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Trouble Is What I Do
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Leonid McGill's spent a lifetime building up his reputation in the New York investigative scene. His seemingly infallible instinct and inside knowledge of the crime world make him the ideal man to help when Phillip Worry comes knocking.
Phillip "Catfish" Worry is a 92-year-old Mississippi bluesman who needs Leonid's help with a simple task: deliver a letter revealing the black lineage of a wealthy heiress and her corrupt father. Unsurprisingly, the opportunity to do a simple favor while shocking the prevailing elite is too much for Leonid to resist.
But when a famed and feared assassin puts a hit on Catfish, Leonid has no choice but to confront the ghost of his own felonious past. Working to protect his client and his own family, Leonid must reach the heiress on the eve of her wedding before her powerful father kills those who hold their family's secret.
Joined by a team of young and tough aspiring investigators, Leonid must gain the trust of wary socialites, outsmart vengeful thugs, and, above all, serve the truth — no matter the cost.
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“Mr. McGill?” Mardi Bitterman said over the intercom that connects her desk at the front of our office complex to mine at the far end.
I lease a very large office space, but as of yet only Mardi and sometimes my son Twill work there with me. She’s the detective agency’s secretary-receptionist and also the human barometer that helps maintain my moral bearings in a world where sin is reflex and kindness a quick death. Mardi has firsthand experience with the evil that men visit upon children and absolutely no fear of losing her own life or witnessing the death of someone who deserves it. In my opinion she’s a saint; in hers, I and my son are saviors.
Twill is another thing altogether. Though he also understands the rising tide of depravity and violence, my son is like a futuristic fish in those waters, a sleek metallic shark evolved beyond other species. He is the youngest of the three children who call me father. My wife claims that he’s mine, but I know that only the eldest boy, Dimitri, is of my blood. Not that I mind. I love them all.
“Yes, Mardi?” I said into the speaker box.
“There are people here to see you,” she said softly. “Shall I bring them back?”
We had a simplistic code system. The first sentence was plain fact, the second phrase for me to decipher. For instance: If she asked if these people had an appointment, I’d know that it was an official visitation, most likely the police. If she asked, “Should I make an appointment?” I’d know that they might be dangerous and I should look through the video monitor that watched over her desk. From there, I could assess any threat.
But the offer to walk them back meant that these potential clients were all right and I should treat them as such.
I took the snub-nosed .38 from my pencil drawer and pocketed it. Mardi’s intuition of human nature and potential was better than mine—but she wasn’t infallible.
Opening the door to my office, I looked down the triple-wide hallway that was flanked by six desks on either side. One day I’d run a real detective agency—I had the seats. But that morning, there was only Twill standing midway down the hall at his laptop podium. He wore dark navy pants and a sky-blue collarless jacket. His shirt was pink.
Long and handsome, slender and strong, my black-skinned eighteen-year-old son was studying the computer screen, looking for blowback on one of his misadventures, material for his next scam, or maybe even one of the cases I’d asked him to peruse.
Twill noticed me standing sentry and turned just in time to see pale-skinned and slight Mardi coming through the inner door that connected to her receptionist’s area. Immediately in her wake came a tall young man carrying a battered guitar case. He was a few years older than Twill. Behind the youth, a senior citizen trundled lightly. The young man had chocolate-brown skin. His elder was what they called redbone back in the day. The expression had lately come back into usage. It described a light-skinned Negro. They both wore new blue jeans, checkered blue work shirts, and hard leather shoes that had counted more miles than a Fitbit could imagine.
The older gentleman carried a rather incongruous aluminum briefcase; this, I decided, contained the reason for their impromptu visit. Maybe they were sharecroppers on holiday, decked out in their party clothes and laden with the weight of some legal entanglement that required a big-city specialist who was brown of skin and ready to rumble.
As the trio passed, Twill moved out into the aisle, no doubt to make sure that no trouble accompanied the men. Mardi placed a hand on my son-protector’s arm, whispered a word or two, and he stood back.
