Decker sat there like a carved sculpture.
“Well?” I said, my voice calm like water on a windless day.
“Not entirely. As I stated before, I did come into your home, and I did leave my pipe.” He patted the outer fabric of his coat where the pipe was hidden away. “And that’s all there is to it, Mr. Stockhelm.”
He stood. “I think you’ve spent too much time reading cheap novels rather than trying to understand why I’m here in your sitting room.”
I drank the rest of my bourbon, lowered my hand, my head tilted forward. “And why did you come?”
My gaze filtered upward toward Mr. Decker, his face stoic, his eyes fixed, and his jaw clenched nearly as tight as my own. “I guess I’ll rely on my knowledge of cheap novels?” I put my glass down.
He remained quiet, which was best. It was best because I might have thrown the old man out depending on what his words were.
I watched as he walked across the front room, slowly rising out of my chair I followed him to the front door. He opened it, went out, and never said a word.
He went down the stairs, and towards his home.
I shut the door, then went to the kitchen and splashed cool water on my face.
I needed to get away for a few hours. Something to take my mind off my nosy neighbor, the inexplicable draft in my cellar, and this recent slight from Postmaster Thomas Fickle.
My final reprimand?
I’d only received three—my first was for being a day late delivering a package to Miss Lowery, a package she’d been waiting on for her daughter’s wedding. I had been on my feet for twelve hours, and the package was in my bag at the bottom. I was exhausted to the point I could hardly keep my eyes open.
I did make the delivery the next day after I had realized my mistake, but it was too late. I didn’t know what was inside the package, only that Mr. Lowery greeted me with his fists. I am terribly sorry to say he lost the fight, and I got my first official reprimand. Only a postmaster like Thomas Fickle would side with an upset lady over a package and her manic husband’s flying fists. Only an idiot would look past the fact that I had defended myself and nothing more. So what if Mr. Lowery had a blackened eye and a busted lip and a broken finger. The finger wasn’t my fault. He was throwing his jabs, and I smacked them away, then he came in again, and I moved out of his way. His left jab collided with the doorjamb, breaking his ring finger. I shouldn’t be held responsible for a man hitting a doorframe when it was clearly his own doing.
“Did it matter?” I said to no one while I went upstairs, changed, and came back downstairs.
My overcoat hung by the front door. I grabbed it and threw it on before heading out, shutting and locking the door. Old Man Winter was upon us. Gas lamps burned on each street corner. I walked like a man who’d missed his carriage ride to work, in a bit of a hurry to get to a local tavern called the Holly. All the while thinking about the letter, and what Thomas Fickle had said about my final reprimand. It either did or did not matter, but I felt the former rather than the latter.
“Yes, it does matter,” I said again to no one.
The second time I received a reprimand from Postmaster Thomas Fickle was about a letter with money. It’s a terrible idea to send money in the mail, and everyone knows it. I’d brought the letter to Mr. Hind’s house like any other day. The wife of Mr. Hind met me at the door when I arrived, waiting like a patient mother for her child from school. I’d given the envelope to her.
The next day when I delivered the mail, Mr. Hind ranted on about how I’d taken his letter and his money. I’d done no such thing. I explained to him I’d given the letter to his wife. He, in turn, said she never got a letter. Then he cursed me. I told him I wasn’t responsible if his wife takes things. He went on cursing me, but I wasn’t going to deal with his behavior. I left.
I received my second official reprimand.
The air was cold this night.
I moved in quick steps past patrons strolling the sidewalks, men in dark suits, knee-high boots, wearing short overcoats and derbies. Men moving in groups as if they were the heirs of the city, some on their own like outcast wolves. Women in pairs, moving the way a peacock might head up in bustled dress, wearing wide-brimmed hats adorned with white, black, or blue feathers. Some were headed the same direction as I, going into town, their gait livelier, while others went in the opposite direction, probably home, their body hunched forward, their demeanor that of a person headed to the morgue.
I’d gone a quarter mile when I arrived at my destination. The Holly was an upscale establishment where you could get a drink and have something to eat. The people were cordial, though stiff in mannerism.
Several men in dark suits with their lady friends approached from behind, the girls all prim and proper while the men walked stern and upright.
My gaze fell on the people who were now upon me, all dressed in fine clothes—newer, the color did not fade like my own, still dark and crisp. The men were slightly older than I by a few years was my guess, the ladies younger.
I grew conscience of my appearance and looked down—my pants were clean but worn, not shabby but obviously old. My coat was in similar condition.
I opened the door for them. The man in front thanked me while they poured inside one after the other.
One of the ladies moved away from me slightly, making sure not to touch me, while the remaining men filed into the place. The group angled around to the left, making their way to a table held by another man.
The lady who was sure not to touch me glanced over, then whispered into the ears of her friends who giggled. I felt the heat rush to my face.
The Holly was the wrong place tonight.
The Harken would do better, I could get more drinks for fewer coins. A carriage ride to get to the Harken would be less than a half hour, but I thought it a more appropriate place for a man who wanted to sulk a little.
I let the door shut, and turned to find a carriage nearby.
The Holly was closer to home, but I never quite fit in with the crowd. The people were well-to-do, and they came from well-to-do families. I didn’t mind them but trying to have a conversation proved to be difficult. Often the conversation would include a military experience. After a few moments, we’d realize there was no connection between the officer and enlisted. They were accustomed to a different way of life whereas I was not, and that was the veil that fell between us.
Frosty air emitted from my mouth, and I pulled my coat in tighter. I went to the curb and waited for a carriage, thinking about my final reprimand.
What sort of postmaster did Thomas Fickle think he was?
