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Excerpt: Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

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“Juju assassins, alternate history, a gritty New York crime story…in a word: awesome.” —N.K. Jemisin, New York Times bestselling author of The Fifth Season

The dangerous magic of The Night Circus meets the powerful historical exploration of The Underground Railroad in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s timely and unsettling novel, set against the darkly glamorous backdrop of New York City, where an assassin falls in love and tries to change her fate at the dawn of World War II.

Amid the whir of city life, a young woman from Harlem is drawn into the glittering underworld of Manhattan, where she’s hired to use her knives to strike fear among its most dangerous denizens.

Ten years later, Phyllis LeBlanc has given up everything—not just her own past, and Dev, the man she loved, but even her own dreams.

Still, the ghosts from her past are always by her side—and history has appeared on her doorstep to threaten the people she keeps in her heart. And so Phyllis will have to make a harrowing choice, before it’s too late—is there ever enough blood in the world to wash clean generations of injustice?

Trouble the Saints is a dazzling, daring novel—a magical love story, a compelling exposure of racial fault lines—and an altogether brilliant and deeply American saga.

Please enjoy this excerpt of Trouble the Saints, available 7/21/2020.


2

After two more cigarettes and some burnt coffee from the percolator that an old lover had left behind and I always meant to replace, I called Gloria.

“I thought I could take Sonny and Ida to the park for a few hours. Give you a break. Is Tom around?” Tom didn’t like me, though he tolerated me for Gloria’s sake.

“There’s a new ship down at the yards so I’ve hardly seen him for the last week. You all right, honey?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Cut. I just haven’t seen my favorite niece and nephew in ages.”

“And your favorite sister?”

I smiled and unspooled the phone cord from my fingers. “You betcha.”

“Well, if you got nothing better to do, you know those kids would love to see you.”

So I put on my yellow day-dress, the one that looked all right but wouldn’t give my old neighbors cause to think I’d got uppity from my years downtown, and headed out.

Outside, I checked for Red Man, but I didn’t see him. My apartment building was in the middle of East 63rd Street—not an office block—and this late in the morning I could see everyone on the sidewalk and the street easy and clear. Not yet, I thought, relieved, and headed to Lexington. I sat down at the counter of my local milk bar to eat four thick slices of challah still warm from the ovens in back, soft with butter. Late nights, they kept the borscht on the stove and I liked to eat it, thick and beet-red, with a heel of stale challah in those still hours before sunrise, when my hands smelled like French-milled soap and hard water; like lavender and someone else’s blood.

There were a few soldier boys on the A train, already in uniform, duffels on the seats and bodies in energetic motion, pacing the car and swinging from straps when the wheels struck up sparks against blind curves. They were black, young and handsome. Called up, I guessed, in Roosevelt’s peacetime draft, though they didn’t seem unhappy about the prospect of killing themselves on the other side of the world. One of them smiled shyly at me just before the City College station and asked if I’d like to get a drink with him and his friends before they got their deployment orders.

“We’re only here for a week, ma’am,” he said. “My friends and I are up for a swell time.”

He had fine, even teeth with a little gap between the front two that reminded me of my brother Roger, dead almost fifteen years.

I wondered how I looked to him, reading alone on that car, that he would invite me to share one of his last nights before heading to war.

“Where you gonna go?” I asked, wishing for a useless moment that I were young enough to have a good time with them, because then I’d be young enough to have never met Victor.

“Minton’s,” he said, quick. “And there’s this place my buddy Jerry knows, some mobbed-up joint, with a bird name, down in the Village . . . Jerry, what’s that club called, the one with the snake dance?”

“Pelican,” his buddy said, swinging over to me on the straps, all ease and good looks and unconsidered strength. “Ain’t segregated, and they got the best bebop in the city after Minton’s according to my uncle Joe, who plays tenor sax at the Savoy, so he oughta know. But this here cat, you know, he hears ‘snake dance,’ and all he can see is titties—uh, sorry.”

“Jesus, Jerry,” my admirer muttered, and elbowed his friend hard in the ribs.

The third recruit poked his head between the two of them and smiled. “Hello, miss,” he said. “What these two fools trying to say is, we’d be real happy to see you at the Pelican if you’d like to find us there.”

“What’d you sweet boys want with an old lady like me?” I said.

