The bestselling book that asks the question: what would present-day America look like if the Civil War never happened? A New York Times bestseller; a Goodreads Choice finalist; named one of the Best Books of the Year by NPR, Slate, Publishers Weekly, Hudson Bookseller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kirkus Reviews, AudioFile Magazine, and Amazon A young black man calling himself Victor has struck a bargain with federal law enforcement, working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service in exchange for his freedom. He's got plenty of work. In this version of America, slavery continues in four states called "the Hard Four." On the trail of a runaway known as Jackdaw, Victor arrives in Indianapolis knowing that something isn't right -- with the case file, with his work, and with the country itself. As he works to infiltrate the local cell of a abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines, tracking Jackdaw through the back rooms of churches, empty parking garages, hotels, and medical offices, Victor believes he's hot on the trail. But his strange, increasingly uncanny pursuit is complicated by a boss who won't reveal the extraordinary stakes of Jackdaw's case, as well as by a heartbreaking young woman and her child -- who may be Victor's salvation. Victor believes himself to be a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he has worked so hard to earn. But in pursuing Jackdaw, Victor discovers secrets at the core of the country's arrangement with the Hard Four, secrets the government will preserve at any cost. Underground Airlines is a ground-breaking novel, a wickedly imaginative thriller, and a story of an America that is more like our own than we'd like to believe.
Release date: July 18, 2017
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Print pages: 336
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Ben H. Winters
“So,” said the young priest. “I think that I’m the man you’re looking for.”
“Oh, I hope so,” I said to him. “Oh, Lord, I do hope you are.”
I knitted my fingers together and leaned forward across the table. I was aware of how I looked: I looked pathetic. Eager, nervous, confessional. I could feel my thin, cheap spectacles slipping down my nose. I could feel my needfulness dripping from my brow. I took a breath, but before I could speak, the waitress came over to pour our coffee and hand out the menus, and Father Barton and I went silent, smiled stiff and polite at the girl and at each other.
Then, when she was gone, Father Barton talked before I could.
“Well, I must say, Mr. Dirkson—”
“Go on and call me Jim, Father. Jim’s just fine.”
“I must say, you gave LuEllen quite a start.”
I looked down, embarrassed. LuEllen was the receptionist, church secretary, what have you. White-haired, apple-cheeked lady, sitting behind her desk at that big church up there on Meridian Street, Saint Catherine’s, and I suppose I behaved like a wild thing in her tidy little office that afternoon, gnashing my teeth and carrying on. Throwing myself on her mercy. Pleading for an appointment with the father. It worked, though. Here we were, breaking bread together, the gentle young priest and I. If there’s one thing they understand, these church folks, it’s wailing and lamentation.
But I bowed my head and apologized to Father Barton for the scene I’d caused. I told him to please carry my apologies to Ms. LuEllen. And then I brought my voice way down to a whisper.
“Listen, I’m just gonna be honest with you and say it, sir. I’m a desperate man. I got nowhere else to turn.”
“Yes, I see. I do see. I only wish…” The priest looked at me solemnly. “I only wish there was something I could do.”
He was shaking his head, and I felt my face get shocked. I felt my eyes get wide. I felt my skin getting hot and tight on my cheeks. “Wait, wait. Hold on, now, Father. I ain’t even—”
Father Barton raised one hand gently, palm out, and I hushed up. The waitress had come back to take our orders. I can remember that moment perfectly, can picture the restaurant, dusk-lit through its big windows. The Fountain Diner was the place, a nice family-style place, in what they call the Near Northside, in Indianapolis, Indiana. On that same Meridian Street as the church, about fifty blocks farther downtown. Handsome, boyish Barton there across from me, no more than thirty years old, a tousle of blond hair, blue Irish eyes, pale skin glowing like it had been scrubbed. Our table was right in the center of the restaurant, and there was a big ceiling fan high above us, its blades turning lazily around and around. The bright, sizzling smell of something frying, the low ting-ting of forks and knives. There were three old ladies at the booth behind us with thin beauty-shop hair and red lipstick, their walkers parked in a neat row like waiting carriages. There was a pair of policemen, one black and one white, in a corner booth. The black cop was leaning halfway across the table to look at something on the white one’s phone, the two of them chortling over some policeman joke.
