Continued from here:
Thomas McMahon needed to clear his head, and remaining in his rooms would not help.
Ever since the incident out in the warehouse, something had been taking the energy from him in ways that he could sense but not describe. He felt as if his steps were sluggish, his mind less quick than before. He came to work, he continued his reporting, he sought his pleasures as he did. But even they had seemed to pall slightly.
Madame Dulac had even noticed, and if her interest remained professional, she at least had the concern one would expect over a reliable customer who spared her girls from stress. Once, while he was leaving, he sat down in the now-empty parlor for thought, where Dulac found him as she came in to look over the room once more before closing.
“Monsieur? I did not expect to find you still here.”
McMahon smiled wanly, feeling a little foolish. “I am sorry, Madame. The times lately have felt stranger.”
“I am sorry to hear it.” She tidied up a couple of pillows on the largest couch, then turned to him. “If you will allow me to say it, your mood has seemed less happy over these months. I hope none of my girls has been a problem?”
“Oh no, Madame, not in the least. In fact they’ve been more of a comfort than ever, though perhaps I have taken longer to reach satisfaction than in the past. But that fault is mine, not theirs; I would have let you know if it had been otherwise.”
She walked over to where he sat. “Monsieur, I speak perhaps out of place, but my establishment might not be the best of places to recover your mood. I do not say do not come here; men are the creatures of habit they are and your desire will not abate. Yet if something troubles you so, we can only do so much to please you.” She smiled in turn, a bit grimly. “I will not trouble you with the stories of where my mind went in my past when I was the one working. My body did one thing while I thought of everything else instead, and many of my thoughts were not the pleasantest.”
McMahon nodded slightly. “Mine have not been either. I have seen and reported on things lately that leave me feeling very…I cannot easily find the words, and here I am, a writer.” He chuckled. “But work down in the Coast will do that I suppose.”
“The Coast? You had not mentioned you worked there before.”
“I did not want to mention it in a place like this, Madame, to yourself or your girls. And I don’t work there all the time, thankfully. But…”
He paused, and she waited, almost to her own surprise. Normally anyone trying to use her or her employees as a place to pour our their sorrows was not encouraged if he had not otherwise paid for the time.
He stood and took a deep breath. “It is getting late, Madame, I do not want to keep you. Let me just say that I used to almost…almost enjoy the sight and thrill of something going wrong, something that required the police. Part of me still recognizes that. But with time passing, I just sense more despair than anything else. I thought I was more callous and hardened than I was.”
Her own smile in return only briefly flickered across her face. “Monsieur, we all have felt that. That’s what makes us even more hardened. It will be so for you.”
He nodded in response and made his way towards the front hall and door, before pausing and turning. “I do hope so, Madame, but I think it is best if I do not pretend it must be so.”
She raised her eyebrows. “You do not seem like one who would be so easily defeated.”
“Not easily defeated. Maybe simply more realistic now.” He turned again and left.
Back in his rooms some days later, he revisited this conversation in his head and grunted. He did feel less vulnerable now and concluded that perhaps it had been the earlier activities of that evening which had left him more drained and contemplative at that point, yet he could not shake the nagging feelings threatening to start dominating much of his conscious thought. A walk, however random, might be an answer.
He almost found himself outside his building by chance, dressed against the cold of the day, a thick fog and cool air combining to create chill even by the City’s standards. Few were stirring on this early morning and he was glad that he had already made an arrangement with his editor not to come in today – he had enough stories in to use in case there was something else to be done and other reporters could handle something if there was yet another high-level political scandal. He wished he could use some of the information he’d found out about who ran some of the most notorious spots in the Coast – there was much greater involvement there than he or anyone else in the paper had guessed – but he knew how the game was played and didn’t want to find himself at the wrong end of a fist, or a knife or a gun.
He enjoyed the feeling of the hills’ slopings up and down under his feet – he considered it good physical exercise and wondered at those who thought him strange for that reason. The City remained a strange landscape even for someone like himself who had been there for many years, ever undulating and growing as the streets stretched out further and the buildings grew in height, step by step. He had heard of the larger buildings even now being attempted elsewhere in the world and that would no doubt yet be built here, wondering how it would change the sight of the City, but knowing that it could never adjust those hills and sharp slopes.
