While I spend the next few days editing the proof of the entire novel, I thought I would post the first chapter in its entirety. Feedback and suggestions are welcomed…
The Death and Rebirth of Isaac Midnight
Steam rose from the pavement into the oppressively muggy night air. The city was unusually quiet on this specific night. No prostitutes plying their trade; no hustlers out looking for an easy mark; not even the packs of stray mongrel dogs that seemed to infest the city were about. Isaac had been trapped in this godforsaken city for years; even he couldn’t remember how many years exactly. In all those countless years, he could not remember it ever being this quiet or seemingly empty.
Trapped was his term; he could leave anytime he wanted — he couldn’t bring himself to make that big of a change in his insignificant life. He was not content, but he had grown comfortable with what he did call a life. Besides, until a few nights before he had the love of his life, which filled a lot of holes in his being. Holes, he had forgotten were there, for a brief time.
The only noises in Isaac’s ear were his own muffled footfalls on the wet cement. The only exception: an occasional stray droplet of rain water finding its way to the steaming street below, from some random place amongst the rooftops.
He hated traveling in strange sections of the city, especially at night and alone. I must be out of my damned mind, walking alone along the waterfront. The night stunk of sewage and garbage and heat. How did I come to be in this ungodly predicament? The answer was basic – desperation.
Unwanted and unprovoked second and third thoughts crept into his mind, without invitation, as he walked the desolate thoroughfare seemingly aimless, but with definite purpose. Only a true purpose could have led Isaac to his current location, especially this time of night. One could even call the purpose a cause…if one were so disposed.
Giving up his last fiver to the cracked, dirt-encrusted hand of the one-eyed man, Isaac had discovered this was the place to find the Augury. A tip he wasn’t sure was real. The gin-soaked vagrant could have just sent Isaac on the goose-chase of his life. He had heard the stories of the Augury for years, yet he attributed them to the populace’s need for hope in trying times. Desperate times required people like the Augury, whether real or imagined, genuine or fraudulent. He had simply inwardly mocked the stories and their tellers, yet here he was in the time of his greatest despair, hunting the shadowy figure in one of the most violent and degraded parts of the city.
He was no gambler, but he was convinced he had less than an even chance of getting out of this neighborhood still drawing air. Although the night was unbearably hot, he fought to keep from shivering.
He was far from a brave man; I’m a club croaker for crissake. The only thing Isaac knew for sure was that he must find the Augury before dawn. He didn’t know why, but he had been told, the Augury is never in one place for more than one night.
His mind slowly drifted back to the purpose of his lunatic quest. Rebecca was dead by all accounts – an innocent bystander in a gangland shooting; an all too common occurrence, lately. The gangs ran everything in the city; from liquor, prostitution and gambling joints all the way to the police forces and every money-making venture between the cracks of polite society. They had everyone who mattered tucked tightly in their vest pockets.
He had been the one to identify the body at the city morgue, yet he was confused – something was off. It was, without a doubt, Rebecca’s lifeless corpse on the slab, wearing her favorite red dress, but at the same time, it wasn’t her at all. There was something queer; something missing; something just not quite right. Of course, he couldn’t explain that to the city coroner or the coppers; he couldn’t explain it to himself. Was he inventing these feelings to convince himself it wasn’t her who had been killed? Was he losing his mind? His mind would not let him accept her death for some reason, and now he sought out the Augury to answer his questions. Hell, he didn’t even know what those questions were.
He was beginning to lose hope; he had been searching for hours. The singer had cut his set short at the Silver Star Lounge so he could find this Augury. He had wandered from street to street; alley to alley. He searched places illuminated by streetlamps, neon signs and barrel fires – along with the darkest recesses of alleys not touched by artificial light for years – if ever. Places so dark, Isaac wondered if the sun had ever thrown its light upon them. He searched the entire waterfront district over the course of the last four hours, to no avail.
I’m going to kill that one-eyed bastard for sending me on this hayburner of a goose-chase.
He sat his exhausted body down on the curb of one of the innumerable alleys he had scoured this night. The only thing that separated this alley from all the other alleys was that it was the last straw – the final draught from the bottle. Isaac hung his head between his knees and wept. I am so sorry, Rebecca.
He noticed the humid night air had wrinkled his suit and the mud caking his wingtips created an interesting pattern on the polished, shined leather. He grew angry at the state of his shoes, but in truth, he was angrier with himself for caring about the state of his shoes at this moment. After what seemed an eternity, he lifted his defeated body and started the long walk back to more familiar surroundings; safer surroundings. He didn’t know where else to look. If the Augury existed, it would take a better man than Isaac Midnight to find where he was hidden.
His pace had slowed significantly with the knowledge he had failed. A failure, which, he wore in his humbled posture. It was an hour yet until daybreak. He watched the tops of his shoes as he walked, kicked a garbage can as he progressed, and let his mind wander. His mind flashed to a different time – a better, yet nonexistent time.
