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From an Edgar award-winning author comes the gripping and unexpected tale of a lost town and the dark secrets that lie beneath the glittering waters of an East Texas lake.Daniel Russell was only thirteen years old when his father tried to kill them both by driving their car into Moon Lake. Miraculously surviving the crash—and growing into adulthood—Daniel returns to the site of this traumatic incident in the hopes of recovering his father's car and bones. As he attempts to finally put to rest the memories that have plagued him for years, he discovers something even more shocking among the wreckage that has ties to a twisted web of dark deeds, old grudges, and strange murders.
As Daniel diligently follows where the mysterious trail of vengeance leads, he unveils the heroic revelation at its core.
The moon is up. The water is high. Dark souls walk the earth and cry.
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THE NIGHT, THE BRIDGE, THE PALE MOONLIGHT
My name is Daniel Russell. I dream of dark water.
My first memory of Moon Lake was as a youngster, on a dark night in October of 1968 with a nearly full moon seeming to float on the surface of the water. I remember its glow and the way the shadows of the trees on the sides of the lake reached out for it like chocolate fingers groping for a silver platter.
Me and my dad were parked on a long, narrow bridge that went over the lake. The bridge was made of rusty metal and cables and rotting wood, not to mention a few lost dreams, for the town beneath the water had been flooded and the great lake was supposed to be the new town's savior. People were expected to come from miles around to picnic on its shores and fish its depths.
They didn't. At least, not enough of them.
I was fourteen years old when I learned this, or learned some of it. Looking out at the moon on the water, it was obvious how the lake got its name.
We were in our broken-down Buick that had come from a time when cars were big and the American dream lay well within reach for just about anyone white and male and straight who wanted to reach for it. All others, take a number and wait.
We had skipped out on bill collectors two days after we had an interruption in electrical service due to a tardy light bill, as my father called it. Two days in the dark and without heat, with the house soon to be repossessed, a blackened head of cabbage and a quarter jug of curdled milk in the useless refrigerator, Dad got rambling fever, and away we went, tires whistling over concrete.
As we sat parked on the bridge, Dad told me why my mother had left a few months back. Believe me, I had wondered. Dad said it was because she thought me and Dad and the world were holding her down. I guess without us, it was less heavy out there. I suppose when you're shedding weight, every lost ounce counts.
I had rarely mentioned my mother after she left. I wished to remember a time when she had held me or spoken softly to me or loved me, but if such a memory was in my brain, I couldn't find it. She was prone to long hours of depression, late-night drunks, and had a somewhat unearthly beauty. Dark hair and eyes, creamy skin, jittery movements like a squirrel on amphetamines. She had a silver star in one of her front teeth. It was a cosmetic procedure she'd asked the dentist to perform. She had a hippie look and a Wall Street mind.
Not long after my mom's departure, Dad took her remaining clothes, odds and ends of hers, and hauled them to the dump. He kept a pair of her black panties, and that made me a little uncomfortable. He kept them in a drawer by his bed. He told me once, "They smell just like her."
Some things a child doesn't need to know.
The day we packed up and left, those panties came with us. I saw Dad put them in his suitcase. We left most of our stuff and traveled light, a suitcase apiece, scrounged from behind Christmas decorations. The luggage was placed in the trunk and in the back seat, along with some refugee clothing. Shirts mostly.
We spent a few nights in motels so cheap that in one of them, roaches moved under the wallpaper in our room with a crackling sound. In another we could hear the next-door neighbor coughing and showering and straining to shit.
We were parked on the bridge that cool night in 1968 because we had no home and no more money for a motel room. Dad said he had read about a job in some newspaper somewhere. He was vague. He was by original choice a librarian but had left that job to make more money, as my mother felt she needed to live in style. She wasn't crazy about a husband who had what she said was a woman's job, shuffling books and filing dusty cards and memorizing the Dewey decimal system. She liked to party. Dad liked to complain.
Dad had some math skills and was smart in many ways, had a lot of educational paper that said so. He became an accountant, and I think that things between him and Mother must have been all right for a couple of years, though he hated the work. He missed the smell of old books and chasing down people with overdue items on their library cards.
I know this somewhat from memory, somewhat from my dad, and it's just possible I made some of it up.
As we sat there on the bridge and the wind whistled around the car, my father patted his fingers on the steering wheel. The big silver ring he wore on his left hand made a snapping noise against it, and the moonlight caught it and made it wink.
