This is the third part of a short story draft. Part I, Part II.
Howard woke with a start on a bed. What bed it was, he did not know. There was no bed that was his own, properly speaking, since it was dangerous to spend the night too often in one place; but this bed was most definitely not his own, as he could not recall having ever seen it before. It was a four-poster with an elaborate headboard. The columns were ornately carved in a most ugly fashion, like badly designed totem poles, with a vertical series of gargoyle heads. At least, Howard assumed that they were gargoyles. The headboard had some kind of carved design on it, and that was as clearly as Howard could make out what it was; it was heavily worn, as if it had survived, but only barely survived, a long struggle with time. The curtains around were dull, thin, and had unidentifiable flowers on them. It was, for all this, a decent enough bed. Howard could not remember waking in a better one.
The room in which the bed was found had large windows and sunlight was dustily glittering through those windows and across the floor. Howard did not recognize the room, either. This bothered him greatly. He did not know he had come to be in the room, either, but this bothered him less, since he never knew how he had come to be wherever he was when he awoke.
As he sat up, the door opened and a woman entered. She was short and somewhat plain of face, but had a truly enviable mass of auburn hair somewhat messily adorning her face and shoulders in a way that had a certain minor charm. She was wearing barely anything, and ignored him. she went to a mirror on the other side of the room and began brushing her hair in a leisurely way.
Howard breathed a sigh of relief, because the woman, at least, he knew.
"Good morning, Ronnie," he said.
Veronica looked back at him briefly with a sardonic look, then returned to her mirror and the brushing. "Tough night, I suppose, Howie?" she said.
"Like every other," Howard replied. He got out of bed and sorted through his clothes, which were piled pell-mell upon the floor. He dressed, and, as he put on his shabby fedora, dug in his pocket for money, which he then put on the dresser.
As he left, Ronnie said, "There's a party somewhere on the Riverfront today; are you going?"
Howard paused. "I don't know," he said. "I guess I will."
"The passphrase is, 'Sticky wicket'," she said. He thanked her and, after cautiously peering out into the hall, left as quietly as he could.
The apartment that Ronnie was using was just around the corner from Our Lady of Sorrows, and as Howard left, the church bell let out a long tone. It was the old recognizable note that said that it was three o'clock in the afternoon on Friday. He wondered what in the world had possessed Ronnie to take room so near the church; it was not a safe neighborhood. But he supposed that the rooms were always available there, and probably not heavily used. Most places to stay in the city were heavily used and in consequence heavily worn; others, like those near the Duke's casino, were well maintained but always crowded.
Howard skirted around the church as quickly as possible, slouching down into his trench coat in the hope that it would make him more nondescript, then made his way to the Riverfront. It had been a long time since he had been in that part of the city.
The city had a Riverfront, but no river. There must once have been, since there was a dusty riverbed, rocky and very broad. Standing on one of the cliffy sides, one could barely see across. Howard had never been across, but he had heard a rumor that if you did cross the riverbed, you found that the land you could see was in fact a sort of island; if you crossed it, you saw more riverbed. Howard had no idea whether that was true, but it had certainly not inspired him to see if it were. There was no cover if you crossed the riverbed; anyone could see you, and it would not have been worth being seen just to satisfy a curiosity about the other side, even if Howard had had any curiosity about the matter at all. The bank of the non-river was lined with buildings of many different kinds. Down one way there were great mansions and estates of every kind. There were parties in them occasionally, because they were all usually empty. A mansion on Riverfront would be a very conspicuous place to live. Thus they all stood in a dust-gathering silence, their windows looking out blankly like the eyes of a man in a fit of distraction. Down the other were office buildings of what was probably once an impressive architectural style. They had a run-down, disreputable air; parties were sometimes held in them, too, because they too were usually empty. What possible value could there be in having an office overlooking a dry riverbed, an office in which one could do nothing except wait for the day your presence there drew the attention of the Ducal Guard?
Howard hesitated a moment, trying to decide whether it was more likely that the party would be held in one of the office buildings or one of the mansions and, flipping a mental coin, decided to try the offices first.
As it happened, the mental coin toss was right. The party was not difficult to find; it was obviously in the only office building with lights blaring out of every window. That alone almost made Howard turn around. He looked around, almost expecting the Ducal Guard to be arriving. The street was empty, as far as he could tell. But what really led him to go inside was the question: What else would you do?
The building on the outside had been shabby and drab, but inside was breathtaking and gaudily ornate. The whole building was three stories tall, and ever story was the same, brightly lit and filled with ornaments and food and drink and people mixing and mingling. It was overwhelming, and Howard hugged the wall, making his way around to get a drink.
He found himself near a Cardinal talking to a small crowd of people. At least, he looked like a Cardinal. Perhaps the man was insane, though, because Howard could not imagine the mentality of someone going around the city in unmistakable red robes. Everybody would always be seeing you.
