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Time's Undoing

A Novel

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On sale Feb 28, 2023 | 10 Hours and 49 Minutes | 978-0-593-67133-7
| Grades 9-12
A searing and tender novel about a young Black journalist’s search for answers in the unsolved murder of her great-grandfather in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, decades ago—inspired by the author’s own family history

Birmingham, 1929: Robert Lee Harrington, a master carpenter, has just moved to Alabama to pursue a job opportunity, bringing along his pregnant wife and young daughter. Birmingham is in its heyday, known as the “Magic City” for its booming steel industry, and while Robert and his family find much to enjoy in the city’s busy markets and vibrant nightlife, it’s also a stronghold for the Klan. And with his beautiful, light-skinned wife and snazzy car, Robert begins to worry that he might be drawing the wrong kind of attention. 
 
2019: Meghan McKenzie, the youngest reporter at the Detroit Free Press, has grown up hearing family lore about her great-grandfather’s murder—but no one knows the full story of what really happened back then, and his body was never found. Determined to find answers to her family’s long-buried tragedy and spurred by the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, Meghan travels to Birmingham. But as her investigation begins to uncover dark secrets that spider across both the city and time, her life may be in danger.  
 
Inspired by true events, Time’s Undoing is both a passionate tale of one woman’s quest for the truth behind the racially motivated trauma that has haunted her family for generations and, as newfound friends and supporters in Birmingham rally around Meghan’s search, the uplifting story of a community coming together to fight for change.
Prologue
1929
 
Four hours ‘til dawn. The single streetlamp at the alleyway splays veiled illumination on the wet cobblestone. The rumble and squeak of streetcars ended two hours ago, and the in-a-hurry-owner of the diner hauls out the last of the garbage which tumbles onto the slick red bricks as he slams the door.
Cress lifts the collar of his tight-fitting jacket against curly brown hair. Alert. Smoking. Shifting from one leg to the other. Leaning into the shadows every time he hears loud voices from the street.
I can’t feel the rain nor smell it, but I sense its fragrance mixed with the relentless forsythia creeping through every patch of dirt.  Anna Kate often remarked that the flowers are her favorite part of living in Birmingham.
A car engine’s hum grows louder. Cress melts into the darkness when  the blue sedan eases forward and idles under the lamp. The sight of it passes a shiver my body doesn’t register. Cress steps forward and drops his smoke, grinding the butt under his boot. He shoves both hands deep into the pockets of his dungarees.
The broad-shouldered detective gets out of the car, moves to the front bumper and stops. His hat cocked back. He stares at Cress in the alley then swivels his head to take in his surroundings. He nonchalantly swipes a hand down the breast of his coat. That’s where he keeps his revolver.
Cress waits. No longer fidgeting. Squaring his body. He lifts his hands from his pockets and leaves them dangling at his thighs. Finally the big man walks toward him.
“You’ve been asking for me, boy?”
“Yeah. I owe you money. I got it here,” Cress slides a hand into his jacket.
The man tenses.
Cress extends a palm.
Do these two know each other?
The detective closes the gap between them. He’s at least four inches taller but when he draws close, Cress grabs his coat sleeve yanking the big man forward. The guy slips, but doesn’t fall so Cress hits him in the face with his fist—three times—like a sledge hammer on a slab of concrete. The man sinks fumbling for his inside pocket. Cress thrashes him again and again while the struggling detective claws at his assailant’s legs and arms trying to right himself. Cress slides and pivots like a welterweight but his opponent’s size and strength gives him an advantage and Cress loses his footing. Now they’re kneeling face-to-face on the wet pavement. The big man snatches Cress by the hair but he’s not expecting the headbutt. Nor the punch to his solar plexus.
For a split second the fight pauses. The two stare at each other with gaping mouths and bared teeth.
When the detective grabs at his coat I think he’s after the gun, but his hand comes away covered in blood. He’s been knifed. Cress thrusts the blade two more times until the man slumps over.
This man-to-man battle has been quiet. Neither letting out more than a grunt. Cress lifts to his feet, rubbing at his scalp, looking around. He stares at the body then aims his boot for a rib-shattering kick.
“That’s for my sister,” he says then leans over to wipe the knife on the man’s overcoat. Cress turns away, hurrying towards the opposite end of the alley. The glow of a match spirals then extinguishes in a puddle.
The detective lays unmoving on the alley’s surface. His left arm stretching to escape. His legs mixing with spilled garbage and soggy cardboard boxes.
 
