He slowly lowered himself on his knees, his coattails fanned around him, covering the stone underneath. His eyes were shut, his mouth open as he muttered unintelligible words. He appeared as a man who was at the altar, asking God for forgiveness.
What was he doing?
I gripped the knife’s handle, holding it waist high.
Stacey lay on the ground, unconscious but breathing, her body rising and falling with each shallow breath.
“What are you doing?” He was either playing a game, or he was biding his time.
I gripped the handle of the blade tighter. I could end this. I could slice in an arc and cut his throat.
His eyes opened, and they were soft, almost kind. “Invite me.”
There was nothing for me to say to him. He was mad. I could see it.
I moved closer to Stacey, giving him space to run if he wanted. I wouldn’t stop him. When I got beside her, I felt a tingling in my feet, rising into my legs and then my chest.
The unnamed man stood, brushed off his coat and the front of his pants. He directed his gaze upon Stacey and me.
“Leave.” I held the knife out in front of me. “Go.”
Invite me. There it is was again – that voice.
I kept my body between him and Stacey.
He moved closer.
“Stop right there.”
He took another step, paused, and then said, “If you help me, I’ll leave.”
“Yes, I’ll leave.”
I couldn’t trust him, but if all I had to do was help him, why not? A madman is a madman.
“All right. Make me believe you.”
“Is it so hard to entertain such a request?” He smiled.
I held the knife closer to my waist, lowering it as my arm grew tired from holding it higher. “No, it’s not hard. Just crazy. Why don’t you just go? That way you have a head start.”
“Yes, a head start. Once I get Miss Newberry to safety, I will alert the police.” I didn’t want him hanging around. He probably knew where Stacey lived, and if he were on the loose, she’d still be in danger.
“Ah, I see. You think that will stop me?”
“I can stop you now.” I raised the knife to my midsection. I was getting the sense he wasn’t going to leave.
“You can try.” He took another step forward.
“Don’t come any closer.” I thrust the knife out in front. “Leave if you value your life.”
Invite me. Was the voice coming from him?
I gritted my teeth. All right, you crazed fool. I invite you. Satisfied? I shifted my feet into a boxer’s stance.
I felt woozy as if I’d drank myself into a stupor and was recovering the next morning.
I heard Stacey groan and glanced at her.
I heard movement, but not from her, from him.
Thank you. I heard the voice once more.
I turned back. He was lunging at me.
I was quick to bring the knife high in front of me.
I sliced outward.
His eyes went wide like blue tides set against a full moon.
The thin edge slid across his throat. I heard a pop and air escaping from his lungs.
But something was wrong, sort of like there was a piece of my memory missing, because I had expected him to fall to the ground, or maybe he’d run into me as he grasped for his life, but that’s not what happened.
He was kneeling as before as if he’d never moved. I was slicing his throat. I recoiled, dropped the knife. I watched as he fell over onto the ground, blood spilling from his neck and pooling under him.
“What did you do?” I heard Miss Newberry’s voice. It was hoarse, raspy, yet somehow accusatory, and her throat was probably throbbing from the way the man had nearly crushed her windpipe.
I stared at the man on the ground and looked at the blood on my hand. I glanced over to Stacey. She was standing. Her hair had come undone from when he grabbed her by it.
“I killed him.” It felt strange to say that aloud, for another to hear, and it somehow made it more real. I gripped the knife’s handle, and the muscles in my arms grew taut. I turned to her. “You should know better,” I said it without thought, care, or empathy.
She was clutching at her throat, trying to speak. Tears spilled from her eyes. “Who are you”—she struggled with her words, swallowing, then regaining her composure—“who are you to judge?” She narrowed her eyes and looked at the bloody knife in my hand.
I lowered my head, but only for a moment. I shot back at her, “This is your fault. If you’d lived a proper life, this would have never happened. Did you think of that?” I heard the words, but they didn’t feel like mine.