Somehow I got through ordering my food, and when the waitress went away the priest launched into a speech as carefully crafted as any homily. “I fear that you have gotten the wrong impression, which of course is in no way your fault.” He was speaking very softly. We were both of us aware of those cops. “I know what people say, but it’s not true. I’ve never been involved in…in…in those sorts of activities. I’m sorry, my friend.” He placed his hand gently over mine. “I am terribly sorry.”
And he sounded sorry. Oh, he did. His calm Catholic voice glowed with gentle apology. He squeezed my hands as a real father would, never mind that I was a decade or more his senior. “I know this is not what you wanted to hear.”
“But—wait, now, Father, hold on a moment. You’re here. You came.”
“Out of compassion,” he said. “Compassion compelled me.”
“Oh, Lord.” I leaned away from him, feeling like a damn fool, and dropped my face into my hands. My heart was trembling. “Lord almighty.”
“You have my sympathy, and you have my prayers.” When I looked up his eyes were straight on me and steady, crystal blue and radiating kindness. “But I must be truthful and say there is nothing else that I can offer you.”
He watched me, unblinking, waiting for me to nod and say, “I understand.” Waiting for me to give up. But I couldn’t give up. How could I?
“Listen. Just—I am a free man, as you see, sir, legally so,” I said, then charging on before he could interrupt. “Manumitted years ago, thanks to the good Lord in heaven and my master’s merciful last will and testament. I have my papers; my papers are in order. I got my high school equivalency, and I’m working, sir, a good job, and I’m in no kind of trouble. It’s my wife, sir, my wife. I have searched for years to find her, and I’ve found her. I tracked her down, sir!”
“I understand,” said Father Barton, grimacing, shaking his head. “But…Jim—”
“She is called Gentle, sir. Her name’s Gentle. She is thirty-three years old, thirty-three or thirty-four. I—” I stopped, blinking away tears, gathering my dignity. “I’m afraid I have no photograph.”
“Please. Jim. Please.”
He spread his hands. My mouth was dry. I licked my lips. The fan turned overhead, disinterested. One of the cops, the white one, thick-necked and pink-skinned, reared back and slapped the table, cracking up at something his black partner had said.
I held myself steady and let my eyes bore into the priest’s. Let him see me clear, hear me properly.
“Gentle is at a strip mine in western Carolina, sir. The conditions are of the utmost privation. Her owner employs overseers, sir, of the cruelest stripe, from one of these services—you know, private contractors. And, now, this mine—I’ve been looking, Father, and this mine has been sanctioned half a dozen times by the BLP. They’ve been fined, you know, paid millions in these fines, for treatment violations, but you…you know how it is with these fines, it’s a drop in the—you know, it’s a drop in the bucket.” Barton was shaking his head, gritting his teeth emphatically, but I wouldn’t stop—I couldn’t stop—my words had become a hot rush by then, fervent and angry. “Now, this mine, this is a bauxite mine, and a female PB, one of her age and…and her weight, you see? According to the law, you see—”
Father Barton tapped his fingertips twice on the table, a small but firm gesture, like he was calling me to order or calling me to heel. The compassionate glow in his voice was beginning to dim. “You need to listen to me, now. We don’t do it. I know what is said of me and of my church. I do. And I believe in the Cause, and the church believes in the Cause, as a matter of policy and faith. I have spoken on it and will continue to speak on it, but speaking is all that I do.” He shook his young head again, looked quickly at me and then away, away from my frustration and grief. “I feel deeply for your situation, and my prayers are with you and your wife. But I cannot be her savior.”
I was silent then. I had more words, but I swallowed them. This was a bitter result.
I got through our brief supper as best I could, keeping my eyes on my plate, on my fish sandwich and coleslaw and iced tea. God only knows what I’d been expecting. Surely I had not imagined that this man, this child, would be so moved by the plight of my suffering Gentle that he would leap to his feet and charge southward with pistols bared; that he would muster up a posse to kick in the doors of a Carolina bauxite mine; that he would take out his cell phone and summon up the army of abolition.