I’d been out sick, but I’d managed to get George Jackson, a new recruit to the postal office, to run my route. Sure, we had backups, call-ins, men who were part-time when we needed them. I figured why not give George a go first with my route, get a little more than just training, let him deliver. I talked to the supervisor, Charlie Welch, and he didn’t like it at first. Then I explained to him that was the way we learned it, and we turned out all right. No one was there to teach us. We were given a bag and told where to go, and off we went. If we messed up, we fixed it. Easy. After several minutes discussing, with Charlie nodding his head, smiling, then shaking his head, I told him if the new kid messed up, I’d fix it. Charlie agreed.
I took my time, told George where to go, when to go, and about how long it would take him to complete my route. He nodded each time as if he understood me, but he clearly hadn’t for he delivered those letters to the wrong streets, the wrong buildings, the wrong people. What an idiot.
Those letters, by the way, never made it back to the post office. Of course, a few were taken to the addressee by the recipient because not everyone’s an ass.
It wasn’t my fault those folks never got their letters, and as for George, nothing happened to him. He was related to the postmaster. So much for trying to get on the good side of Thomas Fickle. He put George on a new route and never gave it a second thought.
What kind of postmaster allows someone to screw up so badly and still lets them deliver the mail? I think the real question is what does someone have to do to get fired from the post office? I might have gotten a “final reprimand,” but I didn’t believe Thomas Fickle had it in him to fire me.
I raised my arm, and a carriage angled to the curb, and I climbed up and sat next to the driver. “How are you doing?”
The driver was silent.
“Where are you from?”
The driver ignored my attempt at small talk and drove on without question.
“Just the sort of fellow I like—little talk, more action.”
The driver gave me a sidelong look.
The Harken was a place where the unsavory of the city ventured, and if you wanted to gamble, you could find a game. If you wanted a woman, you could find her there, all you had to do was ask. If you wanted a drink, there was plenty. A thimble of cocaine also could be found, even heroin if you were the sort to take it. I liked bourbon, and there was a river of it at the Harken.
The carriage pulled to the curb.
“Thanks for the lively conversation.” I paid the driver, and he drove off fast.
I walked with a slight bounce in my step like I heard music no one else could hear.
The streets seemed darker, but that’s not what made me nervous. One could not be too cautious of the brokers hovering about near the alleyways. They like to leech off the people going to or coming from the bars and saloons. These were the men who nibbled at the table but never were invited for a full course, taking the scraps. They lingered near the alleys—it made for a quick escape from the business owners, organized gangs, or the police.
I took notice of a man, his head low, his shoulders high. He approached, trying to be open but still guarded about our soon-to-be interaction. He held out his hand for me to shake, but I never shook a broker’s hand.
“You should get that looked after.” I was talking to his hand. There was nothing wrong with it, I just wanted it to go away. The hand kept coming toward me. “Tell him I am not interested,” I said again to the hand, hoping the man himself would hear me. And he did, but he kept coming at me.
He grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop.
“Are you two together?” I glanced at his hand, then back at him. “You need to tell him to let me go.”
He regarded me.
My mind was telling me not to engage, not to physically pommel this man, but my gut was telling a different story. “It is never enough, is it? You want one thing, which you know is not good for you, but you still want it regardless.” I was still talking to his hand. I had a few choices here. I could get into a confrontation, or I could talk my way out of this without any issues. Sometimes we have too many choices.
“I got it.” He said pulling me in close. “I got what you need.” He went on. “Cocaine, women. What do you want?”
“Well, all of those sound intriguing.” I returned my gaze to his hand. “But I must decline. Now tell your friend to let me go.”
I could only imagine the fellow was wide-eyed, probably wondering what I was doing talking to his hand instead of him. I didn’t feel inclined to explain.
Moments passed, and he still had hold of my arm. I grew impatient and turned my focus to him. “Let go.”
His grip tightened.
My jaw tensed.
“I told your friend to tell you to let me go. Now, that’s not hard to understand is it?” I gritted my teeth.
He grinned, and his grip grew even tighter. Now I knew. “You’re in it together, aren’t you?”
I could see his brow lower, his eyes darting side to side as he tried to figure me out.
He did his best to conjure the much-needed mental capacity to understand what was happening. I shifted to one side, took hold of his arm, and bent it low and to my right. I could see in his beady eyes that he figured out what was happening and he didn’t like it. I twisted hard, and he went down, tumbled over, and then lay on the ground looking up at me.
“Why’d you do that?”
“You are in collusion with your hand.” I gripped his arm tight. “I should break you apart, so this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.”
“No, don’t. Please, sir.”
“Ah, it’s sir now, is it?”
I thought to punch him in that mouth of his, but instead, I released his arm and walked away like a lion who’d come out for a stroll over his vast kingdom. I never even looked back, not giving the man the satisfaction that I might be worried.
I was concerned though. He probably had a friend or two lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce, though likely hesitant, more so because how I was strutting about as if I owned the city. Besides, I didn’t want to have to fight my way to the Harken. It was only twenty yards away. It did have its appeal; don’t misunderstand me, I like a good fight.
I’d take those brokers on, one at a time, if I could get them lined up. If not, no worries. I’d move more, create space, and disable the first man, then the next, and the next. It sounded alluring actually, the thought of evacuating the hostility building within me. I could imagine each one of them being Thomas Fickle, and I was knocking his teeth in, busting his jaw, cracking his left rib with a right uppercut. It was a thought. I didn’t need more trouble, not that the law would be involved, just trouble getting out of the Harken. These types tended to come back in force, and wait you out. It’s smarter to give them a spanking instead of a beating. Besides I wasn’t looking for what was out here—I was interested in what was inside the Harken: company, a few drinks, laughs, and then I’d head home.