“Old lady!” Jerry crowed, and the peacemaker kissed my hand while my first admirer just shook his head and said, “I wouldn’t mind you for my old lady.” It was silly, and I was a fool to get my head turned by half of what they said, but I wasn’t on this train with a knife in my bag because I was wise, or good, or did what was best for me. So I told those fellas I might just see them at the Pelican that night and waved goodbye when they got off.

I was still smiling when I got to Gloria’s, and she froze with her hand on the knob. The fissures radiating from her downturned mouth traced a map that I remembered from our mother’s face, and probably for the same reasons. Gloria, the golden eldest, had never given our mother the grief that poor Roger and I had. I wondered if Gloria even recognized the ghost that stared back from her mirror, late nights.

“Phyllis,” she said, with heavy meaning.

“I can’t be happy?”

She rubbed her neck. “Depends on what you’re happy about.”

“Nothing bad, Glory. For heaven’s sake. You gonna let me in or should I go back home?”

To Gloria—and Dev—my seven months would be a drop of virtue in an ocean of sin, but I’d already started to feel the quiver of something different, something old but newly growing. I felt it in my hands when I held my knives, those old hurting things, which gave one kind of power and stole another away. I waited for the day the two of them would see the change in me too, but in their eyes I was still the same old girl, Victor’s aging knife.

“Come in, baby,” Gloria said, and embraced me. We couldn’t save Roger, but Gloria had saved me a dozen times over. Not enough for her peace of mind, I knew that, but enough for me to feel the debt, which was love, for the rest of my life.

Sonny and Ida were in the kitchen, Sonny running scales on his clarinet and Ida practicing a dance I was afraid might be a jitterbug. She stopped as soon as she saw me and ran straight into my open arms.

“Aunt Pea!” she said, “Mommy told us you’d take us to see the bear!”

“Bear?” I said to Gloria, over Ida’s shoulder.

Gloria shrugged. “The Central Park Zoo. I told them you might not have the time—”

“Definitely the bear,” I said, and put Ida down. “And the merrygo-round and ice cream, too.”

This roused Sonny from his meditation of escalating flats and we all headed down the stairs and onto the street, which shimmered with the sticky heat of late July. Mrs. Montgomery was sitting on the stoop, playing gin with her sister, Miss Reynolds—who always insisted on being called “Miss” no matter how many gray hairs she pushed under that church hat on Sundays, because she never married, and she wasn’t ever gonna be anyone’s missus. They tutted when they saw me and carried on for a while about how long it had been since I’d shown my face around these parts.

“But you’re looking good, child,” pronounced Mrs. Montgomery, after I had duly begged their pardon for forgetting to visit. “That downtown life still treating you all right?”

I fiddled with the hem of my skirt. I knew what they were asking. Ida kept quiet around her elders—Gloria wouldn’t have anyone calling her children ill-mannered—but she was squeezing my hand to say that she wanted to go already and didn’t care about what these aunties were going on about. Sonny, though, Sonny’s chin twitched and he held the rest of him very still.

“Oh, it’s all right, Mrs. Montgomery. Enough to live on,” I said, as though she’d just been asking about money.

“Well, at least you come back sometimes. I remember when you were just a girl, collecting all the numbers for the building—when I hit that time I remember you came running to tell me before anyone else had seen the mutuels! That boy we have now, he’s little Ronnie’s kid, Ronnie from Holiness—”

At this, Miss Reynolds interjected in a sotto voce that the whole block could hear, “He’s become Mohammedan now, Lord knows what we’re coming to—”

Mrs. Montgomery, who had lived with her sister all their lives, just kept going: “The kid’s all right, but he isn’t as fast as you were, Phyllis. Takes his good time at Walker’s bar before he bothers to come around here for the payouts.”

“You ran numbers, Aunt Pea?” Sonny said, suddenly.

The sisters stopped talking, and glanced up at the building.

Gloria Green Perkins, dedicated missionary at Abyssinian Baptist, didn’t approve of playing policy any more than she approved of the rest of her younger sister’s extralegal exploits.

“Not really, Sonny,” I said, “I just collected for the building.”

“Well,” said Miss Reynolds, after a silence that bagged like the waistline of an old dress, “the rents up here are higher than ever and the jobs scarcer than hen’s teeth. I can’t blame you for getting out, since you can. But at least you haven’t forgotten us, Phyllis.”

