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  • Written by Nichelle D. Tramble
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A Maceo Redfield Novel

Written by Nichelle D. TrambleAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Nichelle D. Tramble

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On Sale: February 19, 2009
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-53659-4
Published by : One World/Strivers Row Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

“After two years of drifting I finally knew there was only one place that could offer me a shot at peace, and that was my hometown. The city was my crossroads, the crooked man with the slanted grin, my temptation, and I wanted to beat it. I wanted to win. . . .”

Two years after leaving Oakland, Maceo Redfield returns to the city, where NBA All-Star Cornelius “Cotton” Knox has become tangled up in the murder of a local call girl. What could easily become a story for the tabloids turns personal when Maceo realizes that his estranged friend Holly Ford has also been linked to the crime.

Maceo’s guilt at disappearing, coupled with a heartfelt plea for help from his Aunt Cissy, becomes a potent combination for a man seeking redemption. Taking it upon himself to clear his friend, Maceo stays one step ahead of the police as he traverses the dark corners of the San Francisco Bay Area. And in his quest for the truth, Maceo teams with a sultry con artist named Sonny Boston, “an eight-cylinder chick with bodies in her past.” While navigating the shifting alliances of a territory war, Maceo must also fight off an unseen enemy, a ruthless man with connections to Oakland, who came to town with two things in mind: destroying Holly and eliminating anybody who gets in his way.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

ONE


The sky above the Bay Bridge was a gunmetal gray, and in the distance I could hear the low rumble of freight trains that ran along the Eastshore Highway. I loved the sound, and hadn't realized how much I missed it until it echoed down the early morning streets. The wheels on the tracks, the whistle of the train, the foghorns on the Bay were all part of the soundtrack of my life in Oakland; sounds, like smells, that gave me definition.

It wasn't just the streets and people that claimed me, but the city itself. As I took it all in I realized just how much I was stamped by the place that I'd fled after Billy's murder in 1989. I was only hours back-a newborn-having rolled in with the mist off the Bay, quiet, and under the cover of night. I hadn't planned to come back, but an ominous phone call triggered my speedy return. During my travels I found that the open road suited me so I stayed away as long as I could. I grew accustomed to living a nomad's existence, and I found kinship rather than family with men and women who were not at all interested in who I claimed to be.

I liked being a person without a name; I relished the blank looks I got when I introduced myself as Maceo Albert Bouchaund Redfield. At home any one of those names would have elicited some sort of response, but on the road it hadn't meant shit. Not a single thing. So I convinced myself that the disinterest translated into freedom.

The delusion worked until a single phone call from my aunt Cissy shattered the fragile sense of peace I'd built for myself. The plea on the other end of the phone line was riddled with urgency-Holly's in trouble, Maceo-and it meant my days of wandering were done.

It was time to make amends.

After two years of drifting I finally knew there was only one place that could offer me a shot at peace, and that was my hometown. The city was my crossroads, the crooked man with the slanted grin, my temptation, and I wanted to beat it. I wanted to win, and yet I still had expectations, because when the Oakland skyline came into focus, a part of me expected to see grave dust hanging above the city, or a mourner's shroud of black clouds, to acknowledge all that had been lost with Billy's death.

Yet the world hadn't stopped, neither had I, and I'd learned the truest, if not the hardest, lesson of my friend's murder.

Life goes on.

------

The wind was high as the sun broke over the bay, bending trees and fences and moving the chilly fog of early January out into

the Bay. Nature had conspired to give her wayward son a fitting welcome-home party, and the theatrics matched my dark mood.

Looking for a reprieve I turned up the heater in my car, then scanned the boulevard until my eyes landed on a Flight Athletic billboard towering over the intersection. During my travels from South Texas through New Mexico and finally California, my way had been shadowed by billboards that featured Cotton, and now a new one loomed above me, barely visible in the mist that blanketed San Pablo Avenue. It featured a bare-chested Cotton, hawking his gray-and-white basketball shoes with his full name-

Cornelius Knox-written above his head. His matching Anaheim Vanguards shorts were pulled down low enough to reveal the elastic band of his underwear and the stitching that read: let me fly. The shoes were christened Fort Knox in his honor, with the famous taglines guard 'em with your life and worth their weight in gold scattered along the edge.

He looked like a king, and I wasn't the only one who thought so. In pure Oakland style, a fan had climbed the scaffolding to add what they thought was missing from the picture. The tagger had used black spray paint to draw a crown above Cotton's head, then red to give him a long, flowing robe. Beneath the additions in bold, block letters the piece was finished with the rallying cry from Scarface: the world is mine.

