NaNoWriMo and “The Torments of His Dreams” in reflection

So first I’d like to make this a general catchall point for the entire manuscript — here are the appropriate links to NaNoWriMo, some background posts and all 25 chapters:

NaNoWriMo itself

Decisions, decisions — especially on the NaNoWriMo front
NaNoWriMo prep part 1 — some family history
NaNoWriMo prep part 2 — a little more family history
NaNoWriMo prep part 3 — some more research background…and a title!

The Torments of His Dreams

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25

So having written it all — and like every time I do this, I finish up feeling exhausted and swearing I’ll take a break the following year — some thoughts, though these will feel a bit scattershot:

First, of course, this is a terribly rough draft and even looking back at the first chapters I see ideas and courses that were not fully developed as I’d initially intended, the rapid swerving of tone, small details that now loom larger and need more time to smoothly develop in importance and much more besides. It’s not deathless and was never meant to be — the whole point of NaNoWriMo remains to get something out to work with, not a permanent Great American Novel (or the like). It’ll be there to read as anyone likes for now.

Second, this is only intended to be the core of the first half of the book. I do have a conclusion in mind — a very specific one, as a matter of fact — and a general idea of how to get there. But I’m not going to put that on here as yet…or at all. After all, I would like to eventually develop this into a potentially publishable manuscript, and more so than some of the other things I’ve written I foresee strong possibilities with a lot more time and effort, as well as other factors beyond my control!

This said, my feelings on how this turned out are generally positive. The background and setting, as well as the language and especially the dialogue, are the weakest parts of the story in my eyes — my goal was to advance the plot rather than aim for a specific accuracy in what ‘the City’ (which is of course San Francisco but is intentionally never named) was like at the time, what the English of those who lived in that city at that time was like, and so forth. Doubtless there are a slew of anachronisms. But given the focus on the plot and how it evolved — and how this was intended less to be an exact explanation of ‘what really happened’ than an imaginative retelling of the scenario leading up to it (and next, what happened afterwards) — I think I did reasonably well. It’s the first time I’ve written a story where none of the main characters (in this case specifically the brothers and Thomas McMahon) were meant to be sympathetic, or at least entirely so. McMahon becomes more so a bit by default, but he is a boorish, boastful figure who gets tripped up a bit on his image and has to reconstruct it a bit — the shift is too abrupt for me and needs much more nuance. In the second half of the novel he’ll start meeting female characters outside the one milieu he feels comfortable with them in and that will be of prime importance.

As for the brothers, it was especially nice working with essentially not one but two unreliable narrators, and the admittedly straightforward (perhaps simply hamhanded) approaches to core parts of their characters were interesting to play with. That Richard aka Black Dick is never referred to in ‘his’ chapters by name is incredibly intentional, for instance, as is William’s endlessly convoluted sentences and utter self-regard, where in ‘his’ chapters no character literally gets a word in edgewise. Again, more work needs to be done with them both, much more, but it’s a fine start.

The psychological horror elements are in some sense a recasting of a general approach from my 2003 NaNoWriMo effort, but here given new forms, as well as an intentionally maddening unclarity. That may sound strange but the point is that even to me the exact nature of them should be left open to interpretation. I hate explaining too much and I hate horror stories that explain too much in turn as well. I have ideas and goals with them all that will come to the fore more with time — and there are other intentionally murky parts of the story I’m leaving up for grabs as much as possible. Hopefully, though, they all work at creeping you out just enough for now.

Finally, what then do I think really happened in that room when the brothers were alone? There’s still a half of a story to write, but to review the facts as we know them — after they emerged, William stabbed and Black Dick distraught, the latter first blamed a friend who lived in the building, then said it was all an accident. William persisted in claiming that the stabbing was an accidental circumstance during a quarrel, and initially claimed that he had stabbed himself. The inevitably romanticized portrait I have created about the two brothers probably bears little connection to reality — there’s no evidence that Black Dick was actually a murderer, nor that William was a literature-obsessed type (or an opium addict per se — instead, both brothers appeared to focus on shooting up). If I had to guess what did happen, I suspect it was a case where a fight accidentally turned deadly and both brothers panicked — Black Dick at the prospect of facing the death penalty in response, William at the idea that his brother, who I suspect he had a strong love/hate relationship with, would swing for it. But this still isn’t clear at all, and the guess I type here might change in my mind tomorrow just as quickly.

Either way, what I’ve just said is not, in fact, my goal for the ending of the novel. What that is…you’ll have to wait for. But in the meantime, please enjoy what’s here, all my caveats noted, and all input is welcome.

“The Torments of His Dreams” — chapter 25

Continued from here — please also note this is the last post for NaNoWriMo, but is far from the conclusion of the story. I will have a overall recapitulation and reflection post on the story tomorrow. If you have been reading along through now, thanks very much indeed.

Bill Wadlegh felt like it was time to knock some sense into his neighbor, or at least get him out of the rut he was in. It was getting far enough along.

He’d had words with Josie earlier that evening, when the two of them passed each other in the hallway. She was on her way out, off to do her work, and Bill thought she’d seen better days. Some part of him might once have been sentimental about her tears, most of him thought it was a sham.

“He hit you again?” Bill wasn’t one to mince words, and he’d already heard from Black Dick – he still couldn’t believe he had actually started to use the name in earnest, maybe it was just something about how it was suiting his mood more and more – about past incidents.

Josie barely paused. “No, if you must know. Would you let me pass?”

Bill shuffled aside with a snort. “Certainly, your ladyship. Are you always so polite when you’re out on the streets?”

“More than you,” she shot back, moving down the staircase.

Bill had shaken his head at that. Trouble, that’s what that woman was, and why Black Dick hadn’t just finally done something about it made him wonder.

He’d retired to his room for a while until he heard a stumbling next door and reemerged into the hallway to knock at Black Dick’s door. “Hey, it’s Bill. You in there?”

“Hold on.” The voice was muffled, almost strangled, and when the door opened, Bill was honestly surprised at the staring look of his neighbor, the beads of sweat on his brow.

“Jesus, you look like hell.” Bill stepped in without ceremony or invitation – he felt the need for talk and conversation and dammit, he was going to get some from Black Dick no matter the state he was in. Probably even help him some.

Bill settled into one of the chairs while the other stood near the window, looking out. “Sorry, Bill,” he said, seeming to scan the road, “I’ve had a lot more on my mind lately.”

“You didn’t need to tell me that. And you don’t need me to tell you that part of it is your woman. Thought you were better than most of the trash in this neighborhood. Now you’re just like them or turning into them. What type of idiot are you becoming? Dammit I told you—”

“Not NOW, Bill.” Bill was taken aback not only by the intensity of the other’s words but the burning anger evident on his face, in his eyes. He found himself without words momentarily.
“All right. I said the wrong thing. But what’s with you?”

To Bill, Black Dick suddenly seemed to be two people at once, a tired, hunted person and an angry animal. He moved to where Bill sat and took the other remaining chair. “Nothing. I just know I need to be ready. That’s all.”

“Ready for what?”

“My number’s almost up. I know this. I’m going to make sure that when it happens I’m ready for it.”

Bill’s look had to have been a confused one; he would have liked to have seen a mirror to verify it. “Your number. What the hell are you talking about? You rob someone again and now they’re after you? Steal someone’s woman? Schultz after you?”

“I tried telling you once, and you wouldn’t listen, or didn’t want to. But I’m telling you now.”

Bill felt his patience going. Whatever his neighbor was going on about wasn’t something that interested him beyond the informational, and there wasn’t anything he was learning. “Well, tell me some other time when you make sense.” He rose from the chair.

“Greetings, gentlemen.”

Bill whirled to see William standing in the doorway. “Well, if it isn’t the precious prince, or whatever the hell you are?”

Bill was annoyed to see that William not only did not react to this, but seemed to be almost happy for some reason, walking slowly into the room with a strange smile on his face. What’s with him now? Of all the people to show up. Well, he and his brother can have one of their arguments.

He turned to give a final thought to Black Dick but his farewell died on his lips when he saw that the other was starting to laugh, in a choking fashion.

“Well, that would make sense, wouldn’t it. That would make perfect sense.” Black Dick rose from his chair, facing William and seeming to totally ignore Bill, watching with a cold frown. “That you would be the one at the door this time.”

William’s smile broadened. “I would never not be at the door, Richard, if I chose to come by. Where else would I enter from? I am glad to see that you are here, you realize, it’s a very important thing I have to share with you.”

“Very important, I’m sure. Let me tell you something very important right now – that coat you’re wearing? That’s mine. Mine and I’ve been looking for it for weeks now. And here you are wearing it, well that means you stole it from me. Came by here and stole it!”

“I would never have done such a thing, Richard, and it does grieve me to hear you make this complaint. I really think you are not understanding the situation, in fact I came here to thank you for keeping it in good care for a while when you took it from me.”

“Took it from you? Is that what you think, you mealy-mouthed complainer, you damned liar. This was always mine and it was you that stole it from here.”

“Richard I did not come here for an argument.”

“You’re going to get one and worse!”

Bill had heard enough and didn’t give a damn about his neighbor, his brother and their damned coat. He coughed loudly and said, “If you two damn fools want to get worked up over this, then I’ll be going.” He didn’t wait for a response, shutting the door behind him as he left and went back to his room.

