The Ragtime Fool: A Ragtime Mystery #3

The Ragtime Fool: A Ragtime Mystery #3

It's 1951, and ragtime is making a comeback. In Sedalia, Missouri, plans are underway for a ceremony to honor Scott Joplin. Brun Campbell, the old Ragtime Kid, is working to ...

About The Author

Larry Karp

Larry Karp grew up in Paterson, NJ and New York City. He practiced perinatal medicine (high-risk pregnancy care) and wrote ...

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Chapter One

Sedalia, Missouri

Sunday, April 1, 1951 Late evening

An unshaded bulb in a ceiling fixture sent grotesque shadows dancing around the six men in the basement of Otto Klein’s small house on East Fifth Street. The mood in the room was ugly as the weather. One man, a squat, balding farmer in striped overalls, muttered a curse as a gust of wind slapped rain against a window. He rubbed his hands together, stamped his feet. “Christ a’mighty, Otto, it’s cold as my wife’s heart down here. Why the hell can’t we sit upstairs and talk?”

Below his sloped forehead and receding crew-cut hair, Klein’s dark eyes smoldered. “God A’mighty, Rafe, sometimes I think you ain’t got sense enough to pound sand down a rat hole. We can’t have my wife or my daughter hearing any of this, okay? You know how women do. One gabby word at the beauty shop, and next minute, it’s all over town. If it’s too goddamn cold for you, go on back home, sit in front of your fire, and toast a marshmallow.”

A couple of men laughed. Rafe bit his lip.

Klein looked toward a rangy man with bright blue eyes and a haystack spilling over his forehead. “Think anybody else’s coming, Jerry?”

Jerry Barton plucked a toothpick from his mouth. “Not as I know. Whyn’t we get started?”

Klein nodded. “Yeah, I guess. Time was, we had a meeting, we could count on ten times what we got here.”

“Times change,” said Barton. “And it ain’t just here. Klan membership’s down everyplace. It ain’t enough that niggers got their freedom, now people just stand around and pick their nose while the government gives the whole stinkin’ country to the colored.” He coughed. “God damn Franklin Delano Rosenfeld. When the son of a bitch died, I figured we were gonna be okay again, Harry being a good old Missoura boy and all that.”

Derisive laughter filled the room. “Wouldn’t be surprised if Harry goes on Saturdays and sits in Rosenfeld’s pew in the Jew-church,” drawled Johnny Farnsworth, a short, rawboned man with two days’ worth of stubble on his face.

“I knew we was in trouble when he integrated the Army,” said Rafe Anderson. “Next thing you know, it’s gonna be okay for a colored man to marry a white woman, and before you can say Jackie Robinson, we’ll be a country of half-breeds, don’t care about nothin’ but gettin’ laid and stealin’ chickens. Might as well just hand over the White House keys to the Russkies and be done with it.”

Klein held up a hand. “Okay, then. But that’s exactly why me and Jerry got you boys here tonight. Somebody’s got to take a stand, and I say why not us? Show this country that decent white men ain’t gonna let America go to hell in a black handbasket.” He waggled a finger in the direction of a small, bald man still in his Sunday-go-to-church suit and tie, sitting on a stained, battered couch, rubbing his hands together. “Luther, what happened at the meeting today? This ceremony really is gonna go down, is it?”

“’Fraid so,” came in Luther Cartwright’s prissy countertenor. “I told them they ought to give a whole lot of thought about what just might happen if things get outa hand. Said I wasn’t real happy about the idea of my drugstore getting damaged, say, in a riot or a fire. But Charlie Bancroft called me a lily-liver. He thinks the publicity’ll be good for the town, and besides, accordin’ to him, ‘It’s the right thing to do.’”

“Charlie always did like his chocolate,” Barton said. “If that hoity-toity wife of his don’t have at least a couple drops outa of the tar bucket, I’ll eat my hat.” The laughter in the room encouraged him on. “People don’t get a sun tan at Christmas like she’s got. Well, don’t worry none about your drugstore, Luther. Push comes to shove, it’s far enough away from Charlie’s grocery, you’ll be okay.” “Wait a minute now,” Klein shouted. “Just hold on one minute. There ain’t gonna be any fire, and no riot neither. Luther, you didn’t let on about nothin’, did you?”

Cartwright humphed. “Come on, Otto. How dumb you think I am?”

“Dumb enough to say you were even thinking about a fire or a riot.”