I had to smile. It made me proud. I understood the fan worship and I knew where it came from. Cotton was a warrior-king to the brigade of lost boys who littered the Oakland streets. The raw aggression he used on the court was an emotion they recognized, and they loved him for that. Loved him because he hadn't been spit-shined into respectability or polished to the point of forgetting who he was, and more important, forgetting who they were.

The friends of his youth remained his friends, and Vanguard games were often filled with guests of the superstar who had rap sheets longer than his stats for college and pro combined. He'd said more than once that he didn't consider the other players to be a part of his family. His teammates were coworkers. The only family he had was in Oakland.

The management's frustration with Cotton's stance was obvious in their vaguely coded public comments about "synergy" and "team dynamics," but they couldn't fault his play. He might not smile and clown for the camera or refer to his coach as a "second father," but he delivered on the court by averaging twenty-nine points a game and making the All-Star team three years in a row. At the end of the day it didn't matter that he was quick with his fists or barely contained his contempt for authority, because he filled seats, which filled the pockets of the people in the front office. The phrase role model was never used to describe him, but he was featured in three different commercials promoting a soft drink, his athletic shoes, and a sporting-goods chain.

I was proud of Cotton's triumphs, and I cheered his success from the sidelines, but I also knew that the campaign was a façade, and now, because of recent events, so did the rest of the world. While the advertisement celebrated all that was golden in the ballplayer's life, the discarded USA Today on my car seat exposed the darker side to his tale. The newspaper also filled in the details Cissy left out, and more simply, it clarified the reasons for my return.

Shooting Guard Questioned

in Murder Investigation

San Francisco (AP)-Jan. 14, 1992-

A woman was found bludgeoned to death in a San Francisco hotel room registered to Anaheim Vanguard star Cornelius "Cotton" Knox. The former Oakland resident missed Tuesday's game against the Sacramento Kings in Anaheim after he was detained by the San Francisco District Attorney's Office for questioning. Police are seeking information about an unidentified man seen fleeing the hotel room on the night of the

murder.

Cotton.

A dead body.

An unidentified man.

The words flashed at me like Morse code.

Since the first year Cotton had entered the league, he'd spent every NBA All-Pro weekend with his boys from Oakland, a gangsta's ball in whichever city hosted the game; Houston, Philly, Denver, and finally Oakland in 1992. Sometimes his guest list for the All-Pro included as many as twenty people, expanding and deflating from year to year to allow for arrests, marriages, illnesses, and murders. But no matter how many people came and went, there was always one name that never changed.

Holly.

TWO

As I sat in my car contemplating my best friend's involvement in the murder, I lit a second cigarette and threw the newspaper behind my car seat. The usually soothing smell of sulfur from the struck match did nothing to calm my nerves, but I inhaled the smoke anyway. In addition to the cigarette jones I'd picked up on the road, I'd acquired two other things while traveling: a scar that ran from the corner of my right eye down into the crease of my mouth, and a three-year-old jet-black 125-pound Cane Corso named Kiros, who sat beside me in the car. I'd heard once in a psych class at UC Berkeley that pets often represented their owner's inner psyche, but I couldn't figure out what the big, slobbering dog said about me.

Outside the car the storefronts along San Pablo Avenue were dark. It was just after seven o'clock in the morning, and the sidewalks were nearly empty, but I'd come back to the area with one destination in mind: Crowning Glory. The barbershop was the site of three separate gangland shootings, and a place Holly considered to be the birthplace of bad luck, but it was also the first outpost on Oakland's bush telegraph. Cutty, the barber, was a compatriot of my grandfather's from his days in Louisiana, and a man steeped in local happenings. He always had the sort of information that never made the newspapers, the bits and pieces that were closest to the truth.

I cut the engine and jumped out of the car. As I approached the shop, I noticed that even though it was mid-January, the window was still covered in fake snow from the holidays and the cheerless direction to have a merry christmas and a happy new year.

Inside, the barbershop was furnished with discarded church pews-an attempt by Cutty to stave off a string of bad luck-and when I entered I saw him sitting in the last row with his back

to the door. He was talking with a tall man who looked to be in his twenties. The stranger wore a white smock with the barbershop's signature gold scissors and an elaborate crowning glory stitched on the sleeve. Cutty had stressed for years that he would never hire anyone under fifty to work his chairs so I was surprised to see the young recruit.

I closed the door with force and the bells nailed above the doorjamb crashed to the floor. I smiled when Cutty turned around to investigate the noise.

"What the hell?" At first he looked startled when he saw me, then a wild smile broke out on his face.

"Hey there, old man," I said.

"Hot damn! Maceo, is that you?" He moved quickly across the room to grab me in a bear hug. "Gotdamn, boy, what you doing sneaking up on people? I thought I was seeing a ghost up in here!"

"It's just me."

