After the three girls were quietly lead away, the band set up in one corner and it seemed the night was ready to begin.
George arrived, looking dapper in his pinstripe suit. “Are you ready to polish the dancefloor?” he asked with a grin, twirling me around.
We went to the registration table, paying our fifty cent fee and collecting a number. I pinned it to George’s back.
“Have you seen Alex or Archie?” he asked, leading me out to the center of the room for one of the warm up numbers.
“No, I haven’t seen them since our last outing. I talked to Alexandra yesterday, though. They should be here soon.”
The trumpeter belted out a quick riff, and the piano player joined in, almost too fast for George and I to keep up, but we certainly did our best, grinning like idiots the entire time.
The room began to fill, spectators lining up at the door. I saw my parents arrive. Even though it was an official function of sorts, Mother traded her uniform for a peach dress that made her look years younger. I waved, but George whirled me around and I lost sight of them.
The song came to an end. A voice drew our attention to the front of the room. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for joining us tonight!” Mrs. Pope said, her voice carrying easily over the crowd. The dancers slowed to a halt, everyone turning to face her as head of the Women’s Auxiliary, and head of the Widows and Orphans Association.
“As so many of us know, having a policeman in the family requires great sacrifice, as much as it brings honor and pride to a household. The missed dinners. The long hours. The abuse hurled at our men, sometimes verbal, sometimes physical.
“Tonight, we gather to honor those families who have given the ultimate sacrifice to keep us safe, while celebrating the lives of those who have fallen in the line of duty, and those still in uniform.”
Chief French stepped forward. Even though this was supposed to be a party, he still looked just as somber as always, despite his stiff smile. “I’d like to thank you all for coming tonight. This evening, we’re honoring the families of policeman James Watson, and Detective Mick O’Hannan.
“James Watson was with the Columbus Police for two years before he was hit by a car last year while directing traffic. His wife, Lydia, is here with us tonight.” He gestured to a corner of the room, where a young woman stood, staring at the floor with tears in her eyes. There was a soft round of applause before the Chief continued. “Detective O’Hannan started as a beat cop in 1916, and was promoted to Detective in 1920. Last year, he was assigned to our Prohibition task force. Together, our four member team, with the support of the rest of the department and the federal government, has all but shut down the bootlegging industry in Columbus. Our streets are safer for their work, and criminals know better than to try to set up shop in our city, because men like Mick O’Hannan will drive them right out of business again, and lock them up where they belong!”
Enthusiastic applause punctuated this vehement statement. I clapped along with the others. George let out a cheer, joining a chorus of huzzahs.
Mrs. Pope raised her hands for silence. “Thank you. Thank you, Chief French. Now, if you will all give me your attention, we will begin the competition in a few moments. First, a few rules.” She produced a card from her pocket and rested a pair of reading glasses on her nose. “First of all, while all are welcome to dance, only those registered and in possession of an entry number–” she looked around quickly and gestured to a nearby gentleman, his number pinned to his suit jacket “–will be considered. Second, there is to be new lewd or vulgar dancing.” This, she directed to all of the young people with a stern glare.
“I think I’m a little offended,” George whispered. “Hasn’t she ever heard my parents talk? Old people are just as capable of lewd behavior.” He said the last words in perfect imitation of Mrs. Pope’s prim delivery. I stifled a laugh.
“And lastly, if you feel a tap on the shoulder, please do step aside. If you choose to continue dancing, your entry number must be removed before you may return to the dance floor.”
Finally, Mrs. Pope and the Chief stepped back and motioned for the band to start playing again. Another energetic number, we bounced in time to the beat. With good music, and my new dress, and friends nearby–well, it was my idea of a perfect night. It was only too bad Elizabeth hadn’t come. There were colored members of the police force, but we all knew what would happen if she decided to dance with George.
“I can’t dance with the one I want to dance with,” she’d said the night before in my bedroom as I tried to convince her to come. “What’s the point? To watch everyone else have fun with the people they want to be with?”
I felt a small spark of guilt as the song came to a close. We all clapped for the musicians, who started in on another number almost right away.
“You’re slowing down. Are you tired already?” George asked.
“Oh, no. I’m just a little distracted, I suppose. But never mind. We’re here to win, right?”
After three songs, the judges called for a break to compare notes. The band took a short break, sucking down lemonade to wet their dry lips. George went to get drinks for us, too. I found Mother and Daddy in a corner, talking to one of the officers Mother worked with and his wife.
I passed an alcove leading from the big community room, almost missing it in the shadow. I would have walked by without stopping, had not a few words of French caught my attention.
“Crisse de calise! How could you let them get away?” a rough, masculine voice growled.
I paused behind a pillar, drawn into the conversation, even though I knew it was wrong to eavesdrop.
The rough man’s companion stammered a reply, but I couldn’t hear it.
“And what do you think will happen if they go to the police? You just had to draw attention, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t mean…” but the rest of the reply was lost. The second man’s voice was too low, and, I thought, a little familiar, though I couldn’t place it.
“No, it’s too late. The next shipment will be here any day, and we can’t afford to miss it. All we can do is hold our breath until they’re gone.”
I frowned, trying to remember where I’d heard the voice before. Why did he sound so familiar? The hair on the back of my neck stood up. What shipment? What were they waiting for? And why was the first man so angry?
Someone called my name. I looked up to see Alexandra and George striding toward me.
Any curiosity I had about the two men in the hall vanished when I saw my friend’s disheveled appearance. Her usually sleek bob was mussed, and she was wearing a dark brown dress I recognized as one that normally never left the Grant’s house; a comfortable one she wore when there was work to do. Wrinkles creased the fabric, and she had the general appearance of having just unfolded herself from a suitcase.
I moved away from my hiding place to join her. Alexandra threw her arms around my neck. Up close, I could see the red rim around her eyes. “Oh, Dru! It’s so horrible!” She started to cry. Alex–my strong, playful friend, sobbed on my shoulder. I hadn’t seen her cry since we were eight, and she fell out of a tree, breaking her wrist.
“What’s wrong? What’s happened?” I asked.
“It’s Archie,” George replied, patting her shoulder. “Something happened to him last night.”
At the front of the room, Mrs. Pope recalled the dancers to the floor. I looked around quickly and caught Mother’s eye. When she saw Alexandra crying on my shoulder she pulled Daddy toward us.
“Alexandra, what’s wrong?” Mother asked.
Alex drew in a deep breath, enough to calm herself to speak. “It’s Archie. He wouldn’t wake up this morning. I called an ambulance and they took him to the State Hospital.”
“What happened to him?” Daddy asked, instantly the concerned physician, his voice going crisp and businesslike with urgency.
“I–I’m not sure.” Alexandra’s eyes darted around the room, picking out each of the policemen, though they were out of uniform. With a sudden chill, I thought I knew what had happened to her brother.
Mother and Daddy exchanged a look, coming to the same conclusion. Mother drew Alex away from me, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. “Come on. Let’s go see your brother.”