Down the River unto the Sea

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By Walter Mosley

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Winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel of the Year: bestselling author Walter Mosley "is back with a whole new character to love…As gorgeous a novel as anything he's ever written" (Washington Post). 

Joe King Oliver was one of the NYPD's finest investigators until he was framed for sexual assault by unknown enemies within the force. A decade has passed since his release from Rikers, and he now runs a private detective agency with the help of his teenage daughter. Physically and emotionally broken by the brutality he suffered while behind bars, King leads a solitary life, his work and his daughter the only lights. When he receives a letter from his accuser confessing that she was paid to frame him years ago, King decides to find out who wanted him gone and why. 

On a quest for the justice he was denied, King agrees to help a radical black journalist accused of killing two on-duty police officers. Their cases intertwine across the years and expose a pattern of corruption and brutality wielded against the black men, women, and children whose lives the law destroyed. All the while, two lives hang in the balance: King's client's and his own. 

"A wild ride that delivers hard-boiled satisfaction while toying with our prejudices and preconceptions." —Steph Cha, Los Angeles Times

Excerpt

1.

Looking out from my second-floor window onto Montague Street is better than the third-floor view. From here you can almost make out the lines in the faces of the hundreds of working people moving past; people who, more and more, have no reason to walk through the doors of the fancy shops and banks that have made their claim on that thoroughfare. These new businesses are like modern-day prospectors panning for gentrified, golden customers who will buy the million-dollar condos and fancy clothes, eat in the French bistros, and buy wine for a hundred dollars a bottle.

When I took this office, almost eleven years ago now, there were used-book stores, secondhand clothes shops, and enough fast food to feed that displaced army of workers in Brooklyn Heights. That’s when Kristoff Hale offered me a twenty-year renewable lease because another cop, Gladstone Palmer, had overlooked his son Laiph Hale’s involvement in the brutal attack on a woman; a woman whose only offense was to say no.

Three years later Laiph went to prison for another beating, one that got bargained down to manslaughter. But this had nothing to do with me; I had the lease by then.

My maternal grandmother always tells me that every man gets what he deserves.

  

Thirteen years earlier I was a cop too. I would have tried to put Laiph in prison for the first assault, but that’s just me. Not everyone sees the rules the same. The law is a flexible thing—on both sides of the line—influenced by circumstance, character, and, of course, wealth or lack of same.

My particular problem with women was, at one time, my desire for them. It didn’t take but a smile and wink for me, Detective First Class Joe King Oliver, to walk away from my duties and promises, vows and common sense, for something, or just the promise of something, that was as transient as a stiff breeze, a good beer, or a street that couldn’t maintain its population.

For the last thirteen years I have been somewhat less influenced by my sexual drives. I still appreciate the opposite, sometimes known as the fairer, sex. But the last time I acted on instinct I ran into so much trouble that I believed I was pretty much cured of my roaming ways.

  

Her name was Nathali Malcolm. She was a modern-day Tallulah Bankhead, with the husky voice, quick wit, and that certain something that defined the long-ago starlet. My dispatcher, the same Sergeant Gladstone Palmer, called via cell phone to give me the assignment.

“It should be easy, Joe,” Palmer assured me. “It’s basically a favor for the chief of Ds.”

“But I’m on that portside thing, Glad. Little Exeter always makes his move on Wednesdays.”

“That means he’ll be doin’ it next Wednesday and the one after that,” my sergeant reasoned.

Gladstone and I had come through the academy together. He was white Irish and I was a deep shade of brown, but that never affected our friendship.

“I’m close, Glad,” I said, “real close.”

“That may very well be, but Bennet’s in a hospital bed with a punctured lung and Brewster messes up two out of every five collars. You need a point or two on your sheet this year anyway. You spend so much time at the docks you don’t make half the arrests you need to keep your numbers up to snuff.”