I slipped from his grasp and looked to the walls above the mirror. It was an old habit. The space was filled with photographs of local sports figures, and for years had included a Little League photo of me, Holly, and Billy. It broke my heart to see that it was missing, but I didn't ask about it. I didn't care to know the reasons why the three of us were no longer relevant.

"Don't you owe me a haircut?" I said instead. The last time I'd seen Cutty, the news of Billy's death had driven me from his shop before I'd even made it into his chair.

"I just might, Youngblood, I just might. What you need?"

"Clean it up."

"Be glad to. You know I been trying to get you to wear a bald head for years." He motioned toward the two old men reading papers in the corner. "You remember Lester and Greavy."

I didn't but I said hello anyway.

He grabbed a towel to wrap around my neck, and pulled a folded white drape from a box on the floor. "When you get back?"

"Just got here."

"You come all the way back just to get a haircut? Or to show me you got a little taller?" He gave me a weak smile. At twenty-five I was still only five feet five inches tall and my height, or lack of it, had been a source of ridicule my entire life.

"Two years ago, you were, what, maybe three feet high?" The insult was mild, devoid of the usual venom that classified Cutty's communication style, which showed me just how much I was missed.

"Just the same old me."

"Naw, boy, something's different. Something's changed."

He was right. There were changes, the most obvious registered in the newfound bulk of my arms, legs, and chest. I'd always been in top shape, even when my baseball career started to fade, but the muscles of the last two years were earned the blue-collar way of construction: heavy lifting and hauling, an occasional fight, or the grueling exercise of looking off into the distance of my own regret.

"What you need, Maceo?" This time Cutty's question was not about my hair.

"I need to find Holly. You heard anything?"

"I heard the police are looking at him for this murder, and that's killing your granddaddy."

I snickered, and the pointed sound chased away the easy, back-and-forth banter of my homecoming. "If I remember right, Daddy Al didn't want anything to do with Holly when I left." Or me, but I kept that thought to myself.

"You think he meant that, after the smoke settled and all his sons were gone? He was mad, and he had every right to be mad, but he still loves both of you." He caught my skeptical look in the mirror and frowned. "I guess part of being young is being hardheaded, huh? Your granddaddy missed you, that's all you need to believe. You been gone too long, boy."

It was the second time he'd called me that in less than five minutes. I wanted to laugh, not at the sentiment, because I knew he meant it, but at the nickname. Boy? Had I ever been that? I was convinced my soul had been recycled, handed to me already injured and used.

"If you hadn't left, you would know that. If you'd stayed and talked to your granddaddy . . ."

"There wasn't anything to say."

"There was plenty to say. You and Holly fucked up, you made some bad choices, but Albert loves you both."

"Bad choices? That's one way to put it."

"Well, what would you call it, then? You must've spent the past two years coming up with something. If you didn't you woulda blew your brains out by now."

Cutty wasn't one to mince words so I took a minute to answer him with the same clarity. I ran over all the conversations I'd had with myself on the road, all the taunts I'd heard from my father, and it kept coming back, stalling on the same thing. Oakland. To me the city was a way station for lost souls, a holding station for the damaged hordes of lost boys roaming the city. I said as much to Cutty.

"Maceo," he cut me off, "you don't believe that shit, do you?"

"What you mean?"

"I can tell that you halfway believe what you're saying, but I know you ain't that stupid."

My temper flared. "When did you ever lead a perfect life?"

"The twelfth of never, but I own what I've done. Nowadays everybody got a dramatic reason for why they act a fool."

"Well, sometimes the reasons get complicated."

Cutty plugged the clippers into the wall and tightened the drape around my neck. "You can lie to me if you want to, Maceo, long as you tell yourself the truth."

"What's the truth?"

"The truth is that you boys killed this city, and each other, because you were greedy and lazy."

"Knowing Cotton, knowing Holly, knowing me, you believe that?"

"Knowing your granddaddy I believe every word. Ya'll took the easy way out and now you want to cry foul after trapping yourselves in bullshit."

He spun my chair around and I faced the intense gazes of Lester and Greavy. The two old men obviously agreed with his assessment.

Cutty's hand came down on my shoulder, maybe to straighten me in the chair, possibly to take the sting out of his words. "But I'm glad you're back either way."

I grunted.
Nichelle D. Tramble|Author Q&A

About Nichelle D. Tramble

Nichelle D. Tramble - The Last King
Nichelle D. Tramble is at work on the sequel to The Dying Ground, and lives in California and New York. This is her first novel.

