And here we go, as they say. Aiming at a chapter a day. Hope you enjoy — all comments welcome and please refer any others who might be interested this way!
Thomas McMahon stared into his glass.
He was glad, at least, that he had become familiar enough to the regulars at the saloon to be left alone. A few even knew who he was and what he did.
He shook his head suddenly. Of course they do. I told them.
He stood at the end of the bar, and once again looked away from the glass to the surroundings. A dirty mirror hang opposite from him – for what effect he had never been sure, since the reflections were invariably ugly to him. He stared at himself, noted a few more lines on his forehead.
Some part of him was glad still to have kept his physical dignity in general. He couldn’t remember going to his preferred barber anymore, it had become so automatic, and his thoughts were elsewhere more often than not. A vague sense of the usual procedure stole over his thoughts, the lathering, the shaving, the careful arrangement of his hair…had the barber even spoken to him this time through? Was it an assistant? Was it even the usual place he went to?
He could only imagine what his editor would think about that if he ever found out. If there was one thing that man valued it was detail, real or invented, and McMahon had always been able to aim for both in equal measure. He knew he had a place that was preferred by some in the newspaper office – many times he had remembered looking over at one colleague or another trying desperately to make another meeting of the Board of Supervisors seem of great interest, even if it was just the same hacks moving through a dumbshow nowhere near as entertaining as all the other acts in town. The rooms where power was actually decided were closely watched by those who owned them, and they were not about to let others in to see their work.
McMahon suddenly grimaced. He wondered again how many of them realized they had to be watched anyway, somehow.
Was that why he kept coming here? He looked into his glass again. He had never not been a drinker, but he always felt he knew why he drank, and what. He had the sudden feeling he had been trying to forget something, and that he had been unsuccessfully trying for some time.
But if that was the case, why couldn’t he remember what it was? Surely that meant…
He thumped the bar a bit, leaned on his arm. Around him he barely heard the noise – it was rapidly getting darker outside, the sun finally going down behind the hills, into the ocean, somewhere out of sight. He sensed it in the way that the saloon was getting louder, the lights inside getting brighter, the raucous swirl of boasts and shouts starting to smear into the colors of the paintings, the gleam off the glasses.
Schultz the bartender appeared in front of him.
McMahon nodded. One more, surely…one more. Why that one more?
Schultz took the glass, then stopped, looking off beyond McMahon’s left shoulder. McMahon didn’t follow his gaze but just looked up inquisitively.
“There’s that damned hophead Black Dick out there. Probably come to beg for his job back—”
A sudden slamming noise against what sounded like one of the windows caused McMahon’s head to jerk around, while others stopped their own loud conversations and turned as well. When he saw Black Dick, leaning against the window face-first, he remembered the man’s appearance from other times – his look was not a unique one at all for the Barbary Coast, but was striking enough: shorter, powerfully built, dark hair and skin, a well-kept mustache.
Clasped in front of him in both his arms was what appeared to be a body.
McMahon stood up swiftly. Others were already making for the door. He knew he had to join them at once, and felt himself reaching for the pad of paper and pencil he always carried in his coat pocket.
Some part of him rejoiced at the familiarity. This was truly what he was, a newspaperman. There was a story, he had a purpose. Something needed telling and damned if he wasn’t lucky enough to have a story right in front of him.
He laughed quietly. The doubts could wait. He might not even sleep tonight.
Doctor. Get the doctor.
Get Dr. Galvin.
He was cowering in a side alley, looking down at the pool of spew he had just released.
Somewhere not far away was where he had left William. He had seen him sat in a chair, that was enough. Someone had shouted Dr. Galvin’s name, he had responded, had dashed off.
Oh God, they’ll be looking for me. They’ll ALL be looking for me.
He looked around. The alley appeared to be deserted but he knew better – there had to be someone in one of the piles of rubbish scattered throughout, hiding in one of the dimly glimpsed doorways. He knew the tricks, he had used them. He was dead in seconds unless he got back out.
He forced himself to run.
He passed a couple of familiar sights, faces he knew. He heard shouts and laughter. “Robbed someone again, you bastard?” “The police are finally after him!” Mockery, threats, curses.
No offers of help, never any help. Not here. He wouldn’t have offered any himself had he seen someone he knew from these parts running this way. He would have already been wondering what the story was, would have been shouting himself. There was something to talk about.
He knew at least one or two people would have already been told, maybe figured it was time to collect on a past debt or two. Maybe they were waiting for this moment.
The door he was running for was near. He remembered nothing about entering, thought only of hearing his deep breaths, the grip of panic in his chest and head, as he leaned against the wall in the drawing room.