Rebecca, wearing that vampy red dress she loved so, waiting for him under the warm glow of a streetlamp on the corner where she was to meet him that night, was as beautiful as ever. This time, in his mind, it all played out differently. He didn’t arrive late and she wasn’t standing at that corner when the tin-cans sped after one another in a hail of lead. His mind was lost to his thoughts.
He had no idea how long the music had been playing, when he snapped out of his reverie and became aware of it. It was unmistakable – a quintet was blasting away at some swingin’ number he was unfamiliar with, and that was saying something. He thought he knew all the hot new tunes out and his band played many of them on a nightly basis. As he walked, the music became louder and he could hear laughter and applause. I don’t remember passing any clubs down here…I’ve never even heard of any clubs in the area at all. Isaac was mystified. He turned a corner and the glowing lights of a nightclub caught his eye immediately. The quick movement of something else caught his eye, as well. Whatever it was turned a corner quickly and was out of sight. Isaac thought it was a man, but couldn’t take the time to chase him down and he turned his attention back to the club. That wasn’t here before…I know I checked this street, didn’t I?
He approached the club cautiously. The windows had been soaped, making it impossible to see inside the joint, yet still allowing a dim light to escape. A makeshift, hand-painted sign above the door read: The Elysium. Must be a new club. The marquee above the sign, also roughly hand-painted advertised: Jack Browne and the Ratcatchers performing that night and that night only. The act isn’t familiar either. What the hell is going on here?
As Isaac stood in the street before the glowing nightclub, the music suddenly ceased. An instant after that, the laughter and the sounds of clinking drink glasses also abruptly ended. Isaac smoothed out his jacket sleeves as best he could and straightened his tie. Now or never. He took a deep breath, in a feeble attempt to gather courage, and pushed through the door into the club.
The dim orange haze of the smoke-filled club created an otherworldly feel. The bulbs from the hanging fixtures hummed and buzzed with a false sense of life. Shadows of the late-night specters flitted into and out of existence. The faded ring from the sweat of countless glasses of scotch resting atop his piano reminded him of his barely functioning existence. Everything seemed to stop and time held its place in an illusion created by a drunken mind.
This club, hell, this town was dead; the empty husks which passed for souls were everywhere. Jake witnessed their existence – night in and night out, while catering to their vampiric desires. He played the tunes they wanted to hear.
He had been the toast of the town back in San Fran. He made a lot of scratch and packed up his shiny new Studebaker Commander Cabriolet to head east to make his mark. It had been a long trip, and the miles had not been kind to Jake.
Was it the miles or the shit I used to put in my veins that nearly done me in? He took the Lincoln Highway due east; straight through the worst of the country. The Midwest had become a desert seemingly overnight. Dust storms choked the air – black blizzards. He had been warned about traveling across the poorer states, but had shrugged off all trepidations. The cities of the east were the places to make a name for oneself. He had plenty of material wealth, but sought the fame…the recognition. When he closed his eyes, he saw his name lit up in huge letters on the marquee of the big clubs in Chicago and New York.
Jake had done his best to ignore the continuous stream of families traveling west to California. Their only possessions: a beat-up jitney, empty bellies and the slimmest hope for a job in the fruit orchards of California. It was far from the gold-gilded dreams of Jake. He passed a flood of Okies and Arkies with blinders over his eyes. He didn’t help any of the hungry people he passed; he didn’t want to help. Their numbers were so overwhelming, even if he had wanted to help, he wouldn’t have known where to begin. All he wanted was another hit of gee and his name in lights in a city that probably only ever existed in his imagination.
After weeks of hard traveling and hard living, he hit the city dope-sick with no connections. It never took a junkie long to find a score – dealers could sniff out a user across town. After a weeklong bender, which to this day remained a mystery to Jake, he put together a quintet and hit the clubs looking for a regular gig.
He stumbled upon the Elysium after being turned away by every clip-joint and dive in the city. He had given up; run out of money and dope; it was then the Elysium just seemed to appear out of nowhere. The first night he played the Elysium was the most swinging set he had ever played and his life changed forever – that was the night he became employed by the Augury. He wasn’t sure if employed was the right word, but it would do.
He retrieved a watch from a small pocket in his vest; he had discarded his jacket hours before. The lid popped open with the push of a button. Nearly dawn. If he doesn’t arrive soon, it’ll be too late. He returned the watch to its place and scanned the club. His gaze was met with the empty, glassy stares of the audience, all hoping for one more number. I guess I have one more in me tonight. Jake always had one more in him. He looked to his drummer and nodded — that was all the communication necessary; the brushes started on the skins of the snare and the quintet was off to the races on an up-tempo finale.
Isaac Midnight slipped through the front door, trying to be inconspicuous – he failed. The joint was empty. He could have sworn he had heard live music and a crowd of people just moments before. I really am losin’ my damned mind.