Cartwright got halfway to his feet, but Barton pushed him back onto the couch. “Relax, Luther. You too, Otto. Last thing we need is for us to get on each other. Luther, you were supposed to go to the meeting and just listen, not talk. Best if everybody in this town stays nice and calm, nobody thinking about riots, fires, or anything else. If we’re gonna blow up a high school, we don’t need the whole damn town pointing fingers in our direction. Now, what about Herb Studer? What’s the mayor thinking?”

Cartwright’s face darkened. “He told that kike who’s the head of the Mens’ Choral Club—”

“Abe Rosenthal?”

“Yeah. Fancy-pants little Jew. Herb told him he’d be glad to give a speech at the ceremony. He thinks it’d be good to show people how Sedalia’s moving ahead with good race relations.”

A sound like swarming bees swirled through the little group. “Oh, he did, huh?” Otto Klein was furious. “Don’t that just top all. Guess he wants to see niggers eatin’ in restaurants, right at the next table to him, and sittin’ with him in the movie theaters. What the hell’s the matter with Studer? Them colored breed like rabbits, and one fine day they’re gonna be tellin’ us what we can do and what we can’t. I wouldn’t never have believed in a million years I’d live to hear the mayor of Sedalia say it’s just fine and dandy to have white and colored go up on a stage together. An’ in the colored high school to boot.”

“Well, that’s the way I heard it,” said Cartwright. “But there’s even more. Some old white guy’s coming in from California, wants to play piana at the ceremony. He says he was here fifty year ago, and took piana lessons from Scott Joplin.”

“He comes here and does that, he’s gonna be a dead white piana player.” That from Clay Clayton, an angular man with an uncombed thatch of gray hair cut short above his ears. “They’re gonna find pieces of him, come down to earth as far away as Kans’City.”

Rafe Anderson, the man who’d complained of the cold, patted Clayton on the shoulder. “Damn right, Clay.”

Klein turned to Farnsworth. “Johnny, you’re sure you can handle this, huh? Once we get started, be hard to back out.”

The little man rubbed at his bristly chin, then grinned. “Work with dynamite, y’ don’t get to be near as old as me if y’ain’t good and goddamn sure what you can handle. Don’t you worry none, Otto. If a pussy mayor don’t have it in him to tell them people what their place is, I do.”

“Good.” Barton raised a clenched fist. “Guess we’re ready to give them Hubbard-High pickaninnies something else to think about besides their ABCs. And send a message to Mr. Mayor Herb Studer.”

The bee-swarm sound told Barton he had a unanimous vote of confidence. “Okay, then,” he said. “Ever’body up.”

The six men formed a circle under the unshaded light bulb, each extending a hand toward the center to grasp the hands of the others. They lowered their heads. “Oh, Lord who set the black man on earth to serve the white,” Barton intoned. “We ask your blessing on us as we set out upon our holy mission, to make manifest your design for your children, through the ministry of your beloved son, Jesus Christ. May all evildoers perish, and those who truly honor you thrive. Amen.”

A chorus of amens, then the petitioners raised their heads. “Man alive, Jerry.” Clay Clayton grinned. “You pray as good as any preacher I ever heard.”

Barton coughed. “My old man was a preacher. Grow up with him, you learn to pray in a hurry. When I was a kid, I used to pray the whole day long he didn’t catch me smoking back of the barn, or just get himself in a bad enough mood he’d give me a licking for the hell of it and tell me it was payment in advance.”

Klein broke the heavy silence. “Well, okay, that’s it. Ceremony’s on the seventeenth, so we got two and a half weeks. Let’s do some thinking, and then get together next Sunday night, see where we are.”

“What say we meet by Jerry’s place,” said Rafe Anderson. “Ain’t nobody else lives out there to hear us, so it’ll be all that much more private. Besides, we could sit in his upstairs, and not freeze our ass off.”

Everybody laughed.

“Fine with me,” Barton said. “I’ll get us a keg.”

“I ain’t gonna argue with that,” said Klein. “See y’all in a week, then. If Herb Studer or anybody else thinks white people who got any self-respect at all are gonna just sit back while they put on some kinda fancy ceremony for an old-time nigger whorehouse piana player, they got another think coming.”

Reviews of

The Ragtime Fool: A Ragtime Mystery #3

“Karp populates his book with nearly as many historical characters as fictional ones….Ragtime remains central to the series, both in terms of its ambience and its plots, making the trilogy a must recommendation to fans of jazz and American roots music.”

Booklist

“Karp handles the intricate plot well, but the best part of the book is its picture of people torn between what they want to forget and what they need to remember.”

Publishers Weekly

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