He drew himself up, looked over where Carlos, or whatever he called himself today, sat impassively on the other side of the drawing room. He was smoking one of his cigars, the kind of cheap stuff that nobody else in the building would pretend to stoop to, even when all of them had had to go crawling to him more than once when times were tight, and they needed one puff to get them through another night.
Carlos took his cigar out of his mouth. “Is there a problem, Mr. DeVere?” The oily rasp of his voice sounded even more poisonously irritating to the other man than usual, a supercilious sneer.
He drew a deep breath. “Nothing.” He hurried up the stairs, realizing as he did that Carlos had to have seen him leave with William in that state he was in…there was nothing for it. He could only hope that Carlos’s bland attitude towards anything resembling an official investigation – by anyone, whether policeman or bully-boy – would be enough to shelter him.
He stumbled down the hallway, entered his room and slammed the door closed.
Josie still wasn’t there. A blessing, he supposed.
The blood was mostly in the middle of the floor, the coat crumpled to one side of the pool. In the dim light of the lamp it all seemed like one giant hole. He stared at it briefly, then noticed a gleam. He scooped up the knife and stared at it.
All seemed as it should be. As it was.
He heard the door downstairs burst open, a quick exchange of Carlos’s voice and a deeper one, feet pounding up the stairs. There was no time to think. The knife went under the cover of the low table near the bed – a stupid thing to do but what else was there to do? He looked about, considered the window. Jump for it? Doors were being opened and closed in the hallway, shouts and threats were clearly heard through the thin walls.
How can they ever know?
His door crashed open.
So I am the butchered one. How perfectly ironic.
William wanted to cough in laughter but he had tried to do that earlier and it had felt almost as bad as the stabbing. He felt his mouth twist in frustration. He wanted to laugh, he had a need to laugh, but couldn’t.
I will see if this is a torment worse than death or not, I think.
He felt the wagon move onto a smoother road and hoped that his ride would be at least marginally more comfortable. He was stretched out as best as he could on a wooden board that he supposed the police considered a seat. Across from him, two street cops were talking, sitting on a matching board.
“The second tonight.”
“One of the boys down on the waterfront says he found one near a dock. Typical business, I’m sure, but whoever did it nearly cut off his head.”
“A strong man.”
William coughed. The policemen leaned forward.
“So you’re alive.”
William shook his head. Did the police hire for their skill at stating the flatly obvious? Maybe nobody else could have done the job so well.
“Yes, I am alive, thank you for asking. I do not intend to die tonight.”
“Mmm,” said the one on the right, who seemed to be the older and superior partner. “If you could tell us what happened?”
Well, at least they got down to business quickly enough. William took a breath and thought. What would be the best answer? Something to change as needed. Who knew if they had Dick by now.
“All quite simple, really. I was visiting my brother in his room and there was a bit an argument – we get into them every so often, my brother and I. It was over my coat, if you can believe it – Dick says it is his but I have owned it for a long while, and nobody would contest this. We were fooling about a bit – very stupid, really – and I get myself stabbed. A complete accident on his part.”
There was silence from the policemen. The wagon continued to clip along. William regarded the two calmly, then turned his gaze from them to look at the roof of the wagon’s cabin. Eventually he heard them talking to each other in whispers, and allowed himself a smile. Let them digest that one.
He felt himself losing focus a bit, feeling more sluggish than before…inevitable, of course. It had to be the case that with a wound this deep that some sort of effect would predominate. He hoped he did not die tonight, there were still many things to do, to attend to. He would get to them all as he could.
He looked ahead dully for a while, acknowledging an occasional comment directed at him, barely noticing that the wagon had stopped, that he was being brought in by the policemen. He blinked a bit and nodded at some questions asked of him, then seemed to find himself with a newer clarity of vision, on an operating-table.
He blinked angrily at the bright electric light above the table. Useless. There had to be something better.
The surgeon, he realized, was asking him questions. He gave him what he believed was the same answer, though he realized he was saying that he had given himself the wound by accident. Yes, that sounded promising.
The surgeon looked at his torso, now stripped of garments.
“Deep…has pierced the lung.” He drew himself up and looked at William. “I believe in plain talk, sir. Your wound is fatal.”
William nodded slightly. “I had a suspicion this was so.”
“You say you made this wound yourself, sir. Surely you could not. It is too deep and violent.”
William twisted his mouth again. This would be a problem. He spoke carefully, and as clearly as he could.
“I was fooling with my brother Dick. He had a knife in his hand, and as we wrestled together I fell against it and it went into my chest. That is all I have got to say about it.”
In the silence, William concentrated on the hum of the lamp.
That is all.