I watched Decker with an unearthly calm. I was even able to take note that the lantern gave off a yellow hue that made Mr. Decker’s normally brown eyes turn almost mustard in color.
I felt my nose burn – it was the acrid smell of kerosene. Must be on the bag. Then the smell faded as I approached him and was replaced by the smell of a roasted man.
Poor Decker. The voice in my head said.
I vaguely wondered if roasted Decker would smell the same. His body was worn, aged, fragile. A bit fatter. It might, it might not. I’d need more kerosene to know for certain.
When I got within a few feet of Mr. Decker, he thrust his lantern at me and said, “Don’t come any closer.”
I held a level stare at him. His face twitched.
Suddenly he pivoted on his back foot, came around, and shoved me into the wall while moving toward the doorway. I recovered and widened my stance. He backed away, still keeping the lamp out in front.
It was a good move, yet he didn’t run, which was better for me. I took a step toward him.
“Stop!” His brow rose and curved, stretching the skin around the bridge of his nose, causing horizontal wrinkles across his forehead. His yellowed eyes were wide, his chin jutting outward. His chest was elevated, puffed up like a cock with his shoulders expanded, making his body look wider.
I cocked my head. “Not to sound condescending, but if I wanted to harm you, I’d have done it, despite your strength for a man of years.”
His brows lowered, drew together. Creased lines appeared vertically across his brow, and his lower lip tightened to the point it turned whitish. “Watch it cabbage brain. I’ve fought and beat better men than you.”
His hand went inside his coat pocket.
I stopped, then backed away, giving him space, thinking about what he might have inside his pocket. A weapon was likely, but what sort of weapon was the question.
“I know,” I said through pursed lips.
“What’s that?” Decker shifted closer to the entryway.
He removed his hand from his pocket and lowered the lamp, illuminating the bag. “This is nothing?”
I kept my eyes directly on him. “It’s difficult to explain.”
You don’t need to explain.
I snapped my head in Decker’s direction.
Get him off guard.
I’m glaring, but then I relaxed my eyes and showed my hands, palms out. “It wasn’t supposed to happen.” The corners of my mouth turned downward.
I could end it.
“I was at the Harken. I went there after your quarterly search for that ugly pipe.” I wanted him to know I wasn’t a bad guy, to pay no attention to the body in the corner.
I tried a friendly smile.
Decker didn’t respond
“I ordered a bourbon, just the one.”
“Well, you had plenty before you left.”
“Just the one.”
“There was a woman on my route there. She was sitting at the end of the bar with some man I didn’t recognize. I got suspicious. When the two of them left, I followed.”
“Is this the poor fellow?” Mr. Decker looked down at the letter bag.
I looked away, my head tilted slightly toward the ground. “Yes, that’s him.”
I brought my gaze up and met Decker’s eyes. They were without any feeling, like that of a man who’d seen much in his life.
I could end this all.
In a minute.
Wait. He’s a tricky one. The voice in my head said.
“They went into an alley. I waited at the corner to see what they were doing. I thought they were just being lovers, so I started to leave, then I heard a commotion. It didn’t sound like lovemaking.”
I looked at Decker to see if he was an old prude who might blush at the idea that I knew what lovemaking sounded like. It was pointless. He had the lantern in front of him again and his face covered in bright spots and dark shadows. Masklike. So, I was unable to tell if he was a blushing man.
“I went down the alley, and this man is choking her. I confronted him, he let her go and then…” My memory disjointed, and I tried to recall what had happened. Was it self-defense or did I murder Alarbus? I decided the former was the better answer.
You let me in.
“What was that?” Decker asked.
I shook my head.
“There was a struggle, I was able to get his knife, and then I killed him.”
You’d think a weight would have been lifted from my conscience, but that wasn’t the case. If anything, I felt heavier, but not with guilt or shame. What I felt was something unusual, a kind of satisfaction at having been able to share what I’d done. I recoiled, not from Decker but from within, realizing that my feeling was not something I’d ever accept. But then I also knew that was at least a partial lie.
I looked to Decker to see if there was anything there, any empathy that might be in his gaze, maybe a downward glance with a short smile, followed by words to console me in my situation. If only to let me know that I’d had no choice in the matter, but instead what I witnessed was a man who showed no emotions at all. His stare was unflinching as if he were looking into me, reading my soul.
“You killed him?” Decker said.
“I slit his throat.” It came out franker than I’d wanted.
Decker pointed to the bag. “Looks you did more than slit his throat.” His gaze locked onto me.
I looked away, shielding myself from his constant stare working to unearth what was deep inside, then brought my focus on him.
“Who is he?” he said while digging his fingers into his beard, giving it a good scratch.
“I don’t know. I call him Alarbus.” My brow crinkled and my mouth twisted. I stepped toward the wall and leaned against it.
“Why did you do this to him?” He was expressionless, his eyes directed at me.
I scratched my neck. Why lie?
“I was afraid. I left him intact in the alley and came home. The woman I rescued knows me. I was afraid she might report me to the authorities. I went back to cover up what had happened. I know it sounds strange.”
“You thought that your best defense for a woman claiming that you killed someone was to chop off his limbs and bring them back to your domicile?”
“I burned the rest so he couldn’t be identified.”
