Story By M. Bennardo / Illustration by John Waltrip
First thing that wakes me is some mug yelling bloody murder out in the corridor outside the holding cell. He’s shouting his head off, raising holy hell, probably trying to get heard out by the captain’s desk.
“I’m paid up! I’m paid up!” That’s what he’s shouting. “What’s your goddamned badge number? You put me in there with those drunks and hobos, you’re through!”
I roll over on the jail cot and try to stretch the blanket out far enough to cover both my ankles and my shoulders at the same time.
Paid up, he says. Good for him. I guess he hasn’t heard that Minneapolis is rotting like a waterlogged stump under Mayor Doc Ames’s rear end. Pretty soon he and every other honest yegg from skid road to city hall will find himself soaked to his armpits in the Mississippi. It just seems some of us are getting doused earlier than others.
But my eyes are barely shut again when the turnkey starts banging on my own cell door, loud and sharp. “Langston!” he shouts. “Get up and get decent, if you ain’t already.”
I groan and clap my hands to my eyes. It sure as hell isn’t morning yet and I consider pretending like I’m sleeping too deep to hear. But then I remember the turnkey’s way with his blackjack and sit up quick enough.
“This is a hell of a time to get bailed,” I croak. And three weeks late. Jesus! What a disaster!
“Bailed, hell.” And suddenly it’s not the turnkey talking anymore. Instead, the cell door swings open and a monstrous dark shape strides in, top hat and cloak and patent leather boots. Some son-of-a-bitch flashes an unblinkered lantern in my eyes as the roaches scatter for the shadows. “I’m taking you on a field expedition, son.”
“Damn me.” I can’t see anything in the dazzling lantern light, but I know that grand jury foreman’s voice well enough by now. Kleist, he calls himself. Even at midnight, it seems, the bastard won’t stop trying to wring me out.
— ♦♦♦ —
First they put me in irons and then they put me in a train, two detectives wrestling me up the steps into the car behind Kleist. It’s still the dead of night, but I can see by the crescent moon that we’re boarding a special, just one long private passenger car behind the locomotive and the coal car.
And a hell of a car it is. Kerosene lamps hang from silver fittings over mahogany paneling and overstuffed leather seats, stove roaring merrily in the middle of it all. A white-gloved attendant lurks at a marble-topped sideboard, crystal decanter and silver cigar trimmer ready at hand.
As I’m dragged down the aisle, the attendant sweeps over, trailing coattails like clouds of reflected glory, and dusts off a seat for me. I almost laugh as the detectives push me down and box my ears.
Still ringing from the blow, I turn woozily to the nearest detective. “Tip the man a dollar, will you? I’m flat broke.”
Kleist shoots me a look from the seat across. “He works for me, Mr Langston. Not for tips.” Then he sets aside his top hat and wipes his immense bald forehead with a pocket handkerchief. He settles down to watch me, as if expecting I might hatch into something even more objectionable right in front of his eyes.
“I suppose they all work for you here.”
I jerk my head over his shoulder, towards the two detectives now sitting on the other side of the coal stove. “What about them?”
“Yes,” says Kleist again. “And the prosecutor too now.”
“Is that so?”
Kleist doesn’t say anything back. And well he couldn’t. The prosecutor is an old pal of Doc Ames–part of the famous Minneapolis machine. He’d never flip over for Kleist or anybody. He’d sooner quit or leave town–
The car shudders as the locomotive starts forward, wheels squealing a moment against the dew-slicked tracks before they catch. Then we’re rolling, depot lanterns sliding past the drawn blinds, the car clicking with its familiar lateral rattle. Nobody has mentioned where we’re going and I’m not asking. But I do want to know about the prosecutor. I suddenly have a bad feeling about that.
“What–did you tell him to leg it? I didn’t know a grand jury foreman could do that.”
Kleist doesn’t look up as he snaps a broadsheet open in front of him, flipping to the financial page. “You’ll find I can do a great many things if I want to, Mr Langston. One way or another.”
— ♦♦♦ —
I don’t want to fall asleep in front of Kleist, but it’s warm and close in the car, the lamps trimmed low and the stove turned high, the wheels ticking rhythmically until I’m half hypnotized. Then all at once I’m dreaming of sitting in the back of my father’s hay wagon, the iron-rimmed wheels rattling over the brick-paved streets of Dubuque as we roll away in the indigo dusk after Wednesday night church service.