Idiots. He sat in his own chair and looked out of his window, pointedly not concentrating on the muffled but audibly angrier conversation through the shared wall. Instead he thought about the usual flow of the street and the garbage on it, another night’s worth of drunk liars and those who deservedly took advantage of them.

Everyone of them thinking they’re hard done by, everyone of them thinking that the only person in the world with a complaint that means something is theirs. Everyone of them a liar and a thief and a whore or a whoreson.

More stumbling sounds came from next door and Bill wondered who threw the first punch. Damned if it was William but maybe he finally remembered he was a man.

He then heard their door slam open and a cry from Black Dick.

“My God! Oh my God!”

Bill frowned. Well now what?

He lay slumped in the back of the police carriage.

They hadn’t wasted time when they had broken into the room. The shouting and questions came at him so quickly he’d barely had the sense to spit out a response or two, if that. Whatever feeling of control he prided himself on with the police had gone and when the first blow had hit him he had crumpled to the floor. Somehow he only just remembered being hustled down to the street and into the carriage.

“Where did they take his brother?”

“Receiving Hospital.”

“Let’s go.”

One of the policemen climbed into the carriage and sat across from him. “All right, we’re going to go visit your brother. You’d better hope he’s still alive.” He chuckled. “Then again I suppose you wanted him dead, so maybe you got your wish.”

He looked dully at the man and wanted a gun, a knife, anything to wipe that smile off his face and change his talk permanently.

No, that was the whole point and problem. That’s why he was where he was right now. That’s why William was in the hospital.

He was asked questions and answered them flatly, staring beyond the policeman’s shoulder. Whatever it was being asked – name, kin, all that. He found himself thinking while he was talking, trying to remember what had happened. He remembered his neighbor leaving, he remembered the argument heating up more with William, he remembered…

He felt a cold chill in his head, running down his neck and spine.

He wanted now to forget again and realized he couldn’t.

The policeman had asked him a question twice now, he realized. He refocused his attention.
“What?”

“You heard me, Dick whatever-your-name-is. You say you’d left the room and you’d left your brother and your neighbor in there alone?”

He blinked. He had said that? He swallowed.

“Yes, that’s correct.”

The policeman looked at him coolly. “And you came back and your brother was there on the floor and your neighbor was gone.”

“Yes.”

A snort in response. “Well you just keep saying that. You’ll find a better lie maybe.”

He was angry but now mostly with himself. What kind of idiot thing had he been babbling? Now he’d been saying this? It’s be shown for the lie it was easily enough, and now Bill would have plenty of reasons to turn against him if anything came of this. He only hoped his contempt for William would outweigh that.

“And before you left the first time you said you’d been having an argument with your brother about a coat, and somehow the knife came out and was just lying around.”

He closed his eyes. He couldn’t believe he had said all this and now that it was being read back to him…but still it was better than the truth. More acceptable even as a lie.

“Well?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Damn, you are a cold customer. Well maybe making you face your brother will change a bit of this story.”

He said nothing in response and waited until the carriage pulled up at the Receiving Hospital. He was bundled out of the carriage and walked into the hospital, the policeman joined by two of his fellows. He looked down and idly wondered when he’d had the handcuffs placed on him, not remembering this at all.

Another figure waited for them outside a door. “Heya boys. This is the brother?”

“Yep, and you wouldn’t believe what he’s been saying, Chief.” He rapidly told the story to the older man, whose expression did not change.

“Hmph. Well, bring him in, let’s see what he says now.”

The door was opened and he saw William lying on a bed, a doctor and two nurses attending him. The light was fairly dim but he could see the bandages around William’s torso drawn tightly, the dark stain that had leaked through the gauze.

The police chief walked him over to the bedside. William was breathing – he thanked God for that – but apparently asleep or unconscious. He suddenly felt nauseous, then groaned and hung his head. What had he done, what had he been forced to make to do?

“Can we wake him up?” The chief was speaking to the doctor.

“He’s not likely to survive much longer but do what you must.”

The chief leaned over the bed and gently said, “William, can you hear me?”

William’s eyes opened slightly and stared at the other man. He swallowed. “Yes, officer, I can hear you.”

“Your brother is here.” The chief stepped back to let the other step forward.

“Richard.”

“William…my god, William…they’re assuming the worst. They’re saying I stabbed you. They’ve taken me for it.”

William stared at him, then slowly turned his head away. He stared back at William and realized he had no idea what he was going to say in response, if anything.

“No, no you didn’t do it. It’s all a mistake.”

He felt the silence that followed more than heard it.

“The Torments of His Dreams” — chapter 24

Continued from here:

William had returned to the library. It had been necessary to focus his thoughts, and the best way to do so was away from everything else, everyone else, withdrawn into that place where the words were clear and organized, his thoughts best able to match the precision he saw on the pages.

He knew he could not describe his feeling of contentment, but at the same time was aware that it had to be done, to best communicate all he had learned and understood. The great collation had to finally take place.

It had been a wonderful time for him all around. Cathy had indicated she fully accepted his mission, he knew it from the tender looks in her eyes, the soft instructions she had given Percy at times when their son had wanted to be boisterous. William so loved his energy, but now appreciated these periods of calm, and how well Cathy ensured those moments of reflection. He felt as if he cared for nothing now, though he still worked at the new job as he did and otherwise focused on his great work.

She had not minded his trip to the library today, whereas before she might have protested, or insisted he would simply be going to pursue his other research. William had pitied her lack of understanding at these times, and now was magnaminous in graciously accepting her approval. The words as always were often unclear but the sentiment less so, and knowing that she seemed to want for nothing now – how odd it was, in the end, how strange, but how handy for her and Percy both – eased his own mind. No better state of affairs could be realized.

It had been a cold crossing on the Bay and he had pulled the coat around him tightly – so curious, even as they reached the hottest months of the year, that all could still be so intensely frigid and require this. But that had always been the way of the City, and he should be less surprised at it all still. He had approached the library lighter of heart than he had been in a while, yet charged now even more so with the desire for knowledge and the feeling that he too would now be all that closer to his great contributions to the welfare of the species.

He noted the attitude on the part of the library staff towards him as well – more proper, more courteous, clearly they had been given instruction by those who oversaw their duties as to the proper way to engage with him at this point. A wonderful thought, and he had not even bothered to file a formal note of complaint – he must make up for it with a letter of acknowledgement and praise, when all was ready. He gathered his preferred texts and settled into a favorite chair, pausing before beginning his next round of note-taking.

How to begin, ultimately? What would be the best way to confer all that he had learned? His initial audience, he knew, would be those in the City, yet if he wanted to reach beyond them he could not extensively dwell on the pattern to the exclusion of all else. Then there was authorial voice, a most important consideration. Would he wish to present this in the form of a classic dialogue, perhaps along the lines of Plato, or in a more discursive form from an individual voice, or something else entirely? He disdained the crudities of the lecture circuit – the crammed presentation of material into a rote two-hour performance, one he was not inclined to give when he had to convey his message to the individual reader or listener, one on one or else through the medium of text. If only there were other ways!

He pondered these and many other considerations as he also scanned the books, and in between these activities indulged in more delicious reflection on his fortunate state of being. To have been so blessed several times now! It was the high point of a life that had, yes, shown the evidence of suffering to him and his family too many times. It was almost as if there had been some sort of exchange at a level beyond his understanding, where all that he had gone through eventually led to a greater happiness.

Yet, he knew one thing troubled him still. In his own heart of hearts – and now he had to bring this to the forward in full, it could not be ignored – the meaning of the pattern and the messages still eluded him, just. That he was the messenger was clear, but the exact identity of the message – it would require more, it would require a greatness of purpose and desire that meant he must rise to a new level, within himself, in his conduct with the rest of the world. As he approached it, as he worked on the conveying of the message, the message itself would properly emerge. This would be his crowning glory, to reveal it in the process of communicating it. The organization of the writings so far and the summation of its foci would by default represent the wisdom to be conveyed, then expressed. A marvelous example of economy and energy.

He chuckled now more openly, delighted with the progress of his thoughts. The library really was a clearinghouse for them, as much as being in Chinatown helped bring them to life. What a fine balance of impulses, and this too would have to be explained in detail. He scribbled down some notes and more as he went, continuing to review material and occasionally doodle the approximation of the pattern as he best understood it. Unclear in parts – he was no artist, he knew this much – but it would serve as a model to rely on while other hands would later perfect it. It might even serve as a frontispiece for the eventual publication. What a triumph it would yet be.

William returned to the ferry in good spirits, able to enjoy the trip across the Bay in contemplation and comfort. The setting sun dazzled the eyes but he looked at it still as long as he could bear, waiting for it to settle behind the fog looming over the City. He considered what he would have to do in the near future, and wondered if there would be any further hints of direction. Indeed, was there something in the way that the sun and the fog intermingled just now?

He stared more closely, then smiled and shook his head. No indeed, not now – the pattern did not always reveal itself so openly.

William wondered if the pattern had directed his life from the start – it seemed an honest conclusion. Considering all the paths he had pursued at an early age – an insatiable thirst for knowledge and new experiences – it only seemed clear that the pattern must have been set to guide him in part, waiting for him to achieve the age and wisdom needed to explain it. If so, perhaps everything that had happened to him and his family was done for a reason.

