Extract: Black Night Falling by Rod Reynolds
Having left Texarkana for the safety of the West Coast, reporter Charlie Yates finds himself drawn back to the South, to Hot Springs, Arkansas, as an old acquaintance asks for his help. This time it’s less of a story Charlie’s chasing, more of a desperate attempt to do the right thing before it’s too late.
Rod Reynolds’ exceptional second novel picks up just a few months on from his first book, The Dark Inside, and once again displays the feel for place, period and atmosphere which marked out his brilliant debut.
Read on for an extract from Black Night Falling!
Black Night Falling
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 Examiner 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 LA Times, Buck Acheson; he was running a third-rate outfit in Santa Monica called the Pacific Journal. 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 Times, 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 Journal. 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 Journal, 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.
Even so, my eyes were quickly drawn to the other side of the street. Ritzy-looking clubs with neon signs and striped awnings stood on every block, patrons in eveningwear, some even dinner suits, filing in and out. I read the names as we passed: the Southern Club, the Ohio Club, the Indiana Club. The scene was like something out of a twenties flick.
The cab driver watched me in his rearview. ‘You a gambling man, sir?’ He gestured to the row of nightspots. ‘Any of these places happily take your money.’
‘Just need to find your game is all. Slots, dice, cards, anything you want.’
I touched the window glass. ‘I’ve had enough trouble with the law.’
‘Law won’t trouble you none. Anything goes here.’
‘May as well be. Ladies too, you want them. Right upstairs.’
I looked up at the windows above the clubs. ‘I have a wife.’
‘That won’t offend them none.’
I fixed his eyes in the mirror. ‘Not for me.’
‘Just telling you how it is, sir. This here’s The City Without A Lid.’ He blazed the rearview with a crooked smile as he said it, proud of the moniker.
A backwoods town full of gamblers and prostitutes – like something out of the Old West, but with fancy architecture and neon signs. I wondered what the hell could have brought Robinson here. Figured, again, I’d loused up by coming.
For four days after Robinson’s call, I’d done my best to lay it aside. Told myself he was a drunk and what he was asking was crazy. It’d worked at first, or so I thought, but his words took root in my mind and gnawed at me; they came to me in my dreams at night, and were still with me when I woke in the morning. Dead girls. Unfinished business. The right thing.
The more they stuck with me, the more I’d railed against doing what he asked. I came up with explanations for his true motivations: that he was playing me somehow, or worse, baiting me into a trap. Hot Springs was no distance from Texarkana; I’d made enemies there and, at a stretch, I could see Robinson having made a deal with them to lure me back.
As much as I tried, I couldn’t make those notions stick. For all his faults, Robinson wore his heart on his sleeve, and I didn’t think him capable of masking his intentions that way. His plea had struck me as earnest, and in the end I came to believe he needed my help.
When I’d stripped the rest of it away, all that was left was cowardice. Same as always. The thought of going to a place so close to Texarkana terrified me, and once I’d recognised what was holding me back, I had no choice but to go. I was done with letting fear dictate my course.
I’d first talked to Lizzie three days ago. I’d said nothing before then because I saw no point in troubling her with it when I’d dismissed the whole stupid notion from the get-go. It hurt to tell her what I was intending, just as she was starting to see a future that wouldn’t always be tainted with darkness.
Lizzie had kept her own counsel while I talked, letting me tell it at my pace. The telephone call. Going back on my decision. My reservations. My fear. When I was through, she’d said I was crazy.
‘If he’s in trouble, you don’t have to be the one to ride to the rescue.’
‘It’s more complicated than that. You remember what he was like, he’s not the kind to ask for help for himself. He talked about girls turning up dead, evidence to show me.’
‘And that’s enough for you to come running?’
‘Listen to what he’s saying.’ I stood up, rubbing the back of my neck. ‘What if it’s connected?’
Her eyes were locked on mine. ‘Connected to what?’
‘To Texarkana. That was the implication. Why else would he come to me?’
She turned away, and I caught her glance at the picture of Alice. ‘We’re here now. That’s behind us.’
I recalled the way the newspapers had reported on the killings after the fact – Richard Davis as the lone crazy, responsible for all the murders. No mention of Winfield Callaway or Sheriff Bailey’s involvement, or their past crimes; the cover-up in place. Their deaths were written up as being the result of a robbery gone bad. No connection was made between the two happenings. I never knew if Robinson went to Callaway’s house that morning. Someone in Texarkana had to have orchestrated the lies that came after, and it was alarming to question now whether Robinson had ever tried to piece together the truth – or if he’d gone along willingly with the fabrications. ‘Doesn’t mean it’s over.’