 
Chapter One
The Decision  
1929
 
It’s quitting time and a group of my coworkers are in conversation in the millwork’s parking lot. One casually leans against my brand new Franklin Victoria Sedan. I take offense.
“Get off my car, Arthur. I spent a lot of time on that wax job.”
“Boy, nobody’s bothering your damn car. You think you’re all big and bad just ‘cause you got this Franklin, but I ain’t studyin’ you.” 
It’s been eighty plus degrees all day and the heat has me on edge. I consider Arthur for a moment. He’s a warehouse laborer. One of those redbone dudes who thinks his good hair is his ticket to success.  
“Maybe you could buy a new car,” I spit out, “if you stop spending your money on liquor, and cockfights.”
I regret the nagging-wife words as soon as they escape my mouth. I got no business telling another man how to spend his money. Arthur raises the stakes.
“I tell you one thing, Harrington, a fine woman like Anna Kate wouldn’t even think of marrying a blue-black fool like you if you wasn’t driving this new car.”
The gathered men whoop and holler at his retort. Hair tingles on my arms and the back of my neck. All my life I’ve tried to make up for my dark complexion. My expensive clothes, new car, light-skinned wife, and skills as a carpenter are proof I’m as good, or better, than any other man. People have told me to my face that I’m cocky. Shit, I’m twenty-eight years old, and nobody’s lackey. I ain’t looking for trouble but ain’t running away from it either, and on this sticky Florida evening I’m not in the mood to let the comment go unanswered—especially when Arthur’s defiant stare becomes a mocking smirk.
Without another word, my knuckles sink into the folds of his belly and the smile falls from his face as breath escapes his body. He’s strong and  taller so he rocks back but doesn’t drop.
“You motherfucker,” he yells and swings a fist glancing my chin.
For what seems like a minute we exchange blows. Our scuffle finally brings us to the ground where we wrestle and curse until the foreman pulls us apart. He’s a smart white man, six-four, two-hundred twenty pounds and hired because he knows how to handle the temperaments of laborers in a factory environment.
Both of us should have been fired, but only Arthur is let go. My carpentry skills have saved me. The grumbling about favoritism is growing so I’m offered an out-of-state assignment—work on the mansion of a Birmingham, Alabama millionaire. I don’t accept the job right away because Anna Kate doesn’t want to be separated from her family, and to tell the truth I don’t want to leave St. Petersburg either.  People know me here and I don’t want to start out in a new city where I’ll be just another colored man in the Deep South.
Two weeks after the confrontation at the mill, I’m involved in another incident. This time with a white man in downtown St. Pete. The guy demands I move my car so he doesn’t have to park next to a rain puddle. He’s drunk, and wants to impress the woman in his passenger seat. He shouts the worst insults, then gets out of his vehicle to challenge me. Instead of backing down, I retrieve a polishing rag from under my seat and begin buffing the front bumper of the Franklin. When he spits on my car, I knock him to the pavement. The screams of his lady passenger cause several people to look our way. I’m sure one of them will call the police. I jump behind the wheel of my car and drive away.
The next day I’m on my way out of town. Word has already gotten to me that the police are asking around town about a Negro who drives a fancy car. I have to temporarily abandon my nineteen-year-old, pregnant wife and young daughter in Florida. I take the carpentry job in Alabama because it seems, for now, the best thing to do.  I sure hope trouble won’t follow me to Birmingham.
 
Chapter Two
2019
 
It’s my fifth funeral in six months and I’m trying not to succumb to the despair I feel. Another Black man. This time in his early thirties. He’d been returning to his university teaching position after an impromptu lunch downtown with his fiancé who works at Quicken Loan. Walking fast because he was late for class, and texting the department secretary, he was unaware a patrol car had pulled to the sidewalk behind him. When the siren blared, Phillip Carter turned to look but kept walking. From there things escalated. 
He dropped his backpack as ordered, but refused to lean spread-eagle against the parking lot fence. A second officer approached with his gun drawn. Carter lifted the lanyard around his neck displaying his Wayne State University faculty ID. “I’m a professor,” he pleaded. “I’m on my way to teach a class.” The first cop responded with: “What’s in the bag?” Carter crouched to retrieve the bundle of graded papers in his backpack. That’s when both policemen fired their weapons.
Those are the details. I’m here, against the back wall of the church, to find something beyond the facts to engage our newspaper readers in the human elements of this story. The viewing of the body is still underway. I watch the somber crowd and make notes. I spot Carter’s fiancée in the first row flanked by her parents. I’ve seen her on the local news—grieving, poised, demanding justice. The shooting has prompted a half-dozen protests in Detroit along with campus demonstrations in Ann Arbor and East Lansing. The firing of both officers by the Chief of Police hasn’t appeased anybody.
I’ve briefly locked eyes a couple of times with an old Black man standing on the other side of the church. He’s dressed a bit too stylish for a funeral, in an out-of-date suit with a polka-dot bow tie. He’s coming my way.
“You’re a reporter?” he asks.
“For the Detroit Free Press.”
“Nice to meet you,” he offers a handshake. Now that he’s closer I notice a piece of stained wood hanging from a leather thread around his neck. It’s a small whistle.
“Yes sir. Same here,” I reply grasping his hand.
He stares at the casket in the front of the sanctuary.
“Why do they keep killing us?”
“I don’t know.”
“We’re running out of time to make things right. They can put men into Space, but they won’t make space for Black men.”
It’s a great quote, and I flip to a clean page in my notebook to jot it down. Before I can ask the man his full name he moves away to wait in the viewing line. After the funeral service, I search for him but he’s gone.
                                                                                                                                

