In early summer 2012, Chuck Scalin, an artist living in Richmond, Virginia, asked me if I would contribute a story to a project he was working on. He had made, as well as exhibited in a local gallery, a series of very mysterious assemblages, each one fitted inside of its own small presentation case with a transparent window, and now he’d gotten the notion to ask a number of writers living in the Richmond area to compose brief noir fictions inspired by the assemblages. The result was a handsome limited-edition (of 100) black box containing exquisite photographs of 14 of Chuck’s assemblages and 15 stories. The fifteenth story (but the first in the box) was mine, “The Outlawman.” Chuck had asked me to write a story that would “explain” where all of these cryptic assemblages had come from, or been found, the idea being that they weren’t art objects by Chuck Scalin but rather were unearthed “clues” to different crimes that had been committed in the distant past. So I came up with the masked vigilante called the Outlawman (stress falling either on outlaw or lawman: your pick). Originally, it was a much, much longer story, but I had to trim 80% of what I’d written to fit the project’s strict parameters. One of these days, though, I’d like to go back and pick up my first version again and work it through. I like the conceit, I like the character, and I’ve always loved those masked vigilantes–the Green Hornet, the Masked Marvel, the Spider–from old-time pulp magazines and movie serials.
When I was first appointed, during the second Eisenhower administration, much was made of the fact that my name is Irwin Michael Dust: I. M. Dust, City Historian. It’s an unpaid position, which, no doubt, explains why, at age 94, I’m still ensconced here on the top floor of the main library in a small windowless office that makes the mad clutter of the Collyer brothers seem the epitome of feng shu. I have very few duties–occasionally, infrequently, rarely, I’m asked to write up a brief account of a sweatshop fire, or to identify neighborhoods where enclaves of Ashkenazi Jews resided during the nineteenth century, to commemorate some long-dead philanthropist, or to corroborate or refute popular local legends. (Yes, Charles Dickens lectured at our lyceum in 1842, but no, the lollipop was not invented in the Old Second Ward by a confectioner named Staats DeGroot.)
I arrive each weekday morning between nine and ten o’clock carrying a thermos of sweet tea and a packed lunch, then wend my way, cane my way, carefully between precarious towers of city directories and train schedules, menus from vanished restaurants and playbills from demolished theaters, boxes of photographs, and cartons of donated diaries. Then I sit at my desk, making myself available till the jot of five. Ask me about our first electric trolley, ask me about our first 10-watt radio station, our first television station, our great department stores, our Beaux Arts balls, our newspapers, our race riots, our ballplayers, our bootleggers–ask me anything, anything at all, goddamit!
By my count–and I assure you it’s an accurate count; accuracy is not just my vocation, it’s my faith–I’ve had a mere 4 visitors and just 9 telephone queries so far this year. When I decide finally to pack it in and retire, scarcely anyone will notice I’m gone, just as scarcely anyone for the past two decades has realized I’m still here.
I hadn’t heard him knock–tall, slender, sandy-haired, a man in his late 40s carrying a big weekender suitcase.
“Mr. Dust, I’m–”
I stopped him and rummaged through the heaped shambles on my desk, then plucked a newspaper clipping from between two bulging folders. I held it up so my visitor could see his own picture below the headline: “Developer Vows to Revive Our City.” “You,” I said, “are Raymond Dollard, who’s converted the Walker Locomotive Factory into a movie theater, the Schulz Dairy into condos, the Didio Hat Company into a dance club, and the former Chevrolet dealership into a French bistro. What can I do for you, Mr. Dollard?”
“I’d like to show you something.” When he looked for somewhere to set his suitcase down, I used my cane to shove a column of garage calendars from my desk. Looking amused (he was already thinking, no doubt, that I was a queer old duck), Dollard put the suitcase where I now was pointing, snapped the locks and opened it. “I’m hoping you can tell me what these things are. And if they might be, well, valuable.” As soon as he turned the suitcase around, I laughed–actually I think I may’ve whooped–in delighted surprise. “You’ve bought the old police headquarters! Condos?”
