Chapter 9—A Dark Alley
I ran through the tunnel, up the stairs, and retrieved my letter bag. It was large and hefty, perfect. I hurried back into the cellar where I placed the lantern on a nearby shelf and raised the bag, then tried to secure it to a barrel with its strap, but it was too short. I placed the bag on the ground, ran my hands around the inner lining and created an opening. I then dug into the barrel, my fingers driving into the sand and pulling out potatoes and tossing them onto the ground. When each spud dropped, it made a light thud against the earth. When the barrel was clear of the roots, I scooped out sand with my hands and dropped it into the bag. The sand sifted through my fingers with each palmful of granules as I continued to fill the bottom of the bag with nearly an inch of sand.
“That should do it.”
My hands shook as I carried the weighted bag upstairs and dropped it next to the front door. I rushed into my sitting room, the lantern parting the dark as I made my way to the bourbon table. I grabbed a new bottle of bourbon, pulled its top, and took a swig. Holding the bottle in view, stretching my arm out like Hamlet had with Yorick’s skull. “Death is but the taste of your nectar on the tip of my tongue.” I put the bottle to my lips and kissed it.
I corked the bourbon and took it with me into the kitchen. The lantern’s light dimmed the oil low. Shadows crept closer around me. I knelt next to the bag and placed the bourbon inside, then I gathered a small container of kerosene. It was rusted metal wrapped around a glass jar, with a rusted lid and spout on top. I found a matchbox and a stubbed candle and put those into my pocket. The other items went into the letter bag as I carefully placed them in the sand. I opened my cabinet, drew out a sharp knife, and put it into my coat pocket. I thought to put it in the bag, but under the circumstances it might be better to have it on my person, somewhere accessible. I double checked my effects inside the bag.
Taking the lantern and bag, I went out the front door, the only door to the house. The original builder hadn’t thought a separate door was needed. I’m not sure I agreed. A backdoor would have been a nice addition, and it would make it easier to bring in wood for the fireplace, or coal for the stove.
I hurried to the rear of the house. Next to the woodpile was my ax.
“There you are.” I approached slowly and picked it up carefully as if it were a skittish animal, then I checked my surroundings, glancing left and right before gently putting it inside the bag.
“Yes, of course. Before dawn comes to New Cross.”
I kept a steady double-time, looking back at my home until it blended into the shadows. The cold nipped at my cheeks. It was piercing on the lungs with each breath I took. My mind was sharp, focused on a singular task I needed to carry out. Though even as my brain was on point, my heart raced like a steed let out of its gate.
I looked into the sky, no stars—which meant there was cloud cover. Snow would be bad. Tracks are is so much easier to follow with snow.
When I was twelve, I’d followed a blood trail in the snow. I first stumbled upon the blood my heart picked up, seeing how large it was, nearly fist-sized. It trickled off to the right of me going into the woods, away from the house. I crept along, looking down at the trail, my steps light, as I made my way slowly to the edge of the woods. I thought it was a small animal, maybe a rabbit or a bird that had been taken by a fox. My feet resisted my decision to follow the trail, to see where it went, but I forced them to go. As I was walking I heard a shot, and my body ran cold, my heart nearly stopped. I was both excited and scared, wondering if the trail of blood would take me to the sound. I ran, following the trail, taking leaps, bounding over stumps, and pushing past low hanging branches that scrapped against my coat. When I came back around, in a semi-circle, I broke out of the wood line to see my father standing with his shotgun smoldering at the end. I stopped, looking to him, and seeing him nod his head toward something on the ground to his left. Next to him was a blood feathered mess, a half-eaten hen, and next to it a fox, shot in the gut, its tongue hanging from its mouth, and its eyes wide open. It was dead.
My thoughts turned from my past to the present. Shuffling along I spotted someone. I slowed to a walk.
I squinted to make out the person. They were on the sidewalk, standing near a lamppost. I kept to the shadows between the hues of light emitted by the gas lamps and watched. The man had stopped at the corner and looked around as if he was trying to decide what direction to go. Go that way. I was hoping he’d turn left or right and walk away from me, but instead, his head slowly came forward, and he began to stumble weaving back and forth, a drunk man coming toward me.
Back, and forth, side to side he walked. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to duck away even for a brief moment. He was looking up, wavering along on unsteady legs, his shoulders swaying side to side. There was nothing I could do. I tried to think of an explanation.
“I’m delivering an emergency package,” I muttered and shook my head. “No, that’s not right.” It might sound better if I said I had an important delivery which couldn’t wait.
He was getting closer.
My thoughts were becoming jumbled, my jaw twitched, and my eyes grew wider. “Calm down,” I told myself. I tried to listen to my own advice, yet my hands were shaking. I gripped the strap of my bag, giving my hand something else to do. Seemingly I’d given my hand too much to do, and I’d pulled the bag high, exposing the ax inside. I could feel it poking higher into my rib.
