Table of Contents
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ALSO BY WALTER MOSLEY
EASY RAWLINS MYSTERIES
Six Easy Pieces
Bad Boy Brawly Brown
A Little Yellow Dog
A Red Death
Devil in a Blue Dress
The Tempest Tales
Killing Johnny Fry
The Man in My Basement
Fear of the Dark
Walkin’ the Dog
The Right Mistake
This Year You Write Your Novel
What Next: A Memoir Toward
Life Out of Context
Workin’ on the Chain Gang
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The long fall / Walter Mosley.
eISBN : 978-1-101-01137-9
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
I’m sorry, Mr. um? . . .” the skinny receptionist said.
Her baby-blue-on-white nameplate merely read JULIET.
She had short blond hair that was longer in the front than in the back and wore a violet T-shirt that I was sure would expose a pierced navel if she were to stand up. Behind her was a mostly open-air-boutique-like office space with ten or twelve brightly colored plastic desks that were interspersed by big, leafy, green plants. The eastern wall, to my right, was a series of ceiling-to-floor segmented windowpanes that were not intended to open.
All the secretaries and gofers that worked for Berg, Lewis & Takayama were young and pretty, regardless of their gender. All except one.
There was a chubby woman who sat in a far corner to the left, under an exit sign. She had bad skin and a utilitarian fashion sense. She was looking down, working hard. I immediately identified with her.
I imagined sitting in that corner, hating everyone else in the room.
“Mr. Brown isn’t in?” I asked, ignoring Juliet’s request for a name.
“He can’t be disturbed.”
“Couldn’t you just give him a note from me?”
Juliet, who hadn’t smiled once, not even when I first walked in, actually sneered, looking at me as if I were a city trash collector walking right from my garbage truck into the White House and asking for an audience with the president.
I was wearing a suit and tie. Maybe my shoe leather was dull, but there weren’t any scuffs. There were no spots on my navy lapels, but, like that woman in the corner, I was obviously out of my depth: a vacuum-cleaner salesman among high-paid lawyers, a hausfrau thrown in with a bevy of Playboy bunnies.
“What is your business with Mr. Brown?” the snotty child asked.
“He gives financial advice, right?”
She almost answered but then decided it was beneath her.
“I’m a friend of a friend of his,” I said. “Jumper told me that Roger might show me what to do with my money.”
Juliet was getting bored. She took in a deep breath, letting her head tilt to the side as she exhaled.
It wasn’t my skin color that bothered her. People on Madison Avenue didn’t mind dark skins in 2008. This woman might have considered voting for Obama, if she voted. She might have flirted with a rap star at some chic nightclub that only served imported champagne and caviar.
Roger Brown was black. So were two of the denizens of the airy workspace. No. Juliet didn’t like me because of my big calloused hands and no-frills suit. She didn’t like me because I was two inches shorter and forty pounds heavier than a man should be.
“If I leave you my card, will you make sure that he gets it?”
After another sigh she held out a hand, palm up.
My fat red-brown wallet was older than the child, no doubt. I opened it and rooted among the fake business cards that were the hallmark of my trade. I decided on one that I hadn’t brought out since a woman I hardly knew had died at my feet.
Van Der Zee Domestics
and In-home Service Aides
I went down on one knee, taking a pen from the red plastic desktop.
“Excuse me,” Juliet said in protest.
I scrawled for Roger (aka B-Brain) Brown across the bottom. Beneath that I added a number from a lost, or maybe stolen, cell phone that I had purchased specifically for this job. I stood up easily, without grunting, because, unknown to Juliet, most of my extra weight was muscle. I handed her the card and she took it gingerly by a corner.
“Is that all?” she said.
The chubby woman in the corner looked up at just that moment. I grinned at her and waved. She returned the gesture with a slightly puzzled smile.
“Thank you for your time,” I said, pretending I was talking to the woman under the exit sign. “This means a lot to me.”
Juliet sucked a tooth and pulled in her chin.
I remember a time when only black women did that.
STOMPING DOWN THE two flights to the street, I was thinking about when I would have pushed harder to get past that girl. All I had to do was get a look at Roger Brown. I had never even seen a photograph of the man but I knew he was black and in his thirties with a small crescent scar under his right eye. All I needed was one look.
At an earlier point in my career I would have probably done something extreme to achieve that simple goal. I might have raised my voice and demanded to see her supervisor, or just walked past her, looking into offices until Roger Brown showed his face, or not. I could have pulled the fire alarm in the hallway or even put a smoke bomb in a trash can. But those days were pretty much over for me. I hadn’t given up on being a private detective; that was all I knew. I still took incriminating photographs and located people who didn’t necessarily want to be found. I exposed frauds and cheats without feeling much guilt.