Dad said, "Beneath that Moon Lake water is a town called Long Lincoln. It was named after a tall man named Lincoln. How about that?"
I didn't say anything, because I couldn't tell if it was really a question. Moonlight was shining through the windshield and it made Dad look like he was coated in shimmering gold paint. The bones in his face appeared sharper than usual, like you could use one of his cheekbones to open a letter. His lips trembled. There were beads of sweat on his forehead, and I remember thinking, Why is he sweating? It's a cool night.
Leaves were picked off the trees by the sharp fall wind and they flapped through the air, bright in the moonlight, red and yellow, orange and brown. Many came to rest on our windshield and on the bridge, as if they were birds settling to roost. Where they coasted onto the windshield, the moonlight formed a camouflage pattern over Dad's face.
"Long Lincoln is where I was born. It was where I met your mother. We were in high school. We thought love was enough. We thought a lot of silly things. A few times I came back here, after it was a lake, parked here, looked down, and on days when the sun was bright, I could see buildings, could even read the words POST OFFICE on a building where I had mailed letters to Santa and applied to colleges, sent sweet notes to your grandparents when they were alive. When they died, there was only me and you and your mother. Three against emptiness. Now it's two. You and me. Jesus, it's a sad old world."
I wanted to ask why we were parked on a bridge and why he was telling me these things, most of which he had told me before, and often. But there was something about the way he was talking, something that made me stay silent for longer than I might normally have. Being on the actual bridge he had described to me while living in our home made it stranger and more real to me.
"I loved your mother," he said. "I want you to know that. Without her, we're lost. My hands feel damp with the blood of dead hopes."
He talked like that sometimes. My mother said he read a lot of books. When he worked at the library, they were readily available.
I couldn't hold it in any longer. "Daddy, you're scaring me."
Dad turned away from me, faced forward, and him doing that caused me to do the same. I could see our headlights lying on the bridge, extending outward, leaves still whirling about in the beams, coming to land on the frail bridge.
That bridge was narrow and long, the railing on the side was made of thin, rusting strips of metal, and when we drove onto it, it shook and moaned like a sad old woman about to die.
"Sometimes you have to do what's best for all involved," Dad said. "No one should suffer famine and worry, not have love and support at home. Of course, they would first need to have a home."
He laughed a little when he said that. It sounded like cracking ice. He was acting so strangely it felt as if the interior of the car were colder than the weather demanded.
"Once upon a time, the town down there had people in it. They had jobs and they had homes, and then it was decided by someone that the town should be moved and renamed and that the old town would become a lake. There was a great dam then, so broad at the top you could walk across it. It had a high spillway, and it was pretty up there, and there was water that came from the spillway and ran through the center of town as a creek, rolled by a post office, gas stations, a school, a general store, and so much more. There were trees on either side of the creek and they made much of the town shady, and on the outskirts of the town on both sides there were houses. I lived in one of those houses. I was raised there. Did I already say that?"
If he heard my reply, I couldn't tell.
"Money was paid, and the town was evacuated. A new town was built in a different location. But there were some down there that didn't leave. Can you believe that? They waited there thinking that if they stayed, the water wouldn't be released. But it was. Gone in a flash, and the remains, along with the bones of those who didn't leave, are lying down there at the bottom of the wet. I was born there. I grew up there. I met your mother there."
A theme was developing.
"Danny, I feel like there isn't any true light or warmth in the universe anymore. You should never have to feel that way. Do you understand?"
"'The moon is up. The water is high. Dark souls walk the earth and cry.' An old poem. I know what it means now."
Dad shifted the car into drive and inched us forward slightly with a gentle tap on the gas. I was glad we were finally moving on.
"I want you to know how much I love you," he said.
Before I could say "I love you too," he punched his foot down hard on the gas, and the car leaped and the bridge shook. He jerked the wheel to the right, and the great big Buick, five payments owed, smashed through the rotting railing and sailed out into space like a rocket ship.
Wet leaves swirled about us, and then the car dipped, and there was the Buick's shadow, smack-dab in the center of the gleaming reflection of the moon. We went down in what seemed like slow motion, the car lights shining onto the lake, the moon's reflection a golden bull's-eye.
