Exclusive! An Extra Chapter from Black Night Falling by Rod Reynolds

Exclusive! An Extra Chapter from Black Night Falling by Rod Reynolds

Telluride

Grand Junction, Colorado

April 1946

I was twelve days out of Texarkana.

Twelve days running scared of everything. Of staying still and keeping moving; of being caught and never being able to stop. Of what I’d done. Of the cops.

He turned slowly and looked me over before he answered. ‘Happens I am.’

And of losing her. Making Arizona and finding Lizzie gone.

We’d spoken on the telephone three days before. She’d sounded as keen to see me as I was her, but with everything we’d been through, who could judge? I’d told her then I didn’t know how long it’d take me to reach Phoenix, and now I was still six hundred miles distant, three days of icy switchbacks and slow progress, crossing the Rockies at Berthoud Pass. Every mile of the way worrying that she’d think again and disappear before I could get there.

It was late. I turned my gaze to the diner window, nothing to see in the blackness. The Rockies had dominated the view in daylight hours, but now even their majesty was swallowed up by the night. The sense, though, of giants looming.

I’d given up hope of finding another ride before morning. I had two cups of coffee in front of me, enough to get me through to dawn if I took them measured. But then a set of headlamps appeared on the highway, approaching from the north. Coming closer I saw it was a semi-trailer. It pulled into the truck stop and parked right along from my window. I still didn’t pay it much notice until I realised the driver had left the engine running when he came inside.

I waited until he’d paid for his coffee, then stepped over to the man. ‘You headed south tonight?’

He turned slowly and looked me over before he answered. ‘Happens I am.’

‘Would you take a passenger to split the gas money? I’m looking for a ride.’

He took a swig of his drink. ‘Where you trying for?’

‘Arizona. Anywhere close.’

Taken” needled me. ‘I’m good for it.’

He chewed on it a second then nodded his head. ‘Go on out and get comfortable. I’ll be with you in a minute.’

He told me he went by Wyatt, but neither of us believed him; some sort of joke at my expense. He said he was hauling aggregate to Durango and could leave me close by the New Mexico line. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than kicking my heels until morning.

The truck’s cab was dark and cold, but it kept me awake at least. Wyatt uncapped a silver flask and took a swig. ‘Helps the concentration,’ he said when he saw me watching. He held it out to me, but I shook my head.

He side-eyed me. ‘What’s waiting on you in Arizona?’

I shrugged. ‘Looking for work.’

‘Money or a woman. Always one or the other.’ He glanced at me again, something knowing in the way he did. ‘You sure in a hurry for someone on a wing and a prayer.’

‘Man’s gotta eat.’

‘You making me think I shoulda taken the green up front.’

Taken” needled me. ‘I’m good for it.’

He said nothing, eyes searching the road ahead. The headlamps reflected off the snow by the roadside. ‘Take some rest. Be a long night otherwise.’

I shifted in my seat, the thought of sleep receding from my mind.

In the darkness, I didn’t notice us leave the highway. Gradually, I became aware that the cab was rattling, the road surface no longer smooth. I straightened up, afraid I’d fallen asleep without realising. My hand shot for the inside pocket of my coat – my wallet. Still there.

Wyatt caught the movement.

‘Where are we?’ I said.

‘Breakfast stop.’

I looked at my watch – coming up on four a.m. Too soon to be near Durango. I could make out a steep, rocky bank to the left; on the right, a wire fence running a little way back from the road, poking out of the snow. ‘I’d like to keep moving.’

‘Sorry, partner, I got a appetite for two. You outvoted.’

I was about to look away when she spoke. ‘The wages of sin is death. Do you understand that?’

A string of yellow lights appeared on the horizon; a cluster of buildings. Wyatt opened his hands on the wheel, gesturing. ‘That’s Telluride right ahead.’ He whistled, the first bars of a western number. ‘”To hell you ride.” Best eggs in these parts.’ He slapped my shoulder. ‘You buying.’

We stopped at a redbrick hotel on Main Street, Wyatt climbing out even before the engine stopped turning over. I watched him go around the front of the truck and stepped down, my breath fogging in the night air. There were properties up and down the road, the look of an old cow town. Only the hotel and one other had lights showing. The sky was clear, a million stars on display, but on three sides of us they stopped abruptly, a ways above the horizon, and I realised we were hemmed in by mountains, the absence of light the only clue to their presence. A box canyon, only one road in and out.