For one thing, there is no such army. Everybody knows that. Everybody with sense, anyway. No such thing as the Underground Airlines, not really, not in any grand, organized sense. No command center in the deserts of New Mexico, like there was in that movie they did a few years ago; no paramilitary force with helicopters and flash bombs, waiting on the orders of a mighty antislavery general to rush into motion.
There are rescues, though. There are saviors. It’s piecemeal; it’s small-group action, teams of northerners, daring or crazy, making pinprick raids into the Hard Four, grabbing people up and hustling them to freedom. There are ad hoc efforts, small organizations, cells, each running its own route of the Airlines. You just gotta know the right people. And this man, this Father Barton here, he was supposed to be the right people. The man to get with. Everything I had heard, all the information I had collected, it all said that here in Indianapolis, in central Indiana, Father Barton up at Saint Cat’s—this was supposed to be the man.
And now here I was, helpless, watching him eat a hamburger with a paper napkin tucked into his clerical collar, fussily dabbing ketchup from the corners of his mouth. Listening to him assuring me in his soft voice—“to allay any concerns”—that everything on the menu had been certified by the North American Human Rights Association, a Montreal-based outfit that inspects supply lines. I nodded blankly. I murmured “Oh” into my coffee. “Oh, good.” Like it mattered. Indiana was, like most states, a Clean Hands state, having a law on the books barring places of public accommodation from serving anything out of the Four. All the rest of it, all the Canadian supply-chain auditors, all the independent inspectorates and “cruelty-free” certification programs—well, that’s all marketing. Fancy-sounding words to gin up donations for the antislavery nonprofits. But Father Barton, he pointed his skinny finger at the little gold seal on my menu like it was some kind of consolation prize. I can’t get your beloved out of shackles, you poor bastard, but I can assure you that your tomatoes weren’t harvested by a shackled line.
When dinner was done, Barton took out his wallet, and I put out my hand and laid it over his.
“Hold on, now.” A little tremor rolled through my voice. “I’m gonna get this.”
“Oh, no.” Father Barton shook his head and didn’t pull away his hand, and we held that pose like an artwork: white hand on a brown wallet, black hand on the white hand. “I can’t let you do that.”
“Come on, now.” I peered at him through my spectacles. “I wanna thank you for taking the time, that’s all. It was good of you to take the time.”
The priest exhaled, nodded slightly, slowly removing his hand from our little pileup. Here’s what he was thinking right then: he was thinking, Go on and let the man pick up the check—it’s a gift to him, to let him feel he’s done something. I do not want to sound crazy or something, but I do believe that I have this strange power in certain situations. To read minds, I mean. Not to read thoughts, not exactly, but to read feelings. To read people. To know how people feel.
I dug a few crumpled bills from my coat pocket and smoothed them out on top of the check. Then I pushed a piece of paper across the table, a smudged scrap of napkin. “Here, though. That’s my cell phone number right there. Just in case you change your mind.”
Father Barton stared at the napkin.
“Please, Father,” I said. “Would you please just take it?”
He took it, and he rose and adjusted his collar, and for a split second, I hated this man, this confident boy. And I believe in the Cause…as a matter of policy and faith…Go to hell, son, I was thinking, just for a moment, just a bare half of a moment. With your pity for me and your stiff collar and your alabaster cheeks. You go to hell. I didn’t say it, though. Nothing of the sort. I did not raise my voice or bang a closed fist on the table. Anger wouldn’t help. All it would do, maybe, is draw the attention of those two cops, the white one with the thick neck and his laughing black partner, maybe cause them to amble over here in that slow cop way and ask Father Barton if everything was okay. Ask me if I wouldn’t mind providing my paperwork for them to have a peek at, if it wasn’t too much trouble.
I excused myself to use the bathroom and hurried away, just barely keeping it together.
Once, I saw a businessman on TV, the owner of a midwestern football franchise, and this very wealthy man was proclaiming his personal abolitionist sentiment while defending his use of the infamous “temporary suspension of status” rule to add PB muscle to his defensive line. “Do I like the system?” the man had said, shaking his head, in his thousand-dollar suit, his hundred-dollar haircut. “Well, of course I don’t. But I’ll tell you what: this is an opportunity for these boys. And I love ’em. It’s a bad system, but I love my boys.”
