Thursday, October 06, 2022

Three O'Clock on Friday II

 This is the second part of a short story draft. Part I

*****

Howard woke with a start and a headache, uncertain for a moment where he was. Looking around groggily, he noted the dingy lighting, the poles and handholds, the deteriorating seats, and briefly panicked. He was on the subway. What was he doing on the subway? No one should be on the subway. It was dangerous to be on the subway.

The lighting grew brighter and the subway came to its next platform. FITFOR, the tile name on the walls said, the K having at some point collapsed down to leave just a square of concrete marked with old tile adhesive. The doors slid open and Howard scurried out, hoping no one else was so stupid as to be on the subway at the same time. Fortunately, no one else came out onto the platform, but he was not safe yet. He ran up the subway stairs and through the unmanned turnstiles and came out onto the street. He scrunched his hat over his head -- fortunately he still had his hat -- and walked away, his heart pounding in his ears, hoping desperately that no one would see that he had been in the subway.

There were no shouts and, indeed, no sign of any other person at all, so his beating heart slowly calmed down and he trudged down the dirty, empty street, his footsteps kicking up little clouds of dust as he went. Howard had never seen a map of the city, at least as he could recall, but he always knew where he was when he was there. The Fitfork station was quite far from his usual haunts. He thought of it, in fact, as being on the edge of the city, although he did not in fact know where the city limits were. But there was a busy part of the city nearby, thriving after its limited fashion. And Fitfork was far from the Castle, at least. Howard did not know that that actually reduced anyone's chances of being taken in by the Ducal Guard, who seemed ubiquitous, and the Castle on its hill was equally visible in every part of the city, but the idea of being at a greater distance from the Castle was comforting. Somehow, though, no matter what one did, one always ended up in its vicinity at some point.

He walked for some time, his mind mostly running on nothing at all, until in the distance he heard the bell of Our Lady of Sorrows give out a low, dull tone, telling the whole city that it was three o'clock in the afternoon on Friday. Here and there, he began to see another pedestrian, bundled up so as not to be recognized, and when he did, either they or he would duck into a side street or, if that wasn't possible, speed up to pass more quickly, each carefully not looking at the other. There is something in the human psyche that makes it impossible to resist the suggestion that if you don't look too closely at someone, they can't look too closely at you.

The bell had reminded Howard of food. It had not reminded him that he was hungry, exactly, because introspection would not have led Howard to say that he was hungry, but it did remind him that it had been a long time since he had eaten. So when he came to a little dive of a cafe, a crudely painted sign in its dirty window indicating that it was open, he went inside. The cafe had no name on it; indeed, there was nothing to indicate that it was a cafe rather than anything else except that it said so on the crudely painted sign. Cafes and stores never had names on them, and names didn't matter, anyway, since they never stayed anywhere long. A name was recognizable, and if you stayed in one place, everyone would know that you were running a business without license from the Duke. Howard wasn't sure that you needed a license, exactly, in the sense that it would be illegal to have a business without one; he wasn't sure how you would go about getting one; but running a business without a license was not safe, and names and steady locations were actively dangerous.

The inside was dim, a mix of the yellowish light of an inadequate ceiling lamp and the dull daylight filtered through the duller window. Howard went immediately to an empty seat at the bar. They actually had menus; Howard could not remember when last he had seen a menu. He wasn't charmed by it, but it was unusual enough that he thought that it was a charming thing to do. Dangerous, perhaps, to leave a paper trail, but in an abstract way charming. There were only two options, so he ordered the bacon and eggs, studiously looking down at the counter rather than directly at the stout man behind it, then pretended to continue to do so while he looked around the room out the corners of his eyes. You did not want to look at people, in case it made them look at you, and you certainly did not want to be recognized in a place like this, but you also did not want to be in a room for an extended period of time without knowing who else was there.

It was not very busy. There were cutters in the corner, the wounds on their face and arms visible even in the dingy light, self-inflicted perhaps to reduce the chances of being recognized or perhaps even to reduce boredom. There were five or six, and Howard wondered if they were insane. It was illegal to congregate in public in groups of more than two or three; doing so, and, worse, looking like you were doing so, was dangerous. Actually, Howard did not know if it was really illegal to gather in public groups greater than three. He did not know the laws of the city, or, indeed, whether the city had any laws at all. For all that Howard knew, one could legally do anything in the city. Certainly the Duke in the Castle never paid much attention to most of it, most of the time. But not everything was safe. Very few things were safe. There were many things that, if done, could lead to the Ducal Guard dragging you to the Castle, and that was, Howard supposed, as serious as a law. Public gatherings were not safe. They were not quite as dangerous as being caught entering or leaving Our Lady of Sorrows, but they were extremely dangerous.

