Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Three O'Clock on Friday I

 This is the first part of a short story draft.


It was three o'clock in the afternoon on Friday, and the bell of Our Lady of Sorrows rang out with one low, dull tone. A pedestrian walked furtively along the street beside the basilica. He met no one and saw no one, for the people of the city usually avoided this neighborhood. From time to time, the pedestrian would glance behind him, as if afraid even to be seen. In the distance a sound like thunder rumbled, and it was hot and humid in the way it often is before a fierce summer rain, but the pedestrian walked with no expectation of rain, because there was never any rain. His footsteps echoed in the empty street.

He was a long, thin man, pale with sandy-brown hair wisping out from under a shabby fedora. He wore a trench coat that was equally shabby. But it is perhaps not right to say that he wore it; he slouched into it, hunched into it, and the hat on his head was pressed down so low that it might be said to slouch into him as he slouched into his trench. A more suspicious-looking person could hardly be imagined, short of also wearing dark glasses. He wore no dark glasses today, though. He had gambled his away at some point. He also did not care whether he looked suspicious. Everyone in the city looked suspicious, especially when they were doing something suspicious like walking outside. He only cared whether he was recognized.

As he pulled away from the church, he heard something like voices echoing in the distance. He stopped suddenly, his head tilted first this direction and then that, in an effort to ascertain, first, whether he had really heard them, and, second, from what direction. He heard them again, and quickened his pace, turning suddenly into a dingy alleyway whose sides were littered with refuse. He tried to walk softly, but the footsteps insisted on echoing, regardless of what he did.

From this point, he went through a maze of alleyways and side streets and wynds in a way that seemed almost without reason; but he knew his destination, and, after a quick and furtive look around, turned suddenly into a run-down close and knocked on a door with a little steel sliding-window in it. The little window slid open and an eye and part of a face peered with suspicion out at him.

"What do you want?" the eye and part of a face said to him in a surly tone. Said, not asked, for the tone was not really that of a question but of a challenge.

"Fish in newsprint," said the pedestrian.

The little steel window slid shut again and there was a sound of locks unlocking. One bolt, two bolt, three bolt, four bolt. Then the turning of a key in another lock. The door opened, and the eye and part of a face were fully displayed with the other eye and the rest of the face and, indeed, a whole body, a stout man with cold, narrow eyes and a scowly face that made his surly tone seem almost friendly in comparison. He stepped aside, the pedestrian stepped in, and the door shut behind the pedestrian as he proceeded immediately a narrow and badly lit stair. He went up three flights and then knocked on the door.

"Who is it?" asked a muffled voice from inside.

"The milkman," said the pedestrian.

There was a sound of a sliding deadbolt, then a fumbling at the lock on the doorknob, and the door opened. A man, about a head shorter than the pedestrian but equally pale, with strawy blond hair stood there and waved the pedestrian in. His face looked very tired, but he had a small smile that made him seem rather genial in comparison with either the pedestrian or the scowly-faced man. The door was closed behind the pedestrian, the deadbolt locked, the door locked, and only after this did the tired-looking man say anything.

"Well, Howard," he said, "how have you been?" His voice was pleasant and bland.

"Well enough, John," said the pedestrian in a dull tone, his voice slightly more gravelly than John's. "And you?"

"Well enough," said John with his tired smile. "Were you followed?"

Howard hated this question, which was always asked, and for no good reason, since no one would ever have said that they were followed, but he gave the same ritual answer, "No."

"Good," said John. "Everyone else is already here, so we can start. A beer?"

"Yes, please," said Howard dully.

The apartment in which they were standing was not much of an apartment, there was no proper hall, the hall, such as it was, being about one foot long before it opened on a living room with beige walls and a horrid lime green carpet. In the middle of the room was a card table with four folding chairs around it, two currently occupied. John went into an adjoining room and came back with a bottle of beer as Howard draped his trench coat over one of the unoccupied chairs and sat in it, putting his hat on the table beside him. Howard looked across from him at a man with dark skin and curly hair, whose high-cheekboned facial features might have made him look haughty if it weren't for the fact that his wide green eyes made him look perpetually as if he were surprised, or had recently been dazed by something.

"Hello, Sam," said Howard dully. "How are you?"

"Well enough, Howard," said Sam. He had a warm voice, much as one would expect from a radio presenter. "And how are you?"

"Well enough," said Howard in his usual dull tone. He turned his head to the other man, who was tanned and had an unruly shock of red hair. It was dangerous hair, hair that would certainly get one recognized in the street, and all the more so because the man never wore any hat. He was a dangerous man to be with, a man who would surely increase anyone's chances of being recognized, and he had the mocking smile of a dangerous man to be with. He always made everyone nervous because he had narrow, sarcastic eyes that never seemed to look at anyone directly. He looked at Howard mockingly out of the corner of his eye.

"Hello, Howard," he said. His voice was, if anything, even more mocking than his smile. "How are you?"

"Well enough, Tom" said Howard dully. "And you?"

"Well enough, Howard," said Tom, and again his voice made the perfunctory answer sound like he was goading Howard rather than being polite.

John, who had been clearing and replacing the beers already on the table, sat down and said, pulling out a seventy-eight card deck. "Let's waste no time, gentlemen."