I hated that man so much, watching him talk, and I hated Father Barton the same way there in the diner. Slavery was a game to this child, as it was for that slick team owner, as it is for all the football fans who tsk-tsk about the black-hand teams but watch every Sunday in the privacy of their living rooms. Declaring hatred for slavery was easy for a man like Father Barton; not only easy but useful, gratifying—satisfying. And of course its cold and terrible grip could never fall on him directly.
My anger swelled, then it drained, as anger does. By the time he hugged me consolingly at the door of the diner, by the time the priest was on his way to his car, by the time he stopped to cast a troubled glance back toward me—as I had predicted he would, as I had known he would—that glance found me standing perfectly still in the doorway, a humble man, broken by pain. I had taken off my glasses, and there were tears slipping slowly, one at a time, down my weathered cheeks. The waitress poked her head out, reminded me that she had the rest of my supper for me all boxed up, and I could barely hear her, so busy was I composing this face of grief.
I’ve been free since I was fourteen years old, and on this particular evening, as my dashboard GPS navigated me through the unfamiliar streets of Indianapolis, I was approaching my fortieth birthday.
The great bulk of my life, then, had passed outside the Hard Four, in the free part of the land of the free. But even after all these years, I still found myself astonished daily by the small miracles of liberty. Just walking out of a restaurant with a clear head and a full stomach, holding a Styrofoam box with leftover food inside it. Just lingering in the parking lot a minute before getting in the car, smelling the wet asphalt, feeling a light drizzle as it condensed on my forehead. Just knowing I could take a walk around the block if I wanted to, go to a park and sit on a bench and read a newspaper. Just getting in that car and feeling the vinyl give under my ass, feeling the cough and purr of the engine. All these things were small astonishments. Miracles of freedom.
I was in a modest Nissan Altima with a serviceable 175-horsepower engine and a dull tan interior, but I enjoyed driving it a whole lot. For most of my driving years you couldn’t get a Japanese car because the Japanese were signatories to the European Consensus, blocked from most trade with the United States. Luckily for me, a new prime minister had been elected in 2012 and switched them over to a policy of “stakeholder influence,” a phrase borrowed from the Israelis. Hate the sin, love the sinner. Open borders mean open dialogue, that whole line.
I don’t give much of a shit about international diplomacy, but I fucking loved that Altima. It started up with no trouble, the heater worked and the wipers worked, and the brakes and the windows and the tape deck worked, too.
I drove north on Meridian Street carefully, away from the Fountain Diner, away from Father Barton and his empty apologies. The world I heard described on the radio was the same as the one I could see through the streaky window of the car: gray and ugly, redolent of violence and the fear of violence. This was the week of the Batlisch hearings: fulminating in the Senate, furor in the streets. This woman’s nomination had “ignited a firestorm,” as the radio liked to hype it. Protests and counterprotests in Washington, DC, in the nominee’s hometown of Philadelphia, and in plenty of other places besides. Violence—violence and fear.
There was some little local controversy, too, about a fund-raising effort called Suzie’s Closet: folks getting together in church basements to make care packages for the plantations—blankets and candy bars and all that kind of thing. First they interviewed a local advocate for the homeless, asking why our attention should be down there “when there’s so much suffering right here at home!” Then came a spokesman for the Black Panthers, denouncing the campaign as “mere ameliorationism,” calling Suzie naive. Which struck me as a little harsh, the girl being nine years old and all.
It was the usual stuff—all the new stories are just the old stories over again.
I turned off the radio and fished a Michael Jackson cassette out of the glove box. The tape hissed when I pushed it in. It was a mix tape that I had made myself, many, many years before. Soon, they were saying, new cars wouldn’t have tape decks anymore, since the American market was finally catching up with CDs. Not yet, though.
I turned up the volume. MJ sang “Human Nature,” from Thriller, and I sang along.