The older man, a few inches taller than my five foot five and five-eighths inches, had taken the lead. He stopped in front of me. I’d almost hit sixty on my last birthday. My father had twenty years on that. The man facing me was hale and healthy, but he could have been my father’s father—if he started young.
I held out a hand and said, “Leonid McGill.”
He reached out and drawled, “I were born Philip Worry, but they been callin’ me Catfish since 1941. This here is my great-great-grandson Lamont Richards.”
“Pleased to meet you,” the younger obliged.
The descendant and I shook hands. He was about six foot and my walking-around weight, which is 182 pounds. I’m a light heavyweight in pounds and muscle, intentions and training.
“Pleased to meet you, Lamont, Catfish. Why don’t you two come on in and take a seat.” Mardi was turning to go back to her post when I added, “You too, Mardi. I’d like you to take notes.”
The child of misery grinned, following the men into the office.
I had to move boxes of files off a couple of chairs to get everybody seated. I like writing down how I solve, resolve, or fail at the jobs I’ve taken on. And writing by hand I seem to remember better than when entering data on a computer screen.
As the men and Mardi claimed blue visitors’ chairs, I lowered into my swivel seat. Through the window behind me, there on the seventy-second floor of the Tesla Building, you could see all the way to Wall Street and the fading memory of the Twin Towers.
“You got a nice office here, Mr. McGill,” Catfish complimented. His left eye was dead and fogged over. Oddly, this infirmity gave off an air of inner ecstasy. There was a sleek scar under the blind eye; maybe that wound had something to do with its demise.
“You got a good grip too,” he added. “You ever work on a farm?”
“My father’s people were sharecroppers. Me—I get it from the boxing gym.”
“You box?” the great-great-grandson asked.
“Not professionally. Not anymore. But I can throw haymakers when I have to. You got a strong hand too, Lamont.”
“I string tennis rackets for white people at the country club an’ play guitar behind C-Paw when I can.”
Mardi had taken up the notebook and pencil kept next to the in-box. She jotted our first words down.
“What can I do for you men?” I asked.
“I hear you the kind’a brothah-man been on both sides’a the line,” Catfish offered.
“Who told you that?”
A chill ran from the back of my neck down through my left foot.
“Is this Pinky somehow related to a man named Ernie Eckles?”
“She birthed him.”
My mind ranged back over a decade earlier. Ernie Eckles was a unique individual in my experience, and I have met all kinds of men and women, from tragic billionaires to serial killers swathed in the light of innocence.
Ernie was known in certain circles as the Mississippi Assassin—and that was not the name of a professional wrestler. He was of average height and normal build, with medium-brown skin. He was as country as a bale of cotton on an unwilling child’s back. His price when I knew him was seven thousand seven hundred and forty-eight dollars to kill anyone, anywhere in North America. This price covered all of Ernie’s expenses, from the bus ticket down to the cost of three bullets.
Ernie could hide naked in a snowstorm or talk a blushing bride out of her virginity on her wedding day—at least that’s how the stories have it. He never missed, never failed—that much was fact. If he had your name scribbled on the back of his bus ticket, you were as good as dead.
Along the way, the Mississippi Assassin had been hired to kill a young Brooklynite named Patrice Sandoval. Sandoval had been fingered as the mastermind of the hijacking of six tons of marijuana that had been grown, processed, and packaged by Merle Underman, a son of Texas so far back that his ancestors lived there when that state was a sovereign nation.
Eckles had been engaged on a Monday evening, so, after consulting a Greyhound bus schedule, I put him at Port Authority by Wednesday—late afternoon. He had twenty-four hours to shoot Mr. Sandoval three times and get back on a bus home. That’s how it would have happened, except for the fact that the victim of the heist, Mr. Underman, was a boastful sort. He bragged to his lieutenant, Rexford Brothers, that Sandoval had an unscheduled meeting with the reaper called Eckles. Even that should have been fine, but Merle didn’t know that Brothers, working through a modern-day highwayman named Shorty Reeves, was the one behind the hijacking. Shorty took the truck down with a crew of two. When Shorty was told by Rexford that the blame would fall on Sandoval, the self-styled desperado told his accomplices that they were safe and could start spending their ill-gotten gains.