I blew out a laugh. “It’s never a good idea to forget where you came from, and I never could besides.”

I said my goodbyes and headed out before the sisters could incriminate me with any more reminiscences. I’d done more than collect numbers back then, and they both knew it. Back when she ruled Sugar Hill, Stephanie St. Clair, Madame Queen of Policy, had offered a lot of opportunities to a young Harlem girl willing to bend the law and pin it with a knife.

Ronnie’s boy ran past us as we waited at the bus stop; he was just a few years older than Sonny, but he’d found himself a suit for that skinny frame and a good wool cap so he looked more than halfgrown, sharp pleats and padded shoulders around a tender middle. He was flushed and grinning, and I figured that someone on his rounds had hit and he was putting in extra for his ten percent. I remembered days like that: even when the hit was for five dollars, it felt good to think you’d had your part in their bit of luck. And your own. The ones like the Reynolds sisters, who knew I had the hands and believed in them besides, always wanted me to touch their slips before I passed them to the bank.

While we waited I pulled the lighter from my pocket and did a few of the tricks that Ida loved: whipping it through my fingers, tossing it in the air, and balancing its thin edge on the bony ridge in the back of my neck. Ida clapped.

“I wish you could teach me how to do that, Aunt Pea,” she said.

Sonny, twelve to Ida’s ten and older than the world, put his hands in his pockets. “Daddy says you shouldn’t.”

“And why shouldn’t she?”

He puckered his lips at his sister and said, hesitating on the first syllable, “’Cause it’s unnatural and devil’s work.”

Ida stamped her foot. “Sonny! Thomas Perkins, take that back!”

My hand froze with the lighter between my pinky and middle finger, precariously balanced, and without the slightest chance of falling. I contemplated Sonny, still a head shorter than me but with a look in his eyes like his father’s. Would the day come when Sonny treated me with as much formal wariness as Tom Perkins? I forced my fingers to move again, slid the lighter smoothly down the back of my hand, and let it drop into my bag.

“I’d think it’s a slow day if the devil has time to bother with my little tricks,” I said. “Ain’t you ever seen a juggler before, Sonny?”

Sonny shook his head slowly; the solemn, considerate boy I’d always known, now torn between his father and his aunt. But I wasn’t stupid. I knew who would win that battle, and who should. So I would steal the time I had, dance with his childhood affection with all the skill in my uncanny hands, until age and time and disillusion took him from me.

The bus came, and I handed the nickels to Sonny and Ida so they could drop them in the box themselves. We sat on the bench in back, where we had the better view of the city as we lumbered down Amsterdam Avenue.

Ida wouldn’t leave well enough alone. “Is it unnatural that you’re good at the clarinet, Sonny, huh, now is it? Is it unnatural what Art Tatum does on the piano?” I loved her for defending me, but I wished she would stop.

“Daddy says it’s different. Aunt Phyllis has something extra. Some juju. ”

“You sound like a fool, Sonny,” Ida said.

“You’re the fool! Daddy says it’s dangerous to have that juju, ’cause other folks want it and they’ll kill for it. They’ll take her hands. I bet that’s what happened to Uncle Roger.”

I was so surprised that I could only stare. Ida started to cry.

“Is someone gonna take your hands, Aunt Pea?”

I pulled her onto my lap. “No, honey, no. Sonny’s just wrong, that’s all.”

Sonny sulked and stared out the window. I’d had no idea he knew the first thing about Roger, though I should have guessed. Family secrets have a way of getting out. And stealing hands—rumors like that had circulated my whole life, but mostly nothing came of it. There weren’t a lot of us and most didn’t broadcast what we were. Even if it was possible to steal our power by taking our hands, it wasn’t easy.

But a decade ago a man named Trent Sullivan had tried, and bringing him to justice had nearly destroyed me.

Tom Senior and Sonny were right about one thing: it was no blessing when the hands paid their visit. My father had long gone by the time my dream came down; Mommy had to deal with me and Roger on her own. Dad had the wandering itch, as Mommy liked to say, and unlike her, he was light enough to pass when the urge struck him. It struck him one too many times, until she divorced him and told his disapproving Sugar Hill family she wouldn’t wait around for him, or anyone, anymore. How they smacked their lips when our dreams came down! They spread it up and down that our saints’ hands were Mommy’s punishment for getting above her station.

