Catfish Cafe (Thomas Black Series #11)

Catfish Cafe (Thomas Black Series #11)

by Earl Emerson, Earl Emerson

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Everyone who knew Balinda could have told Seattle private eye Thomas Black that the ex-choir girl thumbed a ride with the devil a long time ago. Still, no one expected the pretty young woman to vanish off the face of the earth--leaving in her wake an empty purse, a wrecked car, and a dead Eagle Scout in the backseat. What's more, Balinda never even gave notice at her


Everyone who knew Balinda could have told Seattle private eye Thomas Black that the ex-choir girl thumbed a ride with the devil a long time ago. Still, no one expected the pretty young woman to vanish off the face of the earth--leaving in her wake an empty purse, a wrecked car, and a dead Eagle Scout in the backseat. What's more, Balinda never even gave notice at her last job--at a backwater diner where a freezer might keep more than crawdads on ice.

When Balinda's driver is identified, Thomas Black suspects big trouble. For it turns out that the victim was a fifth-grade Tacoma schoolteacher with an impeccable reputation. But tracking the past of that white-bread teacher is increasingly hazardous. Especially when it leads Thomas back to that modest little eat-in/take-out . . . called Catfish Café.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[An] intrepid private investigator."
--The New York Times

--Publishers Weekly

"Part social study, part whodunit, the elegantly written CATFISH CAFÉ does well by both."
--Los Angeles Times

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Emerson's works, consistently fast-paced, moving and richly evocative of the Pacific Northwest, often create more questions than they answer. In this 11th in the Thomas Black series (Deception Pass, 1997), the roots of the mystery stem from old secrets haunting the extremely dysfunctional extended family of Black's former police partner, Luther Little. Little, an African American, asks Black, a PI, to help him locate his missing daughter, Balinda, and find out who killed the young white man found dead in her car. Black is sure the answers lie in the family's past. In a number of beautifully written scenes, Emerson employs dialogue and description expertly to reveal character: the victim's fiance preventing his father from robbing her of all her mementos; Black interviewing the dead man's astute, dying mother; Balinda's grandmother asking Black puzzles to avoid answering his questions. The story, which includes another murder, is tantalizing, complex and engrossing, fueled by themes of prejudice and parental responsibility that cut across race, class and gender. By its conclusion, Little's remaining family members are drawn closer together, but the solution, which lies in the present, not the past, will likely leave readers more interested in the mysteries and variety of human behavior than in explications. (Aug.)
Kirkus Reviews
Balinda Little, the daughter of Seattle p.i. Thomas Black's former cop partner Luther Little, has disappeared, leaving behind a bullet-riddled car containing nine birth certificates and a dead man. It's a great setup, but despite appearances, it doesn't lead anywhere but to Luther's grotesquely extended familyþBalinda's mother Laronda Sands; Laronda's mother Pookie; Balinda's sister Shereffe; Luther's son Shawn Brown; Laronda's brother Raymond; Laronda's son D'Witt Sands; and Dion Williams, the father of Balinda's little girl. The most intriguing mystery about the late Benjamin Aldrich, white-bread jogger and former Eagle Scout, is obvious and solved too quickly, and this time the characters and the byplay between Thomas and his lawyer-wife Kathy Birchfield (badinage based on children's puzzles in logic) aren't interesting enough to take up the slack. "For me, playing the dope had never been a whole lot of work," says Thomas. He's much too modest, but his 11th adventure really is lesser work from the accomplished author of Deception Pass (1997).

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Thomas Black Series , #11
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
4.17(w) x 6.89(h) x 0.78(d)

Read an Excerpt

Luther Little drove dead bodies around Seattle the way some people drove pizzas, his primary mission, at least in his own mind, to make delivery before the goods got cold. Luther loved dead folks the way other people loved cats or guns or Elvis collectibles.

For Luther there was nothing as soothing as bagging inert bodies and hauling them to the mortuary; nothing as satisfying as dressing up in his high boots and black uniform to haul polished boxes to the cemetery in front of a queue of headlighted cars. Luther had been a Seattle cop, a cab driver, a sheet-metal worker, a coffee vendor, a janitor, a burglar, a chicken rancher, and a few things he was probably ashamed of; but as far as he was concerned, this was the best job he'd ever held. Every day Luther woke up hoping somebody had died. Luther passed out his card expecting customers to ask for him by name.

Luther's passion was all-encompassing. He loved the way the motorcycle cops buzzed ahead of the processions and stopped traffic at the intersections. Luther loved the stillness of his passengers--the fact that they would never move again. Luther even loved watching the bereaved relatives as they grieved. It wasn't that he was hardhearted or that he gloried in their tears; he just loved everything about the dead.

