The White RoadJohn Connolly
The White Road
In South Carolina, a young black man faces the death penalty for the rape and murder of Marianne Larousse, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the state. It's a case that nobody wants to touch, a case with its roots in old evil, and old evil is private detective Charlie Parker's speciality. But Parker is about to make a descent into the abyss, a confrontation with dark forces that threaten all that Parker holds dear: his lover, his unborn child, even his soul… For in a prison cell, a fanatical preacher is about to take his revenge on Charlie Parker, its instruments the very men that Parker is hunting, and a strange, hunched creature that keeps its own secrets buried by a riverbank: the undiscovered killer Cyrus Nairn. Soon, all of these figures will face a final reckoning in southern swamps and northern forests, in distant locations linked by a single thread, a place where the paths of the living and the dead converge. A place known only as the White Road.
The White Road
The fourth book in the Charlie Parker series
To Darley Anderson
Who is the third who walks always beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together But when I look ahead up the white road There is always another one walking beside you Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded I do not know whether a man or a woman -But who is that on the other side of you?
– T. S. ELIOT, THE WASTE LAND
THEY ARE COMING.
They are coming in their trucks and their cars, plumes of blue smoke following them through the clear night air like stains upon the soul. They are coming with their wives and their children, with their lovers and their sweethearts, talking of crops and animals and journeys they will make; of church bells and Sunday schools; of wedding dresses and the names of children yet unborn; of who said this and who said that, things small and great, the lifeblood of a thousand small towns no different from their own.
They are coming with food and drink, and the smell of fried chicken and fresh-baked pies makes their mouths water. They are coming with dirt beneath their nails and beer on their breath. They are coming in pressed shirts and patterned dresses, hair combed and hair wild. They are coming with joy in their hearts and vengeance on their minds and excitement curling like a snake in the hollow of their bellies.
They are coming to see the burning man.
The two men stopped at Cebert Yaken’s gas station, “The Friendliest Little Gas Station in the South,” close by the banks of the Ogeechee River on the road to Caina. Cebert had painted the sign himself in 1968 in bright yellows and reds, and every year since then he had climbed onto the flat roof on the first day of April to freshen the colors, so that the sun would never take its toll upon the sign and cause the welcome to fade. Each day, the sign cast its shadow on the clean lot, on the flowers in their boxes, on the shining gas pumps, and on the buckets filled with water so that drivers could wipe the remains of bugs from their windshields. Beyond lay untilled fields, and in the early September heat the shimmer rising from the road made the sassafras dance in the still air. The butterflies mixed with the falling leaves, sleepy oranges and checkered whites and eastern tailed-blues bouncing upward in the wake of passing vehicles like the sails of brightly colored ships tossing on a wild sea.
From his stool by the window, Cebert would look out on the arriving cars, checking for out-of-state tags so that he could prepare a good old Southern welcome, maybe sell some coffee and doughnuts or shift some of the tourist maps, the yellowing of their covers in the sunlight signaling the approaching end of their usefulness.
Cebert dressed the part: he wore blue overalls with his name sewn on the left breast, and a Co-Op Beef Feeds cap set way back on his head like an afterthought. His hair was white and he had a long mustache that curled exotically over his upper lip, the two ends almost meeting on his chin. Behind his back folks said that it made Cebert look like a bird had just flown up his nose, but they didn’t mean nothing by it. Cebert’s family had lived in these parts for generations and Cebert was one of their own. He advertised bake sales and picnics in the windows of his gas station and donated to every good cause that came his way. If dressing and acting like Grandpa Walton helped him sell a little more gas and a couple of extra candy bars, then good luck to Cebert.
Above the wooden counter, behind which Cebert sat day in, day out, seven days each week, sharing the duties with his wife and his boy, was a bulletin board headed: “Look Who Dropped By!” Pinned to it were hundreds of business cards. There were more cards on the walls and the window frames, and on the door that led into Cebert’s little back office. Thousands of Abe B. Normals or Bob R. Averages, passing through Georgia on their way to sell more photocopy ink or hair-care products, had handed old Cebert their cards so that they could leave a reminder of their visit to the Friendliest Little Gas Station in the South. Cebert never took them down, so that card had piled upon card in a process of accretion, layering like rock. True, some had fallen over the years, or slipped behind the coolers, but for the most part if the Abe B.’s or Bob R.’s passed through again, with a little Abe or Bob in tow, there was a pretty good chance that they would find their cards buried beneath a hundred others, relics of the lives that they had once enjoyed and of the men that they had once been.
But the two men who paid for a full tank and put water in the steaming engine of their piece-of-shit Taurus just before five that afternoon weren’t the kind who left their business cards. Cebert saw that straight off, felt it as something gave in his belly when they glanced at him. They carried themselves in a way that suggested barely suppressed menace and a potential for lethality that was as definite as a cocked gun or an unsheathed blade. Cebert barely nodded at them when they entered and he sure as hell didn’t ask them for a card. These men didn’t want to be remembered, and if, like Cebert, you were smart, then you’d pretty much do your best to forget them as soon as they’d paid for their gas (in cash, of course) and the last dust from their car had settled back on the ground.