 
Chapter Three
A Fresh Start
1929
 
I’m part of a five-man carpentry crew working on a residential project. We’re creating a grand entryway, foyer and ballroom for a local iron magnate’s mansion. The project involves several more months of work at top pay. It’s the kind of opportunity not many Black men will ever get.
But after two months alone in the so-called Magic City, longing for the regular company of my wife and daughter, I’m making my second trip from St. Pete to Birmingham.  I’m bringing them to live with me. Anna Kate’s not all that happy, and it took some convincing for her to agree to leave her people, but the arrangement will work out pretty well for me.
Travel in our Franklin is pleasant enough. Better than the cramped seats in the rear of a bus, and cooler than the sweltering train cars, but the roads are crude and chocked with holes. I’m lucky when there’s gravel or sand filling in the ruts. That’s especially true after we leave the Dixie Highway in Florida. Anna Kate is just over six months along but already big, and prefers to sit in the back with Mae where she has more leg room and can rest her swelling ankles. There is another advantage for her rear seat perch. We’re driving through towns that don’t want to see Negroes after dark, and on the open road I’m a pretty big target for the Klan. So to the casual observer, with my light-skinned wife as passenger, I could pass for a chauffeur.
My biggest worry right this moment is getting Anna Kate and Mae to a secure place for the night. Normally, I could grab a few hours of sleep here and there, but with my family I need decent sleeping accommodations. I’ve arranged with mama’s pastor to stay overnight at a tourist house owned by the local AME church just outside of Macon, Georgia. But first things first, I need to keep my full attention on avoiding the ruts that could break the car’s axle, and the white people who could take a disliking to us. 
It’s almost dusk before we reach the tourist house. Thankfully it’s next door to the church where I’m to pick up the key. My carpenter’s eye registers the door as solidly-built pine. I knock a few times before it opens.
“Pastor Swanson?” I ask of the man peering through the crack.
He’s tall, large and bearded. He reminds me of the stained-glass image of John the Baptist at mama’s church. His beefy hand clutches the handle of a lantern and he extends his arm so he can see my face, and I can better see his.  But this man with the cautious squint and one hand out of view is no baptizer. At least not with water.
“I’m Jacob. The church custodian. Are you Harrington?”
I nod. He glances over my shoulder toward my car. The church door briefly closes and opens again, the lantern replaced by a single key.  
“The house is already open. But lock yourself in at night. We’ve had a few problems  round here lately. Goodnight.”
Jacob shuts the door so swiftly my murmured ‘thank you’ is absorbed into the heavy portal. I hear the lock’s tumblers engage.
 Anna Kate already has the car door open and I lift her to her feet and grasp her elbow to steady her steps. My other arm is filled with a wriggling Mae who is tired and fussy. I push open the door to the tourist home. We pause a moment, staring into the dark, listening for intruders, critters, and ghosts before stepping inside.
The house has electricity—one of the reasons I chose it—and I search for the wall switch. The single bulb dangling from a cord wrapped in black tape casts more shadows than light, but the modest one-room structure is clean and welcoming. The front room has a threadbare sofa, a cushioned rocking chair, and a side table with a lamp. A creaking oak floor continues from the parlor area to a roomy kitchen on the left. Two wood-framed paper screens separate the common rooms from the sleeping area. There is only one bed, so I make a pallet for Mae. We’re all too tired to care about food, but Anna Kate finds a tin of loose tea in the cupboard. I light and stoke the coal under the single-burner stove, and she puts water in a pot. Even before the water boils Mae is asleep. I’m sprawled in the rocking chair close to sleep myself, but adjust my slumping shoulders when Anna offers a cup of tea with sugar.
I watch her prepare for bed. Washing her face and brushing her hair. She’s a beautiful woman—a girl really—and a good wife. 
“Robert, I’m so tired.”
“I know. You go ahead and lie down. I’ll be there shortly.”
It’s only because I had a steady job, and promised to treat Anna Kate gently, that her mother allowed me to marry her youngest daughter. I don’t know if she really loves me, but I adore her. She keeps a clean home and is an attentive mother. In the evenings, after a long day of sweating men, reeking varnish, and clinging sawdust, it lifts my spirits to see her. Even after two years of marriage her fair skin under my dark hands still causes a tremble in my spine.
The warm tea mixes with the heat of my thoughts, and I rise from the rocker to lay with my wife in a strange bed.
*A finalist for the Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery*
*An Indie Next Pick*
*A Left Coast Crime 2024 Lefty Award Nominee for the Best Historical Mystery*
*A finalist for the LA Times Book Prize, Mystery/Thriller Category*


“Head excels in this great pleasure of a crime novel. She infuses her challenging subject with a finely calibrated balance of vulnerability, care, and empowerment; the effect is galvanizing. . . . Few books feel more timely or needed than this one.”The Atlantic

"Head is wrestling with the sins of the past in this dual timeline crime novel. Head is a veteran mystery writer; Time’s Undoing, inspired by painful family history, is her finest work. After years covering the Black Lives Matter movement, Detroit-based writer Meghan McKenzie has done work she’s proud of, but she’s truly haunted by a story that’s never been told. After a strange incident, she goes south to Alabama to uncover the truth about the nearly century-old murder of her great-grandfather. Though that event is many decades old, in this town where everyone knows and minds everyone else’s business, the wounds feel realistically fresh — so the questions Meghan asks and the secrets she unearths quickly put her in danger. This small-town Southern crime novel is a penetrating page turner." —Boston Globe

“Inspired by the true story of the author’s own family, one of 2023’s hottest releases is a dual timeline and dual perspective murder mystery with one foot in 1929 and the other in 2019. . . . Head is a veteran author known for her well-loved Charlie Mack Motown Mystery detective series and this sharply observed stand-alone blending of historical fiction and mystery only burnishes that reputation.”—Oprah Daily

“Times Undoing is a harrowing yet beautiful journey into the heart of darkness that beats in the center of the American experience. A tour de force.”—S. A. Cosby, New York Times bestselling author of Razorblade Tears and Blacktop Wasteland

“The sort of book you don’t want to put downand you can’t forget once you’re finished.”—Detroit Free Press

“Head paints a vibrant picture of present-day Birmingham. . . . She also brings rich detail to the everyday lives of her characters in 1929. Time’s Undoing is an absorbing mystery and a moving lesson in Black history as it plays out in the lives of families through generations.”—Tampa Bay Times

“This small-town Southern crime novel is a penetrating page turner.” Carole V. Bell, The Boston Globe

“An outstanding stand-alone novel that excavates one woman’s family history wrapped in racism, violence, and legend. Head smoothly incorporates those themes in the gripping, believable plot of Time’s Undoing.”—South Florida Sun Sentinel

“Head . . . brings her gift for strong women protagonists and suspense to this tale about a young, Black, female journalist from Detroit on a dangerous quest. . . . Vivid and affecting . . . This heart-seizing tale even has a touch of the supernatural as it celebrates Black lives.”—Booklist (starred review)

“The parallel narratives work with poignancy and righteous rage. So many decades gone, so few inroads made into the racism at the foundation of United States history. Head and her Black colleagues in this genre are lifting up new stories, to everyone's benefit.”—NPR

“Depicts the power of friends and community . . . will please the author’s fans and readers who enjoy novels with strong women protagonists.”Library Journal

