Read Black Night Falling Online
Authors: Rod Reynolds
To my daughter, Isabel; my love always.
He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you.
It was almost dark when I landed.
The DC3 rolled to a stop and I climbed down onto an asphalt runway. I was the only passenger disembarking in Hot Springs – the other dozen or so on board staying on to Little Rock or Memphis – so the ground crew dragged the steps away from the aircraft as soon as I was clear. I looked back and watched as the co-pilot pulled the door shut, wrenching it as though he couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Made me think about the risk I was taking; that being here was a mistake.
The control tower was the only structure on the airfield, a metal and glass box atop a low concrete building. I started towards it. The sun was below the hills in the distance, casting them in shadow, the trees that carpeted them appearing black in the low light. There were no porters or carts, no one in sight at all, so I carried my bag by my side and made for the front of the building, hoping that Jimmy Robinson was good to his word and had a ride waiting for me.
Robinson was my reason for coming to Hot Springs, and the reason I was so damn hinky about it. It was six months since I’d seen him last – six months that felt like a lifetime.
Texarkana never left me. The worst of the wounds I suffered, mental and physical, never closed; but time and distance wore down at them, and the memories were fading – bleached, like a photograph left in the California sun.
Having Lizzie at my side helped. My singular fear about taking her to Los Angeles had been that we’d always serve as a reminder to each other of the hell we endured; that we’d never be able to put aside those four weeks last spring. But like most things, it turned out different than I expected; rather than being a scar that brought to mind the cut, Lizzie was the salve. The one good thing that came of all that business.
And I knew she felt the same way. At least I did the day she’d agreed to be my wife.
I’d proposed marriage the same day my divorce papers from Jane came through. Even as I’d slipped the ring on her finger, I wasn’t sure what Lizzie’s response would be. She told me after that I was crazy to think that way – but that kind of certainty is a blessing of youth, one that withers with experience. Since Texarkana, it felt like most every thought entered my head came loaded with doubt.
We’d been living together three months in California, renting a rundown bungalow in Venice Beach. The canals had been overrun with oil wells since I’d last been there, but the town still had a honky-tonk feel to it that Los Angeles looked down on, and that was part of why I liked it. Our neighbours had assumed we were man and wife when we arrived, so we said nothing and acted like we were. Part of me figured to leave it that way; coming off a broken marriage, seemed like the smart move was not to rock the boat. But pretty soon I recognised that was a faint heart talking and that being afraid of driving Lizzie away was no way to start something together. Jane’s father was using his stroke to hurry the divorce along, and that was just fine with me. When the papers arrived, I’d blown a month’s paycheck on a ring, taken Lizzie to the beach at sundown, and asked her to be my wife. We’d been standing in sight of the abandoned amusement pier and I remember my eyes flitting to the gulls circling the top of the big dipper track, their cries magnified in my ears as I waited for her answer. My hand hadn’t stopped shaking even when she said yes, and the smile didn’t leave my face for a week.
At the time, that day had felt like a demarcation point. The day when our pasts took a backseat to what was still to come. And now I stood here, on a desolate airfield in the Arkansas wilderness, a stone’s throw from Texarkana. Darkness drawing in on me. Cross-country to see a man I never imagined seeing again. On the strength of one desperate telephone call.
Some reason, I wasn’t surprised when I got to the front of the airfield and found no one waiting for me. Robinson had promised to send a car to carry me into town, but like everything he’d said, I’d been suspicious; now it felt like a portent – the first proof that I was on a fool’s errand.
I had no reason to trust the man. The last time I’d seen him in Texarkana, he’d tried to help me – but that was only when the weight of his own guilt got to be too much. He’d pulled a gun on me twice before that; we weren’t friends, and I damn sure didn’t owe him any debt of gratitude.
I found a telephone kiosk inside the control building and asked the operator to connect me with a cab company. It was more than an hour before a car showed up.
