Continued from here:
The streets had rarely felt so empty, at least to Thomas McMahon.
At one point he had gloried in the chaos and the noise, and the sight of people engaged in all the things that were admittedly disturbing, sometimes disgusting, and the sounds of chaos and confusion. He loved the City for this, and some part of him reacted almost atavistically to it all. He wanted there to be more of it.
Now he loathed himself almost as much for the same exact reason, and wondered if this was some kind of punishment or sign.
Ever since his conversations with Ephraim and Thompson, he’d moved back into work a little more conscientiously, visiting the crime scenes, working with the police on the beat, interviewing victims, and leaving out the background details he had seen more and more of with time. He’d had the warning from above and knew he wasn’t up to the feeling of challenging that approach right now, not when things were starting to fray for him.
He felt that more than ever, when the hand had returned.
It had been when he was in court following up on a murder case. Typical stuff, and six months previously he would have only been there to whip together a few clichés about the heartless murderer and the bereaved kin. Now he wondered a bit more about it all, how much blood had been involved – the descriptions were fairly detailed – and what would happen to everyone who had been touched by it all. His disgust with himself at his sentimentality, or at least how he would have seen it as such in a previous time, found an increasing counterbalance in a sense that the whole situation had not after all been designed for his employment or his amusement, even if he was the one reporting on it.
He seemed to be the only reporter as well – at least he recognized nobody else from his profession in the room, maybe because the whole thing was simply too grubby to comment on, at least in the views of readers of other papers. The wrong people, the wrong circumstances. Who knew exactly what it was that caused him to be there and everyone else to be elsewhere – maybe he had missed the report of a new case or new crime. Well, someone else could catch up on that. He scribbled down some more notes as the prosecutor whipped up a frenzy of words and wondered if he needed to step away to refresh himself, with a drink or simply with something else in general.
It was hot in the courtroom, a rare steaming day in the City – even in summer it never seemed to get this warm, and the humidity was causing him to break out in a terrible sweat, though at least he wasn’t alone. Everyone seemed to suffer from some form of oppressive feeling on their bodies, hunched or sprawled if they weren’t in an official capacity, all too focused on looking normal and upright if they were. McMahon knew the judge for a sleepy lush who would rather be at his club doing nothing but sipping a drink, now here having to preside over a case most were ignoring, and he seemed almost offended to be there. Policemen wiped their brows constantly, the lawyers almost flailed to cause some air to circulate.
For this reason, perhaps, McMahon initially ignored the touch when it came again. He felt it to be little but a wrinkle in his shirt, slightly irritating him, and in retrospect it was a lighter touch than the ones which had afflicted him beforehand. It was almost the equivalent of a couple of fingers this time, nothing more – and even then he did not notice it fully until he suddenly felt them begin to gently trace along his left shoulder towards his neck, very carefully and deliberately.
He stiffened as the full import of what this meant was, now that he realized the presence was back. This time, whatever it was appeared to be almost toying with him more than anything else – the touch he felt could almost have been that of a lover, tender and light, except that the feeling of the nails at the end of the inhuman fingers – if they were nails, they felt far sharper and smaller – wasn’t designed to arouse but to simultaneously irritate and cause his shoulders to hunch up of their own volition. They continued to move, slowly, almost cautiously, touching onto his spine, continuing across to his right shoulder.
There seemed to almost be a rhythm in the way the nails…the claws?…moved, as if it was following some sort of beat, but one beyond McMahon’s understanding. Just as suddenly as they had appeared, however, they stopped, vanishing as the judge suddenly pounded his gavel and called for order.
McMahon blinked and realized he was not only standing up but being stared at by everyone in the courtroom.
“Order in the court, sir.” The judge glared at him. “You are here I believe to record this event for a paper, not allow yourself to become part of it.”
Abashed and realizing that asking for details would make matters worse, he quickly apologized and sat back down. The trial continued, McMahon concentrating more than ever on what was being said than before. During a recess, he flagged down one of the attending cops who he’d recognized in the past. He approach McMahon with a slight smirk.
“Gotta say, McMahon, that was pretty strange.”
“Ah, it was the heat,” he responded, aiming for diffidence and effortlessly finding it – sometimes it was almost too easy to slip back into familiar roles. “Wasn’t sure of myself there for a second. What did I do? Almost blacked out there.”
“Don’t blame you. Nah, it wasn’t much, you just rose up suddenly and were there swaying back and forth, then you gasped something – couldn’t tell what, but that’s what got everyone to look at you. Good thing you snapped out of it when you did.”