I was stopped at a checkpoint on my way back to my hotel, which I’d been expecting. Tensions were high because of the Batlisch business and because of a couple nasty incidents up along the 49th parallel. Indianapolis, like a lot of cities, had declared a “heightened security environment,” so cops were free to pull over black drivers when they felt like it—not that they ever needed a reason in particular. It was at 79th Street and Ditch Road that I heard the bloop-bloop of the sirens, and I got out slowly, giving no trouble, showing my hands, standing where they told me to stand, staring blankly into the doorway of a grocery store while I got frisked by a beefy patrolman with bad breath and razor burn.
He looked closely at my papers. My papers held up just fine. The sun was almost done sinking. A yellow smear against a dishwater horizon.
At the tail end of our dinner together, while we were tussling over the bill, I lifted Father Barton’s wallet. This small and seamless maneuver caused me no difficulty or concern: I had performed the same quick action dozens of times in the past. There he was, poor man, embarrassed by my grief, flustered by my adamance, anxious to escape an emotionally charged moment. It would be a lot to ask, in such complicated circumstances, to keep track of something so prosaic, so secular, as a wallet. In the bathroom I photographed its contents, utilizing a tiny device that attaches to my cell phone, then I slipped the wallet back into his pocket when I embraced him good-bye.
And now, back in the Capital City Crossroads Hotel on 86th Street, with the door locked, with the shades pulled, I opened my laptop and began entering data into the remarkable mapping program I had on there. I entered the home address from Father Barton’s driver’s license. I entered the addresses of three restaurants and five gas stations he had recently patronized and from which he had helpfully held on to the credit-card receipts. I entered the address of his gym, his local branch library, and the Sport Clips where he got his hair cut. I entered, too, the Meridian Street address of the restaurant where we had just eaten at his suggestion and that of the parish church of Saint Catherine’s, where I had accosted poor old LuEllen a few hours earlier.
I had never been to Indianapolis before, but I had been to lots of other cities, and every city is the same. Neighborhoods and waterways, big roads and side roads. A circle of downtown in the middle, a circle of highway around the perimeter, like a dog fence. Rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods. Black areas, white areas, mixed. CVS and Starbucks, Walmart and Townes Stores. The world is the same everywhere you go.
In the North, I should say. The world is about the same in every northern city. I’m a lot less familiar with the South these days.
What the mapping software did was turn each of the addresses into a blinking red dot. When I was done with the data entry and could take a look at the map, one of the dots sang out to me right away. It called my name. Most of the other dots were clustered together, centered around the priest’s church up there on Meridian and just north of it, along the crowded shopping corridor of 86th Street, a mile or two west of where I was sitting. But this one dot was way, way down, in a different part of town. It sat at the intersection of 38th and Graceland, in a neighborhood the map called Mapleton–Fall Creek.
“All right,” I said out loud. “Well, all right.” I laid a fingertip on that dot, as if to feel it, to measure its strength.
My name is not Jim Dirkson.
Neither is my name Dudley Vincent, the identity under which I’d been staying at the Hilton Garden Inn near the Cleveland, Ohio, airport until last night, when Mr. Bridge called me and woke me and told me to start packing. Mr. Vincent’s driver’s license and American Express card had since been cut to pieces, and those pieces were now buried in a construction-site Dumpster behind a Cleveland shopping mall.
I had a lot of names. Or, more precisely, it was my practice at the beginning of a new job to think of myself as having no name at all. As being not really a person at all. A man was missing, that’s all—missing and hiding, and I was not a person but a manifestation of will. I was a mechanism—a device. That’s all I was.
I looked at the dot on 38th Street. The dot blinked, and I blinked back at the dot. That address had come from a cash machine receipt dated three days ago—Sunday, at 4:32 p.m. Two hundred dollars from a Regions bank ATM. I tapped a few more keys, and the laptop whirred to life, accenting my map with the requested demographic information, shading every square block of the city according to its African American population.
When this was done I sat back and laid my hands flat on the desk, on either side of the computer keyboard. The main cluster of dots, representing Father Barton’s usual stomping ground—those dots were in pale areas: blocks with an African American population of 10 percent or less, 5 percent or less. That one dot, though, the one blinking lonesome dot down in Mapleton–Fall Creek: that one was singing a different song. It wasn’t in the darkest part of the map—that was a six-square-block area just northwest of downtown. That would be Freedman Town, I figured. But the area where Father Barton had taken out two hundred bucks on Sunday afternoon—there was some pigmentation down there, no question about it.
