Dark Debtsby Karen Hall
In Dark Debts, Karen Hall masterfully combines southern gothic, romantic comedy, and mystery in a wildly original theological thriller that has become a cult favorite since being published twenty years ago. In this new anniversary edition, the author has reimagined her work. The result is a suspenseful, irreverent, and deeply spiritual novel that captivates/i>… See more details below
In Dark Debts, Karen Hall masterfully combines southern gothic, romantic comedy, and mystery in a wildly original theological thriller that has become a cult favorite since being published twenty years ago. In this new anniversary edition, the author has reimagined her work. The result is a suspenseful, irreverent, and deeply spiritual novel that captivates from the very beginning and doesn’t let go.
When Randa, a reporter for an alternative newspaper in Los Angeles, receives an urgent phone call from her estranged lover, Cam, she rushes to his apartment. She arrives to discover that he’s leapt from the building to his death. Police believe that before committing suicide, Cam also murdered someone in a convenience store, but Randa does not believe Cam is capable of such an act. She seeks out Cam’s brother, Jack, who is living off the grid, somewhere near Atlanta, in hope of figuring out what really happened.
Meanwhile, a Jesuit priest named Michael Kinney has been exiled from New York City to the boondocks of Georgia after making controversial public statements. He has said things that educated people of faith are not supposed to express. Even more problematically, he has fallen in love with a woman, and the last surviving member of his family has kept a shocking family secret from him.
How these characters converge is part of the thrilling mystery of Dark Debts, a cult favorite first published twenty years ago. In this new edition, author Karen Hall has re-imaged her southern gothic tale and the result is a work of even greater power—a brilliantly realized and suspenseful evocation of the conflict between good and evil.
The five years Hall spent on writing, revision, and deep research reap big rewards for the reader in this very serious (and spiritual) shocker. The story: A dark debt, or curse, hangs over the family of a Georgia ex-Satanist. The Landry family has been working off this debt, unbeknownst to its infected members, with insanity, suicide, robbery, murder, and even mass murder. Cam Landry, a reclusive young Los Angeles crime writer who has just signed a publishing contract for $300,000, suddenly goes berserk, robs a liquor store, kills a clerk, then commits suicide. Cam's ex- lover Randa, a journalist for an alternative newspaper, wonders what could have provoked this senseless deed. Romance blooms when the determined Randa goes to the town of Barton, outside Atlanta, to talk with the last surviving Landry, hermit Jack, who knows that insanity, murder, and perhaps suicide likely await him as well. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Father Michael Kinney, a sexy young Jesuit who edits a far-out Catholic magazine, falls for Tess, a lapsed-Catholic New Yorker editor, when she has him write a piece about an adolescent who murdered his family after an exorcism Michael helped administer failed. Michael, it turns out, is related to the Landrys and is also being stalked by the family curse. Then, fired from his magazine job and exiled to a Georgia parish, Michael meets Jack Landry. Will Michael save Jack, then give up his Roman collar and marry Tess? Can he survive when the same demon gnawing at Jack also goes after him? And why doesn't God help Michael fight the demon?
Hall's soft-bang climax has a clichéd ring, but even readers skeptical of demonology will find themselves beguiled by her stringent arguments and research, all set off by strong characters and witty dialogue.
- Simon & Schuster
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- 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 2.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
Randa couldn’t move. She could feel her weight in the chair and it was the only thing keeping her upright. How long was she going to have to stay here? It was three o’clock in the morning and she had to be at work by nine. Or did she? Was this a legitimate excuse to take the day off ? Did she have a right to mourn? And would everyone see it as mourning, or merely as the final chapter in a neurotic obsession?
She had felt uncomfortable at the paper ever since last summer. She knew a lot of people had bought the self-serving pile of crap Cam had spread around, in which she came off as a psychopath.
“How long did you say you’ve known Mr. Landry?” It came from the older one: a doughy, middle-aged man wearing a shirt the color of Dijon mustard. Neither of them looked anything like she would have expected a detective to look.
I don’t know a Mr. Landry. Mr. Landry is someone’s political science teacher. I know Cam.
“Seven years. Or eight.” Then she added, “I haven’t seen him in a year.” She didn’t know whether that was relevant or not. It was certainly relevant to her.