When the car struck the water, I took a deep breath. There was a slapping sound as it hit. The headlights glowed briefly, even underwater, but only for a moment, then they snapped off. The windshield caved in, folded like a blanket, and banged up against me. Cold water and the impact of the windshield washed me loose of my seat and towed me away.
Had it been now, I would have had a seat belt on, but then, even if a car had them, we didn't wear them, and thinking back, I wonder if in this case a belt might have done me in, if I might have been fumbling with the release, sucking in water all the way to the silty bottom.
But there was no belt in that giant Buick, and the impact and that dislodged windshield and the water drove me over the back seat. The clothes we had thrown there swirled around me and something caught over my head, and then I felt a pain in my spine. Realized I had been driven through the rear windshield.
The safety glass molded around me and then went away. I clawed the cloth off my face and looked down. It was dark where I was but light enough I could see the rear of the car and the dying taillights for a moment, and then I couldn't. The dark took the Buick and Dad.
Above, I could see moonlight through water, and it beaconed to me the way dying people say they see a warm, bright light that invites them into it.
I'd been swimming all summer, but no one had ever praised me for my aquatic skills. I struggled like a dying frog with no real breath inside of me.
Then I saw a mermaid. She came swimming down toward me, and she was dark of shape and swift of motion.
I felt weak. I had the sensation of filling up with something and floating downward, and then the mermaid grabbed me, and up we went, her pulling me by my jacket. It had burdened me during my rudimentary efforts at swimming, gathering around me like a suffocating cocoon.
The light grew bright and the mermaid broke the surface of the lake, still dragging me by my jacket. The mermaid was black. I registered that. I coughed and spat, but the water wouldn't leave me. I felt as if I was being absorbed by moonlight. Then the light was gone and the universe became a murky place and there was only the beating sound of the mermaid's swimming arms and legs. Or so I thought before I realized it was the sound of my hammering heart.
When I awoke, a black face hung over me like the dark side of the moon. The dark moon was the face of a girl about my age.
It was the mermaid and she was outlined in the moonbeams. She was sleek of build. Her dark skin was wet and shiny. Moon-glistened beads of water dripped off her nose and cheeks, lips and chin, and wilting Afro hairdo. She looked at me as if examining a formerly unknown species of fish. She had at first seemed nude, but now I realized she wore a dark shirt and dark shorts. No fishtail.
I rolled my head to the side to let some water flow out of me, and I remember when doing that I saw across the lake a little light moving through the trees like a large firefly, and then I didn't see it anymore.
Then another black face leaned over me, this one larger and rounder and older and not so beautiful. The man who owned that face was fully clothed and wore a fedora.
The older, dry man lifted my head, said, "Breathe easy. You been to the bottom of the lake."
I hadn't actually, but I had certainly come close to it.
Feeling nauseated, I turned my head and coughed up enough filthy water to start a fish farm.
"It's all right," said the man. "You're going to be all right."
The girl was still staring at me, her eyes wide, her lips parted, her chest heaving slightly. Sight of her didn't take away the pain I felt that night, but it was a mild balm to a soulful wound. I felt some puppy love howling around inside of me.
"You saved me," I said.
"Yep." She smiled. Oh, heavens, that smile.
"My daddy?" I said. "In the car."
The man shook his head. "Sorry, son. You're all that came out. He's gone down with the car, and he didn't come up. It's deep out there."
"You have to get him," I said.
"I'm sorry. Lake owns him now."
I started to cry and I don't remember when I quit crying. I don't remember them helping me up and out of my wet coat and into their pickup, loading up their fishing gear, for they had been night fishing on the bank of the lake, tucked up between trees and dark shadows—a lucky break for me—but I remember the drive to town.
It was long and lonely. The world came back in starts and spurts. Cold, wet memories, slices of this, slices of that, the car in the water, going down, down, down.
I sat in a puddle of my own making, shivering. The girl beside me was making a puddle of her own. She wore a jacket now over her wet clothes. We shivered together. The truck was full of warmth, though, as the heater was turned up high. Gradually I began to lose the chill.
The town wasn't too big, but it had bright streetlights, and the main highway split it right down the middle. On either side of it there were businesses and old houses and great trees with limbs that dangled over the edges of the road. Many of the houses were two stories, and a few were three stories tall.
