An assassin falls in love and tries to fight her fate at the dawn of World War II…
Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Trouble the Saints is a magical love story, a compelling exposure of racial fault lines, and an altogether brilliant and deeply American saga. Publishing in June 2020 with Tor Books, we’re excited to preview the first two chapters below!
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?
It had been Dev’s voice at the end of the dream; just his voice, warning me against nothing I could see; just his voice, pushing me awake, and away from him, again. He had only ever called me Phyllis in extremity: mortal danger, orgasm. I wondered which it would be this time.
“Christ,” said the dentist, jamming his cigarette into my silver ashtray and getting another. “Christ, where’s that lighter? I hate even thinking about Red Man, and you have to go and dream about him…”
“He’s not so bad. Not like Victor.”
The dentist flinched. “You know what they say, the things he’s done. You just like him because he likes you… you and that snake girl, what’s her name—”
“Tamara,” I said, not for the first time. The star of the famous snake dance at the Pelican Club was my best friend in the city. Lately, because my life has not tended to kindness, she’d also been Dev’s girl. But my own lover couldn’t bother himself to remember the name of some Negro showgirl.
I leaned over the dentist to take another cigarette too, but instead he caught up my hand and gently traced its scars. I hated when he did that, though I never stopped him. The dentist’s hands were chapped with alcohol and smelled like rubber, while I rubbed mine with shea butter every morning. But his had done nothing worse than pull teeth and fix caps for Victor and his men. He found my scars to remind me of the necessary distance between us, the dentist and the hatchet girl.
“Are you going to take the job, if it comes?”
Was it disgust that flattened his tone? Or indifference? My heart shuddered uselessly, but I kept steady and kissed behind his left ear, the way he liked. He groaned.
The dentist was my bargain; the dentist I could keep.
It was easier to move through the world with him on my elbow than alone, when the doormen were more suspicious of women of my complexion. Unlike most white men of my acquaintance, he rarely let a bad word escape his lips about Negroes or even any other group. Besides, he was handsome enough and in possession of an understanding wife. For those qualities, I overlooked his other lapses as a lover—an aversion to cunnilingus, the ghoulish whiteness of his teeth, the faint but clinging scent of antiseptic. My dissatisfactions were, I knew, the inevitable neuroses of his profession, and considering those of my own profession, I was inclined to anticipatory forgiveness, hoping to get the same gold for myself. If I lost him, I wouldn’t have an easy time finding an old man half so nice; not at thirty-five, with my first grays wiggling out of my lye-made hair, and the scars that only Dev might have loved.
“How long has it been since the last one, darling?”
“Months,” I said, not wanting to own the number—seven—which felt too long and too short. I took a breath before answering the other question. “They’re bad people, you know, that’s all Victor gives me. Murderers and rapists. Real scum. When I signed on with Victor, that was our deal. That I’d be more than a hatchet man. That I could make the world a better place.”
By killing people? You really believe that. I could hear Dev’s voice in the silence; the dentist only nodded.
“Russian Vic’s angel of justice. His holy knife.” Pronounced carefully, like he was reading it from a book.
My fingers locked. Most people called me that first thing—Victor’s angel, sometimes of justice. But only a few, the ones who had known me longest, called me his knife.
“Where did you hear that?” I asked.
The dentist looked out the window. “That—I mean, the Hindu bartender—Dev, right?—called you that once. Stuck in my head. Sounded more biblical when he said it, though.”
To Dev, there was no such thing as holy in violence. I hadn’t quite believed him when he first said so, not even when I let him take me from the city. He told me about karma and the weight of our past and present lives, but I only felt it long after.
These days I avoided Victor, I refused jobs, I worried alone because I could not add to my ledger, and I could not bury my knives. But Red Man would visit soon. The dreams the hands give don’t lie. I had to choose, one more time.
I could go back to Harlem, to the shabby familiarity of the old apartment complex at the corner of 130th and Lenox. Move in with my sister Gloria and her husband Tom and their kids. Red Man would find me there but he’d leave me alone if I asked. I wouldn’t have Dev, and I wouldn’t have the knives, and I wouldn’t have everything I hated and loved about being Victor’s angel of justice—
Gloria loved me, but she wouldn’t open her home to a murderess, not even her sister.
“Aren’t you afraid?” the dentist asked.
For a jittery moment, I thought he had read my mind—or seen my ghosts. Lenox Avenue, the tony apartments on Sugar Hill around the corner, afternoon number runs for Madame Stephanie and the Barkley brothers, the barber shops and the stoops and the rent parties and buffet flats that lasted till morning, the sex and the poetry. Policy slips like numbered confetti in the silk purse bound tight by my garter.
But the dentist only knew Phyllis LeBlanc, not Phyllis Green.
“Afraid of the second dream,” he said when I just stared at him.
My voice cracked on a laugh. “It’s just a superstition. I know someone with the hands in—uptown—who’s had four.” Most white folks had either never heard of or didn’t believe in the hands, but the white men in Victor’s service all believed, or at least were good at faking it.
The dentist made a very sour smile. “Or Russian Vic, who’s had, what is it now? Seven?”
This was a bit of a joke, too dark and too dangerous to make at any other hour. Victor claimed he had the hands, but no one quite believed him. He would make announcements out of his dreams, listing out his visions of those who had betrayed him. You learned to fear those, if you wanted to last.