His eyes took in the small, seedy club; the gaudy green walls and faux-gold trim left no impression on him. Light fixtures hung haphazardly from the ceiling, giving the place a confusing look of dancing shadows – very unsettling. The building was built well before there was electricity in this part of town and the light fixtures were strewn about as a cheaper alternative to updating the joint.
A large, bald bear of a man entered Isaac’s line of sight from another room. He had the look of an ex-pug who never passed up a meal in his life. The man was pushing a straw dust-broom and failed to notice Isaac standing there, or didn’t care enough to acknowledge him. His white shirt was stained with grease and alcohol, more so than the apron tied loosely around his waist. He seemed to limp on both legs, if that were possible. The man’s gait looked painful, but there was no sign of discomfort on the world-weary stone face.
“Excuse me…” Isaac mumbled self-consciously.
The large man stopped sweeping and slowly looked up at Isaac expectantly, but without uttering a word.
After a moment, Isaac continued, “I was wondering if you could help me out?”
The man made no motion or sounds. He stared blankly at Isaac with an expression that went beyond tired and he blinked, as if in slow motion. It was more than physical exhaustion. It was as if his soul was weary of its own existence.
Is he dumb?
“I’m looking for the Augury.” Isaac stated plainly.
The man pointed to the back of the club with an oversized thumb and began sweeping again. The man’s hands were the size of baseball mitts and just as leathery. Isaac stood frozen for an instant, imagining the damage those hands could do, if so inclined. He fought off a shudder, then made his way to the back of the club, in the direction the big man had vaguely indicated. He could feel the stickiness of spilled drinks on the floor as he progressed cautiously toward the darkened back. As his eyes adjusted, he was just able to make out a slim, smallish man seated at a table in the back corner of the joint. The light fixture above the table was out, making the corner darker than the rest of the already dark place.
The man seated in the near total darkness was almost too thin for his frame. He wore an expensive looking yellow silk shirt under a gray pinstripe vest. The jacket to match was draped caringly over the empty chair beside the man. Isaac couldn’t make out his face; his chin was resting on his chest, hidden under a gray fedora. He deliberately stirred a drink in front of him with his index finger.
Could this man really be the Augury? Isaac was at a loss. He stopped on the other side of the table from the man and waited, unsure how to begin his request.
“Are you gonna grab some pine, or just stand there gawking?” The man asked, without looking up from his drink. He took his finger from his drink and sucked it dry.
Isaac removed his hat and wiped his brow with his favorite handkerchief – one given to him by Rebecca the day they had met. He sat down, still unsure of the situation or his play.
The man continued speaking once Isaac had seated himself, “What d’ya want?”
“Are you…are you the Augury?” Isaac asked with the hint of a long-lost stutter he had overcome years ago.
The man raised his hat from his head and smiled, “Shit no. I ain’t the goddamned Augury.”
The thin man’s features matched his slight frame; his icy gray eyes betrayed the nature of his smile. His dirty blonde hair fell into his eyes momentarily, before the long fingers of one hand brushed it back into place while the other hand replaced his hat. He retrieved a crumpled pack of Lucky’s from the jacket next to him, offered one to Isaac, and lit one for himself. The brief light from the flame lighted up his face in an eerie manner and Isaac thought he was looking directly into Hell for a brief instant. Isaac, still shaken, accepted the cigarette, and noticed the man made no offer of the use of his lighter. Isaac fished in his jacket pocket for the box of matches he habitually carried. He struck one of the matches to light his cigarette – the smell of sulfur filled the air. After lighting the Lucky, Isaac shook the match to extinguish the flame. The smoke from the now extinguished match danced and swirled about the air.
“Can you help me? I’m looking for the Augury.”
The man leaned forward, “Yeah, I can help you. That is, if you really want my help.”
What the hell does that mean? Isaac looked at the man, at least ten years his junior, and waited.
The corner of the man’s lip curled up in a semi-smile or a snarl and he nodded to himself.
Isaac began growing impatient, “Will you help me find the Augury?”
“You have two options as I see it. A good one and…well, let’s just call it the other one.” The man responded
“What are these options?”
“The good one is the easy one. The good options are never the easy ones, but in this case, it is. All you gotta do is get up off that chair, walk out that door, and forget you was ever here. It’ll be hard at first. Losing a wife always is, but it’ll get easier with time. Move on with your life like everyone else that’s ever lost someone that mattered to them. Live day to day, with each day a little better than the previous one. Maybe even meet someone new when the time is right. Eventually grow old and never think of this night or this place again.”
Isaac went white and broke out in a cold sweat at the mention of his wife. How does he know? The Augury must’ve told him…but how?
“What’s the other option?”
The man chuckled, “I knew you’d ask. The Augury can give you want most, but it comes at a price. The price is always higher than the favor.”
“I have very little money.” Isaac retorted, becoming dejected at his prospects. When he said very little money, he really meant: no money.