When Sonny turned ten, Gloria started sleeping badly, waiting for him to wake up with a dream for the numbers, an ache in his hands and an overnight talent for something that before had been merely ordinary. After his twelfth birthday she’d started to relax. But now she had Ida to watch, and wonder, and protect, if it came to that, from Tom Senior’s attempts to pray the devil out of her.

I kept Sonny and Ida close to me at the park. Gloria was just a shade too dark to come here without the police following close behind and making nasty comments. Sonny and Ida were dark enough, but they were children, and I had a better chance of getting them in and out before they realized why their mother never came to the park with them. Though Sonny probably did already. He was too smart to enjoy the ignorance of childhood, which I grieved while I loved him for it. I dreaded the day he would see me for what I was.

We walked slowly through the bird pavilion and then the bear den. I’d thought we might enjoy ourselves, that Sonny would forget that sticky issue of my talent and Ida would gawk at the sea lions and the grizzly bears, but maybe there was never any chance.

A pair of white boys, no older than sixteen, watched us from beside the bear den. They clearly thought a lot of themselves in their high-waisted oxford pants and low-slung bowler hats. The sandy blond one even kept his hand near a bulge in his left pocket, his fingers twitching like a nervous dog on a leash. Sonny noticed them, but when he looked at me with worry creasing the skin between his brows, I smiled faintly and shook my head. He relaxed—I could still give him that. Ida noted none of this exchange. The grizzlies squatting in existential boredom by their cerulean concrete lake had captured all of her wide-eyed attention. I looked back at the white boys, whose twin gazes still followed us like blue jays through exhaust. The sandy-haired one flexed his hand. His companion spat, generously.

“What’s the world coming to,” Blondie said, in a voice that had broken last week and still bled from the wound, “when we can get a family of black devils strolling Central Park just like they was decent?”

Ida’s shoulders stiffened. Sonny’s hands clenched. “Stay with your sister,” I told him.

Blondie and his brother here probably imagined themselves big hustlers. I doubted they’d have even made soldiers for Dutch Schultz, let alone Russian Vic. That had to be a BB gun in his pocket. Still, almost anything could kill, so long as you aimed it right. I loosened the two-inch knife strapped to my left wrist, let it peek out below the cuff of my summer blazer. Then, before any fuzz could see and ask questions—as bad for my people as dime-store gangsters, New York’s whitest—I bent down, picked up a likely rock, and threw it at the bulge in his pocket. A pop like a firecracker went off against his hip—a BB gun, lucky for him, but at that distance would still hurt
like the devil. The dark-haired one stared at me, slack-jawed, while the other cursed and hopped on one leg. I wondered, with a vague sort of pricking in my fingertips, if using my hands to hurt was much better, morally speaking, than using them to kill. Should we have just walked away?

“Ida, Sonny,” I said loudly, “let’s get ice cream. I don’t see nothing much of interest around here.”

They didn’t object. The grizzlies had lost their fascination.

“You’re the best, Aunt Pea,” Ida said, smiling again over a pistachio ice cream as green as summer grass. “You sure showed those boys. I wish I could bring you to school with me just once.”

Sonny looked at her sharply. “God didn’t create us to raise one above the other with unnatural gifts.”

Sonny’s voice, his father’s words. If I’d wanted to argue with Tom Senior, I’d have gone to Gloria’s for dinner. I sighed and took Ida’s hand.

“Don’t pick fights, Sonny, for your sister’s sake if not for mine.”

We were silent on the bus ride back uptown. Plenty of time for me to think about what Sonny had said. I remembered old Widow Baker on the second floor, who had a knack though she didn’t have the hands: she’d died last year at the age of ninety-three after hitting the numbers an astonishing seventeen times—though she always played for pennies, so the payout was never much. Once, while I waited for her to finish reading the cards and fill out her last slip, she said something to me that never left: Your hands are like the numbers, aren’t they, Miss Green? A little luck the Lord gives us to let us get on top, just for a bit, even though they got all the power.

Now I considered the kind of creature I had made of myself with the Lord’s luck, in the service of what I’d always considered to be the greater good. An angel, they called me. Some kind of holy beast.

Copyright © 2020 by Alaya Dawn Johnson

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