Because if at some later date you did decide to remember them, maybe when the cops came asking and flashing descriptions, then, well, they might hear about it and decide to remember you too. And the next time someone dropped by to see old Cebert they’d be carrying flowers and old Cebert wouldn’t get to shoot the breeze or sell them a fading tourist map because old Cebert would be dead and long past worrying about yellowing stock and peeling paint.
So Cebert took their money and watched as the shorter one, the little white guy who had topped up the water when they pulled into the gas station, flicked through the cheap CDs and the small stock of paperbacks that Cebert kept on a rack by the door. The other man, the tall black one with the black shirt and the designer jeans, was looking casually at the corners of the ceiling and the shelves behind the counter loaded high with cigarettes. When he was satisfied that there was no camera, he removed his wallet and, using leather-gloved fingers, counted out two tens to pay for the gas and two sodas, then waited quietly while Cebert made change. Their car was the only one at the pumps. It had New York plates and both the plates and the car were kind of dirty, so Cebert couldn’t see much except for the make and the color and Miss Liberty peering through the murk.
“You need a map?” asked Cebert, hopefully. “Tourist guide, maybe?”
“No, thank you,” said the black man.
Cebert fumbled in the register. For some reason, his hands had started to shake. Nervous, he found himself making just the kind of inane conversation that he had vowed to avoid. He seemed to be standing outside himself, watching while an old fool with a drooping mustache talked himself into an early grave.
“You staying around here?”
“Guess we won’t be seeing you again, then.”
“Maybe you won’t.”
There was a tone in the man’s voice that made Cebert look up from the register. Cebert’s palms were sweating. He flicked a quarter up with his index finger and felt it slide around in a loop in the hollow of his right hand before rattling back into the register drawer. The black man was still standing relaxed on the other side of the counter but there was a tightness around Cebert’s throat that he could not explain. It was as if the visitor were two people, one in black jeans and a black shirt with a soft Southern twang to his voice, and the other an unseen presence that had found its way behind the counter and was now slowly constricting Cebert’s airways.
“Or maybe we might pass through again, sometime,” he continued. “You still be here?”
“I hope so,” croaked Cebert.
“You think you’ll remember us?”
The question was spoken lightly, with what might have been the hint of a smile, but there was no mistaking its meaning.
Cebert swallowed. “Mister,” he said. “I’ve forgotten you already.”
With that, the black man nodded and he and his companion left, and Cebert didn’t release his breath until their car was gone from sight and the shadow of the sign cast itself, once again, on an empty lot.
And when the cops came asking about the men a day or two later, Cebert shook his head and told them that he didn’t know nothing about them, couldn’t recall if two guys like them had passed through that week. Hell, lot of people passed through here on the way to 301 or the interstate, kept the place going like a turnstile at Disney World. And anyway, all them black fellers look alike, you know how it is. He gave the cops free coffee and Twinkies and sent them on their way and had to remind himself, for the second time that week, to release his breath.
He looked around at the business cards arrayed on every previously blank stretch of wall, then leaned over and blew some dust from the nearest bunch. The name Edward Boatner was revealed. According to his card, Edward sold machine parts for a company out of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Well, if Edward came through here again, he could take a look at his card. It would still be there, because Edward wanted to be remembered.
But Cebert didn’t remember nobody that didn’t want to be remembered.
He might have been friendly, but he wasn’t dumb.
A black oak stands on a slope at the northern edge of a green field, its branches like bones set against the moonlit sky. It is an old, old tree; its bark is thick and gray, deeply furrowed with regular vertical ridges, a fossilized relic stranded by a long-departed tide. In places, the orange inner bark has been exposed, exuding a bitter, unpleasant scent. The shiny green leaves are thick upon it: ugly leaves, deep and narrow, with bristle-tipped teeth at the ends of the lobes.
But this is not the true smell of the black oak that stands at the edge of Ada ’s Field. On warm nights when the world is quieted, hand-on-mouth, and the moonlight shines palely on the scorched earth beneath its crown, the black oak discharges a different odor, alien to its kind yet as much a part of this solitary tree as the leaves on its branches and the roots in its soil. It is the smell of gasoline and burning flesh, of human waste and singeing hair, of rubber melting and cotton igniting. It is the smell of painful death, of fear and despair, of final moments lived in the laughter and jeering of onlookers.
Step closer, and the lower parts of its branches are blackened and charred. Look, see there, on the trunk: a cloven groove deep in the wood, now faded but once bright, where the bark was suddenly, violently breached. The man who made that mark, the final mark he left upon this world, was born Will Embree, and he had a wife and a child and a job in a grocery store that paid him a dollar an hour. His wife was Lila Embree, or Lila Richardson that was, and her husband’s body-after the ending of the final, desperate struggle that caused his booted foot to strike so hard against the trunk of the tree that he tore the bark from it and left a pit deep in its flesh-was never returned to her. Instead his remains were burned and the crowd took souvenirs of the blackened bones from his fingers and toes. Someone then sent her a photograph of her dead husband that Jack Morton of Nashville had printed up in batches of five hundred to be used as postcards, Will Embree’s features twisted and swollen, the figure standing at his feet grinning as the flames from the torch leap toward the legs of the man Lila loved. His corpse was dumped in a swamp and the fish stripped the last of the charred flesh from his bones until they came apart and were scattered across the mud on the bottom. The bark never reclaimed the breach made by Will Embree and it remained exposed for ever after. The illiterate man had left his mark on the sole monument to his passing as surely as if it had been carved in stone.