In other words, I still plied my trade but now I worried about things.
In the years before, I had no problem bringing people down, even framing them with false evidence if that’s what the client paid for. I didn’t mind sending an innocent man, or woman, to prison because I didn’t believe in innocence—and virtue didn’t pay the bills. That was before my past caught up with me and died, spitting blood and curses on the rug.
I STILL HAD a family that looked to me for their sustenance. My wife didn’t love me and two out of three grown and nearly grown children were not of my blood. But none of that mattered. I had a job to do, and more than one debt to pay.
So I had contracted to find four men. I’d already located three of them. One was dead, one in prison, and the third was awaiting trial. Of the four, only Roger Brown, if this was indeed the Roger Brown I was looking for, had made some kind of life for himself, the kind of life where a pretty young white girl protected his privacy and called him Mister in an office of first names.
Maybe I went easy on Juliet because I was worried about Roger. The job was presented as a straightforward case, with no criminal prosecution involved. But if you find three bad apples, you know there’s got to be something rotten somewhere.
I walked down Madison in the bright summer sunshine, hoping that this Roger wasn’t the Roger I was looking for; and even if he was, I would have been happy if he never called.
From the Sixties on the East Side of Manhattan I took a yellow cab down to Thirty-fourth Street, a little west of Penn Station. Gordo’s Gym took up the entire fifth floor of a dirty brick building that was built sometime before Joe Louis knocked out the Cinderella Man. At noon on a Wednesday the ring was empty, as most of Gordo’s hopefuls were out plying day jobs to pay for their protein and locker space.
I set myself up in the corner where a heavy bag hung. That particular piece of real estate was next to a big window that was painted shut and so murky that you couldn’t see a thing through it. But I didn’t go to Gordo’s Gym three days a week for the view or the smell of men’s sweat, or for the company, for that matter.
I stripped down right there, put on my thick leather gloves (which were also older than Juliet), and started in on a rhythm of violence that kept up my balance in the rotted infrastructure of my city and my life.
Throwing a punch is the yang of a boxer’s life. The yin is being able to avoid getting hit. I’m pretty good at the yang part. Everybody knows but few can exploit the fact that a good punch comes first from the foot, moves in circular motion around the hips, and only then connects with the arm, fist, and if you’re lucky, your opponent’s jaw or rib cage. Fighting therefore is like the dance of a mighty Scot stamping and swinging in a dewy Highland morning.
For nearly twenty minutes I did my barbarian dance, punishing the big bag, allowing it to swing forward and hit me in the chest now and again. Since I’d given up smoking my wind was getting longer.
I needed anaerobic exercise to vent my anger.
I hated Roger Brown and Juliet along with so many things I had done over the years. At one time I had been able to live with myself because I could say that I only set up people who were already crooked, guilty of something—usually something bad—but not any longer.
I hit that bag with dozens of deadly combinations but in the end I was the one who was defeated, crouched over with my gloves on my knees.
“Not half bad,” a man said, his voice raspy and familiar.
“Hey, Gordo.” I didn’t raise my head because I didn’t have the strength.
“You still know how to give it yer all when you decide to give.”
“And even with that I come up short nine times out of ten.”
“You shoulda been a boxer,” one of New York’s unsung master trainers said to me.
“I liked late nights and cheap wine too much.”
“Beard like you got belongs in the ring.”
I’m a clean-shaven guy. Gordo was complimenting the iron in my jaw.
“Hit me enough,” I said, “and I’d go down like all the rest.”
“You coulda cleaned the clock of every light heavy in 1989.”
“Somebody woulda beat me.”
“That somebody was you,” Gordo said with emphasis. “You hung back when you coulda stood tall.”
“Lucky for the world that I’m a short man in inches and stature.”
I straightened up and turned to face my best friend and toughest critic.
Gordo was a short guy too, somewhere between seventy-five and eighty-eight. He was black by American racial terminology but in actuality he was more the color of untanned leather informed by a lifetime’s worth of calluses, hard knocks, and hollering. The blood had risen to his face so often that his mug had darkened into a kind of permanent rage-color.
I was still breathing hard. After all, I’m past fifty.
“Why you wanna put yourself down like that, LT?” the veteran trainer said. “You coulda been sumpin’.”
He wouldn’t have been talking to me if any of his young prospects were in the gym. Gordo hovered over his young boxers like a mama crocodile over her brood.
