Read Blackbird Online

Authors: Tom Wright










Also by Tom Wright

What Dies in Summer













Published in Great Britain in 2014 by Canongate Books Ltd,
14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE

This digital edition first published in 2014 by Canongate Books

Copyright © Tom Wright, 2014

The moral right of the author has been asserted

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on
request from the British Library

ISBN: 978 1 78211 324 9
Export ISBN: 978 1 78211 355 3
ePub ISBN 978 1 78211 326 3

Typeset in Century Oldstyle MT by Palimpsest Book Production Ltd, Falkirk, Stirlingshire












For my accomplices; you know who you are










Forget then. Forget now. Any story that matters begins and ends everywhere and everywhen.

Tori Ogwyth Marsh








Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

Chapter Forty-Three

Chapter Forty-Four

Chapter Forty-Five

Chapter Forty-Six

Chapter Forty-Seven

Chapter Forty-Eight















The broker, the coker, the midnight toker, the woman thought. Confederacy of dumb-asses, she thought. Organ meats wall to wall. Sneezy, though – Sneezy had his assets, she had to admit. And even Grumpy wasn’t exactly a dead loss – especially in the hot tub, where he could hold his breath longer underwater than anybody in the group – as long as he’s got his blow. And his little blue pills

On the other hand, she didn’t much like this recent tendency of hers to relent, to start cutting people slack, anytime a little snow blew in. She looked across the den to where Bashful, naked as a baby like everybody else, sat slouched back in the grey loveseat, absently twiddling a lock of her blonde hair and gazing off into the middle distance. The sight of those bouncy little bare boobs ignited a momentary glow of need in the woman, not quite hot enough to compel action but nice all the same. Shaking off the thought for now, she rolled the archaic but still satisfactorily crisp thousand-dollar bill she kept for just this purpose into a slim straw, inserted one end into her right nostril, touched the other to the line she’d just built on the jade coffee table, and tooted up. Her own private reserve, not the street-level Bisquick these morons always brought

‘Phone,’ groused Grumpy as he walked in from the kitchen

‘I’m busy,’ she said

‘Yeah,’ he shrugged. ‘Lotta that goin’ around. You seen my shorts?’ He tossed her the phone

She caught it and said hello as she stood, realising with satisfaction that she was now a comfortable minimum of two lines past caring where her own clothes were or what anybody thought of her nakedness

‘Who is this?’ she asked the phone. ‘How’d you get this number?’

She listened for a moment, glancing at Grumpy with a frown

‘Well, believe me, she and I’ll be having a little come-to-Jesus meeting about that tomorrow.’ Another frown at Grumpy, who turned and wandered off toward the bedrooms. ‘So, what’s this about, Bone?’

By now some of the others were looking at her. She walked out onto the deck and slid the door shut behind her, noticing the absence of stars in the sky. The air out here was humid against her skin and had a restless, overcharged feel

She looked around at the trees and down toward the dim light-haze of the town. ‘It’ll cost you a lot more than that, Bone,’ she said. ‘But I’m listening.’

Which was true – it was her trade, and she was good at it. Switching the phone to her other ear, she glanced up at the sky again. ‘Make it an hour and a half,’ she said. ‘Do you know where my office is?’ She looked in through the glass door at her companions, listened a moment longer, then said, ‘Okay,’ and thumbed the phone off, unaware that the decision she’d just made meant, among other things, that she wouldn’t live to see the end of the coming storm












Dr Deborah Serach Gold died on the cross sometime during a night of freezing rain mixed with sleet in late October of my last year at Three. It probably wasn’t the worst thing that happened to her that day, but it had been over two decades in the making, and there’s no doubt lives could have been saved if anybody here had known that at the time. How many of them actually should have been saved is a fair question, but one I have no answer for.

An hour or so before the call came I had stood up to stretch and was looking down Broad Street through the rain from my window on the third floor. The year was winding down fast and although yesterday had been almost balmy, the cutting edge of winter in the form of a hard blue norther snapping with ozone had blown in during the night. Now, with the front past and the rain falling vertically, I watched the coloured umbrellas tilting and weaving along the sidewalks, trying to remember which Disney feature they reminded me of and wondering what it was about them that made the day seem darker rather than brighter.