“The price is never money, and you never know when the bill will come due.” The man paused briefly, gauging Isaac’s reaction, then continued, “I can help you if that’s what you want.”
“It is.” Isaac spurted confidently.
Isaac suddenly heard the distinct crackling of a radio set being switched on. He turned to see the big man he had first encountered trying to get reception by turning a radio dial. He stopped fidgeting with the dial when a voice finally broke through the crackling. Isaac knew the radio host instantly: Johnny Murrell.
What’s he doing on the ether at this hour?
“Welcome to the Murrell Hour,” the host’s smooth, yet haunting voice began, “The fog enshrouded night is slowly giving way to the orange dawning, but not without a fight. The yeggs who have been carrying the banner are slowly making their way to the main stem, while the dillies who have been pashing all night work their way back to their pads, some newly handcuffed, some solo. I’d bet an ace note the B-girls and goodtime gals earned their scratch during the night; laughin’ at the stiffs and jivin’ the clucks, leavin’ them with only a few thin ones for their troubles. I don’t know about you, but this is my favorite time of day, and here is a new one from Bessie Smith to get us started…”
The man across from Isaac stamped out his cigarette in an ashtray and rose to his feet; the chair making a horrendous screech on the floor as it moved away from the table. He buttoned his vest and straightened his tie, before retrieving his jacket from its chair. He expertly swung the jacket around, sliding his arms into the sleeves in one fluid motion. He brushed nonexistent dust from the sleeves and readjusted his hat.
Once he was satisfied with his appearance, he spoke, “I knew you’d say that. I’ll come see you tomorrow…after your set at the Silver Star.”
Isaac was surprised, “Do I need to do anything?”
“You look like crap, man. Clean yourself up and get a haircut for Christ’s sake.”
The man looked to the bar and yelled to the big man by the radio receiver, “Os…give Mr. Midnight here a nickel-note from my part of the door tonight.”
Ostap nodded to the man in understanding and went to get the money. It was more than enough for a shave and a haircut. Isaac could use the rest for a decent meal and pay his week’s rent at the rooming house.
The man, once satisfied the big man had understood his instructions, turned his attention back to Isaac, “I’m Jack Browne, but everyone knows me as Jake when I ain’t on stage.”
Jake then turned and walked out the back door of the bar into the dawning morning. Isaac hurried over to the bar, retrieved the five dollars, and rushed after Jake. The bar emptied into what appeared to be a garbage filled courtyard. The area was no wider than a typical alley, but the backs of buildings faced all sides. There was no direct way to the street from where Isaac stood. There was no sign of Jake. He coulda gone into any of these buildings. Isaac looked up into the pink-hued clouds of dawn and turned back into the club.
Just great, thought detective Mike Travis, as he stood in the rain over the bloated corpse. He wiggled the toes of his left foot in a failed attempt to plug the leak in the sole of his shoe. It always seemed to rain when he chose to wear those shoes. His recent past seemed to be a series of small, poorly made decisions. The notion he always caught the crap cases just seemed to add to his disappointment. The corpse at hand had been in the alley for days; no one noticed the smell because the trash hadn’t been collected for months. The rain-soaked corpse gaped up at him in a mocking expression. The teeth had been smashed in and removed, and his hands had been cleanly severed at the wrists. The rain had washed away any physical evidence that may have once existed and to top it all off – the animals had been at him. The frayed collar of the detective’s coat, upturned to keep the rain off his neck, bit into his skin as it rubbed against his stubble. It couldn’t be called five o’clock shadow – it was hours past that point.
“What in God’s name am I supposed to do with this case?” He rhetorically asked a passing uniformed officer, who shrugged in response.
The detective was still youngish, but years in the Homicide Bureau had taken their toll on his features. His hair was graying and his eyes were going on him, making him squint more than he would admit to. He easily looked a decade older than his actual age. He smoked too much, drank too much and ran around on his wife too much. Of course, since his wife had left him and filed for divorce, he hadn’t gotten laid. The women he had gotten mixed up with were only interested in him because he was married. Now that he was available, no one was interested. He was a walking cliché, right out of a Warner’s film. His disheveled clothes ill-fit: too loose in some places, too tight in others.
His right hand stroked his stubbled chin as he surveyed the scene. The dead man was awkwardly placed in a slouching position against the brick wall of a butcher’s shop; his leg was at an angle that would have been very uncomfortable, had he been alive. His suit of clothes was decent, neither cheap nor extravagant and had obviously been rummaged through with no care for etiquette. His overcoat had been thrown aside in a haphazard ball, as if discarded at the last moment as an afterthought. His brown, disheveled hair was matted down by rain, obscuring his eyes, which happened to be closed. Bits of his ears, nose and cheeks had been stripped away by the alley rats, leaving a horrifying mess for the detective to work with. There was no sign of his hands or teeth and comparatively little blood for a crime so gruesome, leading the detective to conclude the man had been murdered elsewhere and brought to the alley afterward.
