Snowball in Hell
An excerpt from the novella by Josh Lanyon
Pearl scrambled out of her cab before it stopped. She darted across the shining wet sidewalk, past the fish sculptured fountains, spumes of white shooting into the dusk, and disappeared through the side entrance of Union Station. Nathan swore, finally found a parking slot, and turned the engine off. He was out of the car, and loping across the wet and oily lot, following Pearl as he'd been following her since the moment she sneaked out of Sid Szabo's apartment building and into a waiting taxi.
Inside Union Station was a madhouse. Porters hustled, families greeted and friends good-byed, the sheer volume of sound rising from the marble floors and Spanish tiles, soaring up and disappearing into the cathedral-high ceiling and the gigantic iron chandeliers. Nathan scanned the milling crowd for Pearl's hat -- a silly little fur doughnut balancing on Pearl's silly little platinum head. But there was no sign of either the hat or Pearl as he avoided small children, animal carriers, and stacks of luggage, pushing his way through the mob of holiday travelers and GIs.
In answer to his urgent question, the gateman jerked his thumb towards the wide entrance leading to the tracks.
There was only one train at the platform, and it was starting to move.
Nathan ran, swinging himself up the steps as the train began to pick up speed. It took him a moment to catch his breath. He mopped his face on his rain-damp coat, and then set out to find Pearl in the crowded coaches.
He strode through four coaches filled with merry travelers -- but no Pearl. He pushed open the door to the dining car. That was packed too, and he almost missed her, wedged in between a steamy window and a fat lady in a bright blue coat. Pearl was mostly hidden behind an open menu, but he spied the fur doughnut dipping drunkenly over the menu.
A steward came forward and Nathan let himself be led to a table, politely insisting on one with a good view of his quarry.
If he'd suspected Pearl knew she was being followed, he was soon reassured. She scanned the menu leisurely, put it down and smiled discouragingly at the friendly overtures of the fat lady.
All at once Nathan was very tired. His side was hurting from his sprint to catch the train. He picked up a menu, glanced it over. He wasn't hungry; he was rarely hungry these days, but he had to keep his energy level up. He watched Pearl over the top of his menu.
She stared determinedly out the window at the sky turning indigo, and the fat lady eventually gave up and devoted her earnest attention to a fashion magazine no doubt full of clothes she would never be able to wear.
The steward came and Nathan ordered a sandwich and a glass of milk. He ate with half an eye on Pearl, and half an eye on the rest of the passengers. The sky changed from indigo to purple, Pearl finished her meal and squeezed -- with great difficulty -- around the cooperative but ungainly lady in blue.
Doyle drained his milk glass, waited a few moments, and followed her out to the last car. It was a smoker car, about half-full with passengers. He took the seat across from her, lit up and stared out the window. In the reflection he watched Pearl take out a little jeweled cigarette case, select a cigarette, and tap it on the case. Her gaze fell on Doyle.
He glanced over as though only noticing her. “May I?” he said, pulling his lighter out.
She nodded, leaning towards him, watching him from beneath the foolish fur doughnut.
He nodded politely, snapped his lighter closed, and returned to watching her in the darkened window. She studied him appraisingly.
“Say,” she said. “Have we met?”
Doyle turned back to her. Cocked his head. “I'm not sure,” he said slowly, and he offered her his best smile. She smiled back. They always did. He looked unthreatening, like -- he had been told by a slightly inebriated starlet -- a gentleman.
He watched the conductor working his way slowly down the aisle, asking for tickets. A gabby old guy stopping to shoot the breeze with just about every passenger.
“I'm sure I've seen you around. You live in Los Angeles?” She pronounced it “Los Angle-less.”
“That's right.” He expelled a stream of smoke, watching her working it out.
“You ever come around to the Las Palmas club?”
He widened his eyes. “Hey,” he said. “You're her! The songbird.”
She laughed, delighted. Preened a little.
“Nice job you do on that 'I'm Getting Sentimental Over You' number.” Nathan told her, and listened to her warble on about the rest of her repertoire -- and then who she was going to be auditioning for next summer. He let her run 'til she was out of steam, and then he said, “I was at the club on Saturday night. The night the Arlen kid was nabbed.”
Her smile slipped. She stared down at her cigarette. “Oh.”
“Shame about that.”
“So where are you headed?”
She relaxed. “Little Fawn Lodge. Not far from Indian Falls.”
He had a vague idea Indian Falls was located somewhere in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He mimed surprise, and it wasn't hard. “There's a coincidence. That's where I'm headed.”
“You're kidding!” There was something funny in her face. “But the ski resorts are all pretty much closed since the war.”
“Well, you see,” Nathan confided, “I'm not a skier, I'm a writer.”
“A writer,” Pearl repeated slowly. She was watching him with narrow eyes. “What kind of writer?”
“Screenwriter. For the pictures.” He figured that would impress her, but she remained wary. He'd misstepped, miscalculated either her paranoia or his own recognisibilty.
He shook his head. “I needed to get out of town. Needed some peace and quiet so I could work. Thought of the lodge.”
“You'll get plenty of that.” She gave him that same discouraging smile she'd given the fat lady. “Well, it's been swell shootin' the breeze.” She jabbed her cigarette out, nodded to Nathan, rose and started down the aisle.
“See you around,” Doyle said to her back. She didn't respond.
“Tickets please,” said the conductor, reaching Nathan at last.