Everything.

He sighed now, and felt something that honestly surprised him – a true sorrow. He knew, somehow, that those sorrows and moments of melancholy that had affected him in recent months were to one extent or another forms of affectation. He relied on them rather than let them be direct expressions of a deeper grief. Had he been fooling even himself?

No, not that. William shifted in his seat and looked more closely now at the approaching fog bank, listening for the sound of horns and shouts as the route to the dock grew more crowded with other boats. It was simply another way to show what he knew was true. He smiled. Now there was a better way for all, a true contribution, and he could stand on a level that impressed others. He could almost taste it.

At the dock he walked slowly, almost felt like wandering aimlessly, though this would have been a poor thing to do given how near the docks were to those areas of town he would prefer not to be near, and yet had to return to as needed. Poor Richard. William chuckled to think it, for he now asked himself, should his brother not create an almanac now? It would be a different line of work from that he had pursued but hopefully a more productive and acceptable one.

He wondered why it was that Richard had never understood him all this time, it seemed, or failed to truly appreciate what he had done. He knew that much of it would have to now wait until the publication of his great work, and then Richard, if he showed some proper patience and effort, would be able to apprehend everything directly. William believed that Richard simply wanted too much to be a man of action, to pursue life and its pleasures without forethought. Why else would he live where he does do, why else would he do what he seemed to most of all, acting as if there was nothing more to existence than the pursuit of bottles and women, or whatever else it was that seemed to show that life meant nothing more to him than a cheap room and a bit of light in a window?

He paused where he stood, looking around him. The night had seemed to come on suddenly, or he had been walking around in a while, for it seemed like he had not moved far from the dock at all, yet the shadows were deep, the lamplights burning brightly. Around him was a fair amount of talk and conversation, people moving rapidly, the busy flow of life.

William smiled, for in it he saw now a stronger hint of the pattern, something that intertwined with this existence and yet lay over it, a swirling that was also a cycling, a recycling, something that happily fed on itself in the best way. Perhaps, at base, this was all that needed to be done, to simply observe this and other such instances, to truly see – to open up one’s eyesight but also one’s mental capacities.

He had rarely felt so free now, so able to step above the limitations of the world he had seen all around him. Everything that appeared to tie him down was sloughing away, at least in this instance.

William shivered suddenly as the cold of the fog seemed to reach into the layers of clothing he wore, and he drew the coat around him even more closely. He had not properly thanked Richard for keeping an eye on this coat, and he really must write a note to him…well, why write a note? Why not go to see him? The Coast at night was not the more salubrious of neighborhoods, but he had been there before at worse times and had dealt with little more than some of the bolder drunks threatening him. He tried not to call attention to himself at such times and this seemed good advice for this current moment.

Cathy and Percy would wonder where he was, of course, but there had been many other absences over longer periods of time in the past, so they could wait a bit here – they were patient, he knew them. And perhaps this time he and Richard could have a chance to discuss things rather than react in anger – in his case, at least. He had tried to excuse and forgive Richard all these times, and hopefully he would not have to do so now.

He would be clearer with Richard about many things now, more so than ever before, and this would be the way to win him over at long last, to make him see what he had missed all this time.

He walked now at a brisker pace, making his way to the chaos of the Coast, the sounds of the outlying saloons already reaching his ears.

“The Torments of His Dreams” — chapter 23

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.

“The Torments of His Dreams” — chapter 22

Continued from here:

He had had that coat at some point. Where had it gone?

He stalked the room for it, turning up the bed, searching among the miserable furnishings, which he had lived with for months before finally learning to hate them now, shoving them along the floor to see if the coat had fallen down behind something or lay hidden on the ground. Nothing, no coat.

Josie entered, causing him to whirl. She had her own coat with her, light, enough for her to stay warm while enabling her to display other features of interest.

“What…what, Dick?”

He stared at her a while longer, then turned back to rustling among the pile of castoffs that sat in one corner, old clothes of theirs that could be used for rags or other purposes as needed. Not a thing was found. She shrugged and took a seat at the table.

“If you’re looking for the money it’s in the usual place.”

“The money isn’t the problem,” he muttered. “It’s the coat.”

“Coat?”

“Yes, the coat, MY coat. The one I had been wearing all these months, you know which coat it is.”

“Oh yes…” Her voice sounded unconvinced but he was in no mood to engage in an argument. He heard her counting out some money, noted it for future reference, and continuing rummaging through the old clothes.

Disgusting, some of it. Why hadn’t he gotten rid of more of this earlier, organized what he had here in this cheap little room?

Why was he even in this cheap little room to start with? What had happened with him?

He felt Josie’s eyes on him and realized he had been sitting there for some time, not moving. He turned to face her – she sat on the bed now, slumped, clearly not in the best of spirits. He realized suddenly that she had several marks on her face.

“Josie?”

“Good of you to notice.” Her look was a pitiless mask, as she stretched out under the covers, then curled up. He came over to her.

“Josie, what happened? What’s wrong?”

“What does it look like? Some drunken sailor wanted some time, he paid, I gave it to him, then when it was over he got rough. I’ve had worse.”

“I’ll find him, I’ll kill hi—”

“I’ve had worse, I said.” She spoke flatly, not looking at him. “A lot worse. He only started before there was a shout that the police were coming into the alley; he ran off. I got myself together as I could and came back here. Wherever he is now, he’s bound to be caught up in some press gang for work back on a ship. Let him suffer there.”

It seemed to him that he’d never heard something like this before, yet part of him knew he had. What had he expected, that she had done her work in perfect comfort the whole time? He was no fool. Yet he almost felt like this was something new…

He shook his head. Getting sentimental over a whore! Even if it had been one he had kept for all this time, one who showed that she had a certain something for her art. Well, that had been handy. Still, now wasn’t the time for distractions, and he turned back to search once again through piles of clothes and other material he had already looked through several times.

The sound of Josie’s breathing served as a gentle background rhythm for his efforts, and he almost found himself gauging his pace by it. After some minutes, she shifted and said something that almost took him by surprise, except he had been asking himself something similar lately.

“Why are we here? Why are you here? Aren’t you going to do anything more?”

He thought about this for a couple of seconds. He could answer honestly or he could bluff, and he chose the second approach almost by instinct. “I’m here searching for a coat.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

He stood, and slowly turned towards her. Her look to him now was one that seemed…not vulnerable, but curious and wanting an answer sooner rather than later. She seemed not to have moved at all in the bed.

“Then what do you mean?”

She looked at him, then looked away. “I meant why have you spent all this time here in this room month after month. Why do you hoard all this money of ours instead of spending it on something – spending it on a better place. Spending it on us if you like.” She looked at him coolly. “I have a good claim to much of it. Maybe even all of it.”

“Hardly that.”

“Not entirely.”

He didn’t feel like arguing but she was making him angry just by being this way. Typical of a woman. He felt like stomping around to let some of his anger out but that would be ridiculous.
Suddenly, he thought some more truth might simply be the best answer. Why not? He’d always relied on lies before, so perhaps the truth would be enough this time.

“If you must know, Josie, a lot of the money goes for me to inject heroin.”

He didn’t expect mocking laughter in response. “You think I don’t know that? It’s so obvious – look at your arms. Look at them now!” She pointed almost derisively at his bare right arm.

He didn’t need to look down to notice all the needle marks and holes clustered at various points on the skin.

“Did you think I had somehow missed them all this time?” She shook her head. “And I thought you were a slightly more intelligent example of a man than some.”

Frustration filled him. This was the kind of mockery and insults he could not stand, yet he could not find it within himself to respond back in kind, or worse. Why was he so frozen? It certainly wasn’t due to fear, what could Josie do to him on that front?

“So where does the rest of the money go, then? I should have asked this long ago, I know, but I suppose I was getting used to this life. After today I’m thinking it over again.”

He had told some truth already, why not the rest?

“A good chunk of it goes to my brother William’s family.”

She frowned at him. “William? Surely he’s the one you hate the most, or so you said once.”

“He is, for good reason. He’s gone insane.”

She said nothing for some time. “You’re serious?”

“Completely.” He started tossing the clothes about again. “I think I knew that some time ago. You don’t want to hear the things he babbles about now. But I realized that his wife and his child don’t have to suffer any of his foolishness, so I make sure they get some money now.”
“Meaning I’m working for their charity. I see.”

He clenched his fists then untightened them. “I wouldn’t call it that.” He tossed an old jacket aside.

“Then what am I here for, instead of you? If our arrangement is strictly for money it seems I get nothing out of it but a bed and a place to rest in between being on the job, and that’s precious little to earn.”

“Did you want me following you around every corner, then? Trying to rob every customer while their back is turned? I’ll do that if you like, but I thought you preferred working on your own.”

She didn’t respond for a while and he took to organizing various bits of clothing in some sort of easy to check fashion. He started listing things in his mind – where had he last been with the coat? Was it here? In Schulz’s place? Down at the docks, during that failed attempt to bring in the sailors? He’d stayed well away from there for a while now, knowing that both the crimp who had attacked him and his brother would be spoiling for a bit of easy revenge. Perhaps they’d been too busy at their work to try and find him – a good thing at least.

Whereever that coat was, whoever had it, he’d pay. That thing actually kept him warm, for a start, and even though it was approaching summer, the fogs never seemed to lift totally. Not in the City. Cold, clammy…used to it the year round, used to all of it.