He was right. The one place the law was not flexible was in statistics. Criminal arrests and convictions, the retrieval of stolen property, and competent investigation that leads to crime solution were what our professional careers hinged on. I had a big case in front of me, but it might be a year before I could wrap it up.

“What’s the offense?” I asked.

“GTA.”

“Just one cop for a chop shop?”

“Nathali Malcolm. Stole a Benz from Tremont Bendix of the Upper East Side.”

“A woman car thief?”

“Order came from up top. I guess Bendix got friends. It’s just a single woman lives alone in Park Slope. They say the car is parked in front of the brownstone. All you have to do is ring the bell and slap on some cuffs.”

“You got paper on her?”

“It’ll be waiting for you at the station. And, King…”

“What?” Glad only used my middle name when he wanted to make a point.

“Don’t mess it up. I’ll send you a text with all the details.”

  

The purple Benz was parked in front of her place. It had the right plates.

I looked at the front door, flanked by full-length windows that were swathed in yellow curtains. I remember thinking that was the easiest arrest I’d ever been sent on.

“Yes?” she said, opening the door maybe a minute after I rang.

Her tan eyes seemed to be staring through a fog at me. She had red hair, and the rest, pure Tallulah.

My grandmother likes old movies. When I visit her in the Lower Manhattan retirement home, we watch the old love stories and comedies on TCM.

“Ms. Malcolm?” I said.

“Yes?”

“I’m Detective Oliver. I have a warrant for your arrest.”

“You’re what?”

I took out the leather fold with my shield and ID. These I showed her. She looked, but I’m not sure she registered anything.

“Tremont Bendix claims you stole his car.”

“Oh.” She sighed and shook her head slightly. “Come in, Detective, come in.”

I could have grabbed her right there, put on the restraints while reciting her rights as the Supreme Court detailed them. But this was a soft arrest and the lady was feeling tender, vulnerable. Anyway, Little Exeter Barret had already connected with the captain of the Sea Frog. The shipment of heroin wouldn’t be in for a few more days.

I was a good cop. The kind of officer who had yards of patience and lost his temper only when threatened physically by some suspect. And even then I took no joy in beating him after he’d been subdued and restrained.

  

“Would you like some water?” Nathali Malcolm asked. “The good stuff’s all been packed away.”

The living room was filled with boxes, bulging duffel bags, and piles of books and electronic equipment, along with clusters of potted plants.

“What’s going on here?” I asked, as if reciting a line that had been written for me.

“This is what Tree calls me stealing his car.”

She was wearing a sheer and shimmery green housecoat with nothing underneath. I hadn’t paid close attention at first. When I got there I was still intent on the job.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“For the past three years he’s paid my rent and left me the Benz to use as my car,” she said. Her tan eyes had turned golden under electric light. “Then his wife threatened to divorce him and he told me to get out and bring his car back to his uptown garage.”

“I see.”

“I have to move, Detective…what’s your name again?”

“Joe.”

When Nathali smiled and shifted her shoulders, the structure of our temporary relationship changed from potential handcuffs to definite bedsheets.

  

Nathali was very good in bed. She knew how to kiss and that is the most important thing to me. I need to be kissed and kissed a lot. She intuited this necessity, and we spent the better part of that afternoon and way into the evening discovering new and exciting ways and places to kiss.

She was a victim. I could see that in her eyes, hear it in her deep voice. And the arrest warrant was wrong. A man leaving his car at a girlfriend’s house, a house he paid the rent on, had no expectation of her returning that automobile to his garage.

The next morning I’d make my report…and get back to the docks, where the real crime was happening.

  

When I opened my eyes, Monica Lars, my wife at the time, was already awake and making breakfast for her and Aja-Denise Oliver—our six-year-old daughter. I awoke to the smell of coffee and the memory of Nathali kissing my spine in a place I could not reach. I’d left her when my shift was over. I’d showered and changed at the station and got home in time for a late supper.

Drowsing for the last time in my morning bed, I took in a deep, satisfied breath; then the doorbell rang.