I imagined how our interaction might go. He would see the ax and my hand on it. I would remove my hand to show him I meant no harm. He then would pull his gun and shoot. I would be dead. He would have a story.
I promptly adjusted the bag, leveling it and removing my hand from the ax.
He was nearly on me, was looking directly at me.
I lowered my head as if I were trying to protect myself from the chill in the air. I heard him humming a tune as we got closer. We were within a few feet when he stumbled, recovered, and I was just about to pass him when he awkwardly bumped into me. Then he lost his footing and started to fall where I caught him.
“I am not drunk, officer.”
His breath reeked of garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. He was obviously drunk, but the garlic smelled like he’d eaten a patch of it straight from the garden.
I pushed him off, his legs crossed each other, got tangled, and he fell. He lay there in a stupor, sleeping actually.
The man had fallen asleep that quickly? I snapped my fingers to get his attention. “He’s asleep.” I rested my hands at my sides.
He was older than I, maybe in his late fifties. His hat was pulled tight over his head, a bit too far for the sort of hat he wore—his was a derby like many, but he’d anchored it low to where it touched his earlobes. The poor man stirred, and his eyes opened, then widened.
My words rushed out before I could stop them. “You didn’t see me.” It was the wrong thing to say in this sort of situation. I stepped away, head down, eyes forward, never looking back.
“What was that?” I chastised myself. “You didn’t see me?” I was talking with my hands as if I were an orchestrator guiding his musicians. “What an idiotic thing to say. Maybe it was the bourbon,” I said under my breath.
I continued my walk, but not too quickly nor too slowly. I didn’t want to alarm anyone who might be watching out their window. They should see just a man taking a stroll, and no other question should enter their minds.
The surrounding structures felt as if they had eyes and were watching my every step. A mix of apartments and stores—millinery supplies, clothing shops, and dry goods. Building owners living in the top levels, business owners living in the second level, apartments with residents of the city. The buildings butted up against each other, making a wall of brick and mortar and smooth sandstone. I could see the light in some windows, others were dark, and it was those I worried about most—who might be standing in the shadows? I looked across the street to the buildings lining the road and to the buildings next to me. Like two great walls, a divide. If only I were a Hun trying to scale the Great Wall of China, it might be a better place than where I was at this very moment.
I’d quicken my pace, and time passed. Before I knew it, I was near the alley.
Only a block to go. I could see a sign for Old Kentucky Whiskey and cigars. I was getting close to Fifth and Vine where the Harken resided. Where I’d been just hours earlier. The place I’d gone to get away from my troubles, but I found more.
The alley emerged like the ninth circle of hell off to my right. I quickly rounded the corner of the building, ducking out of the open and entering the alley. I kept to one side, slowed my pace, searching for him. There he was. I could make out his shape lying on the cold stone, near the end of the alley.
I breathed deep, letting my chest expand before releasing the air from my lungs, then took a few steps, keeping to the side gradually picking up my pace. I stepped firmly, quickly, moving along the edge of the building. My eyes strained as I made my approach. I reached into my pocket, found the candle and matchbox and brought those out.
A few more steps and I stopped. I pulled the strap off my shoulder and around my head, placing the bag on the ground.
I opened the matchbox, searching with my fingers until I found one. The match was between my fingers, and I felt for the side with the coated tip. Once I found it, I struck the match against the rough brick exterior of the building. There were a few sparks, but it didn’t light. A second strike—sparks flew, and a flame appeared. I transferred the fire to the candle and flicked the match onto the ground. It landed near him – illuminating his lifeless eyes momentarily before flickering out.
I held the candle high, getting a better view of the body across from me.
He lay there in a pool of blood, facing toward the sky. My God. My hands shook, and I found myself looking over my shoulder, down the alley toward the end. It was a feeling I didn’t like, looking over my shoulder like I was on the run, an outlaw. He wasn’t the first man I killed. I was in the Army dealing with several conflicts, and as a miner, I was forced to defend my own life. But I never felt like a criminal.
I took slow steps toward the man’s body. The flame of the candle wavered and nearly went out, so I cupped my free hand around the yellow fire, and it steadied itself. I felt the heat from it and noticed just how much colder it was out here.
When I was just outside the pool of blood, I lowered my bag to the ground. I was a foot away from him, and the light from the candle shone against his cheeks.
I heard a sound like footsteps.
No, it was nothing, just my mind playing tricks. I reminded myself that this had to be done, but as I tried to encourage my thoughts to stay on task, my mind raced on about what might happen if someone came along. It wasn’t too late, I could turn back. I could go to the police and handle whatever came after.
They won’t believe you. They won’t believe it was self-defense. You’re not even sure if it was self-defense.
I could see the police arresting me. My short trial with Miss Newberry pointing with angry tears, guilty, and the hangman placing the noose around my neck.
No, this was what had to be done; this was what I had to do. There was no turning back—not now, not ever.