“Yeah, I’d agree.” McMahon exchanged more rough-edged pleasantries while chewing on this some more. He’d almost been disappointed that it wasn’t more dramatic – it did almost seem like something that the heat would have made him do. Might in fact that have been the answer all along? But no – the first appearance, back in the warehouse, had been anything but that in terms of weather and atmosphere, cold and crisp rather than hot and humid.
The rest of the day felt busier – the case concluded about as everyone expected, with a sentencing and a random protest or two from the accused of his innocence that it seemed not even he believed. From there it was fairly dull if still active – chatting more with other policemen and the prosecutor to get some more details afterwards, a return to the newspaper office to quickly type everything up, some conferring with Thompson about general matters and then a return to his place to freshen up a bit for the evening. He’d felt at one point like a return visit to Dulac’s, where he’d not been for a little while, but decided against it, instead sending a note to her indicating he’d return sometime shortly while he took care of some business.
Changing into some of his shabbier clothing – formal but worn and possessed of a had-better-days quality about it – he decided to go to a saloon in the Coast that had little about it but a name and an owner who saw to it than there was no more nonsense there than what had normally occurred elsewhere. Schultz was a character to be sure but McMahon had never made sure to cross him in his reporting, and as a result had learned quite a bit about his dealings with his backers and others who reaped the rewards of Schultz’s work. It confirmed plenty of his suspicions and raised new ones, but Schultz made sure he knew when not to talk, leaving McMahon wondering further – but not enough to cause him undue concern. He had other ones to deal with, and today’s incident was one of them.
He sat at the end of the bar and thought – a strange oasis of relative silence amid the chaos of the saloon at its full capacity, pimps and whores, sailors and crimps, everyone and everything in the Coast swirling through its doors, boasting, toasting, arguing, shouting, exchanging comments of the most forward nature, barely greeting each other before departing to conclude a deal, begin a fight, retire to a shabby bed. He’d looked at them all in all shapes and forms over these past months, and everything had turned into a never-ending cycle that made him think that it was less the names he had to report than the overall situations, and that even that would be static, much like the weather, the quality of the height of the City’s hills, the openness of the Bay.
Nothing about the evening seemed quite right, however – nothing horrible happened, beyond what he had long been inured to seeing in the Coast, but nothing else seemed to be anything like a vague sort of thrill, to watch criminals at play, a fascination he’d long tried to pretend wasn’t what had driven him in the first place. He saw no romance in anything around him, but he also didn’t look for ruined lives either, at least as far as he wanted to congratulate himself that he wasn’t living such a life in turn. There were heavily painted faces and boorish, beery glances, threats and barely restrained anger, and he felt neither superior to them nor more fortunate, nor more prone to self-pity. It just seemed like a pit where everything drained down.
Schultz was harried, less inclined to talk with McMahon that night, complaining only briefly about staffing problems. McMahon had to wonder who he had been able to persuade to come work for him, noting his high-handedness with nearly everyone around him, customer or employee. Still, there was a kind of stability present – why else was he there, after all? It gave McMahon more time to reflect on the strangeness of the day, echoed still here by the equally strange evening – the heat was less but the feeling of tense nerves clearly wasn’t, based on everything happening around him. He would have almost glad if the hand had acted in its usual fashion, but the feeling of being toyed with, quietly manipulated, made it all the worse.
McMahon shrugged, paid for a last shot for the road, then walked out, making sure to give no clues that he was the worse for wear – he had learned that much from his time around the Coast, knowing that any number of people were watching him to see if he was a likely mark for a sudden beating in a dark corner, a quick robbery. If he was observed, he didn’t feel it, and his route back through the darkened City was a quiet one.
Too quiet. It was almost as if there was a strange restraint in the air, something causing everyone to either hide away in the saloons and music halls, to vent their feelings there, or to sprawl out in the open with barely a sound, grunting and sighing, talking calmly rather than screaming. McMahon walked passed the insensible and the immovable, wondering idly how many of them had been there in the hours before he had walked down to the Coast.
Somehow when he returned to his rooms, everything felt better then, not merely because of it being familiar, but just because all the tensions drained away, all the sense of odd atmospheres, a miasma of feelings quietly gone. Then and only then did he find a certain security on that day, and his sleep was untroubled, as best as he could remember it on the following day.
Still, there had been the impression of something in his dreams that he could not define, a presence perhaps.