I’m ten years old. I’m twenty years ago. Tired in body and mind from sitting ramrod straight in a pew after a day spent baling hay on my father’s farm, busting my bones to keep up with the grown farmhands, the pace of work always just a step too fast for me–
Then my hands slip off my lap and I jerk awake as the irons bang against the wooden seat and I’m not any of those things anymore. I’m just tender wrists and a dry tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.
The blinds haven’t been opened, but the light seeping in from outside looks bright. Mid-morning, I guess. Kleist is still across from me, his coat and collar off now, his shirt sleeves rolled, head bent low as he scribbles on a pad of telegram forms–dark, slashing strokes written in a big, angry hand. Behind him, one of the detectives drowses slumped on his elbow against the window, while the other plays solitaire at a side table, violently slapping down blacks and reds and chewing his whiskers absently.
But somehow I can’t take my eyes off the bright bald dome of Kleist’s head. As I stare at it, I suddenly imagine jumping out of my seat and raising my irons over my head, then bringing them crashing down that tender pink melon.
They’d hang me for it though–if the detectives didn’t shoot me first.
“Hot towel, sir,” comes a voice from my shoulder and I jump a foot in the air.
I’d forgotten about the attendant, but my hands are two steps ahead of me, already accepting the proferred towel from between tongs and patting it against my face. Spreading it, I push my whole face into its steaming white folds and don’t move again until it’s cold in my hands.
“Thanks,” I say. “How about an eye-opener?” I get orange juice instead. It makes my stomach feel rotten, but I’m thirsty enough to drink it anyway.
“We’ll be there shortly,” says Kleist.
I grunt. I don’t care where we’re going, and I’ve got nothing else to say.
Kleist puts away the telegram pad and begins rolling his sleeves down his arms again, fixing his collar and buttoning his shirt. “Three weeks now, isn’t it, since your arrest? Your boss Doc Ames has certainly left you in a lurch. I don’t know why you persist on protecting him when he won’t honor his obligations to you.”
I shake my head and lift my hands heavily to pry open the blinds. “You’re the first person who ever thought a city mayor ought to owe me any favors.”
This is the short version of our now-familiar two-man act. Over the past three weeks, me and Kleist have worked out a whole routine–he’s the straight man and I’m the joker. We’ve practiced enough to take it to vaudeville, but the bit is too long and just goes round and round without any gag at the end.
It starts with how I got pinched playing poker and nothing else and that’s all anybody can pin on me. How I don’t know anything about Doc Ames or his organization. How if I’d been charged with card playing like I was supposed to be I’d be working down a ninety day sentence already. And the straight man says, Okay Langston, why don’t we take it from the top.
But that was then. Now I abbreviate. I know Kleist doesn’t care about the gambling. Holding me for three weeks without charges means he wants something more from me. More even than the little accounts book he took out of my pocket.
But Doc, Jesus! Where was he? If the mayor couldn’t get me sprung, then what the hell was I paying him protection money for? Kleist was right about that at least.
I can’t say that out loud though. So I just shake my head and peek out the blinds instead.
And the view makes my heart freeze.
I don’t know where I expected Kleist to be taking me, but I’m not prepared for walls of towering pine trees. They hem us in tight, running close enough to the tracks that we could have grabbed a mailbag from the low boughs. Kleist yanks a cord and suddenly the blinds jump in my fingers, opening to reveal the full picture.
Trees, lots of them. Huge trees beyond counting.
“What the hell is this?” I ask. “The forest primeval?”
“The way I see it,” says Kleist smugly, “is that there was a lot more going on in that candy shop than a poker game. I’ve got men prepared to testify they were sold liquor there, and–and offered social vice, as well.”
I smirk at “social vice”. Kleist can’t even drop a euphemism for prostitution without looking half-guilty himself. Is it just puritanism, I wonder–or does he have a little secret social vice of his own–?
But he collects himself as the locomotive’s steam whistle wails, loud and high, and suddenly we’re rushing past another train idling on a sidetrack with car after car of stripped and cut logs, four and six feet in diameter.
“And I got to wondering,” Kleist continues, “if you really know what hard labor is. Because that’s the direction you’re heading, and you act like you don’t care.” His face darkens as he leans across the space between us, staring hard at me. “But I doubt you really know the stakes. The only man not scared of the chain gang is one who’s never done a day of hard labor in his life.”