She turned away from me and sobbed behind her hair, which
had fallen onto her shoulders. I wanted to reach out, to say I was sorry, but a
voice inside me said,
She’s nothing but a harlot. I don’t know why I thought it or where it came from, it was just there.
She turned toward me revealing her brown eyes. I realized she was terrified, not of the man who’d almost killed her, not at how she let herself get in this situation. She was terrified of me.
“Get away from me,” she uttered, still clutching her neck, her voice still raspy.
I fumbled in my mind and found nothing I could say. My head felt odd, my legs wobbly, and inside there was a hollow feeling climbing up from my stomach, and into my chest. The hole I felt inside sucked all my ability to think. I couldn’t stop it. My thoughts were spinning like a hard wind snatching up leaves into a funnel. I looked at Miss Newberry, my mouth clamped shut for I couldn’t speak, and if I could, it would fall out onto the ground like shattered glass.
I turned away from her and ran. When I got to the street, and around the corner, I kept running.
A series of photos played in my mind, but not black and white. Color. The images shooting at me—the man choking Miss Newberry, the knife that came out of his sleeve, the blade coming dangerously close, then the man’s slit throat with blood bubbling out of it like a spring from out a hill after a morning rain.
I didn’t even know the man I’d killed. I’d never gotten his name.
I caught myself holding my breath and let it out. The cold air shot back into my lungs. I felt a nervous tension spread over my body. I slowed myself to s stop, sucking in gulps of air. I bent forward, hands braced against my knees.
“What did you do?”
I was wondering about Miss Newberry. The way she looked at me and how she’d addressed me with her questioning tone.” What did you do? “How she recoiled at the sight of me.” What did you do? “She thought I’d taken it too far. It was in her eyes, how they were wide with fright as if I were about to use that knife on her.” What was she thinking? “Surely she didn’t believe I’d murdered a man.” Is that what she thought? “He was the one who provoked the confrontation.” It wasn’t my fault. “If I hadn’t shown, she’d be dead.”
I walked along Fifth, staying my course until Broadway, then heading north. It would take a while to get home, forty-five minutes, maybe an hour, maybe more. It depended on how I traveled. Getting into a carriage was too risky after what had happened. I was sure I had blood on my coat. It was on my hands—I could feel it drying, stiffening. If someone were to come upon me, I’d need to shove my hands into my pockets and stay in the shadows until they were gone, or I’d have to go in a different direction.
I could see the frosted air shooting from my mouth as I moved from one dark space to another under the yellow-hued lamps. I searched the street far ahead to see if anyone was coming. I would stop and listen, checking for a carriage on the road. With each step, I was worried about who might be just ahead or where I might need to duck to get out of sight. I didn’t like this, this feeling, how it invaded me. The anxious feeling of being found out.
And what about when I got home? The police might show up. If they came for me, I’d explain what happened, but what if they thought I was hiding something? That might go against me. They might ask why I never came to them, never reported the incident.
I stopped next to a lamppost and addressed it. “Should I notify the police?” I waited, not for it to answer but for my own conscience to speak. Nothing came. “You’re not helpful.” I dropped my shoulders, letting the tension out. “No, I don’t like that idea. I think involving the authorities would be a mistake I’d regret.” I stepped away from the post and continued down the walkway. Past closed doors, past windows with drawn curtains, leaning into a blast of cold air.
“What about Miss Newberry? She might go to the authorities and tell them what happened.” The streets were empty. “The problem is I don’t know what she would say. Maybe she’ll tell them she witnessed two men fighting and one of them killed the other.” I walk with a snap, my pace quicker than normal and I was getting farther away from the downtown district and into the residential areas. I walked past apartments, separated by a few feet of earth with small iron fences around the front lawns. “No, her story wouldn’t hold. There were too many people who’d seen her with that gentleman at the Harken. They probably saw me too. She won’t tell anyone anything. Though when they find him, they will check who was with him last.”
The time had slipped by, quick as a thief out the back door. The hour was late, but I had finally arrived home.
