The police station where my mother worked wasn’t large. Only about a dozen officers worked there, plus one detective. Mother was one of only three policewomen in the entire department, and thus the only woman working at that station other than the secretary.
Mrs. Hughes greeted me with a smile when she saw me enter. A matronly woman with steel grey hair and spectacles that hung from a chain, she looked more like a librarian than the type of person one would find in a police station.
“Druscilla! Hello, dear. If you’re looking for your mother, I’m afraid she’s out on patrol right now,” she said, peering at me over the spectacles.
“I’m actually doing a little research, and I thought you might be able to help me. Do you mind if I take a look at the map?” I asked, pointing to a giant map of the city pinned to the wall.
“Certainly, dear. Go right ahead.” She raised a section of the counter dividing the public waiting area from the desks beyond and allowed me to pass.
The map showed the entire city and the outlying areas, all parceled up to show ownership of the individual lots. Here and there a name had been crossed out or erased, and another penciled in when a major tract of land was bought and sold. I traced a finger along the river, tracking High Street north until I was at the outskirts of town. A little further north, and I found the turn off for George’s picnic spot. Right below it was a large, lopsided rectangle with the name Thibault scrawled neatly in the middle.
I was about to move away when the sound of a raised voice from Detective Reiss’s office caught my attention. At first, I was going to back away, to offer some small measure of privacy that the thin walls of the station did not afford, but something in his tone made me stop. Instead, I crept a little closer to his office door, which was cracked open just a few inches, under the pretext of examining the western edge of the map.
“Do you have any idea how hard French is breathing down my neck right now?” the detective snapped. From the pause, I could only assume he was on the telephone. “No, I don’t care. Just find it. Do you have any idea what kind of hell there will be if word gets out that much industrial alcohol is missing? The Chief and the Mayor and the goddamn Governor have been bragging about how we’ve shut down the bootlegging industry in Columbus for months, and now over a thousand gallons has gone missing in a single night? I don’t care what you have to do, just bring them in…Well do something about it, then! I can’t cover for you…No. Absolutely not.”
“Did you find what you needed?”
“Oh!” I jumped, nearly dropping my handbag.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Mrs. Hughes laughed. When Detective Reiss’s voice raised once again, she reached over and gently pulled the office door shut. “There, now. I’m afraid the Detective has a bit of a temper. He’s been under a lot of stress.”
“I can imagine, with the push to enforce the Volstead act. I know a lot of people have been very eager to see it enforced.” To read the local papers, you would think Columbus was the last bastion of moral behavior between New York and Chicago. It was all bunk, of course. We had our share of crime, and people still drank and listened to Jazz, it simply wasn’t on the scale of those larger cities. Columbus was an industrial town, staunchly protestant. And of course, Ohio was the home of the Anti Saloon League. It simply wouldn’t do for us to port forth anything but the purest, most virtuous front to the world.
“Yes, well. I can tell you there have been a lot of long hours put in the last two years, and we aren’t done yet. Now, is there anything else you need?”
“May I see the log book?”
Surprised, Mrs. Hughes blinked at me several times, but she stepped aside so I could view the heavy ledger spread open on the counter where all the arrests were recorded. “What exactly are you researching?” she asked, leaning on the counter next to me as I searched the pages for the entries from Friday night.
“I’m looking into something for a friend. He thought a friend of his might have run into trouble, and I just wanted to verify.” Each entry included the culprit’s name, age, address, time of arrest, offense, and the arresting officer. I skipped down to the bottom of the page and began with anyone brought in after ten o’clock.
There was a ten-year-old boy brought in for theft at 10:45, two students from the University for being a public nuisance–whatever that meant–at 11:20 and two other men for brawling thirty minutes later.
Nothing else was listed until the early hours of Saturday morning, when Officer O’Neil brought in two men and a woman just before three o’clock. Their crime was listed simply as “intoxication.” None of them was Howard White.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” Mrs. Hughes asked, noting the crease between my brows.
