The Tempest Tales: A Novel-in-Stories

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9781416599494: The Tempest Tales: A Novel-in-Stories
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From the acclaimed bestselling author of the Easy Rawlins series who has been deemed “one of America’s best mystery writers” (The New York Times Book Review) comes a tale about a murdered man who does not want to go to heaven or hell—he’d rather have his old life in Harlem.

Tempest Landry is neither a good nor a bad man, but an average man trying to survive. Sure, he stole money from his mother’s church, but he used it to pay for his aunt’s groceries while she was recovering from pneumonia. And yes, Tiny Henderson went to jail because of Tempest’s white lie, but the brutal rapist and murderer deserved it. After a cop “accidentally” kills Tempest, Tempest is denied access to heaven for his sins. But he brazenly refuses St. Peter’s command to proceed to hell—he would just as soon settle for his old life in Harlem. Temporarily stymied, St. Peter grants Tempest his wish—but in a different body and with a guardian angel following him around who is determined to convert him to righteousness. But the devil is also in the running for Tempest’s soul—and he wants it in a bad way. In this episodic and humorous homage to Langston Hughes’ prescient narrator Jess B. Simple, readers are lured into the never-ending debate on the nature of good and evil. The Tempest Tales explores the provoking questions: Is sin the same for people of different races? Is sin judged the same for the poor as it is for the rich? And ultimately, who really gets to decide?

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About the Author:

Walter Mosley is the New York Times bestselling author of five Easy Rawlins mysteries: Devil in A Blue Dress, A Red Death, White Butterfly, Black Betty, and A Little Yellow Dog; three non-mystery novels, Blue Light, Gone Fishin', and R. L.'s Dream; two collections of stories featuring Socrates Fortlow, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, for which he received the Anisfield Wolf Award, and which was an HBO movie; and a nonfiction book, Workin' On The Chain Gang. Mosley is also the author of the Leonid McGill, and Fearless Jones mystery series, The Tempest Tales and Six Easy Pieces. He is a former president of the Mystery Writers of America, a founder of the PEN American Center Open Book Committee, and is on the board of directors of the National Book Awards. A native of Los Angeles, he now lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

LIFE AND DEATH

TEMPEST LANDRY DIDN'T see himself as a bad man. He had a wife, whom he loved, a steady girlfriend, who loved him passionately, and various women on the side. All in all he had fourteen children, which was impressive because he was only thirty-four years old when he died.

Not a thief by nature, he would pick up a dollar tip if it was lying on a table and no one was looking. If there was a key in a door he'd turn the lock to see what was on the other side. If a man was selling anything from steak knives to steaks on the corner he wouldn't ask for a vendor's license if the street salesman didn't charge tax.

Tempest loafed when he could and worked when he had to. He remembered his wife's anniversary and the birthdays of all his children and girlfriends. And though he had been arrested on various occasions he had never been convicted of a felony nor had he spent more than a week in jail.

Tempest wasn't ashamed of his history, but neither was he the victim of pride. He had been in seven serious fights since the age of fourteen and though some blood had been shed no Mosley one had died. He was always courteous with policemen, and so in the last few seconds of life he was miffed that they could shoot him down the way they did when he had never so much as used the "f" word when they rousted him in the street or from out of his own bed.

In a way it was technology that killed him and not the police at all. His steady girl, Alfreda, had bought him a mini disc player that didn't work right. It would get half the way through a tune and then switch channels or tracks or something so that suddenly it would be playing a whole other song. Tempest was walking up Adam Clayton Powell in Harlem, headed home to show his wife the new toy. Little did he know that an armed robber, Frank Elsworthy, had just robbed the new Starbucks coffee shop on 125th.

Tempest was wearing tan slacks and a dark, square-cut shirt, and so was Frank. They were both Negro and under forty. The thief was armed and desperate; Tempest had a mini disc player in his pocket that wouldn't play right, which made him mad.

And so when Frank cut east on 127th the police missed it and set their sights on Tempest. There were sirens but Lauryn Hill drowned them out. In the middle of "Killing Me Softly" the music went dead. Tempest shoved his hand in his pocket and pulled out the mini disc player, ready to throw it on the pavement. All of a sudden he got the twitching fits. Something was hitting him and then he was on the ground, tasting blood.

Lauryn Hill began singing again as Tempest faded from life.

THE NEXT THING TEMPEST knew, he was standing in a long line of people that ran down from a steep mountain trail. To his left there was a hazy landscape where furtive figures moved back and forth deep inside the gloomy fog. To the right was a vast plain of rolling hills and valleys under a bright sky with clouds that made him think of God.

Though there were people before and behind Tempest, many thousands of them, for some reason he couldn't focus on anyone's face. Miles up ahead a large man sat at a granite table, hunched over a large book that Tempest knew instinctively was a volume in the great compilation of the sins of man.

It seemed odd to Tempest that he could see the old man and his book so clearly when they were many miles away, but he still could not make out the face of the man, or woman, behind him.

St. Peter looked up at a sad soul before him and read a long list of complaints that we accounting angels had compiled during the man's life. There were thefts and lies, an abused child, and some sort of insurance fraud that Tempest didn't quite understand.

