Authors: Robert R McCammon
I Travel by Night
Subterranean Press • 2013
I Travel by Night
Copyright © 2013 by The McCammon Corporation. All rights reserved.
Dust jacket illustration Copyright © 2013
by Michael Whelan.
All rights reserved.
Print version interior design Copyright © 2013
by Desert Isle Design, LLC. All rights reserved.
PO Box 190106
Burton, MI 48519
The man who had come to New Orleans on the afternoon train from Shreveport walked across the lobby of the Hotel Sanctuaire with a slow gait. He was carrying a heavy burden. From his high-backed chair in the shadowed corner Trevor Lawson smoked a thin black cheroot and watched him with slightly narrowed blue eyes, and he thought
Here is the man who needs me
David Kingsley, his name was. Of the Kingsley lumber family in Shreveport. Very wealthy, very powerful in Louisiana politics. But right now, at this moment in the evening of July 15
, 1886, David Kingsley had the slumped shoulders and bleary unfocused eyes of a weak pauper.
Lawson was surprised that the man had come alone. A quick glance around told him that indeed Kingsley—a slim man wearing a black suit, a white shirt with a bow tie and a black derby hat—had entered the red-carpeted lobby in a state of solitary submission to the power that bade him arrive here upon the hour of nine o’clock. It was time for the introduction. Lawson tapped ash from his Marsh-Wheeling cigar into the green glass ashtray on the table beside him and then rose to his full height of three inches over six feet.
“Mr. Kingsley,” said Lawson, in a voice of gray gunsmoke and amber whiskey with a trace of Alabama wilderness, “I am here.”
“Thank God!” the man said, upon seeing what he hoped was a light in the darkness. And Lawson just smiled slightly at this painful statement of thanks, and motioned for Kingsley to take the red-cushioned chair at his side.
In the rainwashed city of New Orleans the gas lamps hissed, the barkeeps offered exotic drinks from potion bottles of many colors, the restaurants served Creole and Cajun fare that put heat into the stomach, blood and loins, sweet ladies paraded and posed before young gentlemen seeking an evening of delight, laughter rose up from shadows and then fell back into darkness again, horse-drawn carriages moved here and there in no particular hurry as if the night had no beginning nor end, guitar and piano music spilled into the puddled streets from rooms made golden by candlelight, the timeless river washed against the piers and pilings of exquisite decay, and the brick walls that had stood in the reign of the Ibervilles still stood in defiance of sun, wind, the dampness of the swamp and the hands of modern men. It was a magic and mystical city, wild in its freedoms and sacred in its charms. Yet for David Kingsley and the man named Lawson, it was a place for an urgent and hushed conversation, because a young woman’s life hung in the balance.
Kingsley removed his derby. His hair was dark brown and going gray on the sides, and gray flecked his mustache. He took his seat, looked nervously around the lobby at the few other people there engaged in quiet talk, and he cleared his throat as if to speak but did not speak. Lawson sat down and waited. He calmly smoked his cheroot. If Lawson had learned anything in the past number of years, it was how to remain still and silent. His blue eyes were intense and clear. His steady gaze conveyed both self-control and the keenest edge of danger. He was lean and rawboned and appeared to be about thirty, but age mattered nothing to him now. He had blonde hair combed back from the high forehead and left shaggy at the neck. He was clean-shaven; one interesting effect of his condition was that he no longer had to shave. Another was that he could throw his Eye into a human head to read the secrets there, though often they were only shadows of things that used to be, and misshapen moments that lived in the soul like deformed dreams, difficult to decipher.
He wore black trousers, a cream-colored jacket, a pale blue shirt, a darker blue cravat and a waistcoat decorated in a pattern of blue and gray paisleys. On his feet were ordinary black boots, scuffed by hard circumstances. To his left, hanging on a hook beneath a painting of an ivy-covered Vieux Carré wall, was his black felt Stetson hat with a cattleman’s crease. It sported a thin band made from rattlesnake scales. This night he wasn’t wearing his gunbelt, but close at hand on the left side beneath his jacket was a double-barrelled Remington Model 95 derringer with a mother-of-pearl grip, just in case of particular difficulty.
“Tell me,” said Lawson, as he exhaled a plume of smoke. Through the haze his eyes were watchful. He had received a letter from David Kingsley two weeks ago, had digested that as best he could, and sent back his business card. On the plain white card, beneath his name and the address of the Hotel Sanctuaire, was the line
All Matters Handled
. And below that:
I Travel By
Kingsley nodded. He looked dazed, in need of more than just a listener. “I’d like a whiskey,” he managed to say.