This was a good neighborhood for a dump job; mostly working-class immigrants with little to no English capabilities and a strong distrust of the police. The streets would be nearly vacant most of the night, providing the killer ample time to dispose of the body with little interference. Most of the residents would be in their homes asleep after a hard day’s labor, while the rest would be working the nightshift at the docks or in one of the countless factories in the industrial zone. Fourteen hours a day were the norm, with eighteen-hour days not being irregular occurrences.
There wasn’t much more he could do at the scene; he sent some officers to search through months of garbage for the missing teeth and hands, the others were pounding on doors to ask questions in the neighborhood. He decided to walk the area to get a feel of the surroundings and clear his head.
Who was this man? Obviously, someone didn’t want anyone to know – no teeth, no fingerprints. The only real hope detective Travis had was the outside chance someone fitting his general description had been reported missing the last few days. Most people from this part of town weren’t ever reported missing; the cops were highly distrusted in the surrounding neighborhoods, generally for good reason.
This could be the case that buried him for good. His supervisors were not pleased with his work of late and made no effort to hide that disapproval. Despite the knowledge that most homicides were solved in the first seventy-two hours, if at all, he decided the mystery man could wait until tomorrow – besides, the man’s seventy-two hours were already well passed. He needed to relax; stop worrying about his ever-plummeting clearance rate. He needed to find a drink, was what he needed to do.
Isaac had barely slept that day; he was awash in feelings of excitement and dread. He tossed and turned all day in his murphy bed, creaking springs at every turn did little to alleviate his newly found insomnia. He gave up trying to sleep and followed Jake’s suggestions; he bathed before heading out for a haircut and shave. Soon after accomplishing his tasks, he headed for the Silver Star Lounge. He leisurely strolled along Broad Street on his way to the club. He passed by a bus-stop bench that caused his heart to race. The same bus-stop bench he passed all those years ago…
Rebecca sat comfortably on the bench, back arched and legs crossed high at the thighs. She checked her make-up in a compact mirror, oblivious to her surroundings. She failed to notice the decently dressed man walk by her, but he didn’t fail to notice her stems. Her dark black hair contrasted beautifully with her alabaster skin. Her green eyes glinted with subtle mischievousness as did her full red lips. He stopped the other side of the bench and contemplated his next action. After a few brief moments of indecision, he retraced his steps, gathering the courage to talk to her.
He approached her slowly before speaking, “Um…excuse me, Miss?”
Rebecca looked up to the man and noticed his complete and utter plainness. There was nothing exceptional about this man at all. He was average in every way. The man was neither good looking nor ugly; neither tall nor short; neither slim nor obese. Even his clothes were perfectly average.
Once he had her attention, but before he could speak, a large amount of pigeon excrement managed to land on his shoulder from somewhere above. His face reddened and she giggled. He then sighed loudly, shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
His actions made her curious, and while still giggling, she rose to follow the strange man.
“Wait a moment,” she yelled as she quickened her pace to catch up with the man.
The man froze and turned to wait. As he waited, he noticed even her walk was sensuous, all hips. She was still smiling when she caught him.
He spoke before she could, “I’m sorry for disturbing you…you must think I’m some kind of crum.”
Her smile disappeared as her face twisted into a confused look, “Not at all, just a bit of bad luck. What did you want?”
“I just wanted to ask your name.” Isaac muttered.
Rebecca smiled again and coyly responded’ “Ah…yours first.”
Isaac returned her smile, “Isaac Simpson.”
“Well, Isaac Simpson, I’m Rebecca Carrington…and it is nice to meet you.”
They shook hands and both burst out in laughter. After a few moments of laughing, she retrieved a handkerchief from her small handbag and handed it to Isaac.
Isaac accepted the handkerchief and wiped the excrement from his suit. As he was occupied with his cleaning, he quickly asked, “I’m a singer at the Silver Star Lounge, and I’m on my way there now for a set. Would you like to come?”
Her brow furrowed in surprised intrigue, she had him pegged as a dentist or an accountant, not a singer. “Sure, I’ll come. It’ll be fun; I’ve never been to a nightclub before. If you’re a singer, you should have a stage name…something with a hint of mystery or danger…Isaac Simpson is neither mysterious or dangerous.
Isaac frowned, “I’ll think about it.”
The crowd was average sized for a weeknight. A mix of regulars, with a few new faces thrown in, helped keep the scene fresh. Isaac’s set was fairly typical; some swingin’ dance numbers mixed with some slower, melancholic numbers. The audience was into the music, which normally fed Isaac’s performance, but not this night. As he crooned, he continually scanned the audience for one specific face. He was nervous because that face was nowhere to be seen. Isaac continued with the set despite his nervousness. As the show was winding down, Isaac noticed a man in a black suit and matching fedora enter the back and limp to the bar. The newcomer was dressed far too well for the Silver Star – a working class joint. The man removed his hat and smiled in Isaac’s direction. The man’s thin, colorless lips created an odd, tight smile – obviously, a man with very little experience smiling. Isaac’s body relaxed with relief as Jake smiled his forced smile at him.