There are places on this old tree where no leaves ever grow. Butterflies do not rest upon it, and birds do not nest in its branches. When its acorns fall to the ground, fringed with brown hairy scales, they are left to decay. Even the crows turn their black eyes from the rotting fruit.
Around the trunk, a vine weaves. Its leaves are broad, and from each node springs a cluster of small green flowers. The flowers smell as if they are decomposing, festering, and in daylight they are black with flies drawn by the stench. This is Smilax herbacea, the carrion flower. There is not another one like it for a hundred miles in any direction. Like the black oak itself, it is alone of its kind. Here, in Ada ’s Field, the two entities coexist, parasite and saprophyte: the one fueled by the lifeblood of the tree, the other drawing its existence from the lost and the dead.
And the song the wind sings in its branches is one of misery and regret, of pain and passing. It calls over untilled fields and one-room shacks, across acres of corn and mists of cotton. It calls to the living and the dead, and old ghosts linger in its shade.
Now there are lights on the horizon and cars on the road. It is July 17, 1964, and they are coming.
They are coming to see the burning man.
Virgil Gossard stepped into the parking lot beside Little Tom’s Tavern and belched loudly. A cloudless night sky stretched above him, dominated by a yellow killer moon. To the northwest, the tail of the constellation Draco was visible, Ursa Minor below it, Hercules above, but Virgil was not a man to take time to look at the stars, not when he might miss a nickel on the ground in the process, and so the shapes that the stars had taken were lost on him. From the trees and the bushes the last of the field crickets sounded, undisturbed by traffic or people, for this was a quiet stretch of road, with few houses and fewer folk, most having abandoned their homes for more promising surroundings many years before. The cicadas were already gone and soon the woods would prepare for the winter quiet. Virgil would be glad when it came. He didn’t like bugs. Earlier that day, a piece of what looked like greenish lint had moved across his hand while he lay in bed and he had felt the brief sting as the masked hunter, scouring Virgil’s filthy sheets for bedbugs, bit into him. The thing was dead a second later, but the bite was still itching. That was how Virgil was able to tell the cops what time it was when the men came. He had seen the green numerals on his watch glowing as he scratched at the bug bite: 9:15 P.M.
There were only four cars in the lot, four cars for four men. The others were still in the bar, watching a rerun of a classic hockey game on Little Tom’s crappy TV, but Virgil Gossard had never been much for hockey. His eyesight wasn’t so good and the puck moved too fast for him to follow it. But then everything moved too fast for Virgil Gossard to follow. That was just the way of things. Virgil wasn’t too smart, though at least he knew it, which maybe made him smarter than he thought. There were plenty of other fellas thought they were Alfred Einstein or Bob Gates, but not Virgil. Virgil knew he was dumb, so he kept his mouth shut and his eyes open, best he could, and just tried to get by.
He felt an ache at his bladder and sighed. He knew he should have gone before he left the bar but Little Tom’s bathroom smelled worse than Little Tom himself, and that was saying something, seeing as
how Little Tom smelled like he was dying from the inside out, and dying hard. Hell, everybody was dying, inside out, outside in, but most folks took a bath once in a while to keep the flies off. Not Little Tom Rudge, though: if Little Tom tried to take a bath, the water would leave the tub in protest.
Virgil tugged at his groin and shifted uncomfortably from his right foot to his left, then back again. He didn’t want to go back inside, but if Little Tom caught him pissing on his lot then Virgil would be going home with Little Tom’s boot stuck up his ass and Virgil had enough troubles down there without adding a damn leather enema to his burdens. He could take a leak by the side of the road farther on down the way; but the more he thought about it the more he wanted to go now. He could feel it burning inside of him: if he waited any longer…
Well, hell, he wasn’t going to wait. He pulled down his zipper, reached inside his pants, and waddled over to the side wall of Little Tom’s Tavern just in time to sign his name, which was about as far as Virgil’s education extended. He breathed out deeply as the pressure eased and his eyes fluttered closed in a brief ecstasy.
Something cold touched him behind his left ear and his eyes quickly opened wide again. He didn’t move. His attention was focused on the feel of the metal on his skin, the sound of liquid on wood and stone, and the presence of a large figure behind his back. Then the voice spoke:
“I’m warnin’ you, cracker: you get one drop of your sorry-ass piss on my shoes and they gonna be fittin’ you up for a new skull before they put you in that box.”
“I can’t stop it.”
“I ain’t askin’ you to stop. I’m ain’t askin’ you nothin’. I am tellin’ you: do not get one drop of your rotgut urine on my shoes.”