Author Q&A

A Talk with Nichelle D. Tramble


In your novels, a sense of place is very important. The city of Oakland almost becomes another character. Why did you choose this city?
Oakland, because of its size and demographics, lent itself perfectly to a hardboiled coming-of-age that takes places in the late 80s/early 90s when the urban landscape changed so dramatically because of the influx of drugs, specifically crack cocaine. I was intrigued by the way that money, crime, and all the satellite businesses of the drug trade destroyed entire families, communities, and as a result sucked the life out of quite a few American cities. Oakland was a place that I knew well, so I made the easy decision and chose it as a location. The fun of that decision is the fact that Oakland itself is a physically beautiful place (the redwoods, the hills, Lake Merritt, the San Francisco Bay, the architecture), yet the characters are so trapped in their own darkness and pain that they cannot see beyond their own problems. As a result, they take Oakland and all it has to offer for granted, and transfer the most negative parts of themselves onto the city.


Do you believe that Oakland is a city that you can’t escape from?
No, I don’t believe that at all, but I think these characters believe it with all of their heart. For a certain type of personality, hometowns in general–whether they’re Honolulu, New Orleans, or Anchorage–can function as a trap if you’re not at peace with your place in the larger world. Which, of course, is the one of the many problems that plague my main character, Maceo Redfield, and some, but not all, of his friends.


Many of the younger characters in THE LAST KING who have lifted themselves out of poverty have done so either through dealing drugs or defying the odds to become professional athletes. What does this say about life in the inner cities?
Because of the iconic imagery of African American men in sports and music, those two avenues may appear to be the only outlets for a certain type of young man. It’s a well worn path, and not to take away from individual accomplishments, it might seem the easier path.


Cotton is an NBA star whose career is in jeopardy after an unknown woman’s body is discovered in his hotel room. This plot point is extremely timely given today’s headlines. How were you able to be so prescient?
I started researching and writing THE LAST KING in 1999, after I completed THE DYING GROUND. This was years before the current situation involving Kobe Bryant, but, unfortunately, crimes against women that involve athletes–whether they be high school, college or professional–are abundant and I didn’t want for research material. What initially sparked this particular story thread, however, was the division in opinion regarding the Mike Tyson-Desiree Washington case. The men and women I talked to had such strong yet opposing opinions about the subject, that I admit to being a little shocked by them. And when I broke it down a little further, opinions also differed along class lines, and the generational divide made for the strangest bedfellows. Those arguments stayed with me for years, and remained at the core of THE LAST KING.

There are many interesting female characters in THE LAST KING–from the tragic figure of Cissy to the high-price call girl Sonny to Cotton’s wife, Allaina. How did the conventions of the noir genre play into your portrayal of these women?
I love the classic noir femme fatales, from both literature and film, and I tried to infuse Sonny with a little bit of that spirit. From a writing standpoint there’s just no beating a female character who is crafty, tragic and flawed but determined to live life on her own terms.


In THE LAST KING you write, “A Black boy without a father. You know that story, right? You’ve heard it. It’s a story so old it doesn’t even break your heart anymore.” How does this theme manifest itself in the lives of Maceo, Cotton, and Holly?
Maceo is the character who utters those lines, but because all three men are defeatist at heart, I think that each of them believes the words. As fatherless boys, they work to fulfill this dark prophecy in their own individual ways. Even if they’ve never articulated the thought to one another, it’s the link that holds them together.


The world of THE LAST KING is a world of absolutes–absolute love, absolute hate, absolute loyalty and absolute betrayal. Is this a reflection of life in Oakland in the early 1990s or is this a convention of the noir novel?
Definitely a tenet of noir. Noir, for the most part, is filled with stock characters (i.e., the double-crossing femme fatale, the angst-ridden hero, etc.) that writers then color in with specifics which make one brooding hero different from the next. Noir, to me, is also a world of heightened emotion, impossible stakes, and individual worlds to lose. In THE DYING GROUND, each character was called on to sacrifice the one thing that is most dear to them. In THE LAST KING, the characters are forced to open their eyes to the most painful things in their lives.


What’s next for Maceo Redfield?
When we leave Maceo at the end of THE LAST KING, it’s 1992 and he’s 25 years old. When we see him again, in book three, he’ll be just short of his 30th birthday, a little more sure of his place in the world, but plagued, as always, by demons both old and new.


And what’s next for Nichelle Tramble?
A third book featuring Maceo Redfield, and BIG GAME HUNTING, a mystery set in Los Angeles, with a female protagonist who is the polar opposite of Maceo.

Praise

Praise

“[A] remarkable young novelist . . . Tramble proves herself an unpretentious poet whose sense of the inner city, its argot and its inhabitants, is almost romantic—and certainly vivid.”
—Philadelphia Weekly

  • The Last King by Nichelle D. Tramble
  • June 01, 2004
  • Fiction - Mystery & Detective
  • One World/Strivers Row
  • $13.95
  • 9780375758829

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