Jake ordered a scotch, neat, and made his way to the back of the club to wait for Isaac, who plowed through two more numbers and bade his goodnights to the crowd. He pushed his way through the lingering mob, ignoring the congratulatory backslaps, to the rear of the club. He found where Jake was waiting, seated comfortably at a table, talking with a B-girl. He appeared to be laying it on her pretty thick. Isaac guessed Jake knew what she did for a living; he appeared to know his way around the nightlife rather well. Jake whispered something in the girl’s ear when he caught Isaac’ approach in the corner of his eye. The girl blushed, giggled, and left the table in a hurry. B-girls were used to unwanted advances and drunken proposals, Isaac wondered what could have possibly made the pretty girl blush. He sat down at the table, across from Jake.
“Nice set.” Jake complimented the winded singer.
“Uh…thanks…” Isaac responded, unsure what to say.
Jake smirked and continued, “I suppose, from the goofy look on your face, you don’t know what to say or do with yourself. Don’t worry, I have instructions for you.”
“From the Augury?” Isaac asked.
“No, from Herbert Hoover, himself…of course from the Augury!” Jake muttered with a mocking tone, realizing the statement had more acid than he intended.
Jake continued in a softer tone, “Follow the instructions I’m about to give you, to the letter, if you want the Augury’s help. If you muck this up, it’s on you. The Augury will collect payment whether you do this right or not. It would be a shame to have to foot the bill if you don’t get the apple. Do you get me?”
Isaac wasn’t sure what the ‘apple’ Jake mentioned was, he simply wanted some questions answered. “I guess I understand. What do I have to do?”
Jake shook his head as if he felt sorry for Isaac.
“You have to go back to the waterfront: pier forty-four. Wait at the end of the pier, someone will meet you there. Once you hear them arrive, head back to your place. Don’t try to look at whomever it is, no matter what it says or asks – just go home. Do not look back. Do you think you can handle that?”
Isaac was confused, “That’s all? Then I’ll get to see the Augury? I don’t understand. What you are asking me to do makes no sense, at all.”
“You don’t need to understand. Do exactly as I say; trust the Augury, and above all else, do not look back.”
“But I still don’t get it.” Isaac muttered.
Jake shook his head again, finished his drink, and rose from his seat. He looked down at Isaac, as if to say something more, but though better of it. He left the table and limped out of the bar, leaving Isaac to contemplate his instructions. Isaac thought momentarily of chasing after Jake, but knew it would get him nowhere. Jake delivered the message and was now washing his hands clean of the situation. Isaac knew the rest was up to him.
Isaac hurried down to the waterfront, with little regard for his safety. Shadowy figures of the homeless occasionally drifted into his periphery, only to disappear back into the darkness, almost as if they faded into and then out of existence. He halted, briefly, swearing he had heard footsteps behind him, but no one was there when he turned to look. Noises echoed throughout the streets, but went unheard by Isaac Midnight as he worked his way back toward the docks.
The cowardice from the previous night was nowhere to be found. The night was cooler, but just as humid. A thick fog had rolled in from the river, enveloping everything in its path; foghorns echoed in the distance. The night reminded him of the pictures Universal had been releasing of late – minus the monsters. The thought of Dracula or Frankenstein should have sent shivers down his spine, but it didn’t…not this night.
He had some difficulty finding the correct pier. He stumbled in the dark and the mist, which seemed to eat the light from the streetlamps as it emanated. The fog made it extremely difficult to distinguish one pier from another. After some frantic searching, he found the correct place. As he walked, along the pier, he realized the amazing state of disrepair of the wood planks in comparison to the other piers in the vicinity. The wood was rotted and covered in slippery algae – at least he hoped it was algae. For the life of him, he couldn’t see how this was a functioning dock. Pieces of decayed wood fell into the water below, as he walked. The splashes echoed through the night over the sound of the lapping waves. The sound of the repetitive waves, created somewhat of a comfort in Isaac’s stressed mind, on the otherwise dismal night.
After many slips and near falls into the putrid smelling river, due to the brittle planks breaking beneath his feet, he reached his goal: the end of pier forty-four. The air over the river had a slight chill to it. He rubbed his arms to keep away the creeping chill as he waited impatiently. He paced along the end of the pier despite its fearful condition. How long will I have to wait?
He retrieved a tarnished pocket-watch from its place in his vest and popped it open. It informed him he had been waiting nearly three quarters of an hour, but it felt more like several hours to his internal clock. He knew his watch ran true and it was his mind that played tricks on him. He closed the watch and absentmindedly stroked the eagle engraving on the surface as he stared out over the fog-covered water.