“Rentals. But how did you–?”
“Of course. So…you recognize these?”
I smiled. The suitcase was filled with–I quickly counted: fourteen, fifteen–sixteen long storage boxes, each lid fitted with a once-clear-but-now-cloudy pane of plastic. I removed one box and scratched at its grimy window, making visible, just barely, a paperboard collage assembled from an overexposed snapshot of a woman with hair done in a World War II pinup style, the corner torn from a letter composed in hasty blue handwriting, the words “paycheck” and “September” triple-underlined, a lunch receipt, and a metal deco silhouette of a straw-hatted man sitting in a rowboat fishing. “Have you ever heard of the Outlawman, Mr. Dollard?”
“Sorry to keep interrupting you–but how did you happen to find these boxes?”
Dollard sat back and shrugged. “Well, I closed on the property Tuesday and was doing a walkthrough with my engineer. The place is a ruin.”
“No doubt. They built the new police headquarters in 1956.”
“And I don’t think anybody’s set foot in the old one ever since. Anyhow, we ended up down in the sub-basement, where we stumbled upon–literally–several metal filing cabinets. All of them empty except one. The top drawers were jammed with old case files. But the bottom drawer–which we had to jimmy open–was filled with these things. Mr. Dust–who was the Outlawman?”
“Who he was, I can’t tell you,” I said. “But what he was…”
During the first half of the twentieth century, I told Dollard, every big city worth its salt had at least one active masked vigilante who applied disguising putty to his nose, fitted a wide-brimmed hat to his head and a black celluloid mask over his eyes, then buckled on his holstered guns and took to the streets at night prowling for missing heiresses and embezzling playboys, counterfeiters, poisoners, arsonists, Communists spies, and the occasional superscientific genius bent on ruling the world. It was quite the fad. Cincinnati had its Crimson Bill, Detroit its Mr. Slash, Brooklyn its Icy Eyes, Detroit its Nemesis. “Our city,” I said proudly, “had the Outlawman.”
Dollard was staring with his eyebrows way, way up. And with a frozen smile that eloquently screamed: let me out of here! Nevertheless, I went on.
“Nearly every vigilante left a trademark calling card for the cops to find–a black rose, a train-flattened penny, a Tootsie Roll. It was how they claimed credit for meting out lethal justice.”
“I…see,” said Dollard, but clearly he did not. Already he was rising, reaching to shut his suitcase.
“The Outlawman,” I said, “always left behind a collage that he’d made from miscellany carefully arranged and glued into place: a feather, a matchbook, a mailing label. Were these the clues, was this the evidence that led him to his quarry? The police believed so, and I personally have no doubt they were clues, they were evidence, but clues and evidence significant and irrefutable only to the Outlawman himself. How, for example, did a French centime, a ribboned war medal, a miniscule padlock and a pair of tiny doll hands lead him to ensnare and swiftly dispatch the foreign seaman who’d strangled an old widow living alone, save for nine cats, on the last great estate inside the city limits? It made sense to him, I’m sure.” I nodded firmly. “At any rate, that’s how those things ended up down in the basement of the old police headquarters.”
“That’s…uh…fascinating. Well, ah, thank you, Mr. Dust.”
“You’re very welcome,” I said, watching him make his way circuitously toward the door, careful, despite hurrying, not to bump and topple anything with the suitcase. “Good luck with those condos,” I said.
“Rentals,” he said and then was gone.
He’d been in such a mad rush he’d forgotten the collage box that I’d removed and that was still sitting in front of me on my desk. Developers, I thought. In my day I would’ve–well, no matter.
And besides, I thought, sticking the box down into my bottom drawer, on top of the slouch hat, the cape, the gun belt and several brittle old masks, it’s nice to have one back, at least!