Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Three O'Clock on Friday IV

 This is the fourth and last part of a short story draft. Part I, Part II, Part III.

For days after the Riverfront raid, Howard lived a life of jumping at every unexpected sound. He had run as far as he could run before collapsing, and then hunkered down in a shabby apartment in the first deserted building he could find. There he stayed like a mouse in a wall who thinks the cat is just outside.

As time went on, sharp, conscious fear faded to a dull background anxiety, the imagination's association of stray sounds with the Ducal Guard became less constant, and the magnetic lure of society began to make Howard more restless for news and diversion. He put on his shabby fedora and his shabby trenchcoat and ventured out, cautiously, like the mouse hoping that the cat is away. When nothing happened on his first tentative outing, he became bolder, and ranged more widely. He also began staying at a different place each night, still away from others. There were many unused buildings in the City and many abandoned and trashed-out apartments, and Howard figured that he was less likely to draw attention if he did not remain in one place.

When out one day, he began to feel that it was about time that he actually ate something. He did not feel hungry, but he had not eaten since just before Sam had killed him, and that felt too long a time to go without eating. This might not have amounted to anything, but he saw a handpainted sign saying RSTRNT in a shop window soon after and went inside.

It was nicer than he expected. It happened to be in a neighborhood of the City that was not as heavily worn as most of the ones Howard had been around. It was very dim inside, since the only light that was on was near the door, but his eyes soon adjusted, and Howard realized that the reason why that light was the only one on was so that those inside could see who entered and not vice versa. That could be the sign of a trap, but it could also be the sign of a well-run establishment. There was no bar, so he took a table where he could see the room well, or as well as it could be seen in the dimness, and yet have his back toward a wall. He took a surreptitious look around, noting the two figures huddled together in the corner and a third in a hoodie closer to the door. A teenager, looking sullen and somehow dimmer than the restaurant, came by and asked, "Hamburger?" Howard nodded and the waiter ambled off in a way that seemed bored, although in an affected rather than a natural way. Howard very much did not like teenagers, and teenaged affectations of boredom even less. He wondered, with a little malice, what the waiter's face would look like if taken by the Ducal Guard, but feeling some guilt and anxiety over it, immediately dismissed it. The guilt was not about the teenager but about having thought about the Ducal Guard. There is something in the human psyche that assumes that if something is thought about, it is more likely to appear.

The waiter brought back plate with hamburger and thick fries. The hamburger was quite good, Howard supposed. He did not exactly enjoy it, but it did everything a hamburger should do, and did none of things a hamburger should not do. The same was true of the fries. He ate quickly, although without enthusiasm, put his money on the table, and left.

As bad luck would have it, he literally ran into someone while turning a corner, not five minutes after leaving the restaurant. Panic lit up his face at the danger of being recognized, and it was made even worse by the fact that he knew the other face and the other face, also showing panic, clearly recognized him, as well. They both stood there in shock, their minds sorting which way to run, but then his fear-addled mind finally labeled the face he already recognized: Ronnie.

"Ronnie!" he said softly. "I'm sorry. I was not watching where I was going."

The other face settled down. "Howard!" she said. "You could give someone a heart attack!" Then, belatedly, almost grudgingly: "I also was not watching where I was going." Then, as Howard wondered what to say, she said, "My slate is free, and I am staying at the brownstone with the broken porch light."

Howard nodded and she walked on. He stood for a moment, waiting until she was about a block ahead, then, looking around to make sure nobody else was in view, slowly followed her. When he arrived at the brownstone, he knocked and she let him in, carefully re-locking the six locks on the door behind him while he waited.

When she had done, she asked, "Did you hear about the Cardinal? He's been living the high life in the casino district recently. I suspect he was the one who informed on the party."

"Yes," said Howard, "he was the one."

"Why are bishops always like that?" she asked. Howard knew nothing of bishops, and did not even know what that question meant, so he said nothing, and the conversation moved to other things.

He stayed the night and then left in the morning. But before he did, Ronnie said to him, "I've heard there's a card game today in Umbra Close, northwest of the cathedral."

So it was that later he made his way to Umbra Close, taking a long detour around to avoid getting too close to the church. He nearly did not find the place, since nothing remained to indicate it except UM CLO on a very dirty and barely legible sign, but he saw it just before he gave up searching.There was a glimmer of light shining through a papered-over basement window, so Howard went down the steps and knocked at the door.

"Who is it?" someone shouted through the door.

"The milkman," said Howard.

"What do you want?"

"Fish in newsprint," Howard replied.

There was a pause and someone drew back the deadbolt. John looked at him uncertainly a moment through the crack in the door, then let him inside.

"Hello, Howard," said John after he had locked the door again. "How are you?"

"Well enough, John," said Howard. "And you?"

"Well enough," said John.

They went into the next room, a disused storage room in which someone had set up a card table. Tom and Sam were already there, and Howard exchanged greetings with them and then sat down to Tom's right. They dealt the cards and began playing. Tom chattered on about something, although Howard paid little attention to it, and might have managed to tune it out entirely if it had not been punctuated occasionally by Tom's half-bray, half-quack laugh, which no one could possibly ignore. Other than that, the game took all of Howard's attention. It did not quite feel good to be back to gambling, but it felt less bad. Howard did notice, though, that Sam was playing poorly. Sam did not always have the luck, but he never played poorly, and Howard wondered why he was so distracted.

He had his answer, or he thought he did, when a banging came to the door. "Open up in the name of the Duke!" a voice shouted.

"To the window," hissed Sam, springing away as he did so. He was there before anyone else had risen, popped the covering, and climbed up the fire ladder.

Howard rose to follow, but before he could do so, Tom had grabbed Sam's chair and brought it crashing down on John's head. "You should not have informed on us last time, John!" Tom hissed at them. Then he and Howard looked at each other a moment. Tom flashed a sarcastic grin, then sprinted after Sam; Howard followed.

The ladder came up in a different close. It's name Howard could not tell; all he saw as he ran past was the capital T of its name. He ran out, turned down a street, then another.

And then his luck ran out, because he turned into another street and ran directly into members of the Ducal Guard.

He screamed as they grabbed him, and struggled to get free, but their grip was steel-like and freezing cold, and it seemed like the arm they held no longer worked properly.

"Off to the Castle," a voice said.

He screamed again and struggled again, but it was no use, and as he did so, he found himself staring at the face of one of the Guards. Or rather, at the lack of face. There was nothing where there should have been a face. It was not merely invisible, so that one could see beyond it; there was nothing beyond it. It was not merely shadow, obscuring the sight; there was no shadow. The face was simply not there; one looked, and one could not see beyond, and yet one could not see it. Howard screamed again as they dragged him down the street toward the Castle on the hill.

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.