Lawson raised his hand to get the attention of Tolliver, one of the Negro waiters who tended to the lobby. Kingsley ordered a straight shot of whiskey and Lawson asked for his usual drink of rye, simple syrup and orange bitters. Tolliver went off to the bar, and Lawson continued to smoke his cigar and wait for the story.
Kingsley shifted in his chair. There was no need for Lawson to send his Eye out; the man was ready to talk. “As I said in my letter…I received a…certain message after my daughter was taken. Here it is.” He reached into his coat and brought out a folded piece of paper, dark-stained and mottled. It appeared to be more lizard skin than paper. Lawson accepted it from Kingley’s hand, opened it, and read what was written there in elegant penmanship:
Your daughter is very beautiful, Mr. Kingsley. Very charming indeed. And worth money to you, I’m sure. She is being well-looked after. To return her to you, I require gold pieces in the amount of six hundred and sixty-six dollars. She is being held in the town of Nocturne, which is reached from the hamlet of St. Benadicta. It will not be on the map. If you try to bring authorities into this matter, I fear your lovely Eva will come to some harm. Therefore my instructions to you are these: Inform only one man of this, and send him to me with the gold. His name is Trevor Lawson and he resides in the Hotel Sanctuaire on Conti Street in New Orleans. He is what you might call an ‘adventurer’. Send him to me, Mr. Kingsley, and your daughter shall be released unharmed but perhaps wiser to the ways of the world. I shall expect to welcome Mr. Lawson before July has ended.
The letter was signed, with a flourish:
Yours Truly, Christian Melchoir.
“I see,” said Lawson. He refolded the paper and ran his fingers across the texture. The stains had been made by dirty water. Swamp water, most likely. He was sure he would find on the map of Louisiana that St. Benadicta was a small town whose fishing wharves fell off to the muddy unknown. And Nocturne? Oh yes…the music of the night.
Tolliver brought their drinks on a black lacquered tray. Lawson tipped him a silver dollar. When Tolliver left them, Lawson took a small red bottle from the inside of his coat, uncorked it and poured a spool of thick, crimson liquid into his drink. “My extra ingredient,” he said to Kingley’s curious appraisal, but he said no more. He recorked the bottle, put it away and clinked his glass against the other man’s. “To the business at hand,” Lawson offered, “and to a successful conclusion.”
“God help my daughter,” said Kingsley, as he downed the shot.
“God may not be in this lobby tonight,” Lawson answered, after he had taken a sip of his elixir. “But I hope I will do.” He swirled the drink around in the glass and watched the crimson form sinuous shapes. “Do you know the name Christian Melchoir?”
“No. Do you?”
“I do not. However, he seems to know me.” Of course they had spies everywhere. They knew where he was, that was no stretch of the imagination. “You said in your letter that your daughter was taken on her way to the theater? She was alone in her carriage, I believe you said?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“And the abduction was after dusk?”
“Yes, the sheriff thinks it happened around eight o’clock. Eva was running late. She was supposed to meet two friends in front of the
“The sheriff doesn’t know about your communication from Christian Melchoir?”
“No. From what it said…I didn’t dare.”
“Hm.” Lawson took another drink of his ruddy fortification. “For the best, I think. I have no doubt Miss Eva might be…shall we say…in grave circumstances if these instructions aren’t obeyed.”
“I don’t fathom this.” Kingsley stared at the floor for a moment, and Lawson could guess what the man was going to say when he spoke again. “You know…I would think it very peculiar, my daughter being taken by this bastard—whoever he is—and then writing me to request
bring the ransom money. And why six hundred and sixty-six dollars in gold? I am presuming you require a not insubstantial fee?”
“My fee will be two thousand dollars,” Lawson replied.
“Ah. So you might understand how…excuse me for thinking this…you might be involved somewhat more in this situation?”