They had made her identify the body. A granite-faced man from the coroner’s office had lifted the sheet, while a uniformed cop had supported her by the elbow in case she collapsed. Apparently a fifteen-story fall onto the concrete sidewalk had yielded all sorts of ugliness. She’d have to take their word for it. All she had seen were Cam’s eyes. Truth be told, they were all she had ever noticed when she looked at Cam. She noticed everyone’s eyes, but Cam’s were unlike any she’d ever seen. An ephemeral blue, the color of jeans that have faded just right. But it wasn’t the color that gave them their haunting quality, it was the depth. A depth that knew no context, like the light inside a prism. Somewhere near the bottom, a crystal base of hope managed to send a trace of itself to the surface. Along the way it was clouded over by layers of pain and sadness and bitter defeat. That was what she had always seen in Cam’s eyes. The hope and the bitterness, locked in mortal combat. Even now, she knew something inside her would be forever scarred by the outcome of that battle.
She glanced at her reflection in the dirty glass partition. Her eyes seemed to be sinking into her face. They looked, as her mother would have put it, like “two little pee holes in the snow.” She tucked a strand of thick blond hair behind her ear, as if that would help. Was thirty-five supposed to look this old? Had she looked so old this morning? God, why was she worrying about how she looked at a time like this?
She braced herself as an angry wave of pain washed over her.
How can this be real? How can Cam be dead? He’s outrun it for so long.
Outrun what? What part of her was talking, and what was it talking about? She’d noticed lately (in the last year, maybe?) that there seemed to be a voice inside her head that would blow through, make some grand pronouncement, and then disappear without the slightest desire to explain itself.
“We’ve been trying to locate a relative to notify. Do you happen to know of anyone?” It came from the younger detective. His light brown hair had a waxy texture that made him look like a Ken doll.
Randa shook her head. “They’re all dead.”
“No aunts, uncles, anything?”
“Not that I know of.”
She wondered if she should mention Jack. It wouldn’t do them any good, but it would give them something to chase and might therefore get her out of here sooner.
“There’s a brother somewhere, but you won’t be able to find him. Cam has been trying for years.”
The younger one clicked his ballpoint. “You know his name?”
“Jack. It’s probably a nickname, though. They all had fancy names.”
“They all who?”
“Cam and his brothers. There were four of them. “
“And all the brothers are dead, except for this Jack?
I’m not holding out on you. I don’t want to keep the corpse for a souvenir.
“So where does this Jack live?”
“Somewhere around Atlanta, the last anyone heard from him. But that was ten years ago.”
“And there’s absolutely no one else?”
It seemed he wasn’t going to let go of this until she told him something new. She tried to think. Who would have been called if she hadn’t shown up? The answer slammed into her head. She took a deep breath.
“He has a girlfriend. Nora Dixon.”
A lying bitch from some back corner of Hell who’d better not show her sorry ass in here until long after I’m gone, unless you want to add a homicide to your caseload.
“I don’t know why she wasn’t there,” Randa continued. “I thought they were living together.”
She must have met someone who could do her career more good.
“Wait a minute.” The younger one again. “If she’s his girlfriend, who are you?”
“Good question,” Randa said before she could censor it. She immediately hated herself for the venom she could hear in her voice. How could she be mad at Cam now?
“What does that mean?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, not sure why she was apologizing. “We used to be friends.”
“Why’d you stop?”
She looked up in time to see Detective Ken Doll wink. Wonderful. Now he was going to flirt with her. Just what she needed.
“I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
“Whoa.” He made a show of looking around the room. “Are we in court already? Time flies.”
Very cute. David Letterman is quaking in his Nikes.
“What time did you say he called you?” The older one showed no sign of noticing the sparring.
“Around one o’clock.”
“Can you be more specific?” he asked.
“One oh nine? Or nineteen?” Randa said. “I remember a nine on the digital clock.”
“You remember a niiiiiiine? What part of the South are y’all from?”
The part where men talk to women the way you’re talking to me, which is why I left.
“Georgia.” She gave him the iciest look she could muster. Say “peach,” I dare you.
“Georgia,” he repeated, in a tone that implied there was something remarkable about being from Georgia. He let it go at that. He seemed not to be picking up on her unequivocal lack of interest.
The other detective raised an eyebrow. “Did you know Mr. Landry from Georgia?”
“No. We met here. That was just . . . a coincidence.” She trailed off as she heard her father’s voice in her head. “Coincidence is a fool’s defense.” Why she thought she needed to defend herself was another question.