He worked a little more angrily now, as he organized everything he had thrown about in what he assumed was something close to Prussian precision, like Father used to say. You need a coat to survive in the City, you need a lot of things to survive, you need your wits, you need your brains, you need your health.

He turned back towards the bed and saw that Josie had fallen asleep. Handy, at least he didn’t have to bother talking with her more about things he’d rather not be thinking about.

He sat down at the chair at the table, idly looking over the money, sorting things out for his needs, for Cathy and Percy…for Josie too. She’d earned it after all. He traced the coins idly on the table. She had work – it was work he couldn’t do (or didn’t want to – he knew the option was there and knew he wanted no part of it) and all he seemed to know how to do was to sort out old clothes while looking for something that wasn’t there at all, that should be. He wondered if the universe was either trying to tell him something or was just laughing at his predicament.

There was a slight noise. He turned to look at the wall.

It was moving.

He felt rooted to the seat. There it was again…moving. Like before. Like in the dreams. But he wasn’t asleep.

Compared to other times beforehand he found his movement totally free – a quick check on Josie showed she was asleep. He could see out of the window that the street was becoming busier as night began to fall. He thought he could even hear Wadlegh next door complaining about something.

And yet the wall moved.

It couldn’t be, shouldn’t be. How? Not now?

The door.

It hit him in a flash, remembering the past. The door, what was at the door? Was anything there?

He moved closer to it, reassured that it was closed, but wanting to check to see if it was locked. He grasped the knob and tried to turn it – it didn’t budge. A relief at least.

He then heard a familiar noise on the other side of the door that caused him to stiffen.
He’d heard that noise, that strange sound…in the last dream. The one that caused him to awaken with a yell, that made everyone in the building think he had been murdered or close to it.

Now he felt himself being deathly silent, straining to hear what lurked just beyond the door. He knew it was there, that it waited for someone or something. That it waited for him.

It seemed to be out in the hall…if there was a hall. Then suddenly it shifted and darted nearer.
He felt a cold drop of sweat trickling down his back. It was just there…not a couple of inches away. Only the door, cheap wood as it was, separated them. He had never felt so naked and vulnerable in his life, so afraid.

The thing would tear through the door. It would shred it completely and then it would turn on him.

He heard a low, careful hiss that wasn’t a human breath, couldn’t be. The drop of sweat poised on his lower back, ready to drip downward further.

A stamping came up the staircase, and suddenly he felt all the pressure gone. Whoever it was walking down the hall had driven away the creature, the effects on the walls, completely.

He breathed a sigh of relief. It was gone.

For now.

“The Torments of His Dreams” — chapter 21

Continued from here:

Thompson prided himself on his editorial skills. He prided himself on his ability to handle reporters, most of whom thought too highly of themselves. And he prided himself on making the most of opportunities as they arose.

With McMahon, though, things were starting to get strange, and he had to make that clearer to him. Not that they were getting impossible or he was suddenly getting out of hand on things, but he had to be brought back more into line.

“See, McMahon, you’ve done a wonderful job with your stories. Every new one you tell gets all the right people outraged and makes all the other right people thrilled. They’re already imagining how it’ll attract more people there in the future, maybe even now. Their cuts are bigger than ever, skimming off from the saloons and whorehouses and gambling and all that.”

He spoke in his casual voice, as he understood it – low-key, persuasive, he hated having to shout. And why should he shout with McMahon? Best reporter they had. None of this whining about ‘proper’ journalism, just good red meat, the redder the better. He did exactly what he had hoped he’d do when he first appeared in the City, cover the scandals without making it clear that there were ways to fix them. Let the saps who bought the paper try and figure it out. If they didn’t, no worries, they’d still keep buying papers and pretending to be outraged. He loved it.

He looked up from where he’d been reading over yesterday’s issue, reminding himself of certain points, and considered McMahon. Quiet today. Strange but no stranger than other things he’d done. Looking tired. Spending more time at his favorite place, maybe. Whatever worked for him – Thompson was happily married and found his wife more than enough, so long as McMahon kept up his work, he could spend every evening screwing every woman in the City as far as he cared.

McMahon wasn’t smoking his preferred cigars either, that was even stranger. Suddenly caring about health? He wasn’t minding Thompson’s own cigar, for whatever reason. McMahon still looked neat and presentable – he liked that in his reporters, the less sloppy they were the more likely they were going to be able to present themselves well to people who could be caught off guard. In many ways he was just as he should be, but Thompson could tell that McMahon still didn’t seem like he was at his best – as if the story yesterday couldn’t say that already.

Thompson snorted, folded the paper to a particular story and slapped it down on his table. “You dreaming there, McMahon?”

“Mm.” McMahon shook his head a bit and blinked, looking as if he had indeed dozed off briefly. “Sorry boss. Had more on my mind lately than I figured, I think.”

“Well that’s no matter so long as you don’t let it take over your work, but here’s a question about this part.” He held up the article to read it. “Now I’m used to letting you do your thing, I can rely on you. I let this go through yesterday without a comment because honestly I barely noticed it. Now I’ve got a couple of messages here, even a phone call, which tells me you went a step too far. I know it now, at least, and you’re going to know it.”

McMahon, Thompson noticed, didn’t take his eyes from him and followed along with occasional nods and interjections. He approved – too many writers looked elsewhere or tried to pretend the conversation wasn’t happening. Conversation, hell – monologue, he knew that much about himself, at least. Thompson found the part he was looking for and read it through out loud, McMahon focused on him as he did so.

At the end, Thompson coughed a bit through his cigar smoke and leaned forward towards McMahon. “That’s almost libelous, mentioning someone like that.”

“Almost, boss, not quite libel itself.”

“Not something that anyone who follows the City is going to miss though.”

“Boss, you say yourself that everyone knows already, and that others aren’t going to catch it when that’s referred to. What makes me mentioning who’s really behind a good chunk of the Coast so different from that?”

“Gotta open your eyes, McMahon. All of a sudden the do-gooders are getting more powerful around here, and elsewhere. Seems like they’re going to try and ‘clean up the City’ or whatever else they’re using as a slogan. All hogwash, of course, but maybe you not working as much at City Hall might have made you miss that a bit.”

“Mmmf.” Thompson was a bit surprised at McMahon’s non-committed reaction, usually that would have been the type of thing to make up get up out of the seat with anger. The editor frowned a bit and continued:

“Anyway, keep up with the stories, just give me more lead time so I can double check them, and talk more with our boys here so you know what’s going on. Look, I don’t think those ‘progressives’ or whatever they call themselves are really going to change anything here, but if they do we don’t want to be on the hook for it, and you know that there are people out there who would love to see us out on the street.”

He paused and then frowned even more heavily at McMahon, who now seemed to be looking right past him at some spot on the wall. This was getting ridiculous.

“McMahon, you paying attention?”

“Yeah, boss, you said I should keep up on more things, give you the lead time more, explained why.”

“Huh, okay.” Thompson scratched his chin and stubbed out his cigar. “Gotta say, McMahon, you seem a bit more…no, scratch that, a bit LESS yourself. Something’s gotten into you, and I’m no priest for you to confess to, but if you have something on your mind, better get it out. I’m not one to read minds or any of that nonsense.”

“I’m sorry boss.” McMahon suddenly seemed more focused, which Thompson did appreciate. “Just turning things over in my head a bit – did you know I saw Ephraim the other day?”

“That old character? God love him, bit of a freak but he knew how to cover this city and the people in it. He’ll die with all the secrets even I don’t know about. What, he wasn’t sharing some with you, was he?”

“No, I wouldn’t expect to him ever do that – at least not the real secrets. He’s got too many of his own he’ll never want to tell any way.”

“Good quality for a journalist, to know that about yourself – makes digging up the secrets of others more of a challenge. So you saw Ephraim and he was his usual self, and you drained some more of his brandy collection dry, if I know him and you. Anything else?”

“We had a talk about a few things, gave me some advice – handy things to remember.”
“He’s good for that too. Be glad you have him as a bit of a mentor.”

“Always am.” McMahon seemed more relaxed to Thompson now, putting both on familiar ground. Maybe this would get them both somewhere so McMahon could concentrate on what he needed to remember about his work. “Boss, what do you think of this place?”

“This office? God knows it could do with some cleaning.”

“Sorry, I wasn’t clear – the City. What do you think of it?”

“What do I THINK of it? C’mon, McMahon, what kind of question is that? I live here, I work here, it’s the City.” Thompson felt almost angry at being asked this. Was McMahon turning into some kind of philosopher? The City was the City, it had its frustrations but that was to be expected. Good to leave it some times, always better to come back.

McMahon lifted a hand. “Boss, I’m sorry…let me try another approach.”

Thompson almost admired it, it was nearly another journalistic style from the one he was used to from McMahon. Perhaps he’d been finding new ways to talk to people with all his work down there on the Coast.

“So here’s an idea.” McMahon sat up fully his chair. “Is there anything that’s ever happened to you while you’ve been here in the City that made you look at it differently, see it in a new light?”

“Hmm.” Thompson drew his lips into a tight but not angry line. “Good question, actually….Well, let me put this way – you know I’m not originally from the City, right?”

“You said your parents came here in mid-century.”