“[Time’s Undoing is] the latest book to register on the 'future classic seismograph.' . . . It is Cheryl A. Head’s ability to authenticate a direct (and emotional) throughline from the past to present that compels Time’s Undoing into becoming such an important reading experience.”—BOLO Books

“Based on a chapter in Cheryl A. Head’s own family tree, it’s a compelling examination of history and progress and how far still we have to go as a nation. With a light supernatural element, Time’s Undoing is a satisfying examination of how the past continues to affect the present, and of how allowing shame and bigotry to fester only continues to perpetuate violence.”Criminal Element

Time’s Undoing is a compelling tale of duality and strength. . . . [Head] beautifully weaves her own truths into those of her characters through authenticity and emotion, through puzzle pieces of her own. The connection between realities is undeniable, and Head’s attention to detail is what makes this story worth reading.”—Deep South Magazine

"This is a novel, smooth, highly readable, convincing." —Alabama Public Radio

“Time’s Undoing is a deeply absorbing and intricately woven story of racial injustice and the healing power of truth. It confronts the issue of police brutality on the epic scale of decades and generations whilst preserving the intimate, human detail that gives the novel its heart.”Eleanor Shearer, author of River Sing Me Home

“Time’s Undoing is a novel both timeless and timely, exploring the complicated connections between a young Black journalist embroiled in the Black Lives Matter movement who decides to investigate a long-standing family mystery: the unsolved murder of her great-grandfather in segregated Alabama decades ago. Cheryl A. Head writes a sensitive and searing tale based on personal family history, which is sure to linger long in the memory.”Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Diamond Eye

“Cheryl Head's storytelling skills are on full display in this enjoyable and piercing novel about one young woman's courageous search for answers about her family's past. Time's Undoing is a poignant meditation on how the legacies of both trauma—and triumph—shape our lives. Head's efforts to excavate the past in the pages of this novel is a painful reckoning with racism, but ultimately a hopeful exercise in understanding resilience, grace, and the importance of history to tell us who we are and who we might become, as individuals and as a country. Pull up a chair, book clubs, because there's lots to discuss!”—Christine Pride and Jo Piazza, bestselling authors of We Are Not Like Them

“Head’s novel provides not only an in-depth, fascinating portrait of a journalist in pursuit of a story, but also stands as a searing indictment of America’s racist legacy, from today’s BLM movement to the struggles of Black men and women a hundred years earlier. A suspenseful, immersive read that you won’t be able to put down.”—Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Magnolia Palace

“A captivating and rich narrative of history and murder. Laden with echoes of the long-standing racial bias between Black people and law enforcement, the dual timeline of this suspense-filled story tells of one woman's entanglement and reckoning with it. Immersive. Impassioned. Time's Undoing will have readers hooked from page one. Highly recommended.”—Abby Collette, USA Today bestselling author of Soul of a Killer

“Powerful, timely, emotional, and loaded with intensity, Cheryl Head’s Time's Undoing uses fiction to do what novels do bestshine a light on society while telling a page-turning story. In Meghan McKenzie, Head has created a fully realized protagonist who guides readers through a haunting tale that is based on true events. Urgent, riveting, and heartfeltI was immersed from page one.”—Alex Segura, bestselling author of Secret Identity

“Cheryl Head's Time's Undoing is truly mesmerizing. What a first-rate melding of painful past and hopeful future told by a master storyteller who gives readers a visceral look at the human cost of hate and fear and both heart and wings to redemptive peace. You won't be able to put it down. I couldn't.”—Tracy Clark, author of the Cass Raines Chicago Mystery series

“In Time's Undoing, Cheryl Head establishes herself as a literary star. The clarity of her storytelling unravels the hard truths of racism against Black people in this nation, and how the fight against such injustices is a constant, intentional choice. A must-read novel that is sure to be embraced by a wide audience.”—Naomi Hirahara, author of Clark and Division and the Mas Arai mystery series

“Cheryl A. Head's novel Time's Undoing, is a searing and utterly disturbing look at life for the ancestors, and what it meant to be Black and stay alive in the Jim Crow South. But it is also a hopeful and endearing story of love, loss, and the protection of our most precious commoditya family's history. This book will resonate with anyone who's ever looked at an old family photograph or listened to a story passed down through the generations and wondered, What if?”
Wanda M. Morris, award-winning author of All Her Little Secrets and Anywhere You Run

Time’s Undoing is time well spenta heartbreaking dual timeline tale about the murder of a Black man in 1929 Birmingham and his great-granddaughter’s dogged attempts to find out what happened ninety years later. Cheryl Head uses her own grandfather’s murder at the hands of the local police to craft an unforgettable novel that’s a compelling mix of historical family drama, well-plotted mystery, and searing social commentary.”Kellye Garrett, Agatha, Anthony, and Lefty Award–winning author of Like a Sister and Missing White Woman

“Cheryl Head's Time's Undoing is a poignant tale of one family's generational trauma and the strength and bravery of one woman's quest to uncover her history, her truth, and to finally find healing for her family. This is a story told in the most eloquent and gut-wrenching of ways, leaving me completely undone.”
—Yasmin Angoe, Anthony Award nominee and author of Her Name Is Knight and They Come At Knight

Cheryl A. Head weaves a compelling, important tale of institutional racism and long-delayed justice in Time's Undoing. In Head's capable hands, this story of an intrepid reporter with a personal mission becomes both a chronicle of a devastatingly unjust past and a tale of a community working together to find a better way forward. An emotional portrait of the painful legacy of racism in Americaand a reminder of how much work we still need to do to build a better future.”Kristin Harmel, New York Times bestselling author of The Forest of Vanishing Stars
© Leigh H. Mosley
Cheryl A. Head (she/her) is the author of the award-winning Charlie Mack Motown mysteries. Head is an Anthony Award nominee, a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, a three-time Next Generation Indie Book Award finalist, and winner of the Golden Crown Literary Society’s Ann Bannon Popular Choice Award. View titles by Cheryl A. Head

About

A searing and tender novel about a young Black journalist’s search for answers in the unsolved murder of her great-grandfather in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, decades ago—inspired by the author’s own family history

Birmingham, 1929: Robert Lee Harrington, a master carpenter, has just moved to Alabama to pursue a job opportunity, bringing along his pregnant wife and young daughter. Birmingham is in its heyday, known as the “Magic City” for its booming steel industry, and while Robert and his family find much to enjoy in the city’s busy markets and vibrant nightlife, it’s also a stronghold for the Klan. And with his beautiful, light-skinned wife and snazzy car, Robert begins to worry that he might be drawing the wrong kind of attention. 
 