Memories of Cam were starting to emerge, shooting at her like darts. She was surprised at what was coming back. No great moments. A barrage of banality. Stopping to get directions from an old guy in a Shriners hat. An unknown folk singer playing the back room of the guitar store. Late-night dinners in funky little coffee shops. The one with a full bar. Cam’s favorite. Following Cam through cramped, musty bookstores while he piled her arms with books she couldn’t live a meaningful life without reading. Petty arguments that had turned vicious and personal, only to wind their way back to civility and dissolve in a change of subject or a joke. Sitting here now, she couldn’t remember any big events. Had there even been any? Instead, she just felt the time. All the mundane, directionless time that makes up a friendship.
A friendship? Was that what it had been? A friendship that had been hanging over her head like the sword of Damocles for more years than she cared to acknowledge. Did Cam’s death mean the sword had been sheathed? Or was she now stuck with it forever?
“So when he called you, he didn’t say anything that indicated . . .”
“That he was about to jump out the window? No. And I don’t know why he’d call me to come over if he was planning to kill himself before I could get there.”
“Are you saying you don’t think he jumped?”
“You said his door was locked from the inside. Obviously he jumped. I’m just saying that if you’re waiting for me to make sense of it, we’re going to be here a long time.”
“Had he been depressed lately?”
“I don’t know. Like I said, I hadn’t seen him for a long time.”
If he’d been breathing, he’d been depressed lately. She’d never seen him go longer than a week without falling into a major funk. She had learned to stop worrying about it. Who could blame him? It was a wonder he could tie his shoes.
“So why did he call you tonight?”
HOW many times are we going to go through this?
“I don’t know. He said he needed to talk to me. And he said something about being in some kind of trouble. He didn’t say what the trouble was, he didn’t explain why he was calling me specifically, and he didn’t say he might kill himself if I got stuck in traffic.”
The older detective nodded and wrote something down, completely unfazed by her impatience. He stared at his memo pad. This was how it had been going for the last hour. He’d ask a few questions, make a few notes, and then stare at the pad. If there was any logic to it, Randa didn’t know what it was.
Why was this taking so long? Why couldn’t they just chalk it up as another suicide in the big city and be done with it? Surely they had better things to do. Wasn’t Hollywood, all myths aside, the crime capital of the planet?
The older detective was looking at her as if she’d missed a major point, and she realized he’d just made some proclamation.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“A couple of hours ago, someone robbed a liquor store a few blocks away from Mr. Landry’s apartment building.”
Was that the big news flash? She knew the liquor store he was talking about. It was on the corner of Sunset and Vista, with a wide front door angled for easy access (and getaway) from both streets. She and Cam had joked that the owner should just put out a sign that read PLEASE ROB ME. (“My brothers would have used that place as an ATM,” he’d said.) But what did it have to do with Cam’s death?
“ . . . witnesses described the robber as a white male in his late thirties, about six-three, salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a nice suede jacket, an odd shade of green. He asked the cashier to throw in a bottle of Chinaco tequila. Not exactly your standard profile.” He smiled a little. “Your run-of-the-mill liquor-store robber will usually settle for Cuervo Gold.”
Randa stared at him. Cam had a tequila fetish that was no secret to anyone who knew him or had read his books. And she had given him a sage-green suede jacket two Christmases ago. But surely the detective wasn’t implying . . .
“I noticed an unopened bottle of Chinaco on Mr. Landry’s desk and it rang a bell. Far-fetched, I know, but I swung by and had some of the witnesses take a look at Mr. Landry’s driver’s license, and what do you know? Bingo.”
It was all Randa could do not to laugh.
“That’s the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard. It’s . . . comical.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve got a nineteen-year-old stock boy over at the county morgue with a bullet wound in his chest, and he ain’t laughing.”
“Well, if you think Cam had anything to do with it, you’re out of your mind.” The incredulity in her voice raised it an octave.
“What makes you so sure?” the younger one asked, in his best serious detective voice.
“In the first place, Cam had more integrity, more humanity, than anyone I’ve ever known . . .” For the first time, she choked up. “And he hated guns. He would never have touched a gun, much less shot someone. And then there’s the fact that he’d just signed a book deal with a two-hundred-thousand-dollar advance, which would pretty much alleviate the need to rob a liquor store.” She was practically yelling at them, which was a waste of adrenaline. This whole thing was from The Twilight Zone.
“Two hundred thousand dollars?” It was the older one who spoke, but the younger one’s jaw had dropped open with the sudden knowledge that he was in the wrong business. The older one recovered and continued.
“How do you know that if you haven’t talked to him in a year?”
