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Authors: Walter Satterthwait

Accustomed to the Dark

BOOK: Accustomed to the Dark
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Accustomed to the Dark

Walter Satterthwait


Open Road Integrated Media Ebook

This book is for Caroline

When I first came in, back in '78, I was always in the free world when I dreamed at night, but recently I stopped dreaming about being outside. Now, even in my dreams, I'm in the penitentiary.

—A Voice: Bank Robber, age thirty-nine
The Hot House
, by Pete Earley      



easy for them. We were sitting out on Rita's patio, exposed and vulnerable.

It was a Sunday morning toward the end of May. The winter had been mild and the spring had been milder. Up in the mountains, up toward the ski basin, the fields of aspen were showing pale olive against the dark green bruise of pine. Down in town, iris and narcissus crowded the gardens, purple bursts of lilac and wisteria spilled over the sunbaked brown adobe walls. Here at Rita's house, in the hills overlooking Santa Fe, the air was warm and soft and scented with piñon.

I had cooked breakfast burritos and blueberry muffins, squeezed some oranges for fresh juice. Now the plates and the glasses and the wicker basket lay empty atop the round white metal table.

Rita sipped at her coffee. Holding the mug with both hands, she lowered it to her lap and she smiled at me. “What shall we do today?”

“Why should we do anything?” I was slumped against the back of my chair in a dense, amiable lassitude. My stomach was full and so was my life. There was nothing, anywhere, that needed to be done.

She nodded. “You're a lazy pig,” she said.

“Thang you,” I said. “Thang you veramuch.”

“And you do a terrible Elvis.”

“Thang you.”

“We could drive up to the Jemez,” she said. “Go through Bandelier.”

Her hair was loose and it tumbled black as the wings of ravens to her shoulders. She wore a blouse of lavender silk, stonewashed blue jeans, and sandals with thin brown leather straps. She was beautiful, as usual, but I was almost getting used to that.

With an effort I leaned forward and hooked my finger around the handle of my coffee cup. Sighing happily, I sat back. “We could,” I agreed. I sipped some coffee. “Or we could hang around here all day. Scratch. Yawn. Maybe belch from time to time.”

She smiled. “Be still my heart.”

“Too nice a day to go running around the countryside, Rita.”

“It's too nice a day to lie around and waste it.”

“I'm not wasting it,” I said. “I'm savoring it.”

“And you couldn't savor it in Bandelier?”

“Maybe. I guess we'll never know.” I smiled. I was enjoying this. A few years ago, when Rita was in the wheelchair, it would have been me arguing for a trip out of town. Often it had been.

“I'll drive,” she said.

I considered that carefully.

“We'll bring along your Geritol,” she said.

“Very droll.”

“And when we come to civilization,” she said, “I'll wake you up and you can put in your teeth.”

I laughed.

We heard the helicopter then, a muffled
coming from behind us, from over the mountain. We both looked up, and a few moments later the aircraft sailed into view, a monster locust clattering across the sky. It was flying low, only a couple of hundred feet above. It passed over us and a chill shadow slipped across the flagstones.

“The state police,” Rita said.

“Probably.” It was an Aerostatial Twinstar, and the state police owned one.

“I wonder what they're looking for,” she said.

We hadn't listened to the news last night, or this morning. If we had, we'd have known what the state police were looking for.

“Lost tourists,” I said. This year, the tourists had arrived early, and this year they were traveling in packs.

We watched the mechanical bug scrape across the blue, its dark carapace growing smaller, its rhythmic chatter fading. It banked and then disappeared off to the south.

Rita turned to me. “So? What do you say, Joshua? Bandelier?”

“You'll drive?”


I shrugged. “Why not.”

Smiling, Rita shook her head—in exasperation, probably—and then her head jerked to the left, suddenly, comically, like the head of a marionette, and her mouth opened wide as though she were about to scream. For a moment, a millisecond, I thought she was acting, playing out a piece of uncharacteristic slapstick, and I began to frown, puzzled. The frown froze when I saw the small, perfectly circular hole at the right side of her head, and then she was toppling from her chair and her porcelain cup was twirling off through the air, spraying black coffee. She was halfway to the ground and I was up from my seat and reaching for her when I heard the far-off crack of the rifle.

The sunlight came down hard and flat against the dusty earth and it slammed against the cars slumbering in the hospital's unpaved lot.

I stood there at the edge of the lot, staring off to the east, toward the mountains. The mountains were less than three miles away, but they seemed remote, alien, strange formations on the landscape of a distant planet. I had my arms crossed over my chest, my hands clamped beneath them. I took deep, long, staggered breaths. The air around me had grown thinner, as though it had been leached of its oxygen.

It wasn't the mountains that were alien. It was the creature who stood staring at them, holding desperately onto himself as though parts of him might, at any moment, spin away and go reeling through the ether.

I had nearly lost Rita once before. We had both survived. Since then the two of us had come together in ways that were complicated and elegant but also, I had suddenly discovered, infinitely fragile. I honestly did not know how I would survive if I lost her now, or even that I could.

I remembered her face, pale and drawn, as they wheeled her into the operating room….

I heard a faint sound behind me, the sole of a shoe scuffling at the caliche, and I turned.

Striding toward me between the cars was Hector Ramirez, a friend, a sergeant in the Santa Fe Police Department. He was a bodybuilder, thick and powerful, but he always moved as lightly on his feet as a ballerina. The scuffling sound had been intentional, to warn me of his approach.

