The music changed, a man on the piano began playing a sweet melody. The audience’s voices lowered as well as the lights. A sense of calm came over the place. A man with a young lady walked onto a small dance floor in front of the stage. He used one hand to grasp her hand while using the other to take her waist. They stood straight for the briefest of moments, then glided across the floor, creating semicircles and circles. She wore a fine dress and he a dark suit—both were common enough in their appearance, though the style of dancing was not the sort you might find in the Harken. Most of the dancing was with the men, hooting and stomping their boots on the wood floor. It was quite a sight and the sound near deafening. Plumes of smoke would hover overhead while the men continued to be merry until the song ended. Ladies would at times join in the fun, passing through the crowd from one man to the next, as if she were moving through a maze. The crowd’s energy would rise, and rise with the successive beats until everyone finished a great hurrah at the end. It was interesting how the atmosphere would change – one moment it’s high, the next almost sedate, but at that moment it felt peaceful.
I glanced over at Miss Newberry and her friend. They were getting up. She reached into her reticule and paid the barkeep. I thought it odd, her unnamed companion taking advantage of her good graces. I lowered my gaze, looking into the mirror and watching as they crossed behind me. Her friend stopped. He directed his gaze into the mirror, looking straight at me. He held that little grin and then shook his head. In that moment of exchange, his narrowed stare was like that of a friendly person, yet that smile reminded me of a man out west. He had that same look before he proceeded to kick a dog where I knocked the man’s teeth inward to make him stop.
I watched Miss Newberry’s friend until he was out of view, his back to me, headed to the door. I gulped what was left of my drink and stood for a moment.
The barkeep came to me. He said something.
I didn’t hear him, not right off, for I was thinking about where they were going. I turned my head slowly remembering what he said. “Another drink? No.”
The barkeep moved on, taking a rag and wiping down the countertop. I watched him from the corner of my vision as he carried on, thinking to myself. There was something not right about that man with Miss Newberry. It wasn’t anything I could explain, rather a feeling, but not the kind when you’re about to get into a fist fight or fall off the walkway trying to avoid a gaggle of boys running in your direction. No, this was not a feeling but more an understanding, if I could call it that.
They were getting farther away. I eased out of my seat, careful not to draw attention to myself. I weaved through the tables and chairs, trying not to run into anyone for it was a little more crowded. I delayed my approach to the front door, then peered out through the glass window. I didn’t linger long. There was no one out front. I pushed the door open and stepped out onto the walkway.
I searched to my left, looking west down Fifth. A single person was walking away, silhouetted in the lamplight. I looked east over my shoulder, and in the distance, nearly a block away, I could see them. The man with his square shoulders and Miss Newberry wearing a bustled dress.
Why east? They were headed away from Miss Newberry’s home. I began to follow. They were moving quicker than I thought. I double-timed it, staying light on my feet, making sure they couldn’t hear me.
Their silhouettes grew darker between the lamps. There was talk about going electric in the city, to make the streets brighter but that would be a few years from now.
The couple turned the corner. I went from my double-stepping to a more leisurely stroll. I didn’t want to be met with any surprises. I was maybe thirty yards from the pair when they slipped into an alley.
I knew that alley; it led to nowhere. It was closed off on the other side to merge two buildings together. Mr. Owens had a hardware store on Sixth. The shop had seen fast growth. All three floors had been used. He purchased the building next to him, but there was an alley that separated the two, so Mr. Owen called in a favor to his brother-in-law, Mike Mooney, who worked at the Department of Transportation. His friend’s department needed to deem the alley unnecessary, and only one entry was required for any rear access to the buildings. He got the alley entrance to Sixth shut down, slid some money to Building and Code, and merged his two buildings.
I crept along between the looming buildings on both sides of me. Open store windows, lights turned out for the night, alone lamp at the top of some of the buildings where people lived. My feet padded quietly against the stone ground as I approached the alley. There I stood by the corner, my hands gripped the brick building as I peered around the edge. I could see them, near the end of the alley, by the back wall in the shadows.
I shimmed against the wall and got closer. It was difficult to make out what they were doing, but I didn’t want them to know I was there. I took my time, eased in closer, then when I was nearly a third of the way down the alley, I could see them.
He had her pressed against the wall. They were kissing. I felt like a pervert. Prying into Miss Newberry’s affairs, stalking her as if I were interested in a peep show. I pulled my coat around my neck, blocking a cold, sharp wind and my face, then made my way back to the opening of the alley. I didn’t need to be here.
