” the officer’s face purpled. His shade nearly turned darker than his uniform. “I don’t know who you think you are and I don’t care. If you don’t clear off this minute I’ll have you locked up in the cell next to Beck. How do you like that?”
“That will be unacceptable.” Free leaned forward and rested his forearms on the high desk.
” ‘Unacceptable?’ ” The sergeant laughed as he looked to his fellow officers. “Any of you men hear that? He says my suggestion is ‘unacceptable’.”
The usual cacophony of the precinct station settled to a whisper as officers and civilians turned to take in the first blows of the bout.
“The only way I am moving from this spot is if you bring me Romeo Beck here safely.” He then pounded on the desk.
He turned to the girls. They were afraid and looked nauseous–like they might lose their recent lunch. He gave them an exaggerated wink and turned back to the man at the desk.
Sensing something brewing that was bigger than he wished to be blamed for, he called to the detectives in charge of the case. The two men swaggered through the gate in the rail and cocked their heads to the side as they stood dangerously close to Benjamin Free. He stood a good four inches taller than them, but they had the numbers—and their sidearms.
He did not back down, however. “I am lead to assume that you all are the ones in charge of the investigation?” He pointed to one of the detective’s hands. “I see the bloody knuckles.”
Both men blustered and eyed Benjamin, sizing him up for battle. The red-bearded, fat one glanced at his partner with a sly grin and then turned back to Benjamin. “What is it to you? You here to get us to ‘let your people go,’ Moses?”
This drew a chorus of jeers from the crowd of officers that formed around the spectacle.
“Mock the great prophet and myself all you like, but I shall have this man’s freedom,” Benjamin preached. “Though ye be not Pharaohs, Romeo Beck shall be free. Moses had the will of God and I have the word of law.”
The two detectives now drew closer, arms dangling and flexing next to their weapons at their hips.
“I am unarmed, but I am not without protection,” Benjamin whispered to the men before him.
“What are we to suppose from that statement, old man?” the red mustache asked. “Are you threatening us? I sincerely hope so.” His bulbous red nose hovered inches from Benjamin’s face as the acrid aroma of rotted gums and cheap rye drifted toward him.
“I have justice on my side, detective, I should hope that sufficient, but in the case that should not be enough, let us simply say that I have come prepared.”
This drew a hoot from many of the rabble in the ranks.
Benjamin looked over the heads of all gathered towards an office in the back corner. He was working through the ranks and his efforts bore fruit as the noise he was causing prompted the captain of the precinct to look out from behind his newspaper.
The captain was leaning back in his chair with his feet upon his desk. He stood up, tossing the paper aside in irritation. He was old, red-faced with a thin white mustache and looked as if he were in a perpetual battle with a hangover. He had been wedged into his uniform the day he entered the academy and perhaps knew that once he took it off, he would not be able to fit back in. Instead, he lived in it and let them put the slow parade of stars on it as he rose in the ranks. He snatched his hat from the coatrack near the door and shoved it on his head. A roll of shiny fat spilled out from under the brim.
He slammed the door shut behind him and the half-drawn shade swung violently.
As he labored his way to the front desk, he caught sight of Benjamin and rolled his eyes dramatically, “Free. I should have known. What in the world brings an irritating boil on my backside like you around? Trying to ruin my afternoon?”
One of the detectives mumbled, “Romeo Beck” to him.
“Beck, huh? Well, Free, he is the suspect in a murder and he ain’t going nowhere. He will be arraigned and trial will be set forth soon. So, you just go on back to your funhouse and leave us be.”
Estelle was now in such a state of panic that she looked as if she may bolt for the door at any moment. Dee Dee however stepped up next to Benjamin and took his hand in hers. She looked up defiantly at the police captain, staring him down.
Benjamin and Dee Dee holding hands drew a rumble of disgust from many of the policemen.
“I have evidence that Romeo Beck did not commit that murder. That alone should be enough to release him. That should clear your day up from beating him senseless, in order to force him to confess to a crime he did not commit. Perhaps with the extra time, you could go after the man who really did this, though I feel he is miles away by now.”
“Evidence ain’t enough here, Free,” the captain sneered. “You better have something heftier than your word.”
“Did you hear what your beloved captain said, men?” Benjamin transformed to master orator as he turned to the throng of policemen now gathered to witness the showdown. “Your commander at arms has said, ‘Evidence is not enough’! I find it hard to believe that every single one of you hold the law in the same low esteem as the captain here. Are none of you troubled and sick from the rampant and blatant disregard for justice? Have none of you said this to yourselves as you have seen man after man—black and white—being stripped of their humanity and their rights as Americans and pushed, naked of liberty, down into the stone bowels of this building? These men lay there now! Beaten and bleeding without even the succor of a loved one, or legal representation. I know some of you men enjoy this type of justice, but I hope that many of you realize the wrong of it. I suspect many of you have mourned the loss of your self respect and harken back to the day you donned the illustrious uniform of the St. Louis Police Department. You remember that day and look back knowing that following a man and a system that could ever spout the words, ‘Evidence is not enough’ is not the reason you signed up.”