The ride into Hot Springs took twenty minutes. Night had fallen and the roads were unlit most of the way, so I got no sense of the terrain I was passing through. The smell of pine trees came to me intermittently – both familiar and foreboding at the same time. My mind ran to the same safe haven it always did, and I thought about Lizzie. But the image that came to the fore was the shadow that’d crossed her face when I first told her about Robinson’s call. I remembered standing across from her in our dinette, unable to meet her gaze, as she implored me not to go. Me telling her I had to.
I stared out the cab window into the darkness. The driver tried to strike up a conversation, asked what brought me to Hot Springs. Truth was, I didn’t have a good answer for him. I pretended not to hear him and he let it alone after that, starting in on what sounded like well-worn patter about the thermal springs that gave the town its name, and how they drew visitors from all over the country. I let him talk, his words washing over me, and thought about his question. Just what the hell was I doing here?
Robinson had tracked me down through my work. Lizzie and I had arrived in California with almost nothing – me with the few clothes I’d bought as I drifted west, her with a bag full of hand-me-downs from the cousin she’d run to in Phoenix. That made finding a job my first priority. I figured I’d have a hard time convincing anyone to take me on, seeing how I couldn’t tell why the
had canned me, or what had really gone on in Texarkana – how I’d shot a man and fled, even though it was an act of self-defence. So I tracked down my old editor from the
, Buck Acheson; he was running a third-rate outfit in Santa Monica called the
. My fourth day on the coast, I doorstepped him outside their building – call it a joke from one old legman to another – and asked him for a reference. Could have been the three-highball lunch I could smell on his breath, but he said he’d go me one better – come work for him, the City beat. ‘
The pay’s lousy, and our name won’t open any doors, but it’s yours if you want it.
I’d started the next day. The work was dull; Santa Monica politics was corrupt as hell, but it only ran as far as arguments over beachfront zoning codes, so no one really gave a damn. Me and the other three legmen spent most of our time finding bigger stories to chase down in LA proper. Acheson loved scooping his old bosses at the
, so he was happy to let us off the leash. It smarted to have slipped so far, all the way from the New York City crime beat to the California bush leagues, but I threw myself into the job to leave myself as little time as possible to dwell on what had passed.
Lizzie fell hard for California. She loved the beach; the first time she saw the Pacific, she’d stood watching the waves roll in for more than an hour, neither of us speaking, just enjoying being there. The salt-spray on our faces and the crash of the breakers was like an incoming tide that washed against the dark memories, pushing back at them.
Our bungalow was nothing to look at, but it was three blocks from the oceanfront and was all we could afford until Lizzie could bring herself to sell her parents’ house in Texarkana. The bungalow was spartan when we moved in, but Lizzie made a home of it: bouquets of wild bush sunflowers to distract from the drab olive walls, handmade drapes and curtains, fresh white linen for the creaking walnut bed. On the sideboard, a small silver picture frame – the picture of Alice that she carried in her clutch, the only one that she’d had with her when she fled Texarkana. Lizzie talked about her sister more as time passed, and from experience, I knew it was a sign the pain was slowly ebbing. The stories she recalled were of happy times they’d spent together, rather than those nightmare days leading up to Alice’s death.
Before the attack on Alice, Lizzie had spent eighteen months teaching farm kids at a two-room elementary schoolhouse in Miller County. By her own telling it wasn’t her calling in life, but she’d enjoyed it enough to want to keep at it. But it only took a few weeks of searching to see she wouldn’t be able to score a similar position in California without proper training or a diploma. Playing homemaker would never be enough for her, so after a month of needling Acheson, I landed her a secretarial position at the
. The work was too easy for her, but she enjoyed it all the same, the novelty of the big city and the newsroom enough to make everything exciting at first.
We’d gone on that way for months. We never spoke about what happened in Texarkana, only sometimes about Alice.
Then a week ago, sitting at my desk at the
, the telephone call came. The caller hadn’t given his name, and it’d taken me a moment to place the voice.
‘Been a long time, New York.’
‘Thought you might have forgotten me a minute there.’
I wrapped the telephone cord around my hand, saying nothing while I let the surprise pass. If I’d thought of him at all before then, it was figuring he’d have drunk himself into oblivion. ‘How did you get this number?’