I had gone only a few steps when I heard a muffled cry. I spun to my right and adhered to the wall, in the shadows. I eased away and moved down the side of the wall, walking like a large cat stalking its prey.
I was halfway in the alley when I stopped. I wasn’t sure what was happening or if I should intervene, but I didn’t want to leave, pervert or not. I wanted to ensure Miss Newberry was safe.
He had her pinned against the wall, but they were no longer kissing. He had his hand on her throat. She was squirming, kicking. “You will be my trophy, set out for the world to see. Your burnt body with its severed limbs left in this alley.”
Disgusting I thought, his words, what he would do to her. It sounded familiar, but I was unable to think about it further.
I darted toward them, then slowed my pace. I was about fifty feet from them when he snapped his head toward me.
“Let her go,” I said closing the gap.
He released Miss Newberry. She gasped for air, and before she could get away, he had her pinned by the shoulders, her back against the brick wall.
Then in a sharp voice, she said, “Stop.”
I skidded across the stones, coming to a complete halt, my mind sorting through possible reasons for her telling me to stop.
That smirk of his as he watched me with those cold eyes. He reached over and took Stacey by the arm, brought her close to him. “Come here,” he said, his voice calm, cool.
“Don’t,” she pleaded.
Something was wrong. He must be armed. I stepped closer, watching his hands. “Let her go!”
Those playful eyes, that smile. He let out a laugh and grabbed hold of Stacey’s throat, shoved her against the wall.
My stomach pitched and rocked.
I closed my fists, getting myself ready. I moved toward him, never flinching, never taking my gaze off him. When I was about eight feet from him, he jerked his hand from her throat and let Miss Newberry go. She collapsed to the ground, kneeling at his feet, sucking in air.
“Don’t.” She gasped. “Don’t…”
I brought myself to a halt. Something struck me as odd. The way he was beckoning me to come join them, the way he taunted me as they left the Harken, the way he looked at me when he had Miss Newberry pinned to the wall. He’d been expecting me, he’d known I would follow, and now I felt as if I’d made a mistake. I’d done exactly what he wanted, and Stacey was warning me.
“Such a curious fellow, aren’t you?” he said with an inviting smile.
I looked on, feeling helpless, Stacey there on the ground, desperately trying to regain her strength. She attempted to rise to her feet, but then he snatched her by her hair. She let out a small yelp.
“This is what you wanted, isn’t it? To watch?” He directed that question to me.
Stacey was limp like a wild rabbit caught in a wolf’s jaws.
While I wanted to scream for him to let her go, I knew I had to change my strategy. Get him off-balance. Be more direct, cocksure like him. “Is that what little boys do to get a lady’s attention?”
“Little boy?” His mouth turned upward at the corners. He reached down, taking hold of Miss Newberry’s arm, still holding her hair. He jerked her to her feet. She let out a cry, and I thought to go to her, but he was waiting for me.
His smile dimmed, and he grabbed her again by the throat.
I almost went for him, but I stopped myself. He was using his tactics again, changing things on me, making me react. I had to be calm.
I watched, thinking of how to engage. Meanwhile, her face turned red.
“Stop!” I shouted.
His grin returned, and the pit in my stomach grew.
I scanned his body to see where he’d hidden his weapon. He was turned at an angle, his right side to me. My best chance was to try to deflect a right-handed attack, then move to his left. I would get behind him. That maneuver would reduce my risk of getting shot or sliced open. Because if that happened, I’d be no good to Miss Newberry. I’d be no good to anyone.
Her face turned a shade of purple, and her eyelids fluttered as the sound of her remaining air escaped from her lungs.
My stomach twisted into a ball. I wanted to go to her. I wanted to stop him from hurting her.
His eyes grew wide, his grin wider.
He wasn’t going to let go. He was going to let me watch. He was going to kill her.
The best fighters are often counterpunchers. They wait, time the attack, then make their move on the overly aggressive opponent. He wanted me to attack him.
I had to wait and watch, bear the image of Miss Newberry under his control. Think, Luc, think. I screamed at myself, knowing I had to do something, knowing I couldn’t stand there and watch Stacey, it’s alright if I call her Stacey? I feel like when you go from delivering a person’s mail to attempting to save their life you can call someone by their first name, right? Anyway, I couldn’t stand there and watch Stacey die.