I turn away from the window and stare back at Kleist dumbly. Suddenly I’m in Dubuque again, swinging a scythe across endless acres of hay meadow. My face gets hot and red, but I shake it off. This is what he wants. I’m tired, half-broken, confused. I can’t let him get to me like this.
“I didn’t have a damned thing to do with any liquor or any women.”
“Bad luck that you were pinched in their vicinity then.” Then suddenly the light brightens outside the window–and just like magic, all the trees are gone.
I look from Kleist to the window, and then reluctantly turn my head so I can see what has happened. And the difference is blazingly clear. The trees are gone–all of them. Just hundreds and hundreds of stumps remain. Thousands of stumps. A denuded landscape glides past, empty fields and barren hills, as if shorn by some incredible razor.
There’s not even a blade of grass. It’s total barrenness with nothing but stumps. Stumps and stumps and stumps, repeating infinitely from the right-of-way to the horizon. Just dead brown ferns and dirt and mud and dried pine needles and the shocking white cross-sections of stumps oozing red-brown sap.
“As you can see,” says Kleist quietly. He slips his coat over his shoulders and fixes his top hat on his bald head. “I’ve cut down bigger things than you before.”
He pulls a pair of leather gloves from his pocket and drums them against his hand. I can feel the train slowing already.
“Bigger things than Mayor Doc Ames, in fact.”
— ♦♦♦ —
“You know what I want,” says Kleist later.
I don’t say anything, of course. We’re walking along a muddy road toward a stand of white pines. Huge trees. Trunks a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet high, straight as anything.
“Clipper masts,” says Kleist suddenly, gesturing at the trees. “A generation ago, those were the most valuable trees in the forest. But they don’t build clipper ships anymore. It’s all steamships now. We’re a twentieth century society!” He laughs joylessly. “Maybe they’ll smash these giants into toothpicks.”
I hug my arms to myself. The irons are finally off and my wrists are aching. “You said I know what you want.”
“I want Ames,” says Kleist. “I want his lieutenants. I want proof connecting them to the gambling, the liquor, and all the rest. I want his whole organization–gone.” He smiles wolfishly and shrugs. “Smashed into toothpicks, as it were.”
I shake my head. “Nobody will ever tell you anything.”
Kleist shrugs again. “Those are the old rules, Mr Langston. I don’t know why you keep following them. You should have been out of that jail the same night you came in. That’s how the machine works, isn’t it? How much did you pay every week?” Kleist reaches into his coat and pulls out my old little notebook, starts paging through it. “Two hundred dollars a week, it says here.” He smiles and waves the notebook in front of my face. “I don’t think I ever thanked you for this most useful piece of evidence, Mr Langston, even if you were too cautious to write down any names in it.”
I just chew my lip. What can I say?
I don’t know why Doc hasn’t bailed me out yet. But who hasn’t heard the rumors lately of fighting among the lieutenants? Each one trying to shoulder the others out. I’d had a bad feeling when they changed the pay-off man, but it wasn’t my place to question anything.
And now, with all the new men and all the new under-bosses–how could anybody be sure anymore who was paying what and to whom?
“Damn me,” I mutter under my breath.
Kleist stops and waves towards a group of big men hauling a giant cut log along the road toward us, one end slung under great wheels and the other dragging deep furrows in the mud. “These fellows here,” says Kleist. “They’re my economic army. My men, you see. They work harder than anybody in Ames’s organization, and they do it because I pay them regularly–and fairly. If one of them has a complaint, I listen to it.”
I glance sidelong at the lumberjacks as they file past, huffing and straining to get their load up the hill we’re standing on. They don’t look Kleist in the face–not one of them. They don’t say, “Good morning, Mr Kleist,” or “How you doing, boss?”
Instead, I see them struggling against mud and gravity for another man’s dollar. I see them getting robbed of it again before they ever really get a hold of it, down at the company store on Friday night. I see them keeping their head down, turning their eyes away. Not living like men at all.
I lean over and spit in the mud.
Those fellows are big, sure. They’re working hard. But I don’t know why that ought to impress me. I’ve fleeced my share of suckers too, in four-handed poker games with the deck marked and stacked. If things had gone a little differently for me, maybe I’d be fleecing them like this instead–hundreds at a time, backed by the law and respectable society, but with a deck marked and stacked just the same.
“You think this scares me?” I ask.