The man, whoever he was, had stolen a jar of cash out of his dead mother's home before his brother arrived from St. Louis for the funeral. The list was long but the judge read it patiently, without anger or acrimony.

The man, for his part, nodded every time a complaint was read, saying, "I know, I know," the saddest defeat in his voice.

Finally Peter looked up with blue-gray eyes that had deep furrows at their corners. He seemed so sorrowful that Tempest felt near tears. Peter uttered a word and with only a gasp the sinner turned to his left and wandered off into the foggy limbo that Tempest now understood must be the outer edge of hell.

It was then that Tempest realized that each one of the ever growing line of dead souls had witnessed this judgment. This was death, and every man, woman, and child who died were onlookers to eternity.

Tempest had never been a patient man. His mother said that instead of crying he thanked the doctor for his liberation. "He was crawlin' by two months," Mrs. Landry used to say. "He was runnin' before he could walk."

It was true that Tempest never sat still.

"Maybe if they taught history on the basketball court," he told his teacher, "I might get somethin', but you know it's hell sittin' in this chair."

Tempest was impatient, fretful, and always on the verge of getting angry, but not on that final line. He approached his maker's judge with the same deep interest he had for Oprah and Doctor Phil. Several times he tried to engage his neighbors in conversation about the nature of some sins. Like the woman who had murdered her sister for using her own perfume while committing adultery with her husband.

"That there's a hard one," Tempest said to the soul in front of him. "I guess the woman borrowed the perfume to save her sister the pain of smelling another woman's scent on her man. Do you think they both got sent to the left?"

The soul ahead did not answer. Tempest wondered if he even heard him. Maybe everybody was chattering away, Tempest thought, but the rule of heaven had made them mute.

After many thousands of judgments; after millions of sins, from blasphemy to murder, Tempest found himself standing before St. Peter.

"Tempest Landry," the judge spoke.

"Here," Tempest said.

The old man might have smiled before turning the page of his great book.

"You stabbed Quentin Sams on July sixteenth when you were only fifteen."

"Excuse me, your honor, but that there was in self-defense. Q-boy was reachin' for the pistol in his pocket when he saw me kissin' on a girl who had broke it off with him that mornin'."

Peter looked up from his book with pique in his visage. No one had seen such a look since the Mahatma had refused the refuge of heaven.

Running a finger down the page Peter again began reading, "At eighteen you stole three hundred and fourteen dollars from your mother's own church."

"Actually," Tempest said, holding up his hands as if to apologize for his impudence, "I know it looks like I stole from the church but really I only took from Reverend Langly. I mean I had seen him down at Bertha Burnett's cat house throwin' away the congregation's money on the women and liquor. And I used that money to pay for my auntie's groceries while she was out of work and recoverin' from the pneumonia. The way I saw it I was takin' the church's money away from the devil and puttin' it to work for God the way it was meant to be used."

Peter's stare this time lasted more than the three months needed to separate sin from saintliness in the arrogant Joan of Arc.

When Peter went back to his notes there was no compassion left in his voice.

"You bore false witness against Tiny Henderson when you knew that he was innocent. Your lies," all of us on duty that day ere sure that the word lies was not in the record, "helped to convict this man of a brutal crime which he did not commit."

"Now, judge, I admit that there's some gray area in these other accusations but in the case of Henderson versus Harlemin- general I think that you would have to agree that it was my duty to bear false witness against that neighbor."

"What do you mean?" St. Peter asked.

This was unthinkable. No guardian of heaven's gate had ever questioned a soul before him. Never. The choir began murmuring. The line of millions of souls heard our consternation as beautiful music.

"I mean," Tempest replied to the keeper's question, "that Tiny Henderson had brutalized, raped, and murdered throughout our community and had not been convicted or jailed for years. I knew a man that he killed. I heard him brag on it. So when I lied before that magistrate it was really a truth, just that he hadn't done one thing but he had done another."

Peter slammed the book shut and pointed angrily toward the foggy limbo that led unerringly to eternal damnation.

"Go to hell!" the saint commanded.

"No," Tempest said.

The choir went silent.

"No?"

"You said what I did and I gave you my reasons why. But you didn't come back and explain why my whys were wrong."

Another month of celestial time passed as Peter studied the strange man before him.

"You honestly feel that you are virtuous?" Peter asked.

"I ain't no virgin," Tempest said. "But then again, I ain't no sinner neither."

"Then you will not follow my direction and enter into damnation?"

"Not unless you can prove to me I done wrong. Either that or throw me in the pit yourself."

Peter nodded and Tempest disappeared from the eternal procession of justice.

THREE YEARS AFTER HIS death Tempest reappeared on the corners of 135th and Lenox. He was wearing the same clothes but his body was changed. He was still a black man, still under forty but he had a new face that no one would have recognized as Tempest Landry.

I walked up to him then and said, "Hello, Tempest. Welcome back to earth."

"Who are you?"

"I am your angel. Either vengeful or guardian, that is up to you."

"Angel? You mean that wasn't no dream?"

"Look in the glass," I said.

He followed my suggestion and fell back in shock.

"What happened to me?"

"The Infinite has thrown you back, Tempest. And I have been sent along to monitor your progress."

"Progress in what?"

"You told the keeper that you saw no sin in your life."

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