Wyatt jammed his hands in his pockets and walked up the slope to the entrance, whistling the same refrain as before.

I followed him inside, finding myself in a saloon bar with a black-and-white tiled floor, high ceiling and gilded mirrors. The bartender wore a white shirt with a black vest and arm garters – frontier-style. Wyatt nodded to him and he set two glasses and a bottle of amber liquor down. I held back in the doorway. Wyatt laid his finger across the top of his glass as the other man poured, indicating to fill it to the rim.

Only one table was occupied – an old woman with a china cup in front of her, staring ahead at nothing. Her mouth was going, small movements as though she was whispering, but there was no sound. Wyatt motioned for me to join him at the bar and I picked my way between the tables. One road in and out. Unease washed over me; but when I thought on it, I couldn’t remember feeling any other way.

‘Shoot,’ Wyatt said, ‘cook’s taken to his bed already. My apologies.’

I half-turned to go. ‘Forget it. I’m not hungry anyway.’

He motioned for a refill. ‘Lemme go ahead and put the warmth back into my toes, then we’ll be on our way.’ He pointed at the bottle. ‘Have some.’

I shook my head and pulled out the nearest chair to sit. The old woman was at the next table and she glanced across at Wyatt and then at me. I was about to look away when she spoke. ‘The wages of sin is death. Do you understand that?’

‘Ma’am?’

‘Only in our Lord Jesus Christ is redemption found.’

All eyes were on her now. The bartender was shaking his head. ‘Pay her no mind, gentlemen.’

She’d already set her gaze on the window again. Wyatt watched her a moment longer, then broke into a grin and looked away. ‘She’d only short-change me if I did.’ He chuckled at his own joke and then moved off. ‘I gotta go use the restroom, pardon me.’

‘Do not get back in his truck.’ She’d lowered her voice, said it just loud enough for me to hear. ‘That man is a bandit. He’ll rob you and kill you.’

I watched him pass through swing doors at the back, then looked at the clock, the stillness and the quiet pressing in on me.

The woman broke it. ‘I belong to our Lord Jesus Christ, I cannot be claimed for Satan.’

I looked over my shoulder for the bartender’s reaction, but he’d moved to the far end of the bar to light a smoke.

‘The same can’t be said of everyone.’ She ran her thumb over the edge of her cup. ‘The devil takes many forms when he walks among us. Has many lairs.’

I pushed my chair back to get up.

‘Do not get back in his truck.’ She’d lowered her voice, said it just loud enough for me to hear. ‘That man is a bandit. He’ll rob you and kill you.’

I locked my eyes on her, not sure if I’d misheard. She kept staring straight ahead. I heard the barman’s smoke burn as he dragged.

Wyatt appeared through the swing doors. ‘All set, partner?’ He crossed back to the bar and finished his drink.

The woman’s mouth was moving silently again. I tore my eyes away from her. ‘I ought to go too. Just a second.’ I walked across the room, scrambling in my mind.

Through the swing doors I found myself in a dark corridor. The bathroom door was on my right, but it was the payphone beyond it that caught my eye.

The woman’s warning rang in my ears.

I pictured a box canyon. One road in and out.

I snatched up the telephone and got the operator. ‘When was the last call placed on this line, please?’

‘Just now, sir. I thought you were the same gentleman calling again.’

‘He’s a friend of mine. Where did the call go to?’

‘A private residence in the county. Can’t you ask your friend?’

A social call at four in the morning. Didn’t add up. ‘He left already but he forgot something. Connect me, please.’

She paused, as though she was weighing it up, then said, ‘Hold, please.’

Two rings and a man answered. ‘Bobby?’

I said nothing.

‘Bobby?’

The silence stretched. The other party breathing. The line crackled and then the man hung up.

The sound was like a starter’s pistol. I dropped the receiver in its cradle and threw the bathroom door open. There was a window above the sinks, just big enough. I scrambled up and pried it open. Cold air rushed in. Behind me, I heard the swing door move – slow, someone slipping through it.

I levered myself through the window and dropped onto the snow. Inside, I heard the bathroom door open.

I took off into the darkness.