Luther found the labor of the departed reassuring in a way that no other toil had ever been, and he basked in the primordial and fundamental confidence that people were dying and he wasn't one of them--at least not today.

To Luther death was a profession, an amusement, a calling, all rolled into one. Sometimes it was also a very sly joke, as it was that sun-splashed Friday morning when he picked me up under the maples in the loading zone in front of our building and failed to tell me the copper-trimmed box behind us contained Mrs. Scott.

He parked in front of our building on First Avenue in Pioneer Square, and when he got out of the hearse to shake my hand, his black uniform with jodhpurs was impeccable, the bill of his visored cap pulled so tight on his brow that the veins at the side of his head fibrillated in the light. I could see the curb reflected in his polished leather boots. The overall cut and style of his clothes were reminiscent of a 1930s movie.

A small, wiry African American with thick features and short hair flecked with gray along the temples--thinning on top so that the May sunshine glinted off his scalp--Luther Little was, according to my calculations, fifty-four. He could have passed for thirty-four. His teeth were bright and slightly bucked in a wide, even curve that pushed at his lips. You would be hard pressed to say he was handsome or even that he looked arresting, and nobody would have pegged him as a particularly phenomenal conversationalist, but Luther had more women chasing him than anybody I knew.

After we fastened our seat belts, he fired up the huge, quiet engine, pulled the hearse smoothly out into traffic, and when we hit the stoplight, he squinted across the velour seat back at me.

"How's the private-eye business?" he asked.

"Busy. What about the mortuary business? People still kicking off at a dependable rate?"

"They all got to die. You're looking good, man. You still riding that bicycle?"

"And lifting weights a little."

"I go down to Seattle U and run the track four times a week. I do fifty push-ups every morning, and most times I do a hundred sit-ups at night. But you look good. You look real good, Thomas."

"You look like a kid."

Luther Little smiled quietly. The light changed and we moved forward. "Aren't you and me a couple of rag-ass liars?" he said.

I laughed.

He hit a pothole of exposed red brick. "Let me tell you why I need to talk, Thomas, and then you can help me or go your own way, whichever. You remember my oldest, don't you? Balinda? My oldest that I had with Laronda?"

"Played point guard on the girls' basketball team at Garfield? Sure. I went to some of her games."

Luther edged the hearse up close behind a cab at the stoplight at Main. "I won't lie to you. She been in trouble the last couple years, but she got herself wrapped up in a real dinger this time."

"When I last saw her, she must have been around sixteen."

"She's twenty-four now. A growed woman. She's even got her own little baby."

"You never told me this."

Luther grinned but did not take his eyes off the road. "Name is Toylee. I'm a grampa. She's five years old and just like her mother, quick as a spark out of a light socket. I'm a sure-enough grampa. You can't know how it feels, Thomas, to know your line is going on. You hear what I'm saying? I'm nothin', but I'm somethin'."

"I don't have any kids, but I think I know what you mean."

"If you follow baseball you probably know the father. Guy's name is Dion Williams. He played for Garfield. A couple years ahead of Balinda. Went to college and then into the minors."

"I don't follow baseball much." I didn't bother to ask if his daughter had married. Luther would have mentioned it if she had. In his mind marriage was as big a step as death.

He made an illegal left off First Avenue and headed up South Jackson. He'd been a Seattle cop long enough that he still thought he was impervious to traffic regulations.

It was early May, and Seattle was going through one of its freaky hot streaks. The city was wilting like a rose, the afternoons topping out in the low nineties, the humidity suffocating.

My office was in Pioneer Square, the heart of old Seattle, replete with tourists, pigeons, and going-somewhere young execs, as well as going-nowhere panhandlers and homeless men in too many clothes--no Hawaiian shirts or Bermuda shorts for these folks, their bodies traveling clothes racks.

Years earlier, as a Seattle police officer, Luther had been my mentor and first partner. Now, for reasons both similar and dissimilar--I shot someone/Luther was shot by someone--he and I had retired from the department and moved on to more seductive ventures.

I was a private investigator.

Luther drove dead people around town.

Riding around in the air-conditioned hearse with its blacked-out windows was a little like leading a parade after the rest of the procession had turned off to follow a different route, yet I had to admit I kind of liked it. I felt like we were a couple of scary characters out of a Stephen King novel.