As he walked further, his mind wandered, returning again to the night in the warehouse, where everything had seemed to start going somehow wrong. The butchery of the dead man still made his throat tighten with apprehension, and every time he saw Sigerson from that point he wondered if he had somehow been doing similar on every shift. But why should he care so? He had made plenty of comments and jokes about the gutter trash who infested the docks and the Coast – was there something so important about that one who had met his end at Sigerson’s hands? Surely not, but something of the coldness of the situation left him unsure.
Then there had been the hand in the dark.
Initially he had dismissed it in the days after the incident as merely being the product of his imagination – he had worked himself up to a point where there had been a sudden nervous spasm, nothing more. Little surprise that he had thought it was a hand, when it had to have been the shift in his body, unconsciously, having overstepped an unknown boundary while waiting.
Somehow, though, it had never entirely left him, that feeling – so when he felt it again, it came back in a way that would have shocked him just a few months beforehand.
The first of its returns had been with two other cops on the beat, making their way down part of the Coast where they felt somewhat more at ease than elsewhere. Rowdies yelled at them and the catcalls of the cheaper painted women from windows above rained down but they paid them no mind, and japed back as they felt it.
At one point they looked into one of the meaner small streets, dark and miserable, swapping jokes (maybe, to McMahon’s thinking, more loudly than he would have once done). He leaned against one of the building walls as the two men poked around some of the piles of refuse with their nightsticks, disturbing one or two obvious sots who had nowhere else to go. He’d laughed a bit at that, then felt a hand on his shoulder.
He whipped around and saw no one.
“What, McMahon? You saw something?”
“I…” He found himself wordless when he turned back to the policemen, both looking him with frowns. “Sorry, nothing. Mind getting away from me.” He looked around carefully, seeing nobody crouching in a corner or whatever it was he’d hoped to have noticed.
He tried to dismiss that incident, but less easily than he had hoped, and the first one now came back to him in greater detail. In both cases he’d heard nothing but the feeling of the hand was more vivid than almost anything else he could imagine – clear, firm, warm. It had been disturbing enough the first time through, the second time even more designed to cause unease.
The third time had him wondering if he might lose control of himself soon.
He had been at Dulac’s, feeling more energetic than he had been in a while – something had set his mood on a better path than he had been when he’d spoken with her that one night. Whether pleased at seeing him in a better mood or at his exuberant use of his money that night, she’d arranged another new girl for him that had shown her quality in many ways. Afterwards, she’d asked if he minded if she stayed for a bit, feeling quite tired from their exertions, and he’d happily agreed – which later made him wonder some more. Was he starting to actually need more in the way of companionship than simply the act itself?
She thankfully had not disturbed his reflections as they lay there, but he refrained from smoking, letting his mind wander as his body relaxed. He felt more at ease than he had been in some time, as if the increasing despair and miniature disasters he encountered in his work had finally had a chance to slough away for a while.
The hand then fell on his left shoulder.
Later he realized that the most surprising thing about this was his lack of reaction. No backing away, no jerking around – somehow he knew it would come and he simply waited. Perhaps that had been the unconscious reason for wanting his bedmate there. His eyes flickered to her – she could not have been the one who reached for him, for she faced away from him, her arms to her front. It was someone else.
Then it hit him with full force. The hand did not, in fact, have the exact shape and feel of a human hand.
It was something else, instead.
He swallowed intensely, felt the sweat starting to stand out on his forehead. The hand had not moved, he could sense it remaining there, its grasp on his naked skin firm but not crushing. The texture did not measure up to anything in his own experience – it was skin of some sort, but like the feeling of the hand itself, not human.
He tried to see it out of the corner of his eye. Surely it was there, he felt the pressure, the way it only now seemed to start to move just a bit.
His right arm lay on the covers. He swiftly moved it, deciding without thinking to either brush off or grab the hand as it grasped him. His right hand touched his left shoulder.
The other hand and its grip were gone.
She stretched in the bed and turned languorously to him. “Are you stirring, then? You might have to pay for some more time…”
He looked at her, almost not understanding her words.
He had not felt the hand again since then, and as he wandered around the streets he wondered once again what it had all meant. He feared some part of him could be slipping towards a state horrible to contemplate. Where would he go and what could he do in such a case?
He stopped at a street corner, looking ahead through the fog to get his bearings as best as he could.
Later he felt little surprise that the hand chose that moment to return.