I saw a Dairy Queen all lit up, and I was suddenly hungry and felt ashamed of the feeling. I was alive and craving a hamburger, and my father was at the bottom of the lake, maybe still behind the wheel of our car. In my happier thoughts, he was driving along the lake bed, and all he had to do was find a place where he could drive up from the deeps, onto the bank, and into town, where he would find me. It seemed perfectly reasonable.
The police station was a blur. A big white man with a big round belly wearing a dark blue cop suit with a badge pinned on it was there. He was also wearing a white cowboy hat with a brim wide enough to use as a patio awning, and when he turned in his chair, I saw he had a colorful patch on his sleeve that had all the flags that had flown over Texas, including the Dixie flag.
On the wall were a lot of photographs of him with other law enforcement officers in uniform. One photo had him with three older-looking people, a woman and two men. Beside him, solemn and pale as they were, they looked like wax figures of executioners.
There was another man in the room. Also large of size but better proportioned. He was dressed in slacks and a crisp white shirt and he had a thick head of red hair. He was placing a tray with a cloth over it on the sheriff's desk. There was a placard on the desk that said SHERIFF JAMES DUDLEY.
The redheaded man removed the cloth from over the tray as if it were a magician's trick, and there was a plate with fried chicken and mashed potatoes and white gravy on it.
"Thanks, Duncan," the sheriff said, and smiled at him. The redhead nodded, smiled back, and left the room, trailing a cloud of Old Spice.
The sheriff studied me. I was still damp and dripping. Questions were asked of me and of those who saved me. Notes were taken by the sheriff on a pad with a pencil.
I did the best I could to say what I knew, but my mind wandered. I could see a room off of the office with the words COLORED WAITING ROOM above it. The words had been painted over with white paint but were still visible under the thin coating. Just a few years back my rescuers would have had to come through the back door and sit in that waiting room, where they would be attended to. Eventually.
"What the hell am I going to do with him this time of night, Jeb?" the sheriff said. "Get some foster folks or some such, I guess. I can get a wrecker out to the lake in the morning, couple of boys who can really swim, see if they can find the car."
"You'll need swimmers who can use diving rigs. It's deep there," the black man said. I would find out later his full name was Jeb Candles and his daughter, Veronica, was known as Ronnie.
"That'll cost the county a good chunk," Sheriff Dudley said. "More to the point, this boy needs a place to stay, some food, and dry clothes. I'm not sure what to do about that."
In 1968 the idea of protecting children was different. There wasn't a whole lot of thought put into the struggle of orphans. Not in that small East Texas town, anyway.
"He can stay with us for now, Sheriff. May I borrow your phone?"
The phone was borrowed, and the next thing I knew, I was brought dry clothes from somewhere and given a large beach towel. My donations had come from black folks Mr. Candles knew. They arrived quickly and quietly and left the same way they arrived, like beach-towel ninjas.
I went into the bathroom and dressed, looked in the mirror at somebody I didn't know: snow-faced, dark hair drying in a matted wad, eyes seeming as if they were without true color, my skin popped with goose bumps.
I could hear the sheriff talking in the other room. I heard him say, "If you're up late, I'll be by later and we can discuss a few things. I got to do some thinking on this first."
"We'll wait up," Mr. Candles said.
When I came out, I was wrapped in the beach towel by Mr. Candles and loaded back into the pickup. We drove away, leaving the sheriff happily alone with his notebook and fried-chicken dinner. It had been all I could do not to grab a chicken leg and shove it into my mouth. I was starving.
Later, I would be asked many more questions and could answer only a few. It was hard enough right then for me to remember my name or where we had lived.
I did eventually tell the sheriff my mother had abandoned us and that I had no idea where she was. I had an aunt on my mother's side somewhere in Europe, but I didn't know where, and I didn't know her that well. Her husband, my uncle, a rich oilman who I had never met, had died and left her well fixed. My aunt and I had met, and that was about all I could say.
The Candles house wasn't too far from the lake in a section of town where there were no streetlights, and the houses on the block were lit by porch lights that were swarmed by insects.
Inside their house there were shelves of Reader's Digest books as well as others; a big fat black Bible was open on a wooden stand. There were knickknacks of all kinds on the shelves in front of the books; ceramic elephants were favored. The air smelled slightly and pleasantly of baked bread. There was a delicate-looking black woman there. She had a sweet face. She said her name was Millie and to call her that. She moved about swiftly, like a bird on the ground.