The dentist fell asleep and I stayed awake for a little while longer. Ten years ago, I had walked away from the happiest life I would ever know for the sake of a pair of hands. And now, if I had dreamed true, Red Man would bring me another. I wondered if I could make a different choice.
A little before 6 a.m.—an hour I made a point of never seeing from a vantage other than the night before—I woke again. It was the dentist, this time, his insistent hand on my shoulder. I started to complain, but even in the pallid dawn light I could see the whites distinct around his irises, and felt the urgency in his grip. He tried to speak.
“A lady,” he finally said. “On your stairwell.”
I grabbed my holster and stumbled out of bed. My eyes were still foggy, but my hands were singing. This time, this time, they said and I told them not to get their hopes up; I was through with the justice racket.
But still, I ran out in an old teddy and bare feet and took a holster with four sharp knives, eager for whatever had scared my lover so.
I pushed open the fire door. It was heavy with a body’s weight, and I thought the woman might already be dead until she slid down three steps and groaned. Her face looked worked-over: cut, bruised, crusted with dried blood. Livid welts circled her wrists, about the width of Victor’s preferred rope, but her limbs were free. A gun bulged from a pocket of her skirt.
I climbed over her and squatted. “Now who the hell are you?”
I pushed back her hair—dirtied and gray—from her forehead—bloody—and studied her features, which a few thuggish fists had done their bit to rearrange. I didn’t recognize her. The woman started moaning again and shaking her head back and forth; she would come to soon and I didn’t like the look of that gun. I pulled it from her pocket and a crumpled paper with familiar writing spilled out onto her lap.
Victor. My pulse sped. I checked the stairwell again, but saw only the dentist peeking nervously around the door.
“What’s this about, darling?”
“Shh.” I swatted at his voice.
Phyllis, meet Maryann West. I know you haven’t worked on my word alone yet, so Red Man will be by to give you the details later, but I wanted you to get a chance to meet your next job. Thought maybe it would whet your appetite. She’s done some very, very bad things, dollface. More than enough for my angel. Don’t you like her? Don’t you miss it? This isn’t the job for turning me down again, baby. Weren’t we great together, once? I miss you.
I put my head between my knees and counted to ten. My hand already held a knife; it jumped with each breath. I didn’t remember pulling it.
“Phyllis?” said the dentist from the doorway.
“Oh God,” whispered the woman, whose name was Maryann West. She pushed herself away from me, fell down a few more steps and lurched to her feet. Above us the door slammed; the dentist’s heavy gallop receded. Coward, I thought amiably. The woman lunged for the gun and I let her, at first because Victor’s threat filled my head, and then because I got curious about what she might do next. She fumbled with the catch. I watched this, judged the opportune moment, and leapt. She only had time to squint before I slashed her trigger finger and tugged the piece gently from her grip. Maryann West screamed. It echoed in the stairwell and grew into something eerie, hideously familiar.
My guilty burden, momentarily suspended by an unholy joy, reasserted itself.
For fifteen years, I’d killed almost every time Victor asked. Was it any wonder he wanted my uncanny hands back at his disposition? If I refused this time, I wouldn’t be his angel anymore. I’d just be Phyllis from 401 Lenox. Phyllis, who went downtown and came back haunted. Phyllis, alone and probably dead.
Oh, goddamn Victor—he could have knocked this woman off easy as you please, no mess about it. He didn’t need me to kill for him. But he wanted me, which was worse.
“What have you done?” I asked Maryann West. “What’s your mortal sin?”
Sometimes their confessions made it easier. She glared at me with furious, frightened, swollen eyes. “Are you going to kill me finally?”
I should have said no, but I tossed the five-inch knife from hand to hand, frightened her because I could.
“What did you do?”
We locked eyes for a long moment. Then the woman turned around and walked slowly down the steps. She didn’t look back once, even when she stumbled. Braver than a lion; I admired her and loathed myself and prayed she would get out of town quick, before I could catch up. A muffled sob echoed from four stories below, then the slam of a fire door.
I took the gun and the note and staggered back to my apartment. My lover was long gone; he hadn’t even bothered to shut the door behind him. I found my cigarettes and my lighter by the bed, then sat by the window to smoke. I sucked the first cigarette down fast. When I went to light a second, my thumb caught on the circle that Dev had scored into the chrome with a fishhook (This means it’s yours, Dev said, and I said, It’s lopsided, and he had smiled, slipped it into my coat pocket, took my hand, and told me it was time to run again).
I flipped the lighter in my right hand, balanced it on my fingertips one at a time, then on my knuckles: tricks that marked me just as much as the knives.
The world didn’t hold so many of us, and often the juju was about as useful as a nickel at Tiffany’s. But Dev was different, not just because of his dusk-brown skin and aura of beatific serenity. Dev’s hands, his knack for feeling threats, made him a good gin runner and a reliable bartender to have at the Pelican. He could even lend the service to whoever he was touching—but he had stopped telling me about my threats early; it must have felt like bailing out the Titanic with a spoon.
Dev only started working with Victor after I left him. After Red Man came to find me in that little house on the river and showed me the pictures of Trent Sullivan’s victims. All those bodies, young and old, women and men, all races, bound in a grisly fraternity by their missing hands.
“Victor asked for you especially,” he had said.
I had known Dev would never forgive me if I killed again. But I had pretended that he might, and I left.
Excerpted from Trouble the Saints, copyright © 2020 by Alaya Dawn Johnson.