2019: Meghan McKenzie, the youngest reporter at the Detroit Free Press, has grown up hearing family lore about her great-grandfather’s murder—but no one knows the full story of what really happened back then, and his body was never found. Determined to find answers to her family’s long-buried tragedy and spurred by the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, Meghan travels to Birmingham. But as her investigation begins to uncover dark secrets that spider across both the city and time, her life may be in danger.  
 
Inspired by true events, Time’s Undoing is both a passionate tale of one woman’s quest for the truth behind the racially motivated trauma that has haunted her family for generations and, as newfound friends and supporters in Birmingham rally around Meghan’s search, the uplifting story of a community coming together to fight for change.

Excerpt

Prologue
1929
 
Four hours ‘til dawn. The single streetlamp at the alleyway splays veiled illumination on the wet cobblestone. The rumble and squeak of streetcars ended two hours ago, and the in-a-hurry-owner of the diner hauls out the last of the garbage which tumbles onto the slick red bricks as he slams the door.
Cress lifts the collar of his tight-fitting jacket against curly brown hair. Alert. Smoking. Shifting from one leg to the other. Leaning into the shadows every time he hears loud voices from the street.
I can’t feel the rain nor smell it, but I sense its fragrance mixed with the relentless forsythia creeping through every patch of dirt.  Anna Kate often remarked that the flowers are her favorite part of living in Birmingham.
A car engine’s hum grows louder. Cress melts into the darkness when  the blue sedan eases forward and idles under the lamp. The sight of it passes a shiver my body doesn’t register. Cress steps forward and drops his smoke, grinding the butt under his boot. He shoves both hands deep into the pockets of his dungarees.
The broad-shouldered detective gets out of the car, moves to the front bumper and stops. His hat cocked back. He stares at Cress in the alley then swivels his head to take in his surroundings. He nonchalantly swipes a hand down the breast of his coat. That’s where he keeps his revolver.
Cress waits. No longer fidgeting. Squaring his body. He lifts his hands from his pockets and leaves them dangling at his thighs. Finally the big man walks toward him.
“You’ve been asking for me, boy?”
“Yeah. I owe you money. I got it here,” Cress slides a hand into his jacket.
The man tenses.
Cress extends a palm.
Do these two know each other?
The detective closes the gap between them. He’s at least four inches taller but when he draws close, Cress grabs his coat sleeve yanking the big man forward. The guy slips, but doesn’t fall so Cress hits him in the face with his fist—three times—like a sledge hammer on a slab of concrete. The man sinks fumbling for his inside pocket. Cress thrashes him again and again while the struggling detective claws at his assailant’s legs and arms trying to right himself. Cress slides and pivots like a welterweight but his opponent’s size and strength gives him an advantage and Cress loses his footing. Now they’re kneeling face-to-face on the wet pavement. The big man snatches Cress by the hair but he’s not expecting the headbutt. Nor the punch to his solar plexus.
For a split second the fight pauses. The two stare at each other with gaping mouths and bared teeth.
When the detective grabs at his coat I think he’s after the gun, but his hand comes away covered in blood. He’s been knifed. Cress thrusts the blade two more times until the man slumps over.
This man-to-man battle has been quiet. Neither letting out more than a grunt. Cress lifts to his feet, rubbing at his scalp, looking around. He stares at the body then aims his boot for a rib-shattering kick.
“That’s for my sister,” he says then leans over to wipe the knife on the man’s overcoat. Cress turns away, hurrying towards the opposite end of the alley. The glow of a match spirals then extinguishes in a puddle.
The detective lays unmoving on the alley’s surface. His left arm stretching to escape. His legs mixing with spilled garbage and soggy cardboard boxes.
 