“Come along,” says Kleist, starting off again.
We start down the hill and the wind picks up, blowing the scent of pine in my face. I sneeze. When I look again, I can see brigades of men swarming around the still-standing trees. Tree-toppers scaling the trunks, rigging lines to guide the giants as they fall. Fellers swinging heavy axes, blasting white chips of pine out of the thick trunks while the trees sway and wobble, cones and twigs raining out of their upper branches.
“I didn’t ask to be on the grand jury, Mr Langston. When they called for volunteers, I folded my arms and turned my head away. But I was selected against my own will. Then, I folded my arms again when the foreman was chosen. I didn’t ask for that either, but it was given to me.”
Kleist frowns darkly. “But now that I find myself reluctant foreman of this grand jury, I intend to make it mean something. I’ve had to do business in this rotten town for too long–greasing palms and begging favors every step of the way. So much for a railway right-of-way, so much for a depot, so much for space for a warehouse.” He laughs bitterly. “I even pay the city fire department to allow me to keep my own water pump. I wouldn’t let those drunkards and thieves near a fire at my warehouses for any price.”
Kleist holds up his finger. “But I won’t take graft or patronage. I won’t be a cog in Doc Ames’s machine. If they’ll put me on the grand jury, then by God I’ll serve and make the grand jury act as it was intended. You don’t think that I got where I am by letting my men be poor workmen, do you? You don’t think that I built all this by letting them put personal gain above the company’s interests? By God, no!”
Down at the bottom of the hill, a tree leans perilously far over and slowly crashes to the ground, looking as though the tree itself were fighting against gravity and the ropes straining and pulling it low every inch of the way. The sound of it is almost lost in the wind and the distance, but I can see the branches snapping as the trunk quivers and bounces on the ground–men suddenly jumping into it with axes and saws to strip it of its limbs.
“That’s what I want to impress on you, Mr Langston. I’m not trying to frighten you. I’m trying to show you my inevitability. One way or another, I will win out over Doc Ames.”
“Well,” I say, suddenly cold on the hillside, “even if that’s so, what would I get out of it?”
Kleist smiles and stuffs his hands in his pockets. “You don’t spend the rest of your life breaking rocks, for one thing.”
“I mean beyond that.”
Kleist shrugs. “Think about it some more. I have work to attend to here, but if you’re really serious, we’ll talk on the train back tonight.”
— ♦♦♦ —
I don’t want to be the one to open my mouth first, so instead I stare across the train car at a framed map. The fading sunlight is just bright enough to read the legend as I study it on the long ride back to Minneapolis.
It’s a map of the northeastern quarter of the United States, a big golden star superimposed over Minneapolis, a big tag reading William R. Kleist & Co. Radiating out from there, smaller stars form constellations of industry.
A spray of them through Minnesota and Wisconsin account for each of Kleist’s eight logging camps. A line of three copper mines runs like Orion’s belt through Michigan’s upper peninsula. Trainyards in St Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and Buffalo. A salt mine west of Cleveland. Gravel and sand pits in Toledo, saw mills in Erie, glassblowing plants dotting New York state.
And all I can think is what I first said to Kleist when I was wrestled onto the train that morning. “I suppose they all work for you here.”
So they all work for him there too–in all those mines and camps and manufactories around the country. Hundreds–no, probably thousands of suckers and saps. All of them getting their pockets picked by Kleist. And worse too.
At least when I fleece somebody, I do it once and get clear. I don’t make him break his body along with his bank account.
Kleist watches me from across the car, lounging on his seat, bareheaded, collar unbuttoned. The tycoon at rest. Not regal, like a coiled cobra with its kingly hood. More like a timber rattler sunning itself on a log, half-lazy and half-patient, but cunning and opportunistic, and ready enough to strike if anybody should stray too close.
“If I’d met you before your criminal career,” says Kleist, “I might have made a bookkeeper out of you.” Then he laughs as he takes a whiskey and water from the car attendant. “Now I wouldn’t even trust you to mix my drink.” He raises his glass and takes a big swallow.
I look back from the map and stare hard at Kleist. He’s not even paying attention to me. “Are you giving employment advice?”
Kleist shifts on his couch. “My advice to you is simple–sign a written confession today, naming your colleagues and superiors, and then testify against them in court.” He gestures with his drink. I suddenly realize how drunk he is–the one in his hand can’t have been his first of the day. “It’ll take some time for the courts to do their work, of course. I’ll need to keep you close at hand somewhere.” He smiles grimly. “How do you feel about copper mining?”