One of the crew, Phil Thomas, had recently made the acquaintance of a civilian named Minda Myles. Minda was a very religious young woman who wanted to save her lover’s soul. She implored him to warn Sandoval, saving the innocent man’s life and Phil’s afterlife.
Beatrice Fitz, Phil’s mom, was a bookie I knew. Phil went to her, and she called me. I owed Beatrice a favor, and so, without proper study, I agreed to take the job.
I’d never heard of Eckles, but I had friends who had. Once I knew what I was up against, I regretted saying yes to Bea, but even back then, when I was still mostly a crook, I had pride in my work and was known as a man of my word.
Beatrice gave me a general lowdown on Sandoval. I made a few phone calls, then took the F train to Coney Island and dropped by a café frequented by a certain element of drug dealer.
There was a young man wearing a flower-patterned shirt and yellow sunglasses sitting at a round table toward the center of the dining room. I knew from Beatrice’s description that this was Patrice Sandoval. He had fair skin and hair the color of finished maple wood. His eyes were a light color I couldn’t immediately identify through the yellow lenses.
He sat there comfortably watching me approach. There were six or seven other men standing or sitting and a waitress who sat face-out from the counter, watching me. They were all white and very aware that I was not. This didn’t bother me much. I’d sent a message through a friend of mine that I, Timothy Lothar, was interested in buying one hundred pounds of primo ganja. Patrice was a dope dealer. That’s why he was so easy to finger for the Underman heist.
“Mr. Sandoval,” I said upon reaching his table.
“Is that your real name?”
“It is today,” I replied, pulling out a chair.
“I hear from Fred Fox that you want a serious taste.”
“That’s nothing compared to what you’ll want after hearing me out, Patrice.”
The handsome young drug dealer’s face took on a serious cast. He must have made a gesture of some sort, because two guys at a table across from us looked up and seemed ready for action.
I’m a pretty good scrapper and I had gone armed to that meeting, but that’s not why I wasn’t nervous. The truth is, if a man in my line of work got nervous, he’d die of a heart attack before anyone got the chance to cave in his skull.
“I don’t get what you mean,” Patrice Sandoval said, his affable smile now packed away.
“Somebody recently whispered a name in my ear,” I said. “That name is Ernie Eckles.”
“That s’posed to mean something to me?” Patrice’s bland expression would have represented the soul of innocence if he were not a drug dealer in a den of thieves.
“He works out of Mississippi,” I said. “Right now he’s on a job for a guy named Underman. He’s from Dallas–Fort Worth.”
Patrice sat back in his chair.
The two thugs stood up. This made me smile. I was a younger man then, always ready for a good tussle. They rolled up on us, looking tough. One was fat and half a foot taller than I. The other was thin and six inches taller than his fat friend.
“What’s your name?” the shorter man asked me.
“Hey, True,” Patrice said, “we know a guy named Underman from Texas?”
“Why?” the fat man named for veracity asked.
“How about a guy named Ernie Eckles?”
True had a ruddy complexion, but his face blanched a bit when he heard that name spoken aloud.
“You come on with me, Patty,” he said. And to me: “You wait here.”
I had nowhere to be. The tall, skinny man and a few of his friends came to stand around and block my exit—if I suddenly lost nerve and ran.
“Excuse me, miss,” I called to the waitress.
“Yeah?” She was entering her forties and lovely at that age. Brown hair dyed blond and eyes the color of blue steel. I believed that she was probably the kind of woman to stand by you when the chips were down.
Funny the things one pays attention to when death is hovering nearby.
“Can I get a cup of coffee?” I asked her.