 
Chapter One
The Decision  
1929
 
It’s quitting time and a group of my coworkers are in conversation in the millwork’s parking lot. One casually leans against my brand new Franklin Victoria Sedan. I take offense.
“Get off my car, Arthur. I spent a lot of time on that wax job.”
“Boy, nobody’s bothering your damn car. You think you’re all big and bad just ‘cause you got this Franklin, but I ain’t studyin’ you.” 
It’s been eighty plus degrees all day and the heat has me on edge. I consider Arthur for a moment. He’s a warehouse laborer. One of those redbone dudes who thinks his good hair is his ticket to success.  
“Maybe you could buy a new car,” I spit out, “if you stop spending your money on liquor, and cockfights.”
I regret the nagging-wife words as soon as they escape my mouth. I got no business telling another man how to spend his money. Arthur raises the stakes.
“I tell you one thing, Harrington, a fine woman like Anna Kate wouldn’t even think of marrying a blue-black fool like you if you wasn’t driving this new car.”
The gathered men whoop and holler at his retort. Hair tingles on my arms and the back of my neck. All my life I’ve tried to make up for my dark complexion. My expensive clothes, new car, light-skinned wife, and skills as a carpenter are proof I’m as good, or better, than any other man. People have told me to my face that I’m cocky. Shit, I’m twenty-eight years old, and nobody’s lackey. I ain’t looking for trouble but ain’t running away from it either, and on this sticky Florida evening I’m not in the mood to let the comment go unanswered—especially when Arthur’s defiant stare becomes a mocking smirk.
Without another word, my knuckles sink into the folds of his belly and the smile falls from his face as breath escapes his body. He’s strong and  taller so he rocks back but doesn’t drop.
“You motherfucker,” he yells and swings a fist glancing my chin.
For what seems like a minute we exchange blows. Our scuffle finally brings us to the ground where we wrestle and curse until the foreman pulls us apart. He’s a smart white man, six-four, two-hundred twenty pounds and hired because he knows how to handle the temperaments of laborers in a factory environment.
Both of us should have been fired, but only Arthur is let go. My carpentry skills have saved me. The grumbling about favoritism is growing so I’m offered an out-of-state assignment—work on the mansion of a Birmingham, Alabama millionaire. I don’t accept the job right away because Anna Kate doesn’t want to be separated from her family, and to tell the truth I don’t want to leave St. Petersburg either.  People know me here and I don’t want to start out in a new city where I’ll be just another colored man in the Deep South.
Two weeks after the confrontation at the mill, I’m involved in another incident. This time with a white man in downtown St. Pete. The guy demands I move my car so he doesn’t have to park next to a rain puddle. He’s drunk, and wants to impress the woman in his passenger seat. He shouts the worst insults, then gets out of his vehicle to challenge me. Instead of backing down, I retrieve a polishing rag from under my seat and begin buffing the front bumper of the Franklin. When he spits on my car, I knock him to the pavement. The screams of his lady passenger cause several people to look our way. I’m sure one of them will call the police. I jump behind the wheel of my car and drive away.
The next day I’m on my way out of town. Word has already gotten to me that the police are asking around town about a Negro who drives a fancy car. I have to temporarily abandon my nineteen-year-old, pregnant wife and young daughter in Florida. I take the carpentry job in Alabama because it seems, for now, the best thing to do.  I sure hope trouble won’t follow me to Birmingham.
 
Chapter Two
2019
 
It’s my fifth funeral in six months and I’m trying not to succumb to the despair I feel. Another Black man. This time in his early thirties. He’d been returning to his university teaching position after an impromptu lunch downtown with his fiancé who works at Quicken Loan. Walking fast because he was late for class, and texting the department secretary, he was unaware a patrol car had pulled to the sidewalk behind him. When the siren blared, Phillip Carter turned to look but kept walking. From there things escalated. 
He dropped his backpack as ordered, but refused to lean spread-eagle against the parking lot fence. A second officer approached with his gun drawn. Carter lifted the lanyard around his neck displaying his Wayne State University faculty ID. “I’m a professor,” he pleaded. “I’m on my way to teach a class.” The first cop responded with: “What’s in the bag?” Carter crouched to retrieve the bundle of graded papers in his backpack. That’s when both policemen fired their weapons.
Those are the details. I’m here, against the back wall of the church, to find something beyond the facts to engage our newspaper readers in the human elements of this story. The viewing of the body is still underway. I watch the somber crowd and make notes. I spot Carter’s fiancée in the first row flanked by her parents. I’ve seen her on the local news—grieving, poised, demanding justice. The shooting has prompted a half-dozen protests in Detroit along with campus demonstrations in Ann Arbor and East Lansing. The firing of both officers by the Chief of Police hasn’t appeased anybody.
I’ve briefly locked eyes a couple of times with an old Black man standing on the other side of the church. He’s dressed a bit too stylish for a funeral, in an out-of-date suit with a polka-dot bow tie. He’s coming my way.
“You’re a reporter?” he asks.
“For the Detroit Free Press.”
“Nice to meet you,” he offers a handshake. Now that he’s closer I notice a piece of stained wood hanging from a leather thread around his neck. It’s a small whistle.
“Yes sir. Same here,” I reply grasping his hand.
He stares at the casket in the front of the sanctuary.
“Why do they keep killing us?”
“I don’t know.”
“We’re running out of time to make things right. They can put men into Space, but they won’t make space for Black men.”
It’s a great quote, and I flip to a clean page in my notebook to jot it down. Before I can ask the man his full name he moves away to wait in the viewing line. After the funeral service, I search for him but he’s gone.
                                                                                                                                