The bedroom of our Queens home was on the second floor, and I wasn’t due in to work until the afternoon. I was naked and very tired; anyway, Monica knew how to answer a door.

I stretched a bit, thinking how much I loved my little family and that a promotion to captain was not an impossibility once I single-handedly busted the largest heroin ring to ever exist within the borders of the greatest city on earth.

“Joe!” Monica yelled from the entrance hall, which was downstairs and all the way at the front of the house.

“What?” I bellowed.

“It’s the police!”

The one thing a cop’s wife never says is, It’s the police. That’s what criminals and victims of criminals say. Sometimes we said it about ourselves while pointing a service revolver at the back of some perp’s head. The mayor called us the police and now and then the newspapers did, but a cop’s wife saying it’s the police would be like my black-skinned grandmother calling out to my ex-sharecropper grandfather that it’s some Negroes at the do’!

I knew there was something wrong and that Monica was trying to warn me. I had no idea that that would be her last loving act in our marriage or that her call heralded the end of any kind of normal life I could expect.

  

After the arrest, my union-supplied lawyer informed me that the prosecutor said there was a small sign posted next to the front door of the Park Slope brownstone. It read, PROPERTY UNDER ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE, so I had no expectation of privacy.

“Ms. Malcolm said that you presented her with the choice of either going to jail or performing fellatio,” Ginger Edwards explained.

I’d been at Rikers for only thirty-nine hours and already four convicts had attacked me. There was a white adhesive bandage holding together the open flesh on my right cheek. I broke the slasher’s nose and knife hand, but the scar he gave me would last longer.

“That’s not true,” I said to Ginger.

“I saw the tape. She wasn’t smiling.”

“What about when she was kissing me?”

“Nothing like that.”

“Then the tape was doctored.”

“Not according to our guy. We’ll look deeper into it, but the way it stands they got you on this.”

Ginger was short with light brown hair. She was slender but gave the impression of physical strength. In the middle of her thirties, she had a plain face that wouldn’t look much different in twenty years.

“What should I do?” I asked the diminutive white woman.

“I’d like to float a plea with no jail time.”

“I’d lose everything.”

“Everything but your freedom.”

“I need to think about this.”

“The prosecutor intends to bring rape charges.”

“Come back day after tomorrow,” I said. “Ask me about a plea then.”

Ginger’s eyes were also light brown. They opened rather wide when she asked, “What happened to your face?”

“Cut it shaving.”

  

I decided to take my chances with the system. In the next two days I got into half a dozen fights. They’d given me a private cell, but on the fourth morning of my incarceration, a crazy-looking fellow named Mink splashed a bucket of urine through my cell door. Mink was gray-eyed with olive skin and kinky blond hair.

The guards didn’t have anyone clean my cell.

It was in that stink that I became a murderer-in-waiting. The next time Mink passed my cell door he leaned forward, pretending to get a whiff of me. He miscalculated by five inches and I got him. Before the clown-man knew it, I had him in the chokehold I’d used against many of his peers. I’d kill him and anybody else who even thought about putting a hand on me. I’d be in prison for the rest of my life, but everybody from Mink’s friends to the warden would know better than to ever get within reach again.

The guards got to us before I could kill the ugly, piss-slinging convict. They had to open the door to pry me loose from my victim. Then the peacekeepers and I had one helluva fight. I never knew what it was like to be pummeled with a truncheon; you don’t feel the blows through the rage, but that night the bone bruises hurt like hell.

Just a few days and I’d switched allegiances from cop to criminal. I thought that was the worst thing…but I was wrong.

  

The next afternoon, when I had grown accustomed to the smell of piss in my clothes, a group of four guards approached my cell wearing head-to-toe riot gear. Someone hit the switch to pop the door open and they rushed me, pinning me to the floor and chaining my wrists and forearms around the waist and to the leg irons on my ankles. Then they dragged me down one hall after another until I was tossed into a room so small that three men wouldn’t have been able to play blackjack at the miniature metal table that was soldered to the floor.

