Excerpt from Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Tropic of Night

by Michael Gruber

Tropic of Night
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2003, 432 pages
    Feb 2004, 480 pages

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I suppose I was on autopilot by then, in some kind of trance from the African thing that was happening, which is not all that uncommon among the Olo, but still unexpected in a South Dade mini-mart, and that is the only excuse for what I did next. The mother did not stay put but came after me in drunken rage, cursing, and I whipped around and caught her left wrist and spun her out in jodan-aigamae-nagewaza. In aikido dojos, subjects of this throw go easily into a forward roll to their right and bounce up smiling; but now, in the dark alley, the woman's 160 or so pounds were lofted at speed through the night with the force of her own charge, and her head struck the corner of the Dumpster parked there with a dreadful, final sound.

Thick blood poured from an angular dent in her head, and a dark stain was spreading along the center seam of her Bermudas. She was as still as the loaded trash bags that surrounded her. I did not check to see if she was as dead as she appeared, but went to the child and took her hand. She came willingly with me and we got in my car and rolled. As I drove, I looked back into the sickly light of the mini-mart window and saw that the proprietor was still messing with the disassembled pieces of her slush machine. She had never looked at me. I had touched nothing in the store. I asked the child what her name was, but she didn't answer. By the time we passed Dadeland, she was asleep.

I learned what her name was the next morning in the Miami Herald, a four-inch story on the first page of the Metro section. Mureena Davis, twenty-six, had died in an alley behind a mini-mart at 14230 Dixie Highway. The police believed that she had stumbled while drunk and struck her head, fracturing her skull and breaking her neck. Death was instantaneous. Ms. Davis, a single mother, had no relatives in the area, having lately arrived from Imokalee, and lived alone in an apartment near the scene. Authorities were concerned about the woman's daughter, Luz, age four, who was seen in the mini-mart moments before the accident by Mrs. Ellen Kim, the clerk on duty. A police search of the immediate area was unsuccessful. Anyone having any information about the child is urged to call . . .

No mention of a mysterious skinny white lady at the scene. And after that, nothing. Something like a million children disappear every year in this country, all but a tiny fraction either runaway teens or divorce snatches. Except where there is clear evidence of foul play, most urban police departments treat these cases with the attention they give to littering the pavement. I think we are safe for the moment. From the authorities, I mean. Not safe safe, no.

At the Winn-Dixie, under the maddening lights, designed to put you in a trance and make all the food look more delicious than it will taste at home ("Trance States in the Supermarket: A Commercial Application of Shamanistic Technique," possibly a paper there for someone; not me, though), we cruise the aisles, the child perched up on the basket seat, selecting nutritious foods. I have a good understanding of nutrition actually, since a female anthropologist will necessarily have much to do with women out in the field and the women universally feed the tribe. I talk to her in a low, comforting voice, discussing the various items and how they help us grow big and strong. She seems interested, if hesitant. I doubt she has much experience with conversation, and the visit to the minimart that I observed the night I met her was probably a typical shopping expedition. I let her smell the fruit. I open a package of ginger snaps and offer her one, which she shyly accepts and eats, with a deliberation that is painful to watch. We buy a lot of fruit and vegetables, rice, bread, cookies, cereals, milk, butter, cheese, ice cream, red beans, peanut butter, strawberry jam, mayonnaise, eggs, and a piece of snapper I will broil tonight, perhaps with a baked potato and a salad, with ice cream for dessert. Maybe I will even keep some of it down. No meat, though, nothing so red.

The foregoing is excerpted from Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

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