“That they did, following some dreams – didn’t work out as they planned it but they did well enough, God rest their souls. Had to live by my wits for a while after they died, but I was young, had the energy, started working for other papers. But all that time, when I was chasing around the whole City, I always felt that despite all the murder and depravity going around – and it WAS going around, worse even than now, no matter what the bluenoses say – I felt that the City had something to it that I hadn’t felt anywhere else where I’d been before, not that I had much experience with that.”

Thompson smiled a bit. He hadn’t expected to go down this road, but didn’t mind now that he was on it. “A freshness, no that isn’t the word. Hell, my kids say they get that too from the City, and they’re young. No, it’s something beyond even whatever words I can come up with right now.” He shook his head. “You’ve got me dreaming here, McMahon! No time for that right about now, I think. Look, it did feel different, but I’m damned if I can figure out exactly why, or even if it was better or worse. Like I said, there was plenty of mayhem happening, the Coast was already a terror for most people. Enough was going on to make sure that people walked carefully at night, and I still remember the vigilante committees and the people they hung. Hell, I covered some of it.”

“Okay, so it was all a disaster back then.” McMahon’s voice was flat.

“No, no, McMahon, you’re missing all this. It wasn’t a disaster at all, it was rough, it was troubled, but it wasn’t the end of the world.”

McMahon scratched his ear. “Well, how about now?”

“Now?” Thompson was brought up short, unsure of McMahon’s point.

“Well, you’re saying it’s better now but maybe it’s closer to the end of the world?”

“McMahon, is that what’s been eating at you all this time? You’re going to start wearing a placard at this rate – make sure you follow in the vein of Emperor Norton, you’ll get some free food out of it.”

McMahon laughed, which pleased Thompson – at least that meant he wasn’t completely out of it. “No, nothing so bad. Boss, I admit that for me it’s so hard for me to put my finger on it that I’ve just been trying to gather reactions as I can.” He coughed, then paused. “Also I wonder if my work is starting to get to me more than I knew.”

Thompson’s eyebrows raised. “Oh? How so?”

“Did you ever cover the Coast yourself when you were younger?”

“Not if I could help it.” Thompson had some dark images cross his mind that he swiftly put down – he did not want to return there. “No. Did you want out? Most people I know don’t seem to last too long.”

“Not yet.” McMahon rose. “I almost think that there’s a bigger story out there that I’ve missed until now, and I think I need to be in the Coast for it if it breaks.”

Thompson nodded. “That sounds fine for now. Before you go,” he added as McMahon reached for the door. “You seem to have calmed down on some other fronts lately. Less boasting and all that.”

McMahon smile seemed wintry. “Maybe I just grew up a bit. I don’t know.” He left, leaving Thompson with his thoughts.

“The Torments of His Dreams” — Chapter 20

Continued from here:

It had been so wonderful for William over the recent weeks. All having been made clear, it just had to happen. That meant planning and understanding further about his great new role, and all else could be ignored.

Yes, even family. Even Cathy and Percy now, cruel as this was on the face of it. Still, Cathy had seemed less tearful of late, and there always now seemed to be something to eat where some nights things had been fairly scanty, something that would have troubled him more in previous months but now seemed as if from another lifetime. He looked past her now in their encounters, but he remembered nodding his head every so often in response to things that were said, agreements that seemed to be of importance to her, and possibly Percy as well. He spoke more clearly now than ever, which thrilled him, for even at so young an age he would have carry a fair amount of knowledge from him. That would yet be passed on.

Still, their words did not truly mean anything in the larger scheme of things, though he was pleased to see that their wants had been addressed, and at one point Cathy apparently had noted that there would be a chance to move soon. Wonderful indeed! This was all apparently to do with more money that his mother had been sending along, which was a blessing. She knew that they were all wanting and had shown her true generosity at last. It had been such a strange time, when she had been so accusatory! Her letters still seemed to have some air of reproof around them, as if he had not done all he should, but since all was well otherwise with Cathy and Percy, surely that meant all he had needed to provide was his presence.

He understood this best of all. They clearly felt, without saying it, that he had truly become an important figure, one who would yet give the world its best sense of what it meant to be alive, and after the encounter on the street, the vision in the sky, he knew this more than before. The pattern! Revealed there so clearly, suddenly pure and perfect, and more than that, it did not come from the sky, he realized, but reflected up from the ground, somehow, in an indescribable way. Oh, to look from the heights down below and see the true pattern there…but no, that way could not be done, even by balloon – mere mortals could not behold it, he had come as close as he would be allowed. He felt grateful for that, it was a rare privilege.

He required more return trips to Chinatown to fully meditate on this, but it seemed that work had become more of a problem of late than he had realized. Why, the last time he was there at his workplace, the building had closed, the locks were changed! Some foolish mistake, but when he spoke to the landlord, he only received abuse and threats from him about material left unclaimed after the eviction. Eviction! He pitied the ranting man, almost frothing at the mouth, who had never been one of the kindest people William had ever encountered. For some minutes he wondered at the idea that he would be bringing enlightenment to a person like him, then remembered that his great work would be for all to reap the benefits of, so to try and cut off even the landlord would be an unfortunate thing.

He spoke of this to Cathy upon his return, and she appeared to be pleased at the idea of his no longer working there – something to do with how he would not look or seem a certain way whenever he came back from work, something of the sort. Well that was settled, then. He had looked about him and realized that many of the books he had carefully added to over the years had only been giving his misdirection, so he felt he might as well sell them on to someone or some organization who would enjoy them more than he. Cathy seemed pleased by this as well, and he wondered at how simple it had been for her to come around to these points of view. Bless her heart! She had made these days a pleasure, and at night he had blushed to realize how much she had clung to him and more. It was as if he had been away! At least she fully understood his role now, and felt glad he need not spell out certain upcoming steps.

He took the books to a bookseller he knew and had often frequented, and the man expressed surprise at the quality and kind of books he was returning. Flattering of course but William would have thought that the man had known better; after all, he was not dedicated to the kind of cheap penny-dreadfuls that had been churned out by the tens of thousands in these times. Let others wallow with such garbage! He aimed for higher and had been given it. The bookseller gave him a fair amount and William realized that part of it could be given to Cathy and Percy for various things – how grand that it had reached this state!

Most of it, of course, had to be used for the next stage of his researches in Chinatown. He spoke urgently to the attendant upon his next visit, bearing the money and explaining his need. Happily there had been just what he needed for his use, something apparently that normally was kept for use by the people who maintained the building, or at least their interiors. He would not turn down such an offer, and soon he had found his way back into where he so had loved to be before the great revelation, and which surely now would provide him with something to consider that he had previously missed.

It was interesting, though, to see that things once unclear in his researches now came all the clearer – it likely had to be because of the quality he had asked for. He marveled at how the murky dreams now had a razor sharp quality, how the landscapes he wandered and the phantasmic figures he saw there had a resolution and color that almost beggared description. Truly, he had once been seeing through a glass darkly, but no more. He asked questions, saw striking sights, explored.

And the pattern! Everywhere he saw evidence of the pattern. The crude appearance of the pattern in the moving walls of the room was as nothing now, it had only been the strangest, poorest of representations to an unfamiliar audience, and yes he had initially been mistaken in it. He could have berated himself for his delays in this understanding, but now, better to celebrate and glory in it all now. This would be something that could only be answered for in another existence, maybe, but not this one, not when he could revel in having learned so much, to have seen through to another side.

He had stumbled back home two days later, hungry and tired, feeling suddenly the privations of the body much more readily than in the past. It was disconcerting, but could perhaps be seen as part of the larger lesson, to look beyond the needs of the flesh and to consider the greater world that lay beyond. Striking! He would have to make a note of it.

He did so as well – he had finally made sure to purchase that blank collection of pages where his thoughts and conclusions could be detailed, and upon his return home and having had some food he began to set them all out, a huge rush of ideas. He found himself having to go back and rewrite many things, and he noted idly that many of the pages themselves almost verged on the unreadable, even for him, who had written them. It was of no matter, though, since those words would yet be graven on the hearts of those after him, people like Percy, for whom it would be more important than bedside stories, than the Bible, than anything. He would be the first learner of the new education, to declaim to the heavens that in the beginning was not the Word, but the Pattern, and that he himself, William, was its Prophet – well, more accurately interpreter, but the sense was the same, regardless of the choice of words.

The days passed by, the notebook filled up and there was a sense of contentment in the household. Cathy made mention of having settled bills and debts which William caught on the fly and nodded at approvingly. Good, good, less trouble for later on. She did, however, add that there still lay a need for a job, which William found extremely material and inappropriate. He had thought she had learned! Still, he promised her he would do some searching, and thought that something temporary could be engaged in to provide care, something that he could turn away from his notebook and testatment to engage with others as need be. He could almost see himself working in a business where others could come to him for compelling reasons, much as they had come to that previous job – well, he never liked it anyway.

Still, he had services he could sell, and another place of business had need of someone like him. He found his clothing, his equipment and joined in, and had to admit that as opposed to when he had worked in a location on his own, it was less troubling to do so in a place where there were others around to ensure no problems with troublesome landlords. They offered better facilities for cleaning up at the end of the day as well, a distinct improvement.
It was strange, however – he suddenly felt terribly sad for all the creatures he had worked with over the years, their carcasses and skins, their guts and their chops. He had always been clearly efficient, now he wondered if he had been disrupting their own place in the great pattern. Had he done nothing but commit sins all these years?