I was chained in a metal chair to the table and the floor. Many a suspect had been tethered before me like that while I interrogated them. I had never really understood how they felt or how anyone could expect someone to have any kind of revelatory conversation while being hog-tied in that manner.

I struggled against my bonds, but the pain from the previous day’s bruises was too great and I had to stop.

When I quit moving, time congealed around me like amber over a mosquito that had taken a small misstep. I could hear my breaths and feel the pulse in my temples. It was in that moment I understood the phrase serving time. I was that servant.

Just as I gave up hope, a tall and, some say, handsome Irishman walked into the room.

“Gladstone,” I uttered. It might have been a psalm.

“You look like shit, your highness.”

“And I smell like piss.”

“I wasn’t gonna mention that,” he said, taking the metal chair across the table from mine. “They called and told me that you put a convict in the hospital along with three guards to keep him company. You broke one dude’s nose and another guy’s jaw.”

The grin on my face was involuntary. I could see my pain reflected in Gladstone’s eyes.

“What’s wrong with you, Joe?”

“It’s like a crazy house in here, Glad. I been beat, cut, and showered in piss. And no one even gives a damn.”

Dispatch Sergeant Gladstone Palmer was lean and mean, six foot one (two inches on me), with a mouth that was always smiling or getting ready to do so. He stared at me and shook his head.

“It’s a shame, boyo,” he said. “They turned on you like a pack of dogs.”

“Who signed the papers on the girl?” I asked.

“It was an e-mail from the chief of Ds, but when I called his office they said that they never sent it.”

“I didn’t force that woman.”

“It would help if your dick wasn’t so big and black. Just looking at her look at it, you could imagine how scared she was.”

“What about the rest of the video?”

“The only camera was in the living room. That’s all it showed.”

I remembered then that she wanted to go up to the bed after the first movement of our tragic opera. It was a plan.

“They framed me, Glad.”

My friend winced and shook his head again.

“They framed me!”

“Look, Joe,” he said after a full thirty seconds of silence. “I’m not saying they didn’t. But we all know what you’re like with the ladies, and then there’s that other thing.”

“What thing?”

“If it’s a frame it’s airtight. From the video to the girl’s testimony, they’ve got you as a predator. You were pulling her by the hair, for chrissakes.”

“She asked me to,” I said, realizing what those words would sound like in front of a jury.

“No audio on the tape. It looks like she was begging you to stop.”

I wanted to say something but couldn’t find the right words.

“But it’s not that that’s the problem,” Gladstone said. “The problem is you got powerful enemies who can reach in here and snuff you out.”

“I need a cigarette,” I replied.

My only friend in the world lit a Marlboro, stood up from his chair, and placed it between my lips. I took in a deep draw, held it, and then blew the smoke from my nostrils.

The smoke felt wonderful in my lungs. I nodded and inhaled again.

I will never forget the chill in that room.

“You got to be cool, Joe,” my dispatcher said. “Don’t be talking about a frame in here, or to your lawyer. I’ll look into this and I’ll talk to the chief of Ds too. I got a contact in his office. I know a couple of people here too. They’re going to take you out of gen pop and put you in solitary confinement. At least that way you’ll be safe until I can work some magic.”

It’s a terrible fall when you find yourself grateful to be put in segregation.

“What about Monica?” I asked. “Can you get her in here to see me?”

“She don’t wanna see you, King. The detective on the case, Jocelyn Bryor, showed her the tape.”

  

My gratitude for getting solitary didn’t last long. The room was dim and small. I had a cot, a hard-edged aluminum toilet, and two and a half paces of floor space. I could touch the metal ceiling by raising my hand six inches above my head. The food sometimes turned my stomach. But because they fed me only once a day I was always ravenous. The fare was reconstituted potatoes and corned beef jerky, boiled green beans and, once a week, a cube of Jell-O.

