Paper Gods: New Excerpt
Paper Gods by Goldie Taylor is a debut thriller where the mayor of Atlanta and a washed-up reporter investigate a series of assassinations and uncover a conspiracy that reaches into the heart of the city’s political machine.
Mayor Victoria Dobbs Overstreet is a Harvard-trained attorney and Spelman alum, married to a celebrated heart surgeon, mother to beautiful twin girls, and a political genius. When her mentor, ally, and friend Congressman Ezra Hawkins is gunned down in Ebenezer Baptist Church, Victoria finds a strange piece of origami–a “paper god”–tucked inside his Bible. These paper gods turn up again and again, always after someone is killed. Someone is terrorizing those who are close to Mayor Dobbs, and she can’t shake the feeling that the killer is close to her, too.
A small commotion kicked up when Ezra Hawkins entered the sanctuary. Church folks laughed, hugging deep and glad-handing as they greeted him with effusive good mornings. The happy sounds from happy people washed over the gentleman from Georgia like the ripples of the bent creek he played in as a boy. He took his usual seat on the end of the center-front pew and laid his Bible on his lap.
Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows, polished hardwoods, and various and sundry dignitaries, he knew his mama, the late Julie Esther Hawkins, would be proud to see her son on the cover of the July issue of Ebony magazine. Be it not for her husband’s sister, Miss Julie’s boy would’ve been slinging roasted duck sandwiches out at the Lake Club over in Greensboro. He was now, by the grace of God, an esteemed member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a living legend and civil rights icon known the world over. But here in Ebenezer Baptist Church, the place he called home, he was simply known as Brother Hawkins.
He was overcome with a sudden rush of joy when he saw her coming his way. At just over five feet eight, her slender yet curvaceous frame filled out a tan linen dress to perfection as she strutted across the altar. Perfect, too, was her shock of coral brown hair, swooped up and pinned into an elegant bun just above the nape of her neck.
“Good morning, Congressman,” Victoria said with a bright, expectant smile.
He leapt up and wrapped his arms around her.
“I am so happy you could come,” he whispered in her ear. “I didn’t think you would make it this morning.”
She kissed his meaty cheek and said, “There is no place I’d rather be.”
An usher made room on the already crowded bench. A pianist opened with a selection, as the mayor smoothed the back of her dress and took her seat.
Hawkins, still beaming, leaned over and said, “And where is the good doctor?”
“‘Good’ is being generous. He’s probably walking the fifth hole over at East Lake by now,” she said with a shrug.
It was the kind of indifference that came with a decade of marriage, two children, and the rigors of running the city, Hawkins figured. A trivial remark, yes, but one he did not miss.
“Indeed,” he said with a slight grimace.
“We’re fine. I promise,” the mayor assured him. “If they outlawed golf clubs, my husband would gladly do twenty years in the federal penitentiary.”
After the call to worship, two selections from the Mass Choir, and a reading of the morning announcements, the Reverend Dr. Benjamin P. Melham took to the pulpit. The air-conditioning unit was on the fritz, Melham explained, and a repairman was working on it. The pastor apologized for the heat as a team of ushers dutifully handed out cardboard fans emblazoned with the face of a decidedly black Jesus.
Hawkins had been on the search committee when the bookish-looking preacher from Osceola, Arkansas, turned up at the annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting a few years back and put his name in the running. The son of a junkman and part-time preacher, Hawkins found the young minister mesmerizing at the time, and the trial sermon a few weeks later drew two dozen new members.
Melham opened his sermon this morning with a prayer and a piece of Scripture. Dressed in a flowing black cassock with royal purple and silk piping, as usual he took his time getting to the point.
While the preacher rambled on, Hawkins stared down at his Italian leather wing tips. The gone years weighed on him like a wool suit in a high sun. There was the summer of ’64 in Mississippi, and that Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge the following year. Then came Memphis and the sanitation strike. He had been with Dr. King in the pulpit at Mason Temple that fateful night in ’68.
But knowing that you are going to die, if not the particular moment, is like being inside the mind of God, Hawkins thought. Brother Martin, rest his soul, likely found some consolation in that, but it was the kind of comfort that eluded Hawkins now. A season of grieving would be upon them again, he knew. Whether it would be hours or days, he treasured these last moments all the more.
Three miles away, in a split-level bungalow along the northwesterly edge of Candler Park, Hampton woke up with a dull pain in his neck. He fumbled around in the nightstand for a bottle of generic aspirin, but quickly decided going for water wasn’t worth the trouble. Somewhere in the darkness, his cell phone was humming, and a stream of sirens swept by outside. Hampton let out a groan.
These days, getting out of bed before noon was an accomplishment. Hampton was satisfied if he could start a day with clean underwear, which at the moment seemed unlikely. The laundry was piling up and he was content to remain bare-ass in bed anyway. At least it was Sunday, he thought with some small bit of relief, and that was enough to allay the slight pang of shame tapping at the walls of his belly. Hampton exhaled, and gently rubbed the crick in his neck, his pale bony fingers pressing against the tender knot at the top his spine.