Because all my so-called friends sent me every clipping they could get their hands on, just in case I’d missed it.
“I read it in Publishers Weekly.”
The older detective nodded, momentarily appeased. “Well. Be that as it may . . .” He stared at his desk for a moment, then looked back at Randa.
“The neighbors told us some interesting things about Mr. Landry’s family history, which I assume you know.”
So there it was. Randa had figured they’d end up here eventually.
“That’s exactly why I know this is crazy.”
“Because it is. Look, I’ve known Cam for a long time and I know him . . . knew him . . . well.”
“You hadn’t seen him in a year.”
“I don’t think he had a soul transplant in that time.”
Then why did he do what he did to you? And why did it catch you so off guard, if you knew him so well? And what was that phone call about? What about what he said . . . “I’m in trouble that I didn’t know existed.” He certainly knew that liquor stores existed. But what about the witnesses? Could they have been that mistaken? Impossible. No one else on earth looked like Cam.
“Maybe he just had you fooled.” Detective Ken again. His arrogance was now enhanced by a patronizing sneer. Randa abandoned all efforts to hide her contempt.
“I don’t fool that easily.”
They locked eyes, and Randa did not look away as another man approached the desk. She could hear him talking to the older detective as he rustled something out of a brown paper bag.
“Back closet . . . under a pile of clothes . . .” She looked up. The older detective was holding a plastic bag. Inside, marked with a small cream-colored tag, she saw the gun. Her entire body locked with disbelief. The man was still talking.
“ . . . Forensics dusted it, we’re waiting . . . Ballistics said send it over, they’re not busy. I said there’s no rush, the guy’s dead . . .”
Randa stared at the gun. Were they saying it came from Cam’s apartment? Captain Arrogance could barely contain his glee.
“Well, what do you know? Looks like you fool easier than you think.”
It was nearly dawn by the time Randa got home. She sat on her sofa in a stupor as the sun rose and the room lit up around her. She could only think; she couldn’t feel. Her emotions were locked in the bottleneck of information—Cam’s death, the police, the guy at the morgue, the gun—it was too much. It numbed her.
She had finished filing her column by six o’clock and had settled back to zone out in front of a true-crime miniseries that had sounded promising in its reviews. She’d given it fifteen minutes before deciding that the critics were all imbecilic and turning it off. She’d flipped through the latest Rolling Stone, but couldn’t bring herself to care about Bruce Springsteen’s horse farm. All she could do was replay this strange night in her head over and over, searching for any part of an answer.
It had been one of those nights that reminded Randa that she’d inherited her mother’s nerves. She had been consumed by a feeling of lurking doom. It had made no sense. Looking back on it now, it was as if she’d spent the night waiting for the phone call, as if some deep, hidden part of her had known it was coming.
She had been sleeping on the edge of the bed with her head near the nightstand, and the phone had scared the hell out of her. She hated middle-of-the-night phone calls. A wrong number or someone was dead—too wide a spectrum to prepare for on a moment’s notice with a pounding heart.
“Hello!” She’d answered in a tone that demanded a quick explanation.
She’d recognized the voice immediately. For a millisecond she had considered hanging up on him, but then she’d asked herself who she thought she was kidding.
“I have to talk to you. It’s really important. I know it’s late, but I have to talk to someone and you’re the only person I know who might believe this.”
“I can’t do it on the phone. Randa, it’s crazy, it’s . . . Look, you always said you’d do anything for me.”
“That was a long time and many erroneous perceptions ago.”
“I know. We can talk about that, too. You don’t know . . . you can’t believe the things you don’t know.”
“Hell, I can’t believe the things I do know.”
“Dammit, Randa! ” It was so loud and so out of character, she’d almost dropped the receiver. “I’m in trouble! I’m in trouble that I didn’t even know existed! Now are you going to come help me, or are you just going to send a nice wreath to the funeral?”
“Okay, calm down. I’ll be over as soon as I can.”
“No! Not here!”
“All right. I’ll meet you at Ray’s?”
“That works. But hurry.”
The line was silent as he thought. “Nothing. Just hurry.”
Ray’s was the coffee shop where Cam all but lived. He ate there at least once a day, sometimes three times. His loyalty had mostly to do with the place’s proximity to his apartment. Cam lived in Hollywood, in an area Randa had always referred to as “the hills above Hell.” She had tried repeatedly to talk him into moving to a better neighborhood, but he said he couldn’t write in an antiseptic environment. She had offered that there was a wide range between antiseptic and “likely to be shot in the underground parking garage,” but he’d never listened.