I wasn’t alone because of the roaches, spiders, and bedbugs. I wasn’t alone because the dozens of men around me, also in isolation, spent hours hollering and crying, sometimes singing and pounding out rhythmic exercises.

One man, who somehow knew my name, would often regale me with insults and threats.

“I’m gonna fuck you in the ass, and when I get outta here I’m’a do the same to your wife an’ little girl.”

I never gave him the satisfaction of a response. Instead I found an iron strut that had somehow come loose from the concrete floor. I worried that little crosspiece until finally, after eight meals, I got it free.

Nine inches of rusted iron with a handle torn from my threadbare blanket. Somebody was going to die behind that shard of Rikers; hopefully it would be the man who threatened my family.

  

Never, not once, did they take me from that cell. In there I craved a newspaper or a book…and a light to read by. Bunged up in solitary confinement, I fell in love with the written word. I wanted novels and articles, handwritten letters, and computer screens filled with the knowledge of the ages.

During those weeks I accomplished a heretofore impossible feat: I gave up smoking. I had no cigarettes and the withdrawal symptoms just blended in with the rest of my suffering.

The other prisoners’ complaints became background noise like elevator music or a song you’d heard so often but never knew the words.

I clutched my cell-made blackjack at all times. Somebody was going to die by my hand—after two weeks it didn’t much matter who.

  

I had eaten eighty-three nauseating meals when, while I was asleep, four riot-geared officers came into my cell and shackled me. I fumbled my blackjack because the sudden light from outside my crypt-like cell blinded and disoriented me.

I yelled at my captors, demanding they tell me where they were taking me, but no one answered. Now and then someone hit me, but those were just love taps compared to what they could have done.

They deposited me in a pretty big room, attaching my bonds to steel eyes that were anchored to the floor. I sat at the butt end of a long table. The fluorescent light burned my eyes and gave me a headache. I wondered if someone was going to come in there and kill me. I knew that this was still America and that people who worked for the law did not execute without the will of the courts, but I was no longer sure of that knowledge. They might execute me because they knew I had become an unrepentant murderer behind their prison walls.

“Mr. Oliver,” a woman said.

I looked in the direction the voice came from and was amazed to see that she had made it into the room without my notice. Behind her stood a hale black man uniformed in a blue that was new to me. I hadn’t heard them come in. Sounds had taken on new meanings in my head, and I couldn’t be sure of what I heard.

I yelled a word at her that I had never used before, or since. The man in the blue suit rushed forward and slapped me…pretty hard.

I strained every muscle trying to break my restraints, but prison chains are designed to be greater than human sinew.

“Mr. Oliver,” the woman said again.

She was fair-skinned, tall, and slender, with salt-and-pepper hair and a pants suit that was muted navy. She wore glasses. The lenses glittered, obscuring her eyes.

“What?”

“I am Underwarden Nichols and I am here to inform you that you are being released.”

“What?”

“As soon as Lieutenant Shale and I leave, the men that brought you here will remove your bonds, take you to a place where you can shower and shave, and then give you clothes and some money. From there on your life is your own.”

“What about—what about the charges?”

“They’ve been dropped.”

“What about my wife, my life?”

“I know nothing about your personal dealings, Mr. Oliver, only that you are to be released.”

  

I saw my face for the first time in months in the polished steel mirror next to the small shower where I cleaned up. Shaving revealed the vicious gaping scar down the right side of my face. They didn’t always offer stitches at Rikers.

  

When I got off the bus at the Port Authority on Forty-Second Street I stopped and looked around, realizing how hollow the word freedom really was.




2.

“Are you thinking about prison again, Daddy?”

She was standing at the door to my office. Five nine and black like the Spanish Madonna, she had my eyes. Though worried about my state of mind, she still smiled. Aja wasn’t a somber adolescent. She was an ex-cheerleader and science student, pretty enough not to need a regular boyfriend and helpful enough that other teenage girls with boyfriends knew she was the better catch.