A couple of pigeons on the ledge under the window fluffed themselves like partridges and cocked their clown eyes fearlessly at me. Three storeys below them the wet red
bricks of the street had an oddly clean look in spite of the cigarette butts and miscellaneous crud rafting slowly along the gutters. A Tri-State October, my window a membrane between contradictory realities: out there the run-up to Thanksgiving and then Christmas; in here a sky of buzzing fluorescents that never changes, and no such thing as a holiday.

This is Three – a block square, lunar grey, four storeys high – smelling of pine cleaner and trouble, with a faint, permanent aftertaste of scorched cotton. If you could burn it down by setting fire to mattresses and jailhouse scrubs in the fourth-floor cells it would be long gone. The structure itself moans when the east wind blows, and people say it looks like the Ukrainian embassy in Bumfukkistan. It goes by various names, officially the Tri-State Public Safety Complex, TSPS in newspaper headlines, Tea-sips or Oz to some of the bureaucrats and jailers and the Magic Forest to others. The assistant DAs, probation and parole officers and judicial clerks, stuck with the spaces under the southern friezes where the birds congregate, call the place Pigeontown in polite company and Birdshit Central among themselves.

But it is unique, with its footprint in three states and housing three separate police departments, all here on the third floor overlooking Broad Street’s pre-Depression store-fronts going to seed and beyond those the dark railyards held over from the steam age. From my window I could see the northeast corner of Texas, a hundred acres or so of Arkansas and, at just the right angle, a thin slice of Louisiana. For people who see symbolism in buildings, thinking of this one as a watchtower is not much of a stretch.

Back at my desk, three quarterly reports behind and
ignoring for the moment the twenty-tens waiting to be signed, I punched the monitor’s power button. But instead of the in-house website, what materialised on my screen was the chess game I’d started yesterday and then forgotten about. Hearing footsteps behind me, I turned and saw Detective Danny Ridout critically eyeing the screen. He was an actual cowboy and looked it, a semi-pro steer wrestler with a chest and arms like a collection of boulders under his red Wrangler shirt. Spending every minute he could out in the weather under a cowboy hat had left him with a complexion that shaded smoothly from dungeon-white along his hairline to a kind of baked mahogany at the jaw and neck. He studied the board over my shoulder. Deciding to try a move before shutting the game down, I grabbed the mouse and moved the cursor over to my queenside rook’s pawn.

‘Wouldn’t do that, boss,’ he said.

I looked back at him. ‘Okay, Red Ryder,’ I said, ‘what
you do?’

‘Go for the bishop trade.’

‘Didn’t know you played.’

‘Chess club president my senior year.’

I had learned the game, or at least learned how the pieces move, at around the same stage of life, on the endless dogwatches of seventh-period study hall at General Braxton Bragg, but even if we’d had a chess club I was pretty sure I never would’ve made president. But I did eventually get good enough to win most of the games I played, except when the opponent was Coach Alonzo ‘Jesus Wants You to Light Up That Scoreboard’ Bubner, who was doing a better job of making a halfback of me than a chess player.

Coach believed the cornerstones of victory were the
running game on the football field and the knights at the chessboard. The running game thing made sense to me, but the knights were a headache. Their attack is indirect – a combination of one and two squares at right angles to each other in any direction – and they can’t be blocked by intervening pieces. But understanding this isn’t the same thing as being able think ahead four or five knight moves, which is what it took to stay in the game against Coach Bub.

Then suddenly I saw, precisely superimposed on the chessboard, a brilliantly clear image of Bragg Field back in Rains County, where I’d played football for Coach, as it had looked from the visitors’ end-zone stands, top row centre, the stadium brightly lit but completely empty and silent. As I watched, the overhead lights began to go out in rapid succession – each leaving an indecipherable hint of an afterimage too brief and faint to register on the retina but somehow imprinting itself directly on my brain – and then the lights beyond the stadium, a wave of darkness rolling outward toward the horizon in every direction, leaving the world in a cold, starless nothingness deeper and blacker than any night.

But intense as it was, the image had no staying power, dissolving almost immediately to leave me staring at the chessboard behind it. All my life I’d had what my grandmother called a ‘touch of the Sight’, beyond ordinary intuition but rare, unpredictable, and almost always short of useful clairvoyance, and I assumed I’d just been touched. But as usual I had no idea what it meant. I sat for a minute, thinking about it and waiting for my heart rate to subside. Nothing occurred to me.

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