They drew for first deal and Sam got the low card and became the dealer. Tom, at his left, cut the deck, then Sam dealt out the cards three at a time to each, randomly each round throwing a card to the kitty in the center of the table, and so it went until all the cards had been dealt. They each threw a starter into the pot, then looked at the eighteen cards in their hand, and John, to Sam's right, began the bidding and the earnest part of the game.

"So Sam," said Tom in his mocking voice, looking at Sam out of the corner of his eye. "Are you still seeing that musician?" Tom liked to talk during the game itself, which irritated Howard to no end. But the man was a gossip and there was no stopping him.

"No," said Sam shortly, clearly not wanting to talk about it.

"She was a beauty," Tom said, and said truly, although his mocking tone might have misled anyone who did not know that into thinking otherwise. "And such a voice. And when she played!"

"Yes," said Sam.

"I heard she even played for the Duke in the Castle once," John said. "Is that true?"

"Yes," said Sam.

"What was that like?" asked John.

"I don't know," said Sam. "She always refused to talk about it."

"I have always wondered what the Castle is like," said John.

There was an uncomfortable pause, and Howard said, in a tone that for once was sharp rather than dull, "Don't wonder about such things. Better never to know."

Sam and Tom both agreed, and Tom said, "If any of us got pulled to the Castle, it certainly would not be for music. And you don't want to be brought before the Duke on the charge of gambling outside the casino and gambling tax evasion."

This went without saying, and Howard wished that Tom would shut up. But Tom was not the shutting-up kind, and his mocking voice went on, occasionally punctuated by a laugh that always reminded Howard somewhat of both a donkey's braying and a duck's quacking, probably because both sound sarcastic. It was only well into the game, with Howard now the dealer, that he brought it back to Sam's musical lady.

"I tell you, Sam, if you dropped your girl, let me know her number, because she was a beauty."

"I didn't drop her," said Sam. 

"But you aren't seeing her," said John, making the sentence a half-question.

"I've had a few relationships like that," said Tom with a sarcastic laugh. "Never with such a good-looking pair of legs, though."

"I'm not seeing her," said Sam, "and I didn't drop her. She was at the Obajdin party when it was broken up by the Ducal Guard. I haven't seen her since, and if anyone asks, I'm not seeing her in any other way."

There was an uncomfortable silence. Then Tom said, "Well, I knew a guy who was pulled to the Castle, and while he was never the same afterward, he did come back." Perhaps it was intended as a sympathetic comment, but 'sympathetic' is not one of the varieties of tones of mockery that Tom's voice could take.

"Shut up, Tom," said Howard.

"Stop talking about such things," said John, almost at the same time. His voice cracked slightly.

Tom looked at John, and despite the fact that John was sitting across from him, still managed to look at him out of the corner of his eye. What this look meant was anyone's guess, but he said nothing, and the game went on in relative silence until, to everyone's misfortune, Tom resoundingly won the next round with a bold bid backed by major trumps and kings in an improbably good hand.

"And the World wins it for me," Tom crowed. "It's too bad we weren't at the casino; I could have broken the bank. Instead, I have to settle for breaking your puny little wallets." And in the face of such an exultant victory, whatever silence Tom was capable of immediately evaporated away. 

Two rounds later, Sam suddenly said, "Do you guys hear something?"

They all froze, their ears straining in the sudden silence of Tom no longer talking, and they did indeed hear something. There was a sound, slightly, but only slightly, muffled, like one large object hitting another large object. Suddenly John said, "Quick! Into the bedroom."

They scrambled to grab money, coats, hats, knocking over their chairs and bumping cards onto the floor as they did so. There was a terrible banging and screeching as they rushed into the bedroom and, as John threw open the closet door, they heard the banging of a fist on the front door of the apartment, Bang! Bang!, and a shout, "Open up in the name of the Duke!" In the closet, John was trying to pull back a sliding panel disguised as a wall, and Sam stepped in to help him. There was banging again at the front door, this time not of a fist but of something far heavier. The panel slid aside to reveal a narrow stairway, and they hurried down it, first John, then Sam, then Tom, then Howard. At the bottom there was no door, only a kind of service hatchway or access panel through which they had to crawl on hands and feet. Above and behind them they heard  something like a splintering and shouting. Beyond the hatchway was a short tunnel, then another access panel to the outside. Out they each came, tumbling and stumbling a little, John, Sam, Tom, and Howard, and as they came out, they began to run in different directions.

Howard had had some difficulty squeezing through the last access panel, so he was considerably behind the others. As he ran, he heard more shouts behind him. He was being chased by the Ducal Guard. He was not chased long. The Ducal Guard are never patient, and the soon just shot him in the back as he ran. 

A searing pain coursed through him, like nothing he had ever felt before. A vivid flash of red and something like stars poured through his brain as he stumbled and fell, face-first, into the ground. His whole body seemed to be throbbing with pain. He could not think very clearly. The pain was horrible, and he did not like it, but he almost liked it; it was horrible but it was vivid. And at least he had been shot. His spinning brain grasped after the alternatives to being shot, looming like a nightmare at the edge of consciousness, but the alternatives all were swiftly spinning away, too, and nothing was left except this: At least he had been shot.

The pain itself seemed to be spinning away, although slowly, and darkness fell. He still heard voices in the darkness. Then, before it all went silent, he heard in the distance the bell of Our Lady of Sorrows strike one low tone, making clear to the whole city that it was three o'clock in the afternoon on Friday.

to be continued