The dazzling follow-up to Toby Ball's acclaimed period thriller, The Vaults, takes us back to his dystopian City, fifteen years later...
Journalist Frank Frings rouses Lieutenant Piet Westermann in the middle of the night with an unusual request: move the body of a dead blonde from where she was found on the bank of a river near the utopian Uhuru Community, a Negro shantytown under threat from a deadly coalition of racists and anti-communists -- and find out how the body actually got there. As the investigation deepens, complicated by a string of possibly related deaths and disappearances, and ever-more-heated racial, religious and political factors come to bear, Westermann’s rationalist worldview is challenged by the ecstatic religious experiences he encounters in the Community, led by the charismatic Father Wome. All the while, Frank Frings works to stay ahead of a more venal journalist competitor to salvage the Uhuru Community’s reputation before its enemies can achieve its final destruction.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
TOBY BALL works at the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. The Vaults is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
Moses Winston had learned from years of being a stranger everywhere he went—such was the life of an itinerant musician—how to recognize trouble and how to avoid it without backing down. It never did him any good scrapping in a place where he wasn’t known. So, as he walked through the smoky shantytown alleys, breathing fumes from the tar roofs baking in the sun, he kept his head up and his eyes on nothing in particular, save the occasional passing woman who, even today, earned his glance. This day, of all days, was one to stay out of trouble.
He moved quickly through the maze of shacks, the route playing with him, disorienting him. The way out never seemed quite the same. The configuration of the alleys seemed to be constantly changing, like dunes shifting in the wind.
Children appeared out of the smoke like apparitions. Winston moved to the side to make way, stepping into the threshold of a shanty. A baby was crying inside.
He walked toward where he thought the way out was. His skin prickled in the heat, his eyes burned red from the smoke. On his back he carried a guitar case with a rope rigged as a strap. He’d left Billy Lambert’s shack minutes before, after several hours spent rooted to his bedroll, paralyzed into inaction, watching Lambert’s bruised body across the room, chest expanding and contracting with each sleeping breath.
Inside the little shack he’d felt isolated, even protected, as if history didn’t exist there. But he had a gig tonight and had reluctantly left, trading static anxiety for the uncertainty of the shantytown alleys.
Winston turned a corner and found himself at the far end of an alley from a group of four older men who were sharing a pipe and watching his approach. Winston knew of these men and his pulse quickened. Trouble. He kept his head up and eyes focused beyond the men, down the shantytown alley. These were big, hard men with indifferent expressions but malevolent eyes. Winston didn’t worry about much, but men like these concerned him more than the teenage kids who roamed the shanties like jackals, looking for isolated prey. The kids had material wants. Who knew what the hell these men wanted? Maybe nothing.
Their gazes as he passed them had a physical quality, repelling Winston into a new alley, this one a confusion of chickens pecking wildly in the dirt and a tethered goat lying either asleep or dead.
Eventually he found his way out, emerging from the shantytown into a field defined on one side by the river and on the opposite by crumbling low-rise buildings. The fresh air hit him like waking from a dream; but with this wakefulness, fear.
Winston was playing that night at a broken-down joint called the Checkerboard, located in the midst of several seedy blocks of bars and clubs—the streets haunted by hustlers, whores, and working-class drunks—where the edges of Capitol Heights drained into the Negro East Side. The Checkerboard was run by a fat white cat by the name of Cephus, who kept the drinks weak and ran a half dozen whores who looked better than the usual fare on the street.
Winston arrived early. The bartender unlocked the front door to let him in, locked up again. Winston grabbed a shot of rail whiskey and a bottle of beer from the bar and sat on the tiny wooden stage, playing with the amplifier, tuning his guitar. It was just Winston on the stage and the bartender stocking his bar for the evening when Cephus rolled in from the back wearing a Hawaiian-style shirt that could have doubled as a pup tent. The collar and underarms were dark with perspiration, and the top buttons were undone to reveal a mass of damp, white, hairless flesh.
Winston watched Cephus amble over and register the empty shot glass and half-empty beer sitting on the stage. Winston didn’t normally drink before playing. Cephus knew that.
“You don’t look so good, Moses,” Cephus said in his high, wheezy voice.
Winston kept to his tuning. “No?”
“No, you don’t. And the drinking … Something wrong, boy?”
Winston looked up, not liking this fat-ass cracker calling him “boy.” But something in Cephus’s face, some kind of ignorant sincerity, made Winston think that Cephus probably called his white musicians “boy,” too. Probably. And now that Winston had a good look, Cephus didn’t seem to be doing so well himself, his face an alarming shade of red under a sheen of sweat. The early-evening heat was taking its toll.
“Nothing wrong,” Winston said, forcing himself to hold the fat man’s eyes for a couple of beats before turning back to his guitar. Nothing wrong.
Cephus shrugged. “I must be mistaken.” He thought for a moment, then asked, “You need something from the bar, Moses? Another whiskey, or a beer, or something?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Suit yourself.” Cephus gave a concerned scowl, seemed to contemplate saying something further. Instead, he made a kind of clucking sound, checked his pocket watch, and headed to the front door. Winston watched him go, heart pounding.
Copyright © 2011 by Toby Ball
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In 1950 in the City reporter Frank Frings awakens Police Lieutenant Piet Westermann in the middle of the night. He asks the ethical cop to help him move the corpse of a blonde found on the riverbank near the affluent Uhuru Community. Frings believes if the competing powers learn a murdered while female was found inside the Negro community, all hell would break out. Reluctantly he agrees to move the body though he knows tampering would end his career while he also considers investigating though likewise that could be a career killer too as he is the most loathed cop in the City for his mathematical police deployment System. The case turns nasty with more related deaths and all sorts of religious and racial bigotry. Much of the media's jaundiced commentary adds to heated exchanges as the Communist scare is played up. However what makes the inquiry particularly ugly is election year politics using the victims as vote getters. Fifteen years have passed since The Vaults were opened up, but the City remains trapped in a corrupt system that destroys good honest people. Scorch City is an exhilarating police procedural which focuses on the good, the bad and the ugly in a society in which corruption, connections and bigotry are the engines to success. Readers will see parallels to the McCarthy-KKK era as it will not take much for the righteous to turn Uhuru into Scorch City. Harriet Klausner