Isaac looked down to his shoes…mud covered his boots to the ankle. It had been raining for days. The water had soaked through his military issued boots, causing his feet to prune and develop blisters. He was more fortunate than most of his fellow doughboys…foot fungus ran rampant. His uniform was wet and blood splattered. He had been stuck in the damnable trenches in France for weeks. His fingers were numb, making it hard to grip his rifle. He looked over the edge of the trench out into ‘no man’s land’. It was deathly quiet. With the exception of an occasional stray burst of rifle fire, it was unsettlingly quiet. He knew the enemy was only yards away and they knew the same about him.
Nearly his entire unit had been killed over the past few weeks. He and a few other survivors had been merged with another unit that had also suffered severe casualties. He regretted ever volunteering for this war. It wasn’t his war. He watched the clouds of vapor dissipate in the air as he breathed. He sat back, out of view, in the mud and the blood to try to rest. He shivered uncontrollably, both from the cold and from the shock at the things he had witnessed. The war to end all wars…he smirked at his thought.
“Isaac?” a voice whispered from the dark.
“What?” Isaac murmured back, not looking up from the mud he had been staring at intensely. Some of the blood in the muddy puddles had belonged to his friends.
A portly private approached Isaac slowly and crouched over. He squatted next to Isaac and exhaled deeply. He felt lucky to have made it to Isaac’s position in the trench. Snipers had been picking of anything that moved for days now.
“I’ve been told to inform everyone to prepare for a charge at first light.” The private explained.
Isaac had expected this exact message for hours. They had charged every morning for five days and had always been turned back amidst huge casualties. Bodies of his friends still littering ‘no man’s land’ showed as proof of their failures.
“Damn,” was the only response he could manage in the cold rain.
The private nodded in silent agreement. They sat in silence for several minutes, neither acknowledging the other’s presence. Each lost to his own thoughts.
The private then adjusted his weight as he prepared to rise, “I’ve got to spread the order down the line. Try to stay warm and take care of yourself tomorrow. I’ll see you on the other side for lunch.”
Neither man believed they would successfully cross the wasteland the next morning. Isaac tried to smile as the private rose to leave. A sudden spray of liquid caught Isaac in the face. By the time, he realized it was the private’s blood, it was too late. A sniper’s bullet had penetrated the private’s helmet and passed through the man’s head. Warm blood had covered Isaac, stinging his eyes. He dove on his belly to the trench ground. He could taste the man’s blood in his mouth and gagged. He forced himself to open his eyes and saw the man’s crumpled body next to him. Seconds later, artillery fire commenced. The trenches were peppered with cannon fire. After several minutes of continuous bombardment, it ceased. Then, whistles sounded signaling a charge. The Germans weren’t going to wait for morning…they were coming now…
He was startled back to the present by the booming foghorns in the night. I’ll give it fifteen more minutes, then I’m going home. He placed the watch back in his pocket and resumed his pacing along the pier. He didn’t need to wait fifteen minutes; he heard something in the river approaching the pier…something big. He couldn’t make anything out in the dark fog. He managed to hear a woman’s faint singing coming from somewhere in the distance. As he listened, the singing became louder as something massive moved through the water. There were no words to the song; it was more of a funerary dirge. Somber notes repeated over and over again.
“Hello?” Isaac yelled into the night through cupped hands.
The singing stopped in response, then began again after a brief pause. He could now make out the looming shadow of an approaching ship. The singing was most definitely emanating from the silent ship’s bow. The ship was approaching the pier much too fast, Isaac thought as he stared at the hulking mass. He then remembered Jake’s instructions and turned away from the shadowy approach. This action made Isaac feel childish and his face reddened with embarrassment.
He waited nervously as the singing continued to get louder and closer. Then he felt the ship slam into the pier. He heard wood smash and he was thrown to the pier due to the violent impact. He froze with fear, clenching his eyes closed as the ship continued to tear its way into the pier, creating the most god-awful noise Isaac had ever heard and destroying wood planks where he had stood just moments before. In his mind, he was as good as dead. The ship would destroy the entire pier, him along with it. Despite his sense of certain death, he was unable to summon the courage or the will to pick himself up and run. A few moments of cracking wood and groaning steel of ship hull, and all was over. Isaac wasn’t dead; the ship had marched its way partially into the pier but had run out of momentum. A few stray wood fragments continued to fall into the water below, before all was quiet. After he was sure the worst was over, he picked himself up from the pier and listened for signs of life. The singing had stopped and the noise from the impact had amazingly not brought any curious onlookers to the vicinity.
Isaac held his breath and waited. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears; a sound so deafening it nearly blocked out all other sound. His palms were sweaty and stung from splinters he received when he was thrown onto the pier deck. Suddenly, he was aware of a presence behind him.
An ethereal voice spoke, “I am here.”