I don’t take the bait. I can’t figure Kleist out somehow. I don’t believe he’d risk his lead witness in a mine where an explosion or a cave-in might kill me anytime–but then again, I’m not entirely sure either. I’ve never really known men like Kleist. I don’t know what kind of jokes they think are funny.
“I’m a slow writer,” I say dryly, raising my hands to remind him they’ve put the irons back on. “Especially when I’m wearing jewelry.”
Kleist smiles unconcernedly and shrugs. “I’ll write for you. All you have to do is sign.”
And then it happens. Three weeks he’s been at me, and finally he does it. Finally he breaks me. I barely know why or how, or why it happens just then. But I start talking, slow at first, and Kleist jumps to life, scrabbling quickly for a pen and paper, and soon he’s slashing again with that heavy angry stroke of his.
It’s not a long story. It’s not a clever one either. Most of it, he’s already figured out. All he wants are names and dates and amounts of money. Even as I tell him everything I know, I’m certain that nobody’s going to jail for murder. Nobody’s going for arson or robbery or assault–or even bootlegging, gambling, pimping, extortion, any of it. All Kleist cares about is making and taking bribes.
My head hurts and I start to wish I hadn’t said anything. But it makes sense, in a sick way. Kleist would care about money. Misused money, wasted money. Corrupted money. He’d said it all earlier that day–Doc Ames has always been a thorn in his side because of the bribes he’d had to pay.
Kleist wouldn’t care about vice or. He doesn’t have to worry about drunken, unemployable husbands, or lost daughters, or hungry sons turned to shoplifting. He doesn’t have to worry about stuffing his ears against cries for help out in the street. Or about giving a blank look and a shrug to the cops. He doesn’t have to worry about any of those thousand little half-steps toward moral desperation–those thousand little compromises that eat you out from inside with guilt and shame and the ever-present fear of life finally catching up to you.
No, all Kleist has to worry about are his profits. And that’s why he wants to make the grand jury do its work at last. That’s why he wants to take Doc Ames apart.
“Is that it?” he asks eventually. I’ve almost forgotten that he’s there at all–my talk slowing down and trailing off, then stopping altogether.
“Yeah,” I say. “Isn’t it enough?”
He looks down at his pad of paper and smiles greedily, wiping his face with his handkerchief. “It’s a good start, Mr Langston. A very good start indeed.”
I nod dully and turn to the window. It’s dark now, night once more. It can’t be long until we pull into the Minneapolis depot. And then it’ll be back to the jail cell. Or maybe hustled off someplace where Kleist can keep an eye on me–one of his camps or mines or factories. Armed detectives at the guard.
“You’d better sign it now.”
I look back at Kleist, not registering what he’s saying. He’s holding the bundle of papers toward me, and I take them dumbly. There’s a pen in his other hand.
“It’s a confession,” says Kleist. “You need to sign it.”
I reach out for the pen with a dead hand. I don’t know who does it–whether it’s Kleist’s drunkenness or my own bloodlessness–but we fumble for a second, and the pen tumbles down to the floor of the train car. It rolls, spurting ink. And then Kleist mutters a curse and surges forward, onto the floor, following the pen down on his hands and knees.
I hesitate for a moment–just one moment. It’s long enough to assure myself that they need me yet. They need me to sign that confession. The grand jury. The new prosecutor. The forces of reform that are shaking the Minneapolis machine to the core. Right now, I’m worth something to them. Right now, I can make my own terms.
And as I raise my hands up above my own head–heavy irons rattling on my wrists, Kleist’s dumb face turning up from the floor and looking up through my knees at me–yes, as I raise my hands above my head and get ready to bring them down hard and sharp, all I can think about is the question they’ll ask me. All I can think about is the one thing they won’t understand.
“Why’d you do it, boy?” That’s what they’ll ask, over and over again. The cops, the prosecutor, the judge, the papers, the chaplain, the hangman–if it gets that far, if I can’t bargain my way out of a death sentence. “Why’d you do it, boy?”
But by the time I bring those irons down upon the big bald pink melon of Kleist’s head, I still haven’t decided if I’ll give them the answer or not.
“Seekers” By Matthew Wuertz
Illustration by John Waltrip