"Well, yes," the maybe-Cardinal said, "it's progress, is what it is. All our history, humanity has sought to find peace, and now we have it, as well as community of goods. And I dare say, more than that; this is an age in which people are really seen as people. Everyone is welcome in the city; no one is excluded. Tolerance for all, because we are bound together by a solidarity constituted by mutual accompaniment, arising from the lived encounter of person with person. A community of goods, and people are the most important goods; we all have each other in common....."
The Cardinal kept talking, but Howard was already getting twitchy about being so near someone who was so flagrantly dressed and attention-drawing, so he sidled away and began making his way along the wall to the other side of the room.
He did not make it, however, because he soon ran into a familiar, very sarcastic face.
"How are you, Tom?" he said.
"Quite well," said Tom, his sarcastic face under his red hair becoming somehow even more sarcastic. "How are you, Howard?"
"Well enough," said Howard. He took a sip of his drink and Tom did the same.
After a moment, Tom said, "I'm glad you got away, Howard,"
As was usually the case with Tom, Howard could not tell if he was being sarcastic. Tom probably was. But Howard said, "Thank you. I am glad you got away, too." He looked narrowly at mocking-faced redheaded man. He did not like ginger men at all; too untrustworthy, or something. Actually, Howard did not know any other redheaded men, as far as he could recall, so he probably just did not like Tom, but when he thought of other, hypothetical, redheaded men, he did not like them because of their Tomlikeness. It just seemed like there was something indecent about reminding other people of Tom.
Howard merely waited, and, unsurprisingly, Tom broke the silence. "I think Sam may have turned us in," he said.
"I don't think so," said Howard. "He accused me of doing it and stabbed me."
Tom laughed. "Well, I know you did not do it." He somehow made it sound like an insult, as if he was certain of Howard's innocence because he thought that Howard was too stupid to merit suspicion. "Huh," he said. "John. Who would have thought? He always seems shifty and smarmy, but you'd think you could frighten him with a feather. I hope he someday gets carried off to the Castle for it."
Howard endured Tom's company for a while. It prevented him from looking alone at the party, which might have made him stand out, and Tom did most of the talking, as Tom always did, making sarcastic comments, or at least comments that sounded sarcastic when made by Tom, on the minor happenings of the party around them. Finally, Howard detached himself by saying he needed to get some fresh air. Tom seemed relieved, and Howard was startled a moment with the recognition that Tom had only been enduring his company, as well, probably for the same reasons.
Howard had only said he needed fresh air to get away from Tom, but having committed himself on the point, however vaguely, he continued on that vector, and made his way to a side door which was propped open and opened out to an alleyway with dumpster bins. He breathed deeply. The air was not refreshing; it was warm and dry and stale, and had perhaps a hint of rottenness to it from the dumpsters, but it was the idea of fresh air more than any actual freshness of the air that motivated him, in any case.
There was a sound further down the alleyway, and Howard peeked cautiously around the nearest dumpster to see what it was. It was the Cardinal, talking to someone where the alley met the street. The Cardinal's stance was strange, as if he did not want to look at the person to whom he was talking. Then the interlocutor stepped into view and Howard's heart froze in terror inside him, because the other erson was not a person at all but one of the Ducal Guards.
"Yes," said the Cardinal. "The building is full. There are plenty of pickings if you want them. Mostly drunk, too, so they should be easy enough to catch."
Howard did not hear the Ducal Guard say anything, but the Cardinal apparently did, because he replied in a voice that took on a whining tone, "No, I am totally apolitical; the faith should have nothing to do with politics. I am a loyal subject of the glorious Duke, I tell you; I am only here to do my duty and do a service to him. I find troublemakers for your benefit. I should be rewarded."
There was a pause, and then the Cardinal said again, "Yes, but sir, surely I deserve something for my services?"
Again there was a pause, and the Cardinal said, "Yes, that would be lovely, thank you. All glory to the Duke!"
The Ducal Guard left, and Howard, released from his freeze but not from his terror, rushed back inside. He could not escape down the alleyway, because he might be seen, but he needed to find another exit, something not in the alley and not the front door. He cursed his folly of not having first checked all the exits to the building as he rushed from room to room trying to find another door.
Rushing into one room, he ran smack into Ronnie, almost knocking her down.
"Howard!" she said. "Have you lost your mind?"
"I can't talk," said Howard, "I think the Ducal Guard is about to raid the party."
She said nothing at this, but turned and fled. Howard continued searching for exits and cursed his luck when he encountered Tom again. When he saw Howard's face, however, Tom asked, "What's wrong?"
"I think the Ducal Guard is outside."
Tom said, "I know an exit. Follow me." Howard did, and, true to Tom's word, they were soon outside.
"Good luck, Howard," said Tom as he broke into a run.
"Good luck, Tom," Howard said automatically. Whether Tom heard him or not, he did not know; Howard, too, broke into a run and was running as fast as he could. He ran and ran and ran, until he could not run any more, using a nearby wall to hold himself up as he gasped huge breaths.
In the distance, the bell of Our Lady of Sorrows let out its dull note. It was three o'clock in the afternoon on Friday.
to be continued