I slumped down on the floor, letting my wet T-shirt slap against the wall.
“That’s just not me, G. I never could take any kinda order or regimen.”
“You know how to hit that bag three times a week.”
“Is that enough?”
The sour-faced little guy frowned and shook his head, as much in disgust as in answer to my question. He turned away and limped toward his office on the other side of the big, low-ceilinged room.
After five minutes or so I made it back to my feet. I pawed the bag three or four times before my knees and hips got into it. After a minute had passed I was in a kind of frenzy. Before, I had just been angry, now I was desperate.
I think I went to Gordo’s just so that he could kick me in the ass. The foundation of our friendship was the simple fact that he never held back. I was a failure because I wasn’t a boxer—at least in his eyes. He never cared if his boys lost, only if they didn’t try.
I pounded that bag with everything I had. The sweat was streaming down my face and back and thighs. I felt lighter and lighter, stronger and stronger. For a moment there I was throwing punches like a real contender in a title match; the underdog who intended to prove the oddsmakers wrong. Everything fell into place and I wasn’t anything but ready.
And then, in an instant, the feeling slipped away. My legs gave out and I crumpled to the floor. All that I had was spent.
Gordo leaned back in his office chair and glanced out the door in my direction. He saw me lying there and leaned forward again.
Ten minutes later I got to my feet.
Twenty minutes after that I’d showered and gotten dressed. A few guys were in the gym by then. Not boxers but office workers who wanted to feel what it was like to work out next to real athletes.
I was headed for the stairs when Gordo called out to me.
The visitor’s chair in his matchbox office was a boxing stool. I squatted down on that and took a deep breath.
“What’s wrong with you, kid?”
“It’s nuthin’, G. Not a thing.”
“Naw, uh-uh,” the man who knew me as well as anyone said. “For over a year you been comin’ in here hittin’ that bag hard enough and long enough to give a young man cardiac arrest. You wasn’t all that friendly before but now even the smart-asses around here leave you alone. Don’t tell me it’s nuthin’. Uh-uh. It’s sumpin’ and it’s gettin’ worse.”
“I got it under control,” I said.
“Talk to me, Leonid.” Gordo never used my given name. He called me Kid or LT or McGill in everyday banter. But there was no humor in him right then.
“You once told me that you didn’t want to know about what I did to make a living,” I said in a last-ditch attempt to stave him off.
The old man grinned and tapped his forehead with the four fingers of his left hand.
“I got more dirty secrets up here than a slot machine got nickels,” he said. “I didn’t wanna know about your business ’cause I knew that you couldn’t talk about it an’ still come around.”
In order to be a good trainer you had to be a teacher, a counselor, a psychologist, and a priest. In order to be a great trainer—add to that list, an irrefutable liar.
“You can do it, kid,” the trainer says when his fighter is down on points with his good eye swollen shut.
“He’s gettin’ tired. It’s time to pour it on,” the trainer says when the opponent is grinning and bouncing on his toes in the opposite corner.
Gordo never wanted to hear about my shady doings before. But before ceased to exist and all we had was now.
But I couldn’t tell him the truth. I mean, how could I confess that after twenty years a young woman had found out that I’d framed her father, sending him to prison and ultimately to his death? His daughter called herself Karma, and she framed me for her own murder using seduction and a hired assassin. I killed the killer but still the young woman, Karmen Brown, died in my arms cursing me with spittle and blood on her lips.
Karmen’s last breath was a curse for me.
“Let’s just say that I realized that I’ve done some things wrong,” I said. “I’m tryin’ to backtrack now. Tryin’ to make right what I can.”
Gordo was studying me, giving away nothing of his own thoughts.
“I got a kid tells me that he can be a middleweight,” he said at last. “Problem is he thinks he’s an artist instead of a worker. Comes in here and batters around some of the rejects and thinks that he’s Marvin Hagler or somethin’.”
“Yeah? What’s his name?”
“Punterelle, Jimmy Punterelle. Italian kid. He’ll be in here the next three days. If I put some fifty-year-old warhorse in front of him and point he’ll put on a shit-eatin’ grin and go to town.”
I pretended to consider these words for a moment or two and then said, “Okay.”
It was Gordo’s brief smile that eased my sadness, somewhat. He was my de facto confessor, and Jimmy Punterelle was going to be my Hail Mary.
I checked my illegal cell phone for messages but Roger Brown hadn’t called. So when I was out on the street again I felt lighter, easier. Maybe everything would be okay. It didn’t matter if my client only found out about three lowlifes. It didn’t matter at all.