The house was bright with light and warm from a fire in a stove that had been constructed from a black barrel and a long, wide pipe that ran from stove to ceiling. A door had been cut in the barrel. Hinges had been made for the cutaway and welded to the barrel. The little door was open, and I could see inside. A bright fire was chewing up sticks of split wood.
When I touched something, it seemed not to have substance. When I spoke, the words didn't seem to be mine, so I preferred not to use them. I felt like a phantom dissolving into the warmth of the house.
"Come, child," said the woman. "Closer to the fire. Let's get you warm."
I moved to a chair by the stove. The beach towel was taken away, and a blanket was put over my shoulders. I was brought a hot cup of cocoa with marshmallows melting in it. The cocoa steamed under my chin and warmed my face. When I sipped it, it filled my insides the way the fire filled that stove, only without the burn.
It was late when the sheriff came by. He seemed smaller to me now than he had before, but perhaps it was because he stood with his hat in his hand, out of his element, beneath an orangish hallway light.
Mr. and Mrs. Candles were standing with him. They spoke in low tones. I caught a word here and there, but mostly it was all a mumble. All I knew was they were talking about me and my situation.
Ronnie was with me in the living room. She said, "You scared being in the lake like that?"
"What do you think?"
"Thing is, I was scared until I saw you swimming down to me. I thought you were some kind of mermaid."
"I'm a damn good swimmer. You're not that good. You thrash a lot."
"You do that kind of thing when you're drowning."
"I'm glad you were there."
I could tell there were other things she wanted to ask me. She had to be curious as to what led my father to drive us through a bridge and into Moon Lake. But she didn't ask.
Had she asked, I couldn't have given her an answer. There were moments when I thought my father felt he could drive off the bridge and back into the past and take up life there. It was an idea right along with the one I had about him driving along the bottom of the lake. None of my thoughts and feelings that night were exactly stellar.
Later, I was alone on the couch in the dark beneath warm blankets, and from time to time, I would wake up whimpering, and each time, Millie was there. She stroked my head, said, "Now, now, sweetie. Now, now. You're safe here. Sheriff says you can stay with us for a while."
"My daddy tried to drown me," I said.
"Ah, now, baby. It was just an accident. He lost control."
I nodded, but I knew better.
Millie stroked my head until I slept. I never knew when she went away. Daylight came. I woke up late, exhausted from trauma, nibbled at some crackers and tomato soup. Both Ronnie and Mr. Candles were gone, her to school, him to work. Millie didn't press me about anything. I ate and went back to sleep on the couch.
When I awoke again, it was dead dark and there was only the glow of the porch light sliding through a split in the curtains of the window next to the couch. As if sensing it was time that I would awake, Millie was there. She ran her fingers through my hair again. My mother had never done that, not that I recalled. I remembered my mother staring at me from across the room as if she were surprised that she had a child.
- “Lansdale nails the storyline, nails the suspense, seriously nails the dialogue and has created yet another character worthy of a series.”—BookPage
- "Daniel... is a winning mixture of curiosity, hesitancy, and gumption."—Sarah Weinman, New York Times Book Review
- Praise for More Better Deals
- "When funky books need to be written, Joe R. Lansdale writes them. . . . The plot is pure James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, but steeped in hillbilly noir."—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
"The prolific Mr. Lansdale…draws on the spirit and themes of James M. Cain in this stand-alone book, which works clever variations on such Cain classics as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.
—Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal
- "Lansdale really makes this used car purr."—Booklist (starred review)
- "Highly enjoyable . . . Populated with an admirable array of laughable miscreants, this droll, savage novel is vintage Lansdale. The author's storytelling powers remain as strong as ever."—Publishers Weekly
- " [A] down-and-dirty riff on Double Indemnity, a provocative new variation on James M. Cain’s noir classic...an enjoyably cynical cruise down the back roads to perdition."—Lisa Henricksson, Airmail
- "He's genre dextrous, moving fleetly between westerns, mysteries, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, literary fiction, and nonfiction, and doing it all extremely well."—Publishers Weekly
- "Southern crime legend Joe Lansdale channels his best James M. Cain world vision...Readers can expect to be transported in the usual Lansdale fashion, as nobody does those East Texas period details quite like Lansdale, who always delivers with a finely-crafted, engaging, compulsive crime story in his home terrain."—Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads
- On Sale
- Jun 22, 2021
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Mulholland Books