Her black skirt was too short and the coral blouse too revealing, but I was so grateful to have her in my life again that I picked my battles with great care.

Genre:

  • "Walter Mosley is back with a whole new character to love. . . . As gorgeous a novel as anything he's ever written. And with Joe King Oliver I'm betting, and hoping, he's given us a character we haven't see the last of."—Richard Lipez, Washington Post
  • "Gritty . . . The plot soars . . . Few mystery writers can examine issues of race--how it divides and binds people--as clearly and unflinchingly as Walter Mosley."—Oline Cogdill, Associated Press
  • "Great stuff . . . The vibrant characters and pulsating dialogue are primo Mosley."—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
  • "A wild ride that delivers hard-boiled satisfaction while toying with our prejudices and preconceptions . . . The darker and uglier the story gets, the more Joe King Oliver comes alive. . . . The journey is fun and joyful. . . . A fitting work for a world riddled with dark contradiction."—Steph Cha, Los Angeles Times
  • "Remarkable . . . Walter Mosley's latest novel [is] all the more relevant in Black Lives Matter era."—Lloyd Sachs, Chicago Tribune
  • "Down the River Unto the Sea is a well-constructed crime novel, urgent in its plotting and carefully observed in the behaviors and the voices of its supporting cast. Mosley makes it all look simple, creating in Joe King Oliver another fascinatingly flawed detective brimming with potential."—Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle
  • "This is one of those books that leaves you a little breathless--not only while you're reading, but once the back cover's closed, too. For anyone who loves hard-bitten PI thrillers, reading Down the River unto the Sea couldn't be more right."—Teri Schlichenmeyer, Miami Times
  • "Juicy"—NPR
  • "Rekindles some of the remarkable energy that drove the early Rawlins novels. . . . Mosley writes with great power here about themes that have permeated his work: institutional racism, political corruption, and the ways that both of these issues affect not only society at large but also the inner lives of individual men and women. And he has created a new hero in Joe Oliver with the depth and vulnerability to sustain what readers will hope becomes a new series. . . . It's the perfect moment for Mosley to unveil an exciting new hero and a series set in the present and confronting the issues that drive today's headlines."—Booklist (starred review)
  • "[An] excellent standalone . . . The novel's dedication--to Malcolm, Medgar, and Martin--underlines the difference that one man can make in the fight for justice."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "A heady stew of racial politics and seedy characters that Mosley's fans are sure to eat up."—AARP
  • "It's Mosley's signature style--rough-hewn, rhythmic, and lyrical--that makes you ready and eager for whatever he's serving up. . . . Let the good times roll."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Mosley's poetic descriptions of not only New York City but his character's deepest souls elevate the story to beauty. Although the characters, large and small, are all compelling, in the end it is King's story to tell, as he struggles to decide how much he's willing to risk to get the truth."—Strand Magazine
  • "Mosley's newest standalone has the markings of a classic hard-boiled New York novel... It's also a poignant page-turner whose larger themes--corruption, institutional racism, and the horrors of solitary confinement--speak to some of today's most pressing issues."—Charles Perry, LitHub
  • "[An] engaging standalone . . . Mosley fans will welcome another imaginative page-turning from a mystery grand master."—Library Journal

On Sale
Feb 20, 2018
Page Count
336 pages
Publisher
Mulholland Books
ISBN-13
9780316509657

Walter Mosley

About the Author

WALTER MOSLEY is one of America’s most celebrated writers. He was given the National Book Award’s 2020 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, named a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America and honored with the Anisfield-Wolf Award, a Grammy, a PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award, the Robert Kirsch Award, numerous Edgars and several NAACP Image Awards. His work is translated into 25 languages.  He has published fiction and nonfiction in The New Yorker, Playboy, and The Nation. As an executive producer, he adapted his novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, for AppleTV+ and serves as a writer and executive producer for FX’s “Snowfall.” 

Learn more about this author