I closed the door behind me and ran the lock several times, unlocking, and locking just to be sure. I felt around for the lantern and matchbox, then lit the lantern. I held out my left hand, examining it under the light. My skin had a red tint to it. I examined my other hand. It too had a red tint to it and long reddish-brown streaks. I turned about and brought the lantern close to the knob, but there wasn’t any blood on it.
I turned back around, put my back against the door, and slid to the floor. I had to get my bearings. I breathed deep and let it out. I gazed upon the wood floor, not thinking of anything, just letting my mind drift.
“This is not good.” I shook my head. “What now, Luc? What now?” I pushed off the ground and got back to my feet. “I need to get cleaned up, that’s what.”
I strode through the foyer and into the kitchen. I put the lantern on the counter, it burned low. I breathed out slowly and directed my voice toward the lantern. “You worthless piece of garbage, guzzling all the fuel you can find, making me broke. If I didn’t need you, I’d throw you into the river and let you rust out, never to be of use to anyone again.” I snapped my fingers, then lowered my head. “Costing me a fortune, faulty, worthless junk.”
I groped in the dark, felt the glass, found the base, but I avoided singeing my fingers on the hot metal. “Stupid, it’s not even been on.”
Along the counter I slowly ran my fingers, feeling the smooth surface, then finding a few rough patches. I found the kerosene oil and thought to myself. “Throw you into the river?” I shook my head at my crass nature that had seemed to overcome me. It was the incident no doubt, what had transpired that night, and all of it seemed an instant. An instant in life, but a lifetime in the mind.
“Shut up Luc.” I smiled to myself. “It’s not all terrible is it?”
The tips of my fingers touched the cool outer skin of the kerosene can. The stout fumes entered the air after I opened it. I poured oil into the lamp. “Guzzling, guzzling, burn, burn, burn.” The container gulped the liquid, burping air. I capped the reservoir, sat the lamp on the counter, took out a match from my pocket, and struck it against the back of the matchbox. I lit the wick, then placed the glass globe over the flame.
“Burn, burn, burn.”
I leaned forward and threw up into the sink. The bile in my gutshot up into my throat, washing over my tongue, leaving a burning sensation. I coughed a few times, welling up snot and mucus, and spitting it out. The bitter after taste of bourbon sat in my mouth. I thrusted forward, reaching frantically for the handpump, groping, banging my knuckles against the hard metal. I took hold the handle, and pumped several times, spitting the entire time. The water spilled out, splashing, and draining. I moved quickly getting my head lower and closer, opening my mouth and letting the water flow into it. I gulped, and spat, gulped more, and spat again. I coughed, the water passing down the wrong pipe as I desperately worked to get rid of the taste in my mouth. After several more uncontrollable coughs, gulps, and full mouth flushes I felt better, the bitter taste gone.
I lifted myself and held my hands under the cool water, watching as the blood eroded and exposed my skin. Red-tinged swirls ran into the drain.
“There’s no going back. I’d walked away, left that man’s corpse to freeze overnight, left it for some poor soul to discover it when the day breaks.” The water ran to a trickle.
“It wasn’t my doing.” I gave the handle a few more pumps. The water poured over my hands.
“Are you sure?”
“He was the one who asked for it.”
“Did he deserve what you did?”
“He deserved what he got.”
I splashed water onto my face.
“He tried to kill Miss Newberry, then he came at me.”
I rubbed my hands together, getting the blood off.
“Or did he?”
Even as my thoughts tried to capture the moment, they were never complete, like still pictures misarranged. Like the moment I saw the two them together, and then how she paid the bartender, also how he was playful, provoking, and then the alley. The images were there, but they didn’t play in my head the way they should. They came in different stills—when I first saw them they weren’t together, she was alone, then he came into the picture. I had to force myself to recall the moments. Also, when he lunged at me—he was kneeling, then he wasn’t, then he was. I tried to find the misplaced image, the one that had fallen out of the whole arrangement. But it wasn’t there.
“Was he kneeling before he lunged? You can lunge from your knees, right?”