Well well, what to be said. He received no great sense that the pattern would tell him one thing or another.

He did, however, realize that he needed to see Richard again, perhaps look into clearing things up with him, maybe try and do the necessary work at convincing him he needed to see what he, William, had found, to embrace it fully and work on helping to spread this good word. He resolved to visit when he next had a chance, and some days later he found himself in the low place where Richard lived.

He always wondered at Richard’s choice of domicile, felt that it was beneath his dignity. Yet Richard seemed content with it, for god knows what reason. He was not in his rooms, and William after waiting a while felt ready to leave.

In doing so, however, he noticed something that surprised him. An old coat of his! Where had that been? Had he left it here on that day when Richard had been so rude and violent to him?
Well, he would send Richard a note for his reference, but in the meantime he felt he would claim the coat for himself again, and smiled at the sense that the pattern supported this. He sensed no objection.

The pattern was set and he, William, sensed its desires and impulses. He knew when the pattern considered his actions now, directed his energies, urged him to greater effort here and less there. It was of the utmost interest to fully understand and obey the pattern, rather than trying to reject it or move against it.

As he walked home with his reclaimed coat, William could not help the huge grin on his face – he had once more put something to right, and if Richard had not been there, well, that too could be part of the pattern.

“The Torments of His Dreams” — chapter 19

Continued from here:

Thomas McMahon needed help. He finally had admitted that to himself, but he didn’t know what the help would involve, what form it would take. He didn’t even know, for the longest time, who to ask.

He had disciplined himself to focus more on his work. There was now no story he would not volunteer to cover, the more so if it could take him more away from the Coast than towards it. At the same time, he’d heard from his editor that so much response had come from his stories of the Coast – both outraged queries about the moral fitness of the City and the paper covering it, as well as less publicized messages indicating that whenever a new Coast appeared, sales were huge – that there was no turning back now from them. The anonymity the stories still provided him helped, it allowed him to disappear even as comment grew to greater heights.

He had responded to that night at Dulac’s as well, having decided that the girl who he had accidentally frightened a touch that one night deserved better. He asked for and received a standing appointment with her, which pleased Dulac very well – she enjoyed the steady source of income, after all – as well as the girl in question, who seemed to appreciate McMahon well enough. He trained himself to remember to suffer no illusions – her affection was bought and settled well in advance – but she had started to remain with him more and more after each encounter, and he appreciated how she seemed to show real interest in his stories about his past. If it was a pose, she was a fine actress, one of Dulac’s best in her stable. Eventually he might get around to asking her name.

But he still needed help. The hand had not returned after the third time, yet he knew that it would yet reoccur, and the tension kept eating away at him. He could not relax. At the same time, he also knew he was pushing away his increasing disgust at his work in the Coast somewhere else in his mind, and could find no easy way to share it with anyone else. Work was out of the question, Dulac and her charge too coolly professional to offer more than the pleasantries one would expect, though he did appreciate that one evening with Dulac well enough. She had refrained from the subject from that point on, and McMahon took the hint, though felt disappointed.

In this context, an invitation from an older friend he had not spoken with in a long while was a godsend, and in his response he wrote back thanking him and wondering if he wouldn’t mind his taking of the opportunity to unburden himself on some matters related to work.

“Certainly, dear boy,” came the reply the following day. “What better person to do so than myself, who has seen everything in your field?”

Not perhaps this, thought McMahon in response.

Ephraim Baker had religious parents, very religious. “They were the kind of people, dear boy, who had to make sure it was known to all,” he had once explained to McMahon. “That meant making sure all their children were named after something in the Bible, including of course myself. It didn’t take with any of us, really. We’re all freethinkers now, those of us who are left.”

When McMahon had met him it was by chance, when Baker had returned to the newspaper office after much time away to catch up with figures there from his past. He’d worked on the paper in the previous decades, steering clear of direct controversy to catalog strange and witty stories from throughout the City. McMahon had a soft spot for this kind of work – it wasn’t his by choice but he liked a good yarn, and Baker, like a handful of other writers, had become one of the City’s best at telling them. Sharp and sarcastic when he needed to be, amiable much of the time otherwise, his attitude to life suited McMahon’s, and Baker had happily acted a mentor on various points for the then-new City inhabitant. A lot of McMahon’s savvy came courtesy of Baker’s warnings and suggestions, and they hadn’t been forgotten.

Baker had been able to retire on a fair amount from his parents after their passing and lived comfortably in one of the best parts of the City, far removed from where McMahon generally preferred to be. For all that he had grown edgy of late, he still preferred to be among activity, in the swirl of humanity, where Baker’s row house – one of the finest he’d laid eyes on, he admitted – lay in a quiet neighborhood populated by the kind of sober-minded people McMahon imagined ran law firms or banks, but weren’t quite plutocrats yet.

Baker’s servant led McMahon in, and not for the first time McMahon wondered at their relationship. Baker had been frank about his own tastes with McMahon (“It’s why you’ll never see me down at Dulac’s or anywhere else like it, dear boy – I’m sure they have the skill there, but not, I’m afraid, the practical equipment I require.”) and the younger man assumed that the servant provided for all sorts of requirements. Baker had never volunteered this, however, and McMahon chose not to ask, at least not beforehand and not today.

The meal was excellent, the afterdinner cigars and brandy of the highest quality and the conversation wide-ranging. Baker had not mentioned McMahon’s earlier request once throughout, instead entertaining the other with more tales and anecdotes from a rapidly disappearing past.

“Too much is made about progress these days. Don’t mistake me, Thomas, there is much to enjoy. But in the rush for it, much is forgotten or at least pretended that never existed in the first place. You hear those occasional complainers about political influence at City Hall, which their forebears lived in terror of many people here before the Civil War, and would have joined lynch mobs then if they could. Those who remember that now profess ignorance, those who are too young can’t imagine it ever being that way. Typical follies both.” Baker puffed at his cigar with a wicked grin. “But I would not expect it otherwise.”

“You’re right there, Ephraim.” McMahon’s thoughts had been growing darker and Baker seemed to be waiting for him to speak frankly. With a mental shrug, McMahon figured now was the time.

“Ephraim, you’re a freethinking man, as you’ve always said, and I trust your judgment over that of many people – even my own family.”

“Flattering, to be sure, but you are evading whatever it is you want to tell me. Be frank, dear boy.”

McMahon smiled to himself, then proceeded, as if he was the journalist reporting on himself, to outline the course of his experiences over the recent months, not dwelling on details but providing them where he felt there would be some use for Baker’s judgment.

The older man listened carefully, occasionally sipping at his brandy, until McMahon’s story had reached its end. He had asked no questions and spent a minute or two thinking before responding. He swirled the liquid in his glass slightly, then looked keenly at McMahon.

“Do you think you are insane?”

McMahon blinked but realized that Baker did not mean an insult, but an earnest question. He paused. “I certainly can only hope not. But if I am, how could I tell?”

“True, true.” Baker frowned. “But if you have nobody to fully confide in other than myself…well, then again, what have other people thought of you lately? Surely things could be said.”

“If I knew exactly what people did think of me, Ephraim, I would have long since retired to tell fortunes from a stall somewhere, probably far away from here.” McMahon stood and began to pace. “Whatever it was had something to do with that night in the warehouse, that terrible night – and I’ll be frank with you in saying that something happened there which has affected me since then. If I seem to be in a slightly better mood tonight for the most part, it’s because I’ve been successful at keeping those shadows away due to other things.”

“Wine, women and song?”

“Wine, women and work. But no less effective for that, though I think I’m starting to give. I just know it’s going to go.”

Baker rubbed his chin. “You seem awfully sure about this even though you’ve indicated you’re in a better place than ever. I’d suggest, dear boy, that being your own worst enemy is not going to help you in your situation.”

“But what is?” McMahon’s pacing grew more frenetic, and he started to sense Baker gazing keenly at him, wondering if he was disturbing the old man with his activity. “I don’t want to live my life wondering if I’m going to get complacent and relaxed and then feel that hand again, that…awful hand.” He compulsively rubbed his shoulder, reassuring himself that nothing was there. “I’ve tried to describe it to you but I’ll say it again – it wasn’t human, and that was the worst part of it. If it was, then I could say I could understand it, somehow – could almost believe it was something that actually was of this earth. Now I know it isn’t.”

“You act as if it definitely exists, Thomas.”

“I don’t want to think it does and yet somehow I know.” McMahon stopped pacing, then settled, uneasily, into a corner chair. He stared at Baker open-eyed, wondering if that look was what caused Baker to look away almost as if he was abashed…or was it ashamed?

Baker smoked his cigar for a while longer, then leaned back in his chair. “You said I was freethinking, Thomas. How freethinking are you in turn?”

McMahon found the question strange but thought upon his answer. “I haven’t seen anything yet in this life to convince me there’s much else beyond it, if that’s what you mean.”

“Hmm.” Baker took a last puff of his cigar, then flung it in the fireplace. “I think, dear boy, that you might want to reconsider that somehow.”

“Ephraim? Have you changed your thoughts this late in life?”