 
Chapter Three
A Fresh Start
1929
 
I’m part of a five-man carpentry crew working on a residential project. We’re creating a grand entryway, foyer and ballroom for a local iron magnate’s mansion. The project involves several more months of work at top pay. It’s the kind of opportunity not many Black men will ever get.
But after two months alone in the so-called Magic City, longing for the regular company of my wife and daughter, I’m making my second trip from St. Pete to Birmingham.  I’m bringing them to live with me. Anna Kate’s not all that happy, and it took some convincing for her to agree to leave her people, but the arrangement will work out pretty well for me.
Travel in our Franklin is pleasant enough. Better than the cramped seats in the rear of a bus, and cooler than the sweltering train cars, but the roads are crude and chocked with holes. I’m lucky when there’s gravel or sand filling in the ruts. That’s especially true after we leave the Dixie Highway in Florida. Anna Kate is just over six months along but already big, and prefers to sit in the back with Mae where she has more leg room and can rest her swelling ankles. There is another advantage for her rear seat perch. We’re driving through towns that don’t want to see Negroes after dark, and on the open road I’m a pretty big target for the Klan. So to the casual observer, with my light-skinned wife as passenger, I could pass for a chauffeur.
My biggest worry right this moment is getting Anna Kate and Mae to a secure place for the night. Normally, I could grab a few hours of sleep here and there, but with my family I need decent sleeping accommodations. I’ve arranged with mama’s pastor to stay overnight at a tourist house owned by the local AME church just outside of Macon, Georgia. But first things first, I need to keep my full attention on avoiding the ruts that could break the car’s axle, and the white people who could take a disliking to us. 
It’s almost dusk before we reach the tourist house. Thankfully it’s next door to the church where I’m to pick up the key. My carpenter’s eye registers the door as solidly-built pine. I knock a few times before it opens.
“Pastor Swanson?” I ask of the man peering through the crack.
He’s tall, large and bearded. He reminds me of the stained-glass image of John the Baptist at mama’s church. His beefy hand clutches the handle of a lantern and he extends his arm so he can see my face, and I can better see his.  But this man with the cautious squint and one hand out of view is no baptizer. At least not with water.
“I’m Jacob. The church custodian. Are you Harrington?”
I nod. He glances over my shoulder toward my car. The church door briefly closes and opens again, the lantern replaced by a single key.  
“The house is already open. But lock yourself in at night. We’ve had a few problems  round here lately. Goodnight.”
Jacob shuts the door so swiftly my murmured ‘thank you’ is absorbed into the heavy portal. I hear the lock’s tumblers engage.
 Anna Kate already has the car door open and I lift her to her feet and grasp her elbow to steady her steps. My other arm is filled with a wriggling Mae who is tired and fussy. I push open the door to the tourist home. We pause a moment, staring into the dark, listening for intruders, critters, and ghosts before stepping inside.
The house has electricity—one of the reasons I chose it—and I search for the wall switch. The single bulb dangling from a cord wrapped in black tape casts more shadows than light, but the modest one-room structure is clean and welcoming. The front room has a threadbare sofa, a cushioned rocking chair, and a side table with a lamp. A creaking oak floor continues from the parlor area to a roomy kitchen on the left. Two wood-framed paper screens separate the common rooms from the sleeping area. There is only one bed, so I make a pallet for Mae. We’re all too tired to care about food, but Anna Kate finds a tin of loose tea in the cupboard. I light and stoke the coal under the single-burner stove, and she puts water in a pot. Even before the water boils Mae is asleep. I’m sprawled in the rocking chair close to sleep myself, but adjust my slumping shoulders when Anna offers a cup of tea with sugar.
I watch her prepare for bed. Washing her face and brushing her hair. She’s a beautiful woman—a girl really—and a good wife. 
“Robert, I’m so tired.”
“I know. You go ahead and lie down. I’ll be there shortly.”
It’s only because I had a steady job, and promised to treat Anna Kate gently, that her mother allowed me to marry her youngest daughter. I don’t know if she really loves me, but I adore her. She keeps a clean home and is an attentive mother. In the evenings, after a long day of sweating men, reeking varnish, and clinging sawdust, it lifts my spirits to see her. Even after two years of marriage her fair skin under my dark hands still causes a tremble in my spine.
The warm tea mixes with the heat of my thoughts, and I rise from the rocker to lay with my wife in a strange bed.

Reviews

*A finalist for the Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery*
*An Indie Next Pick*
*A Left Coast Crime 2024 Lefty Award Nominee for the Best Historical Mystery*
*A finalist for the LA Times Book Prize, Mystery/Thriller Category*


“Head excels in this great pleasure of a crime novel. She infuses her challenging subject with a finely calibrated balance of vulnerability, care, and empowerment; the effect is galvanizing. . . . Few books feel more timely or needed than this one.”The Atlantic

"Head is wrestling with the sins of the past in this dual timeline crime novel. Head is a veteran mystery writer; Time’s Undoing, inspired by painful family history, is her finest work. After years covering the Black Lives Matter movement, Detroit-based writer Meghan McKenzie has done work she’s proud of, but she’s truly haunted by a story that’s never been told. After a strange incident, she goes south to Alabama to uncover the truth about the nearly century-old murder of her great-grandfather. Though that event is many decades old, in this town where everyone knows and minds everyone else’s business, the wounds feel realistically fresh — so the questions Meghan asks and the secrets she unearths quickly put her in danger. This small-town Southern crime novel is a penetrating page turner." —Boston Globe

“Inspired by the true story of the author’s own family, one of 2023’s hottest releases is a dual timeline and dual perspective murder mystery with one foot in 1929 and the other in 2019. . . . Head is a veteran author known for her well-loved Charlie Mack Motown Mystery detective series and this sharply observed stand-alone blending of historical fiction and mystery only burnishes that reputation.”—Oprah Daily

“Times Undoing is a harrowing yet beautiful journey into the heart of darkness that beats in the center of the American experience. A tour de force.”—S. A. Cosby, New York Times bestselling author of Razorblade Tears and Blacktop Wasteland

“The sort of book you don’t want to put downand you can’t forget once you’re finished.”—Detroit Free Press

“Head paints a vibrant picture of present-day Birmingham. . . . She also brings rich detail to the everyday lives of her characters in 1929. Time’s Undoing is an absorbing mystery and a moving lesson in Black history as it plays out in the lives of families through generations.”—Tampa Bay Times

“This small-town Southern crime novel is a penetrating page turner.” Carole V. Bell, The Boston Globe

“An outstanding stand-alone novel that excavates one woman’s family history wrapped in racism, violence, and legend. Head smoothly incorporates those themes in the gripping, believable plot of Time’s Undoing.”—South Florida Sun Sentinel

“Head . . . brings her gift for strong women protagonists and suspense to this tale about a young, Black, female journalist from Detroit on a dangerous quest. . . . Vivid and affecting . . . This heart-seizing tale even has a touch of the supernatural as it celebrates Black lives.”—Booklist (starred review)

“The parallel narratives work with poignancy and righteous rage. So many decades gone, so few inroads made into the racism at the foundation of United States history. Head and her Black colleagues in this genre are lifting up new stories, to everyone's benefit.”—NPR

“Depicts the power of friends and community . . . will please the author’s fans and readers who enjoy novels with strong women protagonists.”Library Journal

“[Time’s Undoing is] the latest book to register on the 'future classic seismograph.' . . . It is Cheryl A. Head’s ability to authenticate a direct (and emotional) throughline from the past to present that compels Time’s Undoing into becoming such an important reading experience.”—BOLO Books