“I don’t remember.” I let out a gasp, and ran my fingers over the front of my face, pulling them across it.
“You worry too much.”
“Shut up?” I could feel my face crinkle.
“Worry too much? No. I’m thinking it over.”
“He planned it,” I said to the pump. “Didn’t he?” I didn’t expect it to answer.
“He expected me to follow them. He wanted to see how I would react to his torment of Miss Newberry.” I looked around for a towel, found it, and dried my hands. “How was he able to lure Miss Newberry out of the Harken and into the cold? Into the dark of night? Or into an alley?” I placed the towel on the counter. “Was it his smooth words, his cobalt eyes, his charming smile?”
“He made it look easy. Her laughing, putting her hand on his arm and letting it glide down to his fingers.”
“I’m losing my mind.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Shut up, will you. It didn’t happen that way.”
“It was before you came.”
“No, what happened was she allowed him to massage her shoulders, out in public of all places, as though it were nothing.” I banged my hand against the countertop. “She would have gone with him anywhere.”
I turned and leaned against the counter, crossing my arms. I looked directly at the stove. “What a careless woman. She didn’t see it coming. He pitched her, got her ready, willing to give herself over to him, and all he wanted was to snuff her out.”
“What a pity.”
“A shame really.”
I stalked toward the stove, putting my hands on the top and turning about. “That she would allow herself to be so heedless.”
I threw my hands out wide and brought them inward. “Now she’s safe.”
“Safe to fleece another man.”
I walked away from the stove to my small eating table, pulled out a chair, and sat. “Oh, an ole chap that she’s going to lie with.” I slapped the table. “And why do I care?”
I stood, pushed the chair into place.
“Some more bourbon might help.”
“Finally, we’re in agreement.”
With a sense of purpose my feet propelled me to the counter, then grabbing the lantern, I went into the sitting area, poured myself a glass, and sat in my chair.
“Would she say anything?” My words directed toward the bourbon. “She knew me. Now, what should I do?” I drank.
“Maybe write her a letter?”
I set the glass on the table, got up, retrieved a pen and paper kept in a drawer of the bourbon table. Once back in my chair, pen in hand putting the ink to paper my thoughts struggled. “This is bothersome. How should I put this?”
Dear Miss Stacey,
I apologize for my behavior, for not ensuring your safe passage home, for leaving you when you needed me most…
I dropped the pen, staring at my words, knowing full well that what I had thought and what I had written were completely different. I blinked several times. Even rubbed my eyes before I read the words aloud.
“Dear Miss Stacey.” I paused, took a short breath, and continued. “You were out of line. Never have I seen a lady such as yourself be fooled into debauchery, out in the middle of the night in the cold and in a dark alley. If you would have just opened your eyes instead of your…” I stopped myself there.
“I’ve had too much to drink.”
“But bourbon tastes so good.”
I reached over to the table. “I’m doing it again.” I pushed the bourbon as far away as I could never taking my eyes off of the letter.
I was trying to comprehend why I’d written what I had. I didn’t know where it was coming from, but it was there. My fingers dug into the paper, crumpling it, then I started with a fresh page.
“It’s not the bourbon.”
I reached over, grabbed the bourbon, and took another sip.
This is so strange.
Pen in hand, I put it against a fresh sheet of paper.
Dear Miss Newberry,
I am sorry for what happened. Please, if you will spare some of your time, I’d like to speak with you. We can have a cup of coffee.
“That’s better. What was I thinking?” I read the words again to be certain I’d written down what I was thinking. I had.
Holding the glass out in front of me, I examined the dark liquid. “See, not the bourbon.”
My mind lingered, as an eagle on a breeze, having strange thoughts and misplaced moments. Drifting off into nowhere, but then my focus returned, and I was thinking about why this all happened? What caused it all? And then a thought popped into my head like a voice put it there.
“The cellar,” I said to myself.
“The cellar.” I stood. “The cellar? What does the cellar have to do with this? I must be tired or drunk.”
I stopped myself. “I’m doing it again.” Holding the bourbon to my nose, I sniffed. “The bourbon is fine.”