Baker chuckled. “No, nothing like that. But I’ve lived and worked in this city long enough, noticed many things that nobody ever talks about. It’s almost as if they’re afraid to, and maybe I can’t blame them. Certainly I’d have to wonder why I haven’t talked about it more often, then again few have seen the City as well as I have, and maybe as well as you have too.”

“In a few years, Ephraim, but not now.”

“Well, you’re getting there.” He sipped at his brandy once more. “The City, like all cities, has its spirit, I think, for lack of a better word. Its sense of what it is. I think it is unconscious, not specifically alive, but it is there. Haven’t you ever felt something like that?”

McMahon wondered if the brandy was making either his head foggier or Ephraim’s. Still, the question seemed logical enough, at least at this stage. “So you’re asking if there’s a soul to the City?”

“A soul is too specific a word, Thomas. I don’t think that. But I think that there’s enough which goes on in this area of the world, where so many others come from all over, that it’s created something which exists independently of us all. I think when a lot of people pray to God or damn him in this City, the prayers and curses reach to that spirit, not God or anything like it.”

McMahon paused for thought. “It’s…interesting, Ephraim. I’ll have to think about it. But a question.”

“Yes?”

“Why was it that the hands don’t feel human, then? If the spirit of the City comes from all of us, why that?”

Baker paused only for a second. “We may be human, dear boy, but are our true thoughts and actions? Perhaps the most human thing about us, in the end, might just be our shape.”

McMahon did not respond for a long while, staring into the fireplace and thinking.

“The Torments of His Dreams” — chapter 18

Continued from here:

It felt like a good way to avoid sleep.

Actually, he thought there were two good ways. The first had been the easy one, and he’d already been putting into practice before, but now with a new urgency. He’d tried to avoid having to kill anyone this time around, though, and so far he’d been lucky. Breaking into some of the businesses and dwellings in the Coast, such as they were, was ultimately child’s play for him – he suspected, he was sure quite rightly, that most of the people in such places figured that they would be. Therefore the trick lay in finding out how they chose to hid what valuables they had.

He knew he was smarter than nearly everyone in the Coast – he’d been given all kinds of grief from fools like Schultz but he’d pay them back when he felt in a better place, and that would be soon. For now, it was a matter of figuring out their simple stratagems, all those employed the people around him who knew looked down their nose now at even him. Even him! None of them were better than he, and a great deal were worse. He’d make them fear his name.

He didn’t bother trying to rob in his own building. That was just asking for trouble. Instead, it just took some careful wandering at the right hours, seeing when people stumbled off looking for something to slide down their throats – the type of people he knew always appeared at Schultz’s bar at certain times and hours. That meant their places were unguarded, and he? He was just another dweller on the Coast, who would question him if he loitered and then seemed to disappear for a while? Standard practice, after all.

People would place seemingly important things out in the open in their dingy rooms – a glint of coins here, what seemed to be a good knife or similar weapon there. He ignored those, instead rifling through the darker corners for where they really hid what they didn’t want to carry around with them, but couldn’t live without. More than a few times he discovered hiding places not far removed from the ones he and Josie tended to use, and this made him think of better places for his own use – after all, if he discovered something, who was to say that somebody might not do the same with their room? He was the best on the Coast, though.

He still had some money to spend freely, after all, and did so, though not every woman he tried to purchase the services of seemed to be as welcoming of him in the past. But he found his pleasures and still insisted on his preferred name being used – even if one time one lady had laughed and insisted he couldn’t measure up to the real thing. He’d done his best to prove otherwise, but with a woman like that, who knew?

Josie he’d seen less and less of. He grew convinced she often used their room now for her work and while part of him felt angry, another realized that some money had to be steadily made. What made him feel so precious about the matter? She wasn’t his wife, their arrangement had been professional from the start. Perhaps a bit of affection, but what more needed to be said about that? He knew where love would lead to, he’d seen it. There were never any guarantees.

One time he had been on the verge of finishing up a job in a building near his when he heard the owner come back in. A problem but one he figured he could deal with, until he realized that there were two people, the other being said owner’s hired protection for events like the one he had been busily engaged in. He found a place to hide, waited as long as he could, but realized that apparently they were going to be some time there – in fact, as he started to see quite clearly, the hired protection had been hired for other services as well, though it seemed to be something both rather enjoyed. He had always been disgusted by such behavior but knew that it was endemic in the City, and had found ways to work around it as he could, though once or twice he had been mistaken for such a figure. Quite why was unclear to him, but he knew that if he had been getting appreciative looks from disgusting perverts like these two, then something was wrong.

These reflections were something for a later time, though, so he waited until they had been spent to suddenly come at them in a rush, using a small cudgel he kept with him to lay out some blows. It was enough, and he later heard that one had died outright and the other had been turned into something close to a vegetable. Well, served them right. What could they have expected?

The rush of all this activity kept him busier than he had been in a long while, and things actually seemed to be returning to normal the more he kept at it. If the money was more sporadic, he found more ways to gain it, and he noted that an increasing amount of familiar faces seemed only to want to avoid him on the street. Well, let them hide away – if they thought they were trying to escape him, they would only have themselves to blame when they realized how impossible that was. He’d find them all if he needed to, and there might be times when he really needed to.

He’d also – out of kindness, maybe – found a way to get some money to Cathy and Percy through his mother. It wasn’t much, but he felt that this would be more effective than having to deal with William again. His mother did question the source of the money in her response back to him, but he figured she wouldn’t say no, and did not.

Still, he had his needs to be sated. He found that the only way he could truly avoid the return of some of those dreams was to use more and more, or rather use better than what he had been relying on for too long. And to use better cost more money. And that meant more sources of income.

He found himself on the docks more by chance than for any other reason, but he’d heard the stories and figured that there was something to be gained from it. The basic pattern was clear enough – boats docked out in the Bay with anxious and sea-weary sailors, desperate to get back to land. Runners offered to get them to shore, brow-beating them if necessary, delivered them to boardinghouses where the crimps took care of the rest. Lots of cheap liquor, maybe a woman or two to entertain him, then unconsciousness until another shipmaster appeared needing a crew. Haul the sailor back out to a new ship, keep him sleeping until the voyage was well under way and all returned to normal – for the captain, at least.

Supposedly there’d been new groups formed by some of these sailors to try and prevent abuses but he knew that they couldn’t be everywhere. All he needed to do was to relieve a runner of his cargo and deliver him to the appropriate boardinghouse. It couldn’t be too difficult, after all, and he had better ways to dispose of any troubles than most.

He’d noted a newly arrived ship and had secreted himself in the shadow of a dockside building near one of the short piers, helping by the growing approach of night. Out on the bay itself he could see the swarm of smaller vessels surrounding it, sailors either swinging down into the boats or being hauled over. At a distance it seemed that some fistfights had broken out on deck, which he hoped meant for a more exhausted crew and maybe runners as well. He would have to wait and see.

The runners’ boats started quickly making their way over, and he noted happily that one seemed to be coming towards a small portage point not far from where he crouched. Three sailors, all apparently already drunk on something, lay half-slumped in the boar, while the runner expertly steered his vessel towards the dock with an easy grace. The runner scrambled out, made the boat fast with some grimy ropes, then turned to call down to where the sailors lay.

Watching this, he used the moment the runner’s back was turned to leap out and make a swift attack with his blackjack, catching the runner with a heavy clout. The runner turned with a punch and snarl that sent his attacker sprawling, but in doing so entangled himself in the ropes and hit the dock smartly himself.

Meanwhile, he caught his breath and looked at the runner, who lay where he moved. Not wanting to waste time, he scrambled to the boat, yelled something about being ‘the man from the house, step up lively sailors, the ladies wait for noone,’ and cajoled the three into unsteadily standing up and as needed crawling out of the boat. He herded them along with a stream of patter that he forgot as soon as he said it and headed towards the nearest boardinghouse, assuming that the runner had tied up for maximum convenience for his final destination.

He stepped through the door to be greeted by the crimp, who looked at him sourly.

“Got three for you here, boss.”

The crimp’s face barely changed. “And who are you?”

“Just bringing in some fine men for you, just off the boat and already pissed drunk. Not asking for much, just my cut.”

The crimp stood to his full height – at over six feet, nearly all of it muscle, it proved a daunting sight – and stepped closer to face him directly. “Only Joe serves this place. He gets HIS cut. You think you can bring some of these sops in here and just fob them off on us?” He waved contemptuously towards the three, who seemed even less likely types than they had beforehand.

“So maybe Joe’s not around, or decided he could do better elsewhere. You going to deny me an opportunity?”

“I see you’re new here or a fool, or both. Joe’s my brother. Maybe you don’t have one or you might see how it works.”

“Maybe I do and maybe I think you’re a fool to trust only in family.”

He knew as he said it he had said the wrong thing. The sock to his gut came so quickly he barely felt his reflex, since the next thing he went flying into the street, ending up covered in mud and filth and worse besides.

“Maybe you’re a fool to even question that!” The crimp went back into the boardinghouse and started manhandling the sailors, aiming to get them even more soused and then out of his hair as quickly as he could.

He didn’t remember much about his journey back to his rooms. Whatever he had hoped to gain from his attempt at the dock was completely undone, and he guessed, as he lay naked on his bed, nursing a swelling lump on his head, that the chances of him succeeding any better elsewhere were slim. He figured word would spread fast, and since he had various clients and targets who worked the docks in general, he had to hush up his failure as best as he could, somehow.