“Based on a chapter in Cheryl A. Head’s own family tree, it’s a compelling examination of history and progress and how far still we have to go as a nation. With a light supernatural element, Time’s Undoing is a satisfying examination of how the past continues to affect the present, and of how allowing shame and bigotry to fester only continues to perpetuate violence.”Criminal Element

Time’s Undoing is a compelling tale of duality and strength. . . . [Head] beautifully weaves her own truths into those of her characters through authenticity and emotion, through puzzle pieces of her own. The connection between realities is undeniable, and Head’s attention to detail is what makes this story worth reading.”—Deep South Magazine

"This is a novel, smooth, highly readable, convincing." —Alabama Public Radio

“Time’s Undoing is a deeply absorbing and intricately woven story of racial injustice and the healing power of truth. It confronts the issue of police brutality on the epic scale of decades and generations whilst preserving the intimate, human detail that gives the novel its heart.”Eleanor Shearer, author of River Sing Me Home

“Time’s Undoing is a novel both timeless and timely, exploring the complicated connections between a young Black journalist embroiled in the Black Lives Matter movement who decides to investigate a long-standing family mystery: the unsolved murder of her great-grandfather in segregated Alabama decades ago. Cheryl A. Head writes a sensitive and searing tale based on personal family history, which is sure to linger long in the memory.”Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Diamond Eye

“Cheryl Head's storytelling skills are on full display in this enjoyable and piercing novel about one young woman's courageous search for answers about her family's past. Time's Undoing is a poignant meditation on how the legacies of both trauma—and triumph—shape our lives. Head's efforts to excavate the past in the pages of this novel is a painful reckoning with racism, but ultimately a hopeful exercise in understanding resilience, grace, and the importance of history to tell us who we are and who we might become, as individuals and as a country. Pull up a chair, book clubs, because there's lots to discuss!”—Christine Pride and Jo Piazza, bestselling authors of We Are Not Like Them

“Head’s novel provides not only an in-depth, fascinating portrait of a journalist in pursuit of a story, but also stands as a searing indictment of America’s racist legacy, from today’s BLM movement to the struggles of Black men and women a hundred years earlier. A suspenseful, immersive read that you won’t be able to put down.”—Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Magnolia Palace

“A captivating and rich narrative of history and murder. Laden with echoes of the long-standing racial bias between Black people and law enforcement, the dual timeline of this suspense-filled story tells of one woman's entanglement and reckoning with it. Immersive. Impassioned. Time's Undoing will have readers hooked from page one. Highly recommended.”—Abby Collette, USA Today bestselling author of Soul of a Killer

“Powerful, timely, emotional, and loaded with intensity, Cheryl Head’s Time's Undoing uses fiction to do what novels do bestshine a light on society while telling a page-turning story. In Meghan McKenzie, Head has created a fully realized protagonist who guides readers through a haunting tale that is based on true events. Urgent, riveting, and heartfeltI was immersed from page one.”—Alex Segura, bestselling author of Secret Identity

“Cheryl Head's Time's Undoing is truly mesmerizing. What a first-rate melding of painful past and hopeful future told by a master storyteller who gives readers a visceral look at the human cost of hate and fear and both heart and wings to redemptive peace. You won't be able to put it down. I couldn't.”—Tracy Clark, author of the Cass Raines Chicago Mystery series

“In Time's Undoing, Cheryl Head establishes herself as a literary star. The clarity of her storytelling unravels the hard truths of racism against Black people in this nation, and how the fight against such injustices is a constant, intentional choice. A must-read novel that is sure to be embraced by a wide audience.”—Naomi Hirahara, author of Clark and Division and the Mas Arai mystery series

“Cheryl A. Head's novel Time's Undoing, is a searing and utterly disturbing look at life for the ancestors, and what it meant to be Black and stay alive in the Jim Crow South. But it is also a hopeful and endearing story of love, loss, and the protection of our most precious commoditya family's history. This book will resonate with anyone who's ever looked at an old family photograph or listened to a story passed down through the generations and wondered, What if?”
Wanda M. Morris, award-winning author of All Her Little Secrets and Anywhere You Run

Time’s Undoing is time well spenta heartbreaking dual timeline tale about the murder of a Black man in 1929 Birmingham and his great-granddaughter’s dogged attempts to find out what happened ninety years later. Cheryl Head uses her own grandfather’s murder at the hands of the local police to craft an unforgettable novel that’s a compelling mix of historical family drama, well-plotted mystery, and searing social commentary.”Kellye Garrett, Agatha, Anthony, and Lefty Award–winning author of Like a Sister and Missing White Woman

“Cheryl Head's Time's Undoing is a poignant tale of one family's generational trauma and the strength and bravery of one woman's quest to uncover her history, her truth, and to finally find healing for her family. This is a story told in the most eloquent and gut-wrenching of ways, leaving me completely undone.”
—Yasmin Angoe, Anthony Award nominee and author of Her Name Is Knight and They Come At Knight

Cheryl A. Head weaves a compelling, important tale of institutional racism and long-delayed justice in Time's Undoing. In Head's capable hands, this story of an intrepid reporter with a personal mission becomes both a chronicle of a devastatingly unjust past and a tale of a community working together to find a better way forward. An emotional portrait of the painful legacy of racism in Americaand a reminder of how much work we still need to do to build a better future.”Kristin Harmel, New York Times bestselling author of The Forest of Vanishing Stars

Author

© Leigh H. Mosley
Cheryl A. Head (she/her) is the author of the award-winning Charlie Mack Motown mysteries. Head is an Anthony Award nominee, a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, a three-time Next Generation Indie Book Award finalist, and winner of the Golden Crown Literary Society’s Ann Bannon Popular Choice Award. View titles by Cheryl A. Head