“I’m not sure. These people here, they were all picked up from the party on Fifth, weren’t they?”
The secretary balanced her cheaters on her nose to examine the entries. “I don’t know, sweetheart. This was in the middle of the night. I’m long gone by then.” She gave a little laugh and let the spectacles drop down to her chest again.
I nodded. Of course. At the time of the arrests, it would be another six hours before Mrs. Hughes came in to work. With a finger, I traced each line to its conclusion. “O’Neil…he was the arresting officer?”
“Yes. He’s recently been moved to the night shift, since one of the boys is out with a broken leg. Cecil Danvers fell off a ladder two weeks ago. Poor dear. He won’t be able to work his beat for another month yet. Detective Reiss has him doing paperwork for the the Prohibition Enforcement task force.”
From the way Archie and Alex described the party, it seemed quite a few people were present. So why were there only three arrests? Why weren’t the hosts arrested, too?
“Was Officer O’Neil working with anyone last night? A partner?”
“Well, I’d have to check.” Slowly, Mrs. Hughes went to the sheet pinned to a cork board. It listed all of the assignments for every officer on duty. “He worked from midnight until eight o’clock in the morning, down by the University. He would have been by himself, but Mike Connors was just a few blocks away. He had the beat between North Star and Hector.”
Once again, something wasn’t adding up. I thanked Mrs. Hughes, but before I could ask another question a very angry man in handcuffs burst through the door like a wild stallion with two officers in tow–one of them was my mother.
“I’m tellin’ ya, I didn’t do nuthin!” he shouted as two more officers who had been working at desks behind the counter surged forward to assist the arresting officers.
“Save it, Higgins!” snapped one of them, cracking the prisoner’s knee with his club. With a wild roar, the man sank to one knee. Three of the officers finally succeeded in hauling the him away to the cells in the back of the building, where he continued to shout and hurl abuses at anyone who happened to catch his eye.
“Druscilla, what are you doing here?” mother asked. Her cap was askew after the struggle, hair curling loose from its pins.
“I was just in the neighborhood and thought I would say hello. I was just having a lovely chat with Mrs. Hughes.” The secretary in question was busy with intake paperwork, and couldn’t contradict me.
“Well, it’s nice to see you. I’m sorry about all of that.”
“Never you worry about it,” she said, giving me a quick hug and using it to steer me toward the door.
“No, really? What happened?”
Mother sighed. “I caught him trying to force himself on a shop girl.”
Another sigh. “The worst of it is, the girl ran off. She’ll never give a statement, now, so he’ll probably be free in the morning, off to terrorize another girl.”
“But that’s horrible! You saw him. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“It depends on the judge. But without another witness or the victim, it likely won’t hold up in court. It’s unfortunate, but for Bruce Higgins that cell door might as well be a revolving door. Usually people are too terrified to say anything against him. I think I’ve arrested him more than anyone else. Theft, assault…but we don’t have time to track down his victims for statements, not if they don’t want to be found, and without them the charges don’t stick.”
“Can’t anyone do something?”
Mother just laughed. “Unless you can convince the city council to approve the sixty officers Chief French wants to hire, I’m afraid there’s nothing anyone can do.”
Another officer, on his way to do his rounds, pushed past us. I side stepped, trying not to block the door. Mother was clearly trying to see me on my way. A wave of guilt for interrupting her work–and for doing so on false pretenses–washed over me.
“Mother, if you were to arrest someone, what kind of evidence would you need to make the charges stick?”
Surprised, she took a half step back. “Well, it would depend on the crime. But in general, you need irrefutable proof that the suspect was at the crime scene and committed the act.”
“Like a witness, preferably more than one. Or something of theirs left behind at the crime scene, something that has no business being there otherwise.”
I wondered if the clues we had so far could be considered evidence. Would it be enough for the police to pick up the investigation?
“Honey, what is this about?”
Startled from my thoughts, I looked up, pasting on a smile. “It’s nothing, Mother. I’ll see you at dinner.” I hurried to the street car stop at the corner before she could ask any more questions.