“Take a drink to be sure.”
There was a nagging feeling inside that said something was wrong—whether about the cellar or the bourbon I didn’t know. It was that gnawing feeling I’d get when I knew Mom told me to do something and I ignored it. And if I ignored it for too long, she’d be as mad as an oiled cat.
“Balderdash.” I grabbed hold the lantern, crossed the sitting room, strolled down the hall, made a right, and went to the cellar door.
I opened the door with caution, holding the lantern high to reveal the stairwell. I stepped down the stairs. The air was dry, earthy.
When I got to the bottom, I could see the brick wall, how old it appeared. I scanned the wall from the right, looking at the dark spots that formed in some places, where the mortar had darkened. I stepped down onto the soil and kept moving toward the wall, getting closer to the center. Sweeping unhurriedly to my left, I came upon the center and stopped. It was here – I remembered.
“What’s behind this wall?”
“Let’s find out.”
My pickax was leaning against the wall. I put the lantern on the ground and wrapped my fingers around the handle of the pickax. I swung into the brick wall hard, and it stung my hands. “I know that draft is coming from somewhere.” I heaved the pickax back and swung again. It smashed into the wall, sending chips of brick and mortar to the floor. The force jarred my hands.
“Damn.” I let go the pickaxe, placing it against the wall and rubbing my stung hands together. After a few moments, I armed myself with the pickaxe once more.
Aiming this time for the mortar between the brick. The metal tooth knocked a chunk of gray stone out. “I’m getting closer.”
I swung again, increasing the gap of mortar with each swing. The next swing knocked two bricks back and out.
A draft passed over my shoulder.
Sweat rolled off my forehead, and I wiped it away with my sleeve. I went back to work, hitting the wall like a miner who’d found the tip of a gold vein.
The bricks fell much easier now, and each time I swung, the hole got bigger and bigger until it was wide enough for my shoulders to fit. I dropped the pickax and stood in front of the hole, then stepped over the wall and squeezed through the opening.
I was on the other side, in the dark. The air was colder – like I was standing in an icebox. I could see only a few feet to what looked to be another chamber.
Reaching through the hole back into the cellar I grabbed hold of the lantern and pickax and carefully brought them through the wall.
The light revealed a tunnel. The shaft reminded me of an old maintenance tunnel used for the sewers of the houses that were stacked side by side to each other. Someone built this.
I slowed my pace, my heart catching in my throat, anxious as to what might lay ahead.
I gripped the pickax and brought the lamp above my shoulder. Along the path, I made my way until I came to an opening on the left. I thrust the lantern out and peered into the chamber.
There was nothing there. I went inside, found a spot and sat on the ground, tired I guess, drunk probably, and put my back against the cool earth.
I sniffed the air. “The moisture isn’t as bad as I thought.” I was concerned earlier when I’d felt the draft. If water were getting into my cellar it would ruin any foods I stored there. I touched the ground. “The dirt is dry.” I glanced around the chamber. “What am I doing in here?”
“The better question is what are you hiding?”
I stopped myself again. It wasn’t unusual for me to speak to objects, but I rarely spoke to myself. I shook my head trying to clear my mind and think.
Searching the chamber, I tried to think of what to do. The room looked to be about twelve feet in length, another twelve in width, and the ceiling, if I reached high enough, I could touch it. “I could extend the cellar, but what for? This isn’t of any use to me; besides I wasn’t any good at keeping stored goods. I might as well wall that hole back up.” I tapped my finger. “Someone built this place.” I was purposely trying to keep my mind off what happened in the alley, but it wasn’t working. My thoughts were drawn away from this secret place back to the man’s dead body.
I peered at the chamber, looking it over, and an idea formed in my mind. “I can cover my tracks.” I looked around the room, measuring its age. “No one’s been in here for a very long time.”
“No one in a very long time.”
“This could be of use.”
“Yes, it could.”
“Cover my tracks.”
“This will work, a good hiding place.”