“I'll need to buy one from you,” Nathan said, pulling out his wallet. “I'm going to Little Fawn Lake.”
The conductor drew the ticket pad from his pocket. “Didn't think it was open. Most of the resorts are closed now. Hope you made reservations. It's not weather to be sleeping out in.” He disconnected a strip from the ticket pad, punched it, and handed it to Nathan. “Train stops at Indian Falls. You'll have to hire a car.”
“That's all right,” Nathan said, hoping it was. He didn't kid himself he was up to spending the night in freezing temperatures. He paid for the ticket, considering his finances. He hadn't started the day planning on a ski resort holiday.
The train continued on its way through the deepening darkness. He stared out the window. The black-plum sky had a luminous quality that made the trees and mountains stand out in stark relief.
The wheels of the train clackety-clacked along the rails in soothing monotony. Every so often the whistle blew sounding through the night, echoing through the pines and slopes.
Now what? He'd found Pearl Jarvis -- and the fact that she was trying so hard to avoid being found surely meant she knew something worth knowing -- something that might help his own position.
He wondered if Lt. Spain would think he was trying to skip town.
The train wheels rumbled along the track. He closed his eyes, putting his head back for a moment. He had learned to snatch sleep where he could find it, and this seemed to be a safe enough place for a catnap.
A German flare arched high into the night. Machine-guns and forty-millimeter guns opened up, firing from across the dunes, slicing the night with yellow, green, blue, and red tracers -- pretty, like fireworks. Tongues of colored flame licking out, licking hungrily for the transports high overhead, knocking them out of the sky. He watched them go down, burning. He turned his head and Matt was standing next to him, watching him. Matt's face was shadowed by the fire, little pinpoints of flame in his pupils.
“Where there's smoke,” he said, and he smiled that smile that made him look younger and almost affectionate.
Nathan started awake to a surge of new passengers coming down the aisle, taking the seats around him. He sat up, automatically reaching to straighten his tie, and realized the train had stopped. Turning to the window, he peered out, trying to see which station it was. Old-fashioned Christmas lights hung from the station pavilion. Several lights were dead, like missing teeth in a wide grin. A peeling sign read ..di.. .all.
Hoping it wasn't an omen, Nathan rose, steadying himself on the back of a seat, and made his way hastily down the aisle towards the platform. He found his path blocked by two nuns struggling with a mountain of parcels, and, instinctively, he stopped to help them shove their packages out of the way. It only took a minute, but as he reached the platform, he saw a Ford station wagon sedan pull up at the far end of the pavilion. A familiar tan coat and fur hat slipped inside, and the Woody glided away.
Nathan swore under his breath, crossing the platform and walking out onto the street. He looked around himself.
Indian Falls was a resort town, but if it hadn't been for the tatty fake pine garland strung across Main Street, it could have passed for a ghost town. A steady wall of closed shops stood across from the railroad station: a beauty parlor, a pawn shop, a cigar store, a lending library, a Chinese laundry. Nathan peered at his watch. It was eight-thirty.
He went back to the now deserted station and read the sign on the ticket window. BACK IN ONE HOUR. Swell. He stared at the final twinkling lights of the departing train now vanishing into the pine-thick mountains.
One thing for sure, it felt cold enough for snow. He shivered and looked up at the starry sky. Not a cloud anywhere. That was the good news. The bad news...
He walked back out to the street. Far down the block he spotted lights. A corner all-night drugstore. He started walking.
It was warm and bright inside the drug store. It was also mostly deserted. An elderly woman with a Swedish accent pointed him to a public phone, and Nathan dug for change, wondering if the woman took much heat from idiots mistaking her for a Kraut.
It took time and persistence, but at last he reached LAPD Headquarters, and, to his surprise, with a little more persistence he actually got through to Lt. Matthew Spain.
“Spain here,” he answered, still crisp and efficient at eight-thirty -- no, nine o'clock -- at night. Spain worked late for a married man, but that was homicide.
“It's Nathan Doyle,” Nathan said.
There was a funny pause, and then Spain said, “What can I do for you, Mr. Doyle?”
“I've located Pearl Jarvis. She's staying at Little Fawn Ski lodge up near Indian Falls. It's in the Sierra Nevadas.”
“I know where Indian Falls is. I used to camp there,” Spain said, sounding almost human. “How'd you find her?”
“I followed her from Los Angeles.”
“By car or train?”
Doyle couldn't see why it mattered, but that was a cop for you. They liked all the Is dotted and the Ts crossed. No loose ends. Not so different from a good reporter, really.
“By train. I'm in Indian Falls right now, trying to get a ride up to the lodge.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Spain asked, and his voice was back to its normal brisk and impersonal tone. “You're unusually cooperative for a newsman.”
“Because --” Nathan changed his mind, and took a chance on the truth. “I want you to hurry up and solve this thing.”
Spain asked smoothly, “Any particular reason? Or are you just a concerned citizen, Mr. Doyle?”
“I think you know my reason,” Nathan said very quietly, although there was no one to overhear him, no one at all in the drugstore now except for him and the little old lady with apple-red cheeks and hair as white as powdered sugar.
There was another surprised silence on the other end of the phone.
Then Spain said, “You're heading up to the lodge, you said?”
“If I can hire a car.”
“Try not to spook her.”
Nathan snorted. “Tell it to your granny,” he advised, and Spain chuckled.
“I'll be seeing you,” he said, and rang off.
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.