Some people were just reckless, Howard guessed. He had once known a man, Beck, who had an interest in architecture. It had not been an enthusiasm -- Howard had never known anyone with an enthusiasm -- but it had been enough to lead him and several others to explore the buildings of the city, and, eventually, Our Lady of Sorrows itself. The Ducal Guard had caught him sneaking out of the church after one of these explorations. Howard had himself been sneaking home out of a poker game and had had presence of mind to crouch in the shadows of a sidestreet. As they went by, he had recognized the man. Only barely, because the man's face was distorted by screaming, but it had been enough to send a wild terror through Howard's whole body. There is something deep in the human psyche that thinks that if you recognize anyone, everyone can recognize you. He had screwed his eyes shut so hard in the hope of not being recognized by the Guard that they hurt afterward, and had waited, as still as he could make himself be but trembling like a little mouse, as he heard the screams of the man as the Ducal Guard dragged him relentlessly toward the Castle. He shuddered slightly just thinking about it. He briefly wondered what had happened to Beck, and then castigated himself for stupidity, because he did not want to know what had happened to Beck.

The little bell at the door tinkled tinnily, so Howard adjusted his head to look directly at the sugar packets on the counter, fiddling with them a bit, so he could see out the corner of his eye what sort of person had entered. When he did so, however, his whole body went cold, because he recognized the man who had come in. It was Sam. And he knew immediately that Sam had recognized him, because Sam was standing stock-still as stone, his always-surprised facial expression taking on the tone of panicked surprise, as he looked like he was debating whether to flee back out the door. Instead, however, Sam came to the bar and sat in the seat next to Howard. They said nothing to each other, but Sam ordered bacon and eggs, and Howard's order was served, and then Sam's, and they ate lukewarm hasbrowns and crunchy bacon and greasy eggs in silence next to each other. Sam ate more quickly and finished first. He threw some money on the counter and then said quietly to Howard, without looking at him, "I have some money that I owe you from cards. I'd like to pay off the debt now, if you have the time."

Howard nodded quietly, never looking at Sam, and Sam walked out. Howard waited to the count of five, put some money on the counter, and went out himself. He looked furtively in both directions to see if anyone was noticing him, and then walked down the street after Sam, taking care always to stay at a distance. He followed Sam through a maze of wynds and alleys, and then came to a little close with a sign, CORVID CLOSE, going up the stairs to the second floor.

When they were safely behind closed door again, Sam said in his pleasant voice, "Hello, Howard, how are you?"

"Well enough, Sam," Howard replied. "And you?"

"Well enough," Sam replied. "I'm glad you weren't seized by Them; I don't know what happened to John and Tom."

"Neither do I," said Howard. "It's too bad for John. I suspect that Tom is the one who informed on us, though."

Sam appeared to consider this a moment, then shook his head. "No, I don't think so." Then: "Wait here a moment, and I'll get your money." He went through a side door into what looked like a kitchen, and there was some noise of banging cupboard.

Howard looked around at the drab apartment. Everything was in some sense nice (Howard had always admired Sam's good taste in decorating), but the primary aesthetic quality was that of wear. The nice dull blue carpet was worn and in places barely a carpet. The taupe walls were worn and pockmarked with old nail-holes for photographs, the outline of whose frames could still be barely seen on the wall. The olive green sofa was worn, and here and there threadbare. The coffee-table was worn and scratched. And standing in that worn apartment with all that worn furniture, Howard too felt worn.

Sam returned, but what happened next was very quickly, and Howard's brain could not process it all at once. First, Sam did not have the money in his hands, but instead a very large chef's knife. Second, Sam suddenly rushed at Howard and drove the knife deep into Howard's gut. Third, there was a searing pain that jarred Howard's brain into a sort of shock. Fourth, Sam pulled out the knife and, shifting how he held it, began stabbing at Howard again and again from above as Howard began to sank down in what seemed to Howard to be slow motion, like falling down to the bottom of a pool. Fifth, Sam shouted, "You should not have informed on us, Howard!" Finally, Sam threw down the knife and rushed out of the apartment, not even bothering to close the door.

Howard, aching all over, looked dully up at the ceiling. It was taupe like the walls but somehow seemed even more worn., with big water stains everywhere. There was a musty, rusty scent in the air. As Howard bled out stickily over the almost-not-carpet, he heard in the distance a bell, the bell of Our Lady of Sorrows, striking out one dull but absolutely unmistakeable tone. It was three o'clock in the afternoon on Friday.

to be continued

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