‘We newsmen, New York. Ain’t hard to find a man has his name in print every day.’
I looked around the office, searching for Lizzie, suddenly needing to have her in my sight. ‘What do you want?’
‘You don’t wanna shoot the breeze none? “How you been, Jimmy? What’s—”’
‘It’s been six months. You didn’t call to reminisce.’
He sniffed. ‘Always straight to the point – you ain’t changed none.’ A noise came down the line – him sucking on a cigarette and exhaling. ‘How you feel about making a little trip?’
‘What are you talking about? A trip where?’
‘Town called Hot Springs, in Arkansas. Ever hear of it?’
‘Ain’t your kind of place, but there’s things would interest you here.’
‘What the hell is that supposed to mean?’
‘Means you and me got to talk. Face to face. How soon can you get yourself on a airplane?’
The notion was ludicrous enough I almost laughed. ‘Fly halfway across— You’re out of your mind, Robinson.’ Lizzie was talking to one of the sub-editors, smiling, some papers in her hand. She hadn’t noticed me looking at her. ‘If you’re holding some kind of grudge—’
‘I ain’t holding no grudge, the hell are you talking about? Is that how you think on me?’
‘Then what’s this about?’
He was quiet for a moment. Then he said, ‘This about dead girls keep turning up. Unfinished business.’
The hairs on my neck stood up. There was a buzzing sound in my ears like an off-frequency radio. ‘Texarkana is in the past. I don’t want anything to do with it. It’s over.’
‘Not from where I’m standing.’
I looked down at the desk, saw I’d scribbled
Hot Springs, AR
on the scrap of paper in front of me. I turned it over and pushed it away. ‘I don’t want any part of your problems. I’m hanging up—’
I held a breath in my lungs, waiting for him to speak.
Lizzie walked back to her desk at the front of the room and sat down. Something made me turn away from her. ‘I’m here.’
‘Do you still care?’
The line crackled and I said nothing. He took another drag on his cigarette, and when he spoke again, his voice was shaky. ‘Look, Yates, I need your help. Please. I made a mistake and ain’t no one else I can turn to.’
It was a glimpse of the real Robinson, the scared man underneath the braggadocio. ‘Help with what?’
‘To stop this.’
‘Goddammit, I can’t explain it on the telephone. I got a trunkful of evidence you need to see. Three dead girls, more on the way if I’m right. Get yourself here and I’ll lay it all out for you.’
I scratched at the indentations on the desk. ‘Why come to me?’
There was a jittery silence and I wondered what he was thinking. Then he said, ‘It was me you called from Winfield Callaway’s house the night you blew Texarkana. Why’d you do that?’
I thought back to that day, six months before. Three corpses in the room with me, gunsmoke in the air, blood still trickling down the carved leg of the cabinet where Sheriff Bailey had gone down. A snatched telephone call to the man before I ran – a hope that Robinson would tell the story I couldn’t. I closed my eyes and willed the memory away. ‘Because I figured you’d do the right thing.’
‘There’s your answer.’
The cab passed through the outskirts of Hot Springs, and I saw shades of Texarkana all around me. The streets were dotted with white clapboard houses, captured in the dull glow of their yellow porch lights. Most were two or three storeys high, with pitched roofs and tall, thin windows. Every so often we passed a Baptist church, recognisable by the white steeple – the type I’d seen all around Texarkana. It felt like I’d travelled back there and the nightmare was starting all over again.
Then everything changed. We turned onto a four-lane boulevard, bookended by two immense buildings at its northern end and one at the south, and lined with magnolia trees planted at precise intervals. Pedestrians filled the broad sidewalks, and motor vehicles streamed up and down the street. To my right, set back from the road, stood a row of ornate buildings, the architecture a mix of different classic and colonial revival styles. One sported Italianate cornices and friezes, another Spanish Mission-style arched windows and terracotta detailing. I saw domes and decorative towers. All were fronted by elaborate entranceways set in landscaped gardens. The street sign said Central Avenue, but the driver said this stretch of it was called Bathhouse Row – the grand buildings we were passing being the bathhouses of the name.