He looked to the eyes of every man and officer. Many could not meet his fiery gaze, for the searing truth behind those eyes and those words would surely cause a firestorm in their souls. Many of the group of uniforms turned away from the scene, having lost their bloodlust. More than half shuffled back to work they had left. It was not a mutiny, but it was more than Benjamin could have hoped for.
Still grasping Dee Dee’s hand, he brought the child to Estelle, and transferring her to the care of the woman, he whispered to her, “I perhaps poured it on a little thick and sticky, but I wished to divide the ranks somewhat. Now for the feathers to go along with the tar.”
“Divide and conquer, Mr. Free,” Estelle whispered back, finding her own courage in his words. She gripped his forearm and gave him a supportive squeeze.
The captain had reeled somewhat from the blows raining down upon him, but he had little time to recover for he was busy looking among the few questioning eyes of the men who had not skulked off.
The captain sputtered, “See here, this is a bunch of hot wind! He is trying to—”
He was interrupted by a relentless Benjamin Free. “If you hold no esteem in the notion of due process, I have come prepared for that, also. I carry a letter that should address the matter.” Having said that, Benjamin opened the satchel and withdrew, “an order of immediate release from the mayor himself.”
He waved it high above his head as if it were a battle standard and slapped it on the Sergeant’s blotter.
“That sumbitch Mayor don’t have the authority to make such a demand,” the captain scoffed.
“Fine, then. How weighs an identical order from your commander, the Chief of Police?” he asked, repeating the show with another document.
The remaining troops scuffed their feet and murmured.
The captain picked it up, glanced at it and tossed it back on the desk. Nonplussed, he proclaimed, “So? You may have blackmailed that milksop, but here in the trenches, his ivory tower edicts carry no water. They are a leaky bucket at that.”
“I had the feeling you may fight justice fiercely, so I have also brought the heavier artillery. This document is the same as the previous, but has the signature of John Phelps, the Governor of the great state of Missouri.”
He did not make a prop of the next letter but instead handed it carefully to the captain. As the man read the writ in disbelief, most of what was left of his corps now deserted him and left him alone with the detectives on the battlefield.
“How far up do I have to reach, Captain? I have a request in to President Hayes, but he is quite a busy man and therefore we may not have his response for an hour or so. I hope for your sake that Romeo can stay alive for that hour.”
The detectives and the desk sergeant peered over his shoulder at the letter. Their mouths moved as they read.
The captain took a deep breath and sighed heavily. He handed the letter to the sergeant and removed his cap. He wiped his sweat-soaked brow and face with a handkerchief yellowed from use.
It served well enough as a white flag as he turned back to his office and waved the soiled cloth over his head, “Release the n_____, boys.”
The angry detectives swarmed the retreating captain, but he sloughed them off, “Boys, when the wind shifts and you smell the bacon burning, make sure it’s not your own ass what’s on fire.”
Estelle was so enraptured by Benjamin’s deed that she may have clapped were she still not standing in the lion’s den and Romeo not still ensconced in the prison below, “Oh, my stars, Mr. Free!” she gushed in whispers, “I would not have believed such a thing could have been done if I had not witnessed it with my own eyes!”
He played down her compliments and enthusiasm with a humble wave, “Truth be told, I was not sure it would work myself. I do have a missive on the President’s desk, but I would not be surprised it if went ignored; President Hayes is likely still chafing from a card game back in Cincinnati where he lost quite a sum of money to me. He may be a genius statesman and savior to the Republic, but he is one lousy card player.”
Benjamin once again took the hand of Dee Dee and led her to a long, wooden bench near the open door. The routine settled back in once again, with the upheaval laid to rest. Soon the desk sergeant was re-supplied a healthy line of St. Louisans in need of attention. Despite his busy-ness, the sergeant found ample time to give the evil eye to the emancipation party.
Suddenly, Bix entered and searched about the room until he found Benjamin Free. He gave his boss a questioning, concerned look to which Benjamin subtly shook his head and waved the assistant back outside.
Estelle noticed the exchange and asked across from Dee Dee, “May I ask what that signaling was about?”
“Oh, nothing. Just a precaution that I am happy to say went unused,” he said distractedly. He craned his neck and stood, “Aha! Here we are.”
The guard from the basement cells was roughly guiding Romeo up from the jail steps. Romeo stood tall, with head held high, but Benjamin could see a slight limp. As he drew closer, the guard backed away and Benjamin and the others could see the damage that had been wrought; his right eye was swollen shut as the upper and lower lid had filled with fluid. Several bruises shone high and black against his deep brown skin. There were cuts that had clotted closed on his forehead and neck. Benjamin did not have to imagine hard to know what other injuries he had survived.
Dee Dee let go of Benjamin’s hand and ran to hug her father’s hip, tears of relief streaming freely.