“And him not being identified helps you when a woman goes to the police, reports a homicide perpetrated by you in an alley. When the authorities got to said alley, there’s a limbless burning corpse, and you are untouchable?’
“It sounds ridiculous when you say it in that way.”
“It sounds insane when you said it the way you said it. I will accept ridiculous.”
It didn’t matter because Miss Newberry should have never had left the Harken with Alarbus, and Mr. Decker should have never come into my home uninvited. It seemed that no matter what others did, I would be the one blamed.
And if there’s no one left, then there’s no one to blame.
Decker’s eyes were looking upward, his hand on his chin.
He’s trying to think of a lie you would believe so he could escape and report you.
He had entered your home uninvited.
There was no prearranged meeting, so no one else knew he was in here with us.
If we had invited him, say for dinner, then it was likely someone might know, but that wasn’t the case.
I doubted anyone saw us outside. Even if they saw Mr. Decker going into our place, they probably couldn’t tell who it was and probably didn’t even care.
I edged closer to him. He didn’t seem to notice. His gaze was on the ceiling, his focus not on anything external, but internal. He was lost in thought.
I watched him, thinking about this room, this chamber, this tunnel.
No one has been in here for a long time.
I hadn’t even known it was here.
If we were to wall up the hole, no one would know this place ever existed.
Maybe a long time from now, after I was dead, someone might find this tunnel, knock out the wall as I did.
But all they’ll have was bones and questions.
Decker was now looking at me, which caught me by surprise.
He moved closer with the lantern.
I moved to the side, then around him and stood in the doorway.
He held the lantern near my face, focusing on something.
I became acutely aware of sweat on my brow and felt perspiration run down the sides of my temples, down onto my neck. I wiped the streams away and dried my fingers on my jacket.
Mr. Decker came forward and gripped my shoulder. “I won’t say a word about this to anyone. But for God’s sake—next time just go straight to the authorities.”
I heard his words, I heard the sincerity in his voice, but some things can’t be unsaid.
“Mr. Decker, I made a mistake. I know that.” I reached for his hand. He hesitated but then took mine. I shook his hand vigorously as though I’d met President Harrison himself.
“Take my advice. You don’t want anyone else to know what you’ve done, do you? Banging around in here at night is going to attract attention.”
He stopped, waiting for a response. I nodded.
“I think the best thing,” he continued “is to bury this man’s remains, read him a prayer from the good book, and never think on this again.”
My eyes remained steady on Decker’s face.
“Are you going to allow me to leave?” he said.
I moved to the side then followed him out of the chamber, but instead of turning in the direction of my home, he turned the opposite direction.
“The exit’s this way.” I pointed back toward my cellar.
Decker stopped and faced me. Shadows formed on his face as he brought the lantern around. “I want to know something.”
“All right.” I fidgeted with my hands.
“I’m not concerned about the authorities, not yet, but I am concerned about the woman. What are you going to do about her?”
I stopped looking at him. He turned around bringing the lantern with him, hurting my eyes as the pupils shrunk rapidly to adjust to the change in the lighting.
He realized I was feigning ignorance.
“You know exactly what I mean.” His brow furrowed.
“What’s down there?” I pointed down the tunnel.
“Did you know about this tunnel?”
“What about Miss Ne…?” He fumbled with her name.
“Yes. Miss Newberry. What about her?” Decker was touching the side of his coat pocket, once again I wondered what kind of weapon he had.
“There’s nothing I can do. Why, do you have a suggestion?” I asked.
“Have you thought about killing her?” His brow was flat, his lips pursed together.
He folded his arms. “Of course, you have. Even I know she could be a problem for you.”
I shifted my gaze to the flame inside the lamp. “I could talk with her. Her silence on this matter is all I ask. There’s a good chance she doesn’t want to go to the authorities. You know how people can be.”
Decker turned away, his back to me once again leaving me in the dark.
I was standing there, my eyes wide, waiting for him to turn back around, thinking maybe he was checking something farther down the tunnel.
He can’t leave. The voice in my head said.
“You feel that draft?” I said.
Decker spoke over his shoulder. ““Yes, I can feel it. That’s coming from my cellar.” He lowered his lantern.
“Why would the draft come from your cellar?” I quickened my steps to get closer to him.
“Because I left my cellar door open, and my windows are open.” Decker picked up the pace.
“Were they open earlier?”
Decker stopped suddenly, turned and looked at me.
I backed away a few steps.
“Before you showed up with your pipe.”
“Yes, I was removing something from the tunnel.” Decker stepped away.
“That’s why I was banging around, trying to find out where that draft came from.” I followed him.
“What did you take from the tunnel?”
“Nothing you need to be concerned about.” He picked up his pace again.
I followed behind Decker about four paces closing the gap.
Decker hurried up his pace.
I quickened my steps.
I was nearly on top of him when I reached out.
Something hit the floor. I stopped, and so did Decker.
He turned about, lowering his lantern toward the ground. It was his pipe. I crouched and picked it up.
“You keep misplacing this pipe.” It was the same one I’d found in my house earlier.
I held out the clay pipe to Decker from my crouched position.
Decker was expressionless, standing still, his body unmoving, his face set like stone.
I rose and stood to face him.
“Everything all right?” I said wondering if he might be having a stroke.
He was staring at me.
“Do you want it?”
Decker didn’t move.
Then I felt a burning sensation. The pipe in my hand began to glow red.