Isaac fought the temptation to look upon the face of the woman who spoke to him in such musical tones. He simply nodded, and started the long walk home. Jake’s instructions seemed simple enough at the time, but were proving to be extremely difficult to carry out. His mind conjured up the most beautiful woman he could invent in his imagination; a woman that shared many of the same attributes as those possessed by Rebecca. A woman with a voice like the one he had heard only moments before had to be the most beautiful woman in the city – a real life Helen of Troy.
Isaac noticed as he walked, that the fog had spread out from the river into the city. In the distance, streetlamps glowed with angelic halos of fog. Isaac had picked up his pace. He wanted to be done with this night and back in the safety of his bed. The only sounds he could hear were his shoes and the flapping of the woman’s bare feet on the wet pavement. Several times, he thought he had lost her, only to hear her footfalls after a few seconds of silence. They had walked a mile in the night, without coming across another living soul. There were times, Isaac could have sworn he had seen the silhouette of a man watching them from a darkened alley, or shadowy doorway…must have been his imagination. Occasionally, a stray dog would make its presence known, only to scurry away into the darkness. The mysterious woman had said no more to him the entire time it took to traverse the mile. He still had another mile to cover before he would be in the safety of his rooms.
“Will you please wait for me?” The woman asked in a breathy voice.
A chill went down Isaac’s spine. The beauty in the voice tempted him again, but he fought the urge to turn and look upon the woman who had such a profound effect on him, using only her voice. He quickened his pace again.
“I’m sorry…we must keep going.” He muttered half-heartedly as he walked.
“I’m so cold. Please…” Her voice trailed off into the night.
Isaac felt sorry for the woman, whoever she was. This was the dumbest thing he ever had been asked to do, but if it got him what he wanted, he would do it. Who would it hurt if we walked together? Why are we going to my pad? He stopped briefly, removed his jacket and laid it on the street, without looking back upon his mysterious companion. He then resumed his pace.
“Use my coat. It should warm you somewhat. We’re almost there.” He uttered, hoping this act would suffice.
“Where are you taking me? Is it there?” The woman pleaded in a mournful tone.
Isaac could hear the woman softly sobbing. He wanted to help, but knew there was little he could do in the way of comforting her. His only thoughts should have been of Rebecca, but he wanted to help this woman.
“I don’t know what I can tell you. I don’t know anything myself; I’m only following instructions from the Augury. I was told to be at the pier and then bring you to my boarding house, without trying to see who you were. I have a lot ridin’ on this, so please just follow me.”
“The Augury?” She asked in a whisper barely audible to Isaac, still walking several paces ahead.
“Yes. I don’t know who the Augury is, I only know the middleman. I’m beginning to wonder if the Augury is real or if it’s all this Jake fella milkin’ the name for his own benefit.” Isaac hypothesized.
“I wish that were true. You can believe it when I tell you the Augury is real. My presence here is proof of that.” The woman explained mysteriously.
What does she mean by that? Isaac thought.
The woman sounded demoralized by the news, but Isaac felt oddly better knowing the Augury truly existed and he wasn’t just running errands for some hophead piano player. Luckily, by this time, they were almost to his rooms. Once there, Isaac wondered what was supposed to happen.
The woman was silent the last few blocks of the journey. Isaac was saddened by this, yet also relieved. They reached his boarding house entrance without further incident. It was against the rules of his landlady to bring a woman into his rooms after dark, but he didn’t think the Augury would care about his landlady’s rules. Isaac smiled at the notion of his landlady giving the Augury an earful for breaking one of her many, many rules. He dug for the key in his pocket, without much success. He fumbled around in his pockets, finally retrieving the elusive key, only to drop it to the welcome mat. He heard the woman softly giggle behind him. He picked the key up from the wet mat and inserted it into the lock. He opened the heavy door and instinctively spun to hold the door open for his guest.
A horrified look came over his face as he realized what he had just done. The first thing he noticed was a beautiful red dress contrasting white skin. It was only then that he realized the beautiful woman in the red dress who had followed him all this way was his Rebecca.
The woman’s face contorted in confusion and recognition before speaking in her own familiar voice, “Isaac?”
Rebecca grew panicked and ran off into the foggy night. Isaac cursed himself and then ran after her. A snarling stray dog quickly blocked his path. He saw no way around the mongrel, but after a minute, the dog wandered off, leaving Isaac free to pursue Rebecca.
How is this happening? Rebecca is dead! Why is she running from me? How is she here?
Isaac searched the neighborhood the rest of the night and early morning, with no luck. She was gone again. He had an opportunity to get his wife back and screwed it up, like he screwed up everything in his life. After finally giving up on finding his beloved wife, he returned to his rooms, fell into his bed and passed out from exhaustion. His last thought before exhausted sleep came was that of Rebecca’s smiling face as she sat on a bus stop bench.
There you have it…let me know what you thought.