“Oh. Sure. Milk and sugar?”
“Black,” I said, and she gave me a half smile that went deeper than a laugh.
“You better have some sugar,” a short thug remarked. He had skin the color of ivory from a fresh poacher’s kill and wore a square-cut blue shirt with lacquer-brown pants.
“Why’s that?” I asked, as close to ingenuous as I could manage.
The waitress had moved behind the counter to fill my order.
“Because you should have something sweet for your last meal,” the thug replied.
“I kill you first,” I stated.
He moved his shoulder in such a way that alarmed the tall, skinny guy enough that he put a hand on the short man’s shoulder.
The waitress walked up then with a big white mug filled with steaming black coffee.
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
Those blue eyes shone like headlights upon the perpetual darkness of her life.
“You don’t give a shit, do you, mister?”
“I tried to but nobody seems to want it.”
She laughed and said, “Sheila. Sheila Normandy.”
“Leonid McGill. I’m in the book.”
At that moment the fat man called True returned. Behind him, about ten feet away at the counter, stood Patrice.
“Who the fuck are you, brother?” True asked. He was standing over me.
“Have a seat,” I offered.
He gave me a hard stare but then relented. He took the chair that Patrice had abandoned. Putting both elbows on the table, True laced his fat fingers under tented thumbs.
“Okay,” he said. “Now what’s this shit about Ernie Eckles?”
“Somebody decided that your boy Patrice looked good for the theft of six tons of product from Underman. This somebody told Underman that Patrice was the mastermind. Underman told Eckles.”
True was not happy. His mouth twisted from a foul taste.
“When?” he asked.
“When did he tell Ernie? Monday afternoon, as close as I can figure.”
“He’ll be on him tonight.”
“What’s that got to do with you?” True asked.
“I’ve been retained by an anonymous client to protect Patrice if I can.”
“Paid by who?”
“I said retained, not paid. And anonymous means I don’t say.”
True would have liked to stomp me with the hardest shoes in his closet. He’d’ve been happy to see me in the ground. That’s the kind of response imminent death has on men who live by intimidation.
We studied each other’s eyes until the fat man accepted the fact that he was in over his depth.
“You know Eckles?”
“I know what they say he can do.”
“And you still took the job?”
“You should hear what they say about me.”
- "This gifted raconteur of the African American experience has produced an absorbing noir beauty of a tale."—Richard Lipez, The Washington Post
- "A slim volume with the feel of a fable and the concision of a blues scale. Minor characters have marvelous names-Archibald Lawless, Dido Kazz, Mozelle Tot-and move with ageless grace. 'I felt a kinship to all of them,' Leonid thinks. So do we."—Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal
- "Good to have you back, Leonid."—John Timpane, Philadelphia Inquirer
- "The charms of this short novel lie in Mosley's memorable characters, his portrayal of the world McGill inhabits and the author's uniquely lyrical writing style."—Bruce DeSilva, Associated Press
- "A tight and quietly subversive tale about family, class, privilege, and race (plus honor, of all things) that packs a hard tight punch. You won't see it coming, but you'll know when it lands."—Kevin Burton Smith, Mystery Scene Magazine
- "[Mosley] wanders through a few underworlds of the New York City crime category, always a treat for readers, and one that packs a moral punch. Mosley is, quite simply, an icon of detective fiction, and with each new novel in the McGill series he's making New York noir his own just as he did with Los Angeles."—LitHub
- "Spieled in a powerful, streamlined voice, this wrenching American noir will stick with readers long after the final page."—Booklist
- "Watching McGill coolly deploy the physical and intellectual skills he'd acquired in his previous life as an underworld "fixer" provides the principal pleasure of this installment, along with Mosley's own way of making prose sound like a tender, funny blues ballad...Mosley delivers enough good stuff to let you know a master's at work."—Kirkus
- On Sale
- Feb 25, 2020
- Page Count
- 176 pages
- Mulholland Books