“Anything?” I said. “Any news?”

He shook his head. “She's still in the operating room, they told me.” The knot of his red silk tie was loose, the sleeves of his off-white shirt were rolled back along his heavy forearms.

I looked at the mountains, took another staggered breath.

“How you doing?” he said.

I turned to him. “What kind of question is that?”

He frowned, lightly ran his hand down over his bandito mustache.

“Shit,” I said. I looked off, toward the mountain. “I'm sorry, Hector.”

For a moment or two, he was silent. Then he said, “They're doing everything they can. The surgeon, Berger, he's the best in the state. One of the best in the country.”

“He'd better be.” It was an empty, stupid threat and both of us knew that. Hector had the grace to ignore it.

I said, “I talked to the uniforms. Diego and Monahan.”

“I heard.”

“It was Martinez who shot her.”

“Probably. You told Diego you weren't working on anything right now.”


“No threats? No letters? Phone calls?”

“No.” I turned to him. “Why didn't you let us know that Martinez was out?”

He frowned. “It only happened last night, Josh. I wasn't even in town. I didn't know about it till a half an hour ago, when I got back. I came here as soon as I could.”

I nodded. I stared off at the mountains again.

“Tell me what happened,” he said.

I didn't look at him. “I already told them. Diego and Monahan.”

“So tell me,” he said.

I told him. And I relived everything. Rita's face as the bullet took her, her body spinning from the chair and slapping hard against the flagstones, boneless and slack. My kneeling down beside her, suddenly paralyzed with shock and panic and disbelief. The bright shiny blood trickling down into her hair. Her eyes open but lifeless, staring straight up at nothing.

I wanted to sweep her up into my arms, hold her, protect her from the horrors of the universe, all of them. I wanted to leap to my feet and scream at the bastard who shot her, dare him to shoot me. I wanted to die.

None of that would help her.

I put my fingers to her throat. There was a pulse, fluttery and very faint. My hand was trembling.

The shot had come from the hills to the south. I looked up there. The nearest heavy cover was about two hundred yards away, a thicket of pines, dark green beneath the blue of the sky.

The sky shouldn't still be blue, I remember thinking. The sun shouldn't still be shining.

Down on my knees, I was partially concealed by the balustrade that ran around the edge of the patio. But if he were still there, hiding behind the trees, he could probably see me.

I sprang in a dive through the opened French doors, hit the carpet with my shoulder, tumbled across the living room, ripped the phone from the end table. Dialed 911. Gave the dispatcher everything she asked for. Hung up, darted back to the patio, glanced up at the pine trees, knelt down beside her once more.

There had been no second shot.

I put my fingers on her throat again, lightly. The pulse was still there. I kept my fingers against it and I leaned down toward her ear and I began to talk in an urgent whisper. I told her to hang on. I told her that help was coming. I told her a lot of things.

Her pulse kept up its faint, fluttery beat.

I was still whispering when they arrived to secure the scene, Diego and Monahan, Monahan carrying a rifle. They wanted to talk to me but I waved them away and I kept whispering into Rita's ear as the pulse fluttered beneath my fingers. Diego and Monahan did whatever it was they had to do, and after a while they let in the paramedics, three of them in white coats, with a gurney.

I let them push me aside. One of them talked into a headset while he got her vital signs. In only a few minutes they were moving her.

Even as stupid with shock as I was, I felt a sickening sense of familiarity. I had been through all this before, six years ago—the cops, the paramedics, the limp body rushed into the ambulance.

Outside, in the driveway, three or four police cars were crouched, some with their doors still open. A radio was squawking. Cops were running into the forest. Back in the tall pine trees, someone shouted.

The paramedics didn't want me to come along, but I came anyway. I rode in the ambulance, squatting beside her, whispering again. The paramedic with the headset was still monitoring her, still chattering away.

The doctor—Berger—met us at the hospital. He let me come along as far as the operating room and then he told me that I had to leave her. They would do everything they could, he said. The metal door swung shut behind him.

Back in the lobby, I gave someone all the insurance information. When I was finished, Diego and Monahan were waiting for me. They asked me their questions. It was Diego who told me that Ernie Martinez had escaped from the state penitentiary last night.

“You were pretty hard on Diego,” said Hector.

“Yeah,” I said. I was still staring off at the green mountains. “I know. I apologized. But someone should've let us know.”

“Everyone was busy, Josh. We were, the Staties were. And the thinking, this morning, was that Martinez had already gone. That he'd slipped out of town.”

I looked at him. “He tried to kill her before. He shot her, Hector. She spent three years in a wheelchair. Someone should've let us know he was out.”

He frowned. He stroked his mustache.

“Would you have called?” I asked him. “If you were here, would you've let us know?”

His broad face tightened and became darker. “You know I would.”

“So why didn't—”

“Sergeant!” It was Diego, running toward us. “She's out of the operating room!”


Berger. “First of all, we recovered the bullet. It appears to be a two-twenty-three.” He turned to Hector. “It's in excellent shape.”

The doctor had herded Hector and me into a doctor's lounge near the recovery room. Off-white walls, a few framed photographs of Southwest scenes, a long wooden table surrounded by upholstered chairs. At one corner of the table lay a glossy Santa Fe real estate magazine.

Berger sat at the head of the table, Hector to his left, along one side of it.

“What kind of shape is
in?” I asked him.

He turned to me. “As I told you, we have her stabilized at the moment.”

BOOK: Accustomed to the Dark
3.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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