His open laptop glowed from a corner table across the room. The thought of another half-finished and overdue feature story stung like warm whiskey tumbling down his throat. He still had a paying job at the Atlanta Times-Register. Though, at the moment, even that was like a drunken sea dog that had the nerve to burp and beg for more. He used to tell himself that Atlanta was going to be a stopover on his way to the big leagues. A man like him, at least with his academic credentials, belonged in D.C. or New York. That wild-eyed dream was now wasting away in a bucket of hopes he had yet to live.
He was thirty-nine and, while he was stuck covering the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park, younger and lesser reporters had Pentagon press badges and tossed back their copious goblets of wine on live TV at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Others posted thousand-word columns on much-ballyhooed political blogs and watched their pedantic ramblings go viral. He hated watching them spew their vagaries under the klieg lights from cable news studios, while he was marooned in Atlanta “covering Dixie like the dew.”
Just as he’d settled in and learned to love, or at least tolerate, the Atlanta Braves, everything fell apart. Getting reassigned to the weekly Sunday Living & Arts section was due punishment for his many foibles, he reckoned, but the bills were springing out of the cracks like kudzu. Debt collectors representing various doctors, medical facilities, and credit card companies chasing maxed-out balances still called sunup to sundown, six days a week. He’d been sued twice that he knew of, but had never answered the summons. The rent was current and the electricity was still on, and for now that had to be enough.
Such were the spoils of war, the dregs of a costly divorce. The three-paged, double-spaced final decree had left him penniless. He’d tried in vain to convince himself that the two-bedroom house with its outdated kitchen, complete with matching gold harvest appliances and water-stained linoleum tiling, was a temporary setback. But right now, Hampton wondered if he might not be better off banking a union-backed pension like his father, who did thirty-three years on the assembly line at the Chevy plant back in Michigan.
His father shook his fist in the air and called him all kinds of no-good sons-a-bitches the day Hampton told him he wanted to be a journalist. Hampton was more than happy to get out of Flint and even happier to escape his father’s whiskey-fueled tirades.
He buried his head under a pillow when his work-issued smartphone buzzed again. He muttered something indiscernible and fought off the impulse to answer it. Whoever it was and whatever they wanted could wait.
It’s Sunday, damn it. We’re closed.
A few months back, his managing editor, Tucker Stovall, unceremoniously dumped him from the statehouse beat, suspended him indefinitely from his weekly political column, and took him off the editorial board. Hampton thought it was the beginning of the end. The drinking had been too much, the girls too young and pretty. One more false move, Hampton calculated, and he’d be lining up for Styrofoam plates of pork and beans down at the Union Mission. Then came the car accident that nearly took his life.
“Think of this as some paid time off,” Tucker said. “When you’re ready, we’ll get you back into the thick of things.”
“You want to fire me?” Hampton shouted, gripping the cushioned armrests of his wheelchair. “Be a gawd-damn man, why don’t you, and fire me!”
“It doesn’t have to come to that,” his editor said evenly. “You were, after all, sleeping with an intern.”
Tucker calmly shut the glass door and closed the blinds.
“You don’t need me to tell you how good you are,” Tucker said. “Don’t let your career end here. Take the assignment and do what I know you can do with it.”
Lying in bed, unsure of the time, still ignoring his cell phone and cooking up yet another excuse for yet another blown deadline, Hampton could hear Tucker admonishing him in his head:
Take the assignment and do what I know you can do with it.
Hampton was sitting up now. Only his mother called on Sundays, and he wasn’t in the mood for that. She’d been asking about his physical therapy sessions, and he didn’t have the heart to tell her that he hadn’t kept an appointment in a good long while. Inman, his golden retriever, tugged at the bedcovers.
“C’mon now. Cut me some slack.”
Hampton eyed the empty wheelchair stationed at the foot of his bed.
Inman sat on his haunches and whined. Hampton gave in. He slipped on a house robe, maneuvered himself into the wheelchair, and rolled himself to the kitchen. Inman followed him. The morning feeding used to be Claire’s job. The marriage had been short and the split hasty, but his ex-wife had been kind enough to leave the pooch with him.
Hampton poured a mound of dry food into one dish and filled a second with cool tap water. Inman watched intently now, his tail wagging with delight. The dog’s marvelously light brown eyes, the way he loved him better than anyone else, made Hampton feel as if there was at least some good left in the world.
“There you go, you greedy mongrel,” he said, laughing.
Inman buried his snout in the plastic bowl. Fifteen minutes later, Hampton was sipping coffee and thumbing through The New York Times Book Review, still blissfully naked under the terry cloth robe, when his phone chimed again. He grumbled and finally answered.
“Where’ve you been?” Tucker’s voice thundered. “I’ve been calling you since noon.”
“Long night. Look, Tuck, I know I promised to turn in that piece by Friday press time, but something came up,” Hampton started to explain.
“Congressman Hawkins is dead.”
“He was murdered, Hamp.”
Copyright © 2018 by Goldie Taylor.