‘Then that just speaks to the risk you’re taking. They have long memories over there—’
‘I’m not going to Texarkana. It’s not the same thing.’
‘You just said it’s connected.’ She watched me, waiting for me to say something.
‘I said it could be—’ She gave me a hard stare that stopped me trying to back away from my own words. ‘Look, I know there’s a risk,’ I said. ‘But it’s a small one—’
‘And still you’re willing to go? Everything we’ve built here . . .’
‘It doesn’t have to change any of that. I’ll be back in a few days.’
‘You can’t know that.’
I walked into the dinette, Lizzie following after me. ‘Whatever’s going on there, I can’t just stand by if people are dying.’
‘How do you know you can trust him? You know what that man did, he’s a liar and—’ She cut herself off, her emotions starting to bubble over. She smoothed her skirt, buying a moment to compose herself, then took my face in her hands and kissed me. ‘Don’t go.’
I hugged her, held her body against mine because I couldn’t bring myself to look her in the eye. ‘I have to.’
Coming to the end of Bathhouse Row, I asked the cab driver where I could find a public telephone. He veered across two lanes and drew up in front of one of the giant buildings at the north end of the street – a hotel he called the Arlington – and said there were kiosks off the lobby. I stepped out of the car and looked up at the two towers atop the hotel above me, stretching into the night sky like battlements. There was a staircase leading up to the main entrance. I climbed it and went inside.
The interior was as grand as the exterior, all art deco elegance: pastel walls jazzed up with colourful murals depicting some kind of jungle scene; chandeliers and rotating fans that dropped miles from the high, domed ceiling; sweeping staircases with wrought-iron balustrades that led to a mezzanine lounge.
I crossed the lobby and found the telephones, pulled out the number Robinson had given me, and dialled. Strange: the operator came back to say she couldn’t connect me because the line was dead. I asked her to try again, but got the same result.
I ran my hand over my face and checked my watch. Close to eleven, Central Time. Fourteen hours since I left home. Dogtired.
Robinson had promised to fix me up with a room, but he never told me where. We’d spoken only twice, and he’d been cagey both times. The first call had ended with him reeling off a number to contact him at, and telling me to be sure to ask for Jimmy – no surname. ‘That’s how they know me here.’ The second time we spoke was when I’d called to tell him that I’d agree to come. That was when he’d promised to arrange lodging for me. He’d been adamant it wasn’t safe for me to stay in the same place as him, and refused to tell me where he was at. I’d chalked all of it up to his paranoia, and now I was kicking myself for playing his games. I went back outside into the night and asked the cab driver to take me to a motel; somewhere away from all the neon.
The Mountain Motor Court was a mile north of downtown, a horseshoe-shaped building around a gravel and dirt parking lot. There must have been twenty rooms, but only three were occupied, judging by the cars in the lot. I went into the proprietor’s office and paid for two nights. I asked him if there was a telephone I could use, but he shook his head, said they’d take messages for me but that they didn’t allow guests to make calls on their line. I went out to pay the cab driver and asked him to pick me up at seven the next morning.
My room was at the far end of the parking lot. It was dark inside even with all the lamps turned on, the pine board walls stained a rich brown. There was a wooden chair tucked into a table, two beds, and not much else in the way of furniture. The carpet was olive green – a reminder of home. Bare as it was, it was clean and warm. I walked to the window at the back and cracked the drapes; it looked out onto dense pinewoods, hard to make anything out in the haunting darkness of the trees. I went to the bathroom to wash my face, then I lay down on the nearest bed and thought of Lizzie. For just a moment, the chatter of the katydids outside sounded like the ocean on a calm night.
Hunger woke me at six the next morning. I realised I hadn’t eaten since the layover in Dallas the day before. The small breakfast room next to the motel office had warm biscuits and bad coffee, and I tucked into both before the cab showed up to collect me.
We drove back to downtown and the driver dropped me just along from the Arlington. Daylight stripped Central Avenue of its air of neon vice, and the grand bathhouses looked picturesque in near-silhouette, a watery sun rising behind the mountain that backstopped them. The magnolia trees along the street were verdant in the morning light.
I went inside the hotel and tried Robinson’s number again, but the line was still dead. I asked the operator what address it connected to; I took it down when she gave it to me, then went back to the car and handed the scrap of paper to the driver.
‘This where your friend is staying?’
‘I think so. You know the place?’
He turned in his seat to face me. ‘Sure, this here a bar and boarding house, name of Duke’s. You spoken to your friend the last day or more?’
I was reaching to pull the door shut. Something in his voice made me stop. ‘No, why?’
He cupped his hand over his mouth before he spoke. ‘This place burned down three nights ago.’