It was a little after two in the morning when she got to Ray’s. It wasn’t the first time she’d been there at that hour, so the clientele did not catch her off guard. Homeless people, rock-and-roll types, prostitutes of both genders taking a break from trolling, and an eclectic assortment of insomniacs. The “denizens of the deep,” Ray called them, with a certain amount of affection.
Ray was in his early fifties, short and round with dark features and several visible tattoos. Where he had ever come up with the money to open a coffee shop was a mystery, as he was no businessman whatsoever. Half the regulars had running tabs that they never paid, and whenever someone approached the cash register holding a bill, Ray seemed pleasantly surprised. Randa was convinced he was in the witness protection program. But he was friendly to her, and extremely fond of Cam.
Cam was nowhere to be found, and his car wasn’t in the lot. Ray was sitting on a stool at the counter, poring over a racing form.
“Hey, Randa! Where the hell have you been?”
“I’ve been around.”
“You ain’t been around here.”
“No.” The last thing on earth she wanted to do was explain it to Ray. “I’m looking for Cam. Have you seen him?”
“Not since breakfast.”
“Noon. His breakfast. So does this mean he finally unloaded that spook?”
Ray called any woman with dark hair and heavy makeup a spook. Randa had tried before to explain the racial undertones, but Ray wasn’t interested.
“I have no idea. I haven’t seen him in a long time.”
“Yeah, I know. I always ask him about you.”
He must love that.
She wondered what Cam had said. She moved away? She got hit by a train? Or had he told Ray the truth? Had the two of them had a good laugh and a moment of male bonding at her expense?
She ordered a cup of coffee and stepped away to use her cell phone. She’d never taken Cam off her speed dial. The call rang twice before it was picked up by an answering machine and she heard Cam’s voice telling her to leave a message.
“Cam? It’s Randa. I’m at Ray’s and you’re not. Are you there?” She gave it a moment, but he didn’t pick up. “I guess you’re on your way. I’m giving it ten minutes and then I’m leaving.” Yeah, talk tough. You’ll sit here until Hell freezes over.
She hung up and went back to the dining room. She could see a cup of coffee sitting at “their” table, where Ray had put it. There was also a Coke for Cam, and a chocolate chip roll. Ray had never been an ally in her effort to get Cam to eat better. Still, it was a thoughtful gesture.
She sat down and tried to collect herself. She wanted to be as stoic as possible by the time Cam arrived. Over the past year she had dreaded the inevitability of coming face-to-face with him, because she had no idea how to act. Part of her still felt the same way about him as she’d always felt, and another part wanted him to die slowly and painfully at the hands of skilled torturers. She tried to will herself to stay calm. She would listen to what he had to say and react to that, and only that.
What was this about? And how did it involve her? No matter what trouble Cam was in, he had throngs of friends he could have called. People who lived closer, people who stayed up later, people he hadn’t spent the last year trying to pretend he’d never met. Not to mention Lady Macbeth. Where was her lying ass?
Half an hour and two cups of coffee later, Randa was sick of waiting. Cam could have walked here three times since she’d left the message. It was obnoxious enough to have called her here in the first place. Now he was taking his time getting here, leaving her to cool her heels among the night crawlers?
As soon as Ray’s back was turned, she put some money on the table and left to drive up the hill to Cam’s place.
She remembered the drive well. It was only then that she had started to wonder if Cam really was in some kind of trouble. Up to that point, she’d been telling herself not to panic. Given Cam’s flair for hyperbole, he could make misplacing a credit card sound like a matter of life and death. But he had sounded different. She’d told herself that he’d felt awkward because of the nasty way they’d parted. Hell, he should feel awkward. If he was suddenly willing to call her, knowing it would mean having to face her fury . . . something might really be wrong.
She’d just begun to hypothesize when she’d turned onto Cam’s street, into a sea of flashing lights.
Meet the Author
In her career as writer, producer and creative consultant, Karen Hall has worked on numerous series, including M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, Moonlighting, Roseanne, and Grace Under Fire. She has received seven Emmy Award nominations, as well as the Humanitas Prize, the Women in Film Luminas Award, and the Writers Guild of America Award. Her novel, Dark Debts, was a Book of the Month Club main selection when first published in 1996 and has been translated into French, German, and Japanese. She and her husband own Black Bear Books, an independent bookstore in Boone, North Carolina.
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