“I do understand.” Lawson let that sit for a few seconds, while he sipped his drink and then drew again on his cigar. He blew smoke toward the gas-lit chandelier at the ceiling. “I can tell you, sir,” he continued with a calm stare into Kingsley’s eyes, “that I know nothing of your daughter’s kidnapping…except to say that this Christian Melchoir wants
, and is using your Eva as a device. Now…I could say I wouldn’t go to Nocturne—wherever that is—and deliver this ransom for you, and I would be free not to deliver myself to whatever is waiting. I would think that might be the safest decision for myself. I suspect you would never see your daughter again. But,” he shrugged, “I am perhaps what this letter suggests. An adventurer. Also I have a great curiosity, and like all of us I have bills to pay. I will tell you also…that I
go and deliver this ransom for you, and I will do my best to return your daughter in a whole state.” It occurred to Lawson that one could never fully return to a whole state after exposure to the Dark Society, but he couldn’t yet present that to Kingsley. “I’m presuming you have the portrait of Eva I asked you to bring?” He waited for Kingsley to nod. “Then if you’ll also bring the gold pieces and leave them at the desk in the morning, I’ll pick them up and be on my way tomorrow at nightfall.”
“Very well.” Kingsley still looked stunned, as was his right for a man whose nineteen-year-old daughter, the younger of his two, had been stolen away en route to a Shreveport theater. “I have to ask, though…what do you mean, this man wants
? And you say you don’t know
“I know his kind,” was the reply.
“What would that be?”
“Evil to the bone,” said Lawson. “Go back to your hotel and rest. You look as if you need it. Bring the items I’ve asked for. Then catch the train for home. You can pay me when I’ve returned Eva to you.”
“Don’t you want at least half your payment?”
“No.” It was not worth saying that if he didn’t return from Nocturne, the money would be useless to him. He stood up, took his Stetson hat from the wallpeg and put it on. He finished his drink with a final swallow. “I’ll walk you out, sir.”
On Conti Street, the wet night air smelled of sassafras and coffee. Across the way, Sam Bordine’s coffee shop was in full operation, roasting beans on the premises. Carriages trundled back and forth. Candles showed in windows above the street, and figures stood on balconies watching what was to be seen. Lawson stood with Kingsley under the red awning over the Sanctuaire’s entrance, surveying the passage of people, horses and carriages.
“Thank you,” said Kingsley, reaching out to shake Lawson’s hand. Lawson took the offered hand and saw Kingsley wince just a little. The night was warm, but Lawson’s hand was cold. Lawson released the grip as fast as he could without being rude. “Maybe I shouldn’t agree to this,” Kingsley added, as he stood unconsciously rubbing the hand that had just been affected with a chill. “But do I have a choice?”
“You do not,” Lawson said, which was the truth.
Kingsley nodded. Lawson drew on his cheroot once more, blew a smoke ring into the air and surveyed the street. He caught the quickest glimpse of a figure on the right, pulling itself back around the corner of Conti and Royal streets; he had registered a tall, thin man in a black tophat and long black duster, the man’s face indistinct.
“Tell me this,” Kingsley ventured, his expression a mix of personal pain and professional puzzlement. “About your business card. Why does it say, ‘I Travel By Night’?”
“My habit,” was the measured response. Lawson’s gaze swept past the corner and again caught the merest shape of a face under a tophat, leaning forward and now quickly pulling back once more. “I have a skin condition that prevents me from enjoying sunlight. It’s been many years since I’ve been afflicted.” He smiled faintly behind his veil of smoke, aware that he was extraordinarily pale for a rugged-looking man and that a tracery of blue veins showed at his temples. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the cure is…somewhat distant.”
“I’m sorry,” the other man offered, and now it was clear he had decided he must be on his way, either because he had to trust his daughter’s life to a man he hardly knew or that the cold touch of Trevor Lawson’s hand was slowly moving up his forearm. “Well then…I’ll say goodnight, sir. What you require will be brought to the front desk in the morning.” He paused on the edge of walking away. “I don’t understand this business with Christian Melchoir or why it involves you and my Eva, but…I thank you for helping me.”
“My pleasure,” Lawson answered, and thought
David Kingsley walked on. He turned to the left, going to the northeast on Royal. Lawson spent a moment striking a friction match and relighting a cheroot that had never gone out, the better to watch from behind a cupped hand as the tall thin man in the black tophat and duster left his place of concealment and strode after the departing Kingsley, firing a single quick glance at Lawson before he moved out of sight.
, Lawson thought as he smoked,
their spy is in pursuit
Then I shall also go in pursuit
, he decided,
and I will see what this spy is made of
He walked to the corner of Conti and Royal and turned left, walking neither too fast nor too slowly, just ambling along. He passed beneath the yellow glow of a gas lamp, which revealed upon his pallid face the thin-lipped smile of a predator.