Two young men with ponytails eyeballed us as they carried a rolled-up carpet across the street, and Luther said, "Driving this thing, it's like you're the devil's own whip hand. People look at me like I'm in here making the selections myself. Sometimes I wish I was."

"What kind of trouble is Balinda in?"

"She went missing Monday night. So that's what ... four, five days? She didn't say goodbye to nobody. Left her daughter. Left her purse. Left all that shit."

"You said she had problems before."


"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Yeah ..." Luther stopped at a red light and turned to me. Despite bending a traffic statute now and then, he was a good driver, a man who, unless he was at a light with his foot on the brake, rarely looked away from the road to make eye contact with his passenger. Now that he'd divulged the purpose of our tête-à-tête, it occurred to me that his motive for wanting to talk in the car was to eliminate having to look me in the eye. Luther took considerable pride in his children and endured great agony when one of them jumped the tracks. It must have been difficult to let an old friend like me see his daughter's dirty laundry.

"It's like this," he said. "Balinda's been off the stuff, but I'm afraid she's gonna get back on."

"Crack cocaine?"

"The first two times. Then it was smack. See, Thomas, Balinda loves that little girl like life itself, and when Toylee was born she was determined not to screw up again. She did once about three years ago, but me and Laronda put her in a place over in Bellevue and they did a real fine job with her. Now Balinda's missing and Laronda won't even talk to me."

"You know if you need help, I'm all yours, Luther. I've got a couple of projects, but I'll put them on hold."

"You mean that?"

"You and me are buddies, Luther." Surprisingly, when I looked at him, Luther had tears in his eyes. I wanted to tell him why I was so eager to do him a favor, but putting it into words, besides making me look bad, would have made it trite. It was hard to know if Luther ever thought about it, but I owed him. My unspoken debt had been a burden on my conscience for years, and this was a chance for reimbursement. "Tell me what's going on."

"That's just it. I don't know. Balinda's missing. Laronda and Pookie aren't talking. I don't know what's going on."

Laronda was Balinda's mother, Pookie her grandmother. As far as I knew, they still lived in a house up over Lake Washington across the street from Leschi Elementary School. Luther lived by himself a couple of miles away in a two-story house near Gai's Bakery. At last count he had five children with three different mothers all residing within fives miles of him. It was hard not to be aghast at Luther's domestic entanglements. He had more girlfriends than he could keep track of, and every time I ran into him, he buttonholed me for advice on some amorous imbroglio.

Luther and his children lived in the Central District in Seattle, an area of town positioned on the hump of land between downtown proper and Lake Washington. The area was populated by a diversity of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and whites--many of them poor, many of them newcomers, having immigrated in the last few years from east Africa, Central America, Cambodia, Thailand, California.

Though he made good money to supplement his pension, most of Luther's cash went to his children. Luther thought often of his kids and worried about them the way only an absent, or semi-absent father could.

Although she had not married Luther or even lived with him, Laronda Sands had given birth to three of his children, and somewhere in the middle of their relationship had found the time and resentment to bear a fourth child by another man. It wasn't that Laronda was promiscuous, because as far as I knew, she'd only had the two sexual involvements in her life. It was just the way things were.

Ten years earlier, the oldest of Luther and Laronda's children, Lyle, had died of leukemia. At twenty-four, Balinda was now the oldest. Their youngest daughter would be around seven or eight by now.

"See, Thomas, she could be anywhere. When she was doping, she was in Nevada, Colorado, all over the country lookin' for ways to score. Only reason we ever knew where she was--I'd have friends run her name through the computer to see where she got arrested. It's hard when people know your daughter's a dopehead." Luther's husky voice dropped to a whisper. "Thomas, she done things you don't even want to think about your daughter doin'."

"What are you going to do if she's back in the drug life?"

"Last time, we got her into a group facility over in Bellevue. Cost a fuckin' fortune. She ran away, hopped over the fence, and about got herself killed on the freeway, off to be with some no-good dopehead Cuban boyfriend who was tryin' to pimp her out, but--and this is a story in its ownself--we found her and took her back. Lately, she been living with her mother and working and everything. Until Monday night when she took off."

"What happened Monday night?"

Meet the Author

Earl Emerson is a lieutenant in the Seattle Fire Department. He is the Shamus Award-winning author of the Thomas Black detective series, which includes The Rainy City, Poverty Bay, Nervous Laughter, Fat Tuesday, Deviant Behavior, Yellow Dog Party, The Portland Laugher, The Vanishing Smile, The Million-Dollar Tattoo, and Deception Pass.

Earl Emerson lives in North Bend, Washington.

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