There was nothing for it, he realized, but to sleep and rest…

His eyes jerked open.

No, no he couldn’t. He needed his help. Anything to keep those images away. But he didn’t have anything around he could use, and the best contact was some distance away, might not have anything at all.

He closed his eyes, now in despair. There was little for it. He had to go back into the room he hated and feared the most now, and hope for the best.

“The Torments of His Dreams” — chapter 17

Continued from here:

Schulz thought he was a reasonable man. That’s precisely why he let that fool of a bartender go.

“And why do you think you deserve to work here any more, DeVere?”

He busily polished mugs and looked around the bar as he worked. He didn’t believe in wasting time. He knew he wasn’t serving the rich merchants in his saloon, the society types, any of those characters up the hills that thought that they were better than him and the rest of the Coast. He believed in some sort of cleanliness, just enough, to keep people coming in and paying for his rotgut.

He called it that without pretending otherwise. Sure, he had some good stuff around, but for the customers? The wrecks and dregs in the Coast? No, he was no fool. He had his own private cabinet in what he called his office, which had just enough room for when someone came along to collect his share of the profits for the real owner, or when he decided it was time to get a woman for his use and tempted her accordingly. He knew some bartenders who only relied on their brute strength or through adulterating drinks to get what they wanted for a woman but he considered them pigs. No, there was always someone willing to grant favors for a drink in the Coast, and he didn’t think of himself as particular picky.

Far better to employ some stout women from his home country as temptations for the foolish, the wandering, the lonely. Then have them doctor the drinks for their supposed swains, roll them as needed, share out the money. He’d used the profits to buy extra protection as needed, shared some with the women as he felt like it and everyone came up smiling. If the victims complained, they rarely were seen again. Schulz had his friends and didn’t feel disturbed about having to call on them as needed. Why else did he keep the best for himself and those others, after all?

He finished polishing and looked at where DeVere – so he had always claimed his name was, though Schulz had his doubts – stood, slightly slumped against the wrong side of the bar. Schulz wondered how much he might be able to get from him if he came in looking so miserable one night. Get him drunk enough and he’d never remember that he’d worked here, done anything of value. That could be an amusement.

DeVere seemed to be looking at something. Schulz didn’t feel like wasting his time.

“DEVERE!”

“What…yes?”

Schulz paused for a second. “What’s that name you wanted to be called?”

DeVere looked at him flatly, eventually saying, “Black Dick.”

Schulz’s laughter was a rough bark. “A name for children pretending to be villains, and that’s about all you’re good for.”

Schulz was amused by DeVere’s attempt to look tough, which made him seem even more of a playactor. “There’s things I’ve done you’ve never thought of, Schulz.”

“Maybe so, but that’s because I have my wits about me and don’t indulge in whatever foolishness you think it takes to be a man. I’ve heard you, DeVere, talking to the women, boasting of what you can give them. Half thought I should slip you something in your own drink and see how you would look pretending to be a swell while you’re pissing your pants and shitting yourself. I might yet.”

“I didn’t come here to be insulted.” DeVere was woozy on his feet, swaying now slightly, and Schulz wondered if he had come here drunk already. Then again maybe he was using that junk he claimed never affected him, though Schulz knew that to be one of his sadder lies.

“You came here to insult me instead, DeVere, and you are. There’s no good reason for you to work here anymore because you barely work. Yeah, you had something good for you at one point, took orders, didn’t mess around. You start coming in later, you argue with the customers, you look like you’re about to fall over just making one mixed drink. No reason for you to stay, no reason for you to work for us. You want to come in and pay for your drink like everyone else, you can; you want to pretend to work for me, I’ll break your hands or whatever else I can get a hold of.”

Schulz said all this while rubbing down his rough slab of a bar, trying but never really succeeding at making it look clean. It worked for him well enough and it would do for all those people who came in, argued, stayed quiet, drank their slop and pretended they were living the life of a prince or big shot. All of them seemed to do that, and he only laughed at them while taking their money. So simple.

DeVere seemed not to move and Schulz grew tired of him. He leaned across the bar and grabbed DeVere by the shirt, pulling his face close.

“You’re either not listening to me or you really want me to do something to do. You don’t work here, you’re a customer, and the bar is closed. Come in later with all the other dregs and order your damned cheap beer then.”

Schulz saw DeVere’s sudden punch coming and caught it effortlessly, then jerked down the other’s face into the bar itself several times. DeVere’s nosebleed didn’t help his looks much but Schulz figured that whore he lived with could mop him up some, if she really worked for him. He wouldn’t be surprised if she looked for better sometime soon.

“Now, you want me to finish that job on your pretty face or do you want to get out of here before I do?” He pushed DeVere back and watched him fall to the floor in a stumble, then turned to organize some of the bottles. He didn’t bother looking back as he heard DeVere pull himself to his feet and almost fall out of the front doors. He wanted to drag himself back in the mud to that pit he lived in, let him, but Schulz, he didn’t have to watch it happen.

Carlos was bored, but he knew that he had a job to do.

He wasn’t good for much else, he knew, beyond sitting in what the landlord liked to call his parlor and watching the front door to see who or what came in. Carlos felt that ‘what’ was a better term for some of the wrecks he’d had to remove over the years.

Carlos didn’t drink, didn’t use anything else. Carlos was clear about that to himself. He had little else to offer anyone if he reached those states so he avoided them.

He’d ended up in the Coast by accident. A wrong turn after leaving a boat he’d grown disenchanted with, evasion of the hands on the shore waiting to trick him back into service, a chance to see what else the city had to offer, and then the next thing he knew a cable car had smashed into him.

Could happen to anybody, really. Losing the left leg was about all he figured he had to worry about when he looked down at the damage, what he could see of it through the gore.

Somehow he got patched up but that was about it, and he wasn’t going to expect much more than that. At least they cut off the leg cleanly enough. The stick he used to get around had to be replaced every so often but there was worse in the world.

So he drifted back to the Coast. Nowhere else to go. Somehow he’d fallen in with someone who wanted him to look after the building and make sure that nothing went wrong. He had another guy do that for twelve hours of the day, and he did the remaining twelve. He’d worked as he could to ensure his muscles remained strong in a taut, wiry way and he’d had to slug a complete drunk or two over the months he’d been at the building. He got a place to sleep, some cheap slop brought to him for food from a place down the road – wasn’t much, but it kept the roof over his head.

Otherwise, he watched the door, watched them all come in and go out, the people in the rooms upstairs. A sorry lot. He didn’t feel much for any of them, though he kept track of the names, even as they so rapidly changed. Some were more established tenants of a sort, others barely seemed to last a day or two. More than a few times he seen the landlord haul out a body with the help of his bully boys – whatever business he got up to elsewhere was something that Carlos was never going to ask after. He had a little too much sense for that.

A scrabbling noise could be heard at the door and then it opened, revealing some wretch who seemed like he could be an old sailor – then Carlos recognized who it was and grunted. This sot had been trying to sneak into this place for weeks, and seemed to think it was the only place to stay in the Coast, or maybe even the City as a whole. He’d heard all the complaints before whenever he threw him back out, so even as he grabbed his stick and quickly heaved himself over to where the figure stumbled inside.

“I’ve seen it…here, it’s been here. You’ve got to let me inside. You can’t turn out someone like me, who’s sailed the seas.”

Carlos shook his head. What a ramble. Whatever this figure believed was something he didn’t want to delve too much into. “I’ve done that too and I’ve told you before, you’re not wanted.” Leaning on the stick, he grabbed the other by the shoulder, spun him about with a swift gesture and sent him flailing back out through the open door. Carlos watched him almost fall into the street, then regain his balance.

“You want to preach about what you’ve seen here, do it down at a church.” Carlos slammed the door after delivering that to the other, who seemed only to be staring vacantly down the outside wall of the building. He pivoted himself back to where he sat, folded his arms and settled into a watchful waiting should the old fool attempt it again.

Some minutes later there was another scrabbling at the door and he tensed up. But it was only DeVere, who clearly had been in a bad way. The blood on his face still seemed fresh, and he barely seemed like he was watching where he was going. If someone had given him a beating, well, it was no more than he deserved. He’d never thought much of DeVere, though his partner Josie seemed a more accommodating sort. He’d pondered asking after her favors, but wondered if DeVere would take exception rather than happily pocket the money.

“Anything the matter, Mr. DeVere?”

Carlos kept his voice even on such occasions, and though DeVere deserved politeness almost least out of everyone in the building – maybe Bill Wadlegh was an exception – he figured there wasn’t anything to be gained by open contempt. Still, the landlord didn’t care, he just wanted his money.

DeVere turned on him, suddenly wild-eyed. “You…what do you want? Why do you ask?”

Carlos’s eyes widened – it was as if someone had suddenly taken DeVere over. He didn’t feel like getting into an argument with DeVere over much of anything, so he shrugged and said, “I apologize. Clearly nothing is the matter.” He turned his attention back to a magazine an old tenant had abandoned in his room, and which gave Carlos something to occupy his mind at certain times.

DeVere stumbled up the staircase. Carlos spared him no more thoughts, and reflected again that he wasn’t good for much, but he was still good for something at least.

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