I scanned the alley for anything to use as a weapon. My gaze swept the road, left to right, the wall. Nothing. Wait, Luc, wait. The time will come.
I could see he was calculating my move. He was thinking of the situation, the possible outcomes. I was doing the same, waiting, watching.
I have it.
When she went limp, she’d fall, and his hold would break. He’d be forced to release her, and that was when I would attack, but not before.
She stopped moving.
His arm was weighted down by her body, pulling him with her.
I lunged at the man and parried a blade that shot out of his sleeve and into his right hand. I spun around to his left and grabbed his arm, the one connected to the hand that was still choking the life out of Miss Newberry. I broke his grasp.
“Now I have you,” I said, my voice cold.
He came about, turning into me, his blade coming toward my midsection.
I jumped out of his range, letting go of his left arm, which was a mistake. I should have kept hold, kept control, but now he was loose.
He slashed his blade toward my face. I dodged, but it nearly cut my cheek. The blade came at me again, and I blocked his arm, and then he caught me across my jaw with a left cross. The jolt weakened my knees, and I stumbled to the ground, kneeling at his feet.
He held the blade to my throat. His thin body was in front of me. I looked up at those fixed blue eyes. His eyes squinted then flashed to Miss Newberry who stirred, and I thought for a moment I might be able to get his knife. His gaze came back to me.
“She’s a filthy one, you know,” he said.
My thoughts ran wild like mustangs. A flood of images passed through my mind, old memories, my mother sitting at the dinner table, my brother plowing the field, my father’s bloodied face from robbers. Then there was heat as if my head were catching fire, and sweat rolled off my temples.
Help him. I heard a voice in my head. What was that? I shook off the thought, and said through clenched teeth, “If only you were a real man.”
I thought he might slice my throat, and why not? He had me, but he didn’t own me.
“A sharp tongue against a sharp blade,” the man said.
He was right. I was wasting my breath.
Help him. I heard a voice again in my head. I couldn’t ignore that a second time, maybe there was a reason I heard it?
“Let her go, and I’ll help you.” I’d repeated what the voice said. For whatever reason it said it, I don’t know, but maybe it would work.
“That’s intriguing, not exactly what I wanted to hear.” He pressed the edge of the blade into my skin. I felt it sting. “A proper beginning for us.”
“No,” I said in surprise. He was going to slice me open.
“It’s often what we don’t know about ourselves that gets us into trouble.” The man purred as he pressed the blade deeper into my neck.
I could feel the sharp bite of the blade break the skin.
Help him. I heard the voice but forced it out. Stop listening to voices and think Luc, think.
He had no intention of letting her go, nor me.
I found myself looking at his long coat, his boots, his face, over to Miss Newberry as the sting in my neck intensified.
The sound of hooves against stone echoed into the alley, coming our direction.
I could yell, but it would be my end. Though it might save Miss Newberry.
The clopping grew louder. Sweat rolled off my temple. Short bursts of breath misted from my mouth.
I forced myself to focus on him.
He was looking toward the street, then to me and back again.
I could fight, get control of the knife.
The carriage passed by the entry to the alley and clopped along. His gaze went toward the street. He was listening, measuring if the carriage had stopped or continued. The sounds of the hooves diminished until they were gone. I had my chance. I went for the blade.
He tried to cut my throat, but I adjusted by grabbing his hand with both of mine. I pressed his arm away.
He tried to move out of striking distance, but I had his arm wedged under mine. I turned him about, using both of my hands to work the knife free. He was strong, but I was able to control his hand.
I heard that voice again, and again, and again. It droned on, taking over my thoughts to a point it felt relentless.
I bent his arm straight to weaken his hold, and the blade fell from his hand. The metal dinged against the stone alley. Then the voices stopped, and it was as if every sound around me had faded to nothing—a lingering silence.
I stood there, forgetting what I was doing, bewildered. My legs went out, and my back hit the stone, knocking the wind out of me.
The man was on top of me. His hand sealed my mouth and nose.
My air grew thin.
I shifted to one side, then to the other, trying to shake him.
He brought the blade into my sight, and I snatched his arm, controlling it with my left hand, my fingers wrapped around his wrist. I struggled a moment, planted my right foot, then with a push of my pelvis I created enough space between us. He lost his balance, and with a heave, I managed to roll him over.
I was on top of him. I used both hands, taking a barrage of punches from his left while I again pried the blade from his grasp. I got the blade, tumbled off his chest to my right, and came to my feet, spinning away from him.