He bent down to scoop her up and held at his shoulder. “Baby Girl, I done told you to stay home until—”
“You told me to wait a while and if you didn’t come home, I was supposed to go get Estelle,” she explained with a smile. “You know I ain’t no good at waiting, so I figured I would just skip to the next instruction and go get Estelle. I got her and then she got him,” she said pointing to Benjamin, who smiled at the sight of father and daughter reunited. “I tell you, Daddy, it was just like Emma hittin’ Pie with that bucket all over again. One minute that fat man was barkin’ like a dog and then Mr. Free here hands him a piece of paper and he looked like he was seein’ stars.”
Benjamin extended his hand and introduced himself. He inspected the man’s injuries and proffered, “I think it best we get you a physician. A hospital, to be safe.”
“No Sir,” Romeo said. “I ‘spect I’ll be alright if I can just get on home.”
“Whatever you think is best,” Benjamin replied. “You can take my carriage out front.”
Just inside the door of the precinct, Romeo thanked Estelle warmly and told Benjamin, “I don’t know you said to them, but I swear, them fellows just about combed my hair and shined my boots they was so polite.”
“Well, Mr. Beck, I just wish you had not been brutalized simply for being a black man reporting a crime.”
“Yessir,” Beck said through a busted lip and a chipped tooth, “Don’t misunderstand me: I’m glad you got here before they kept at me. Much more of their hospitality and I would’ve confessed to stealing the sun every evening. But, you know, that’s the way of the world ’round here and it’s gonna be that way for ever and a day. We may be free, but we still gotta watch our step lest we end up under this jailhouse here.”
“I’m glad I could help you and your daughter, but, sadly, I cannot be here for every wronged man every day—black or white.”
“Today was just fine with me if that was your day to be on duty, Sir.”
In the street outside the police station, the avenue was crowded, but not necessarily busy. A dozen men sat on horseback at various staggered positions around the entrance to the precinct. They were in suits with sidearms and many had rifles packed within easy reach.
Dee Dee and Romeo were too wrapped up in their reunion to notice, but Estelle immediately worried that they may be some sort of vigilante group who had heard about Benjamin’s attempt to gain Romeo’s freedom. She watched warily as she saw them each surveying the traffic and pedestrians milling about. Her fears were proven unfounded as she saw Bix, a carbine rifle across his lap, perched high in saddle next to Benjamin’s carriage.
“Bix, see to it these two get home safe,” Benjamin said to his man. “Bring Denver and DeSales with you. Stay close and keep a guard on them until I order otherwise.”
“Yessir,” Bix said, keeping an eye on the police station doors.
Benjamin led Romeo and Dee Dee into his carriage and shut the doors.
Dee Dee leaned out and said, “Thank you one million and fifty seven times, Mr. Free! When will we see you again? Soon, I hope.”
He took her hand and held it with both of his. “You are welcome, my little friend. I hope I will see you again soon also. And please, call me Benjamin.” He walked away a step but turned back with a smile. “When you come to work for me, though, you have to call me Mr. Free so Bix and the others do not get their feelings bruised.”
The driver got the nod and slapped the reins lightly on the horse’s back. They lurched forward and were off at a trot with Romeo gazing in puzzlement at his daughter over Benjamin’s statement.
Bix smiled and winked to Estelle as he took the right flank of the carriage and the other two men took the left and rear.
“Allright, boys, back to work,” Free said to the rest of the men as he raised his hand and circled it in the air.
Estelle watched in awe from the sidewalk as, in one moment, the men were an imposing ring of militia, and the next they cut away in different directions and easily blended into the bustle of daily traffic. High above, on the roof corner of the building across the street, she caught a good glimpse of a rifle barrel being withdrawn and then another beside it.
“So this was your ‘precautionary measure’?” she asked Free.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied, “Sometimes the law is enough to protect freedom and justice. Sometimes, it is not. I have fought for these things before and I am ready to do it again. Fortunately, the captain was just too lazy to put up a fight today and my precautions proved unnecessary. May I walk you to the Hotel, Mrs. Rowland?” Benjamin asked as he held out an elbow for her and lifted his hat from his silvery white mane.
“I would not want to put you out,” she said, although she slipped her arm through his. “I may not even have my position after leaving it like I did today.”
“I insist,” he assured her with a kindly smile. “It is on my way, and since nobody thought about bringing me an extra horse . . . We will see about your work. I may need have a talk with Mr. Rosewater, but I believe it should be fine.”
They strolled at a pleasant pace, weaving through the oncoming pedestrians.
Estelle looked to her escort with an admiring eye. She reproached herself for wondering if he was a widower. Visions of her beau Hercules Bennet and the fact that she would be Alexis Free’s stepmother swept away those fleeting notions.
“What you did today? You are a good man to know, Mr. Free,” she said with a smile.
He patted her hand in his arm and said, “Just being a good man is enough, but meeting you is a grand bonus. Now Alexis and I can turn our attention to the young woman, Emma, and your friends.”