I whistled very softly, still sitting motionless, hands still flat on the table.
“All right,” I whispered. “All right, all right, all right.”
At 9:49 p.m. I stood from the wobbly wooden desk and stretched, raising my hands until they grazed the low ceiling of the hotel room. I felt around in the coat I had taken off and found a pack of Babas, tapped it on the edge of the desk, peeled off the foil, and took out a single cigarette.
At exactly 9:50 my cell phone rang. It always rang at 9:50 exactly.
“Good evening, Victor,” said the voice on the other end, low and even. “How is your progress?”
That’s what Mr. Bridge always said—every time—when a case was on, when a file was active. He always called at 9:50, and his voice always sounded the same.
“She’s doin’ great, thanks,” I said. “How’s your mother?”
Mr. Bridge didn’t laugh. He never laughed. He repeated himself. “How is your progress?”
“So far so good.” I slipped out onto the little balcony. The room was on the second floor, and I could smell the bitter fumes of the parking lot. “To be honest with you, it would be a lot better if I had the full file.”
“So you’ve said.” I lit the Baba and took a drag.
“Janice will post the full file by tomorrow noon at the absolute latest. It will be available for download from the second server.”
“Yes, Massa. Sho’ nuff.”
Cold silence. No chance of getting a laugh out of Mr. Bridge on that one. I trusted his assurances about the file. My handler at the US Marshals Service was a serious man, and he rarely made promises on which he did not deliver. And even with the full file being unaccountably late, I already knew the most important details. A Person Bound to Labor had escaped. His service name was Jackdaw. His PIN was 78312-99. The company to whom he owed service was a textile plantation called Garments of the Greater South, of Pine Woods, Alabama, a Tuscaloosa suburb.
A man had run. It was my job to find him.
“Victor? How is your progress?”
I took a quick drag off the Baba. “Well, the good father and I broke bread. My name is Dirkson. My wife is Gentle, and she is bound to subterranean service in Carolina.”
More silence on the other end. Mr. Bridge, not interested in the nitty-gritty. Mr. Bridge, waiting for information. He and I had never met face-to-face, but we’d been talking on the phone now going on six years, and I had a clear picture in my mind of the man behind his desk in Gaithersburg. Upright behind his computer keyboard, with a round pale face and pink jowls. A conservative mustache, maybe, thick but well kept. Eyes flat like silver dollars.
“The only snag is,” I said, “our friend Barton does not deal in runners. Not him and not his church. Not anyone he’s ever met. He was shocked by the very idea.”
“Yeah. No shit.”
“He’s sniffing you out.”
“Let him sniff.”
“You’ll get to him.”
Bridge repeated himself. Not insistent, not chastising, just a statement of fact. “You’ll get to him.”
This was how the man talked: clear pronouncements of uncomplicated truth. Never in our years of working together had I detected a note of sarcasm or subtlety. His tone was always the same, cold and unbending, like iron, the hint of a southern accent coming up off his voice like the whisper of smoke from a gun barrel. You’ll get to him.
My arrangement with Mr. Bridge was simple. Clear as a searchlight. Strong as the law.
Under the Fugitive Persons Act, those who escape from service are to be captured and returned, anywhere they are found in the United States, slave state or free. All law enforcement agencies are obliged to assist in these operations when called upon (as, indeed, “all good citizens” are so obliged), but it is the US Marshals Service that is specifically charged with the job. This law was passed in the ancient year of 1793 under its old name, but it’s been updated repeatedly: strengthened in 1850, reinforced in 1861, revised and strengthened a half dozen times since. When, in 1875, Congress at last ended slavery in the nation’s capital, the slaveholding powers were appeased by the raising of fees for obstruction. When President Roosevelt, in 1935, proposed the creation of a “comprehensive regulatory framework” for the plantations (and the Bureau of Labor Practices to enforce it), he quieted howling southern senators with a sweeping immunity bill, shielding US marshals from zealous northern prosecutors.. . .
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