“Spinning the Thread” by Gregory Norman Bossert
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The second time I woke up this morning, the shotgun was gone from between my teeth.
Bridie’s fingers were on my cheek. She was behind me, and my eyes were still closed, but there was no mistaking those hands, soft from the spinning and warm with the winter smell of the wool.
“Shhhh,” she said. “You just sit there, now, Billy Beg, and don’t be moving.”
I was sitting on the little stool she used for the spinning wheel, knees up to my chest and the old rough wood hard beneath me. I hate that damn stool. It was the sort drunkards stumbled over back in the Old Country; ought to be no place for it here in the New. But Bridie said it was right for the spinning, and that spinning was how she worked her spells, and those spells made me and my Beggar Boys kings of the 42nd Ward.
I was glad to be sitting, stool or not. I felt scattered, thoughts rattling like shell casings on a concrete floor. Mind you, the first time I’d woken up this morning, I’d had one end of a Smith twelve-gauge wedged against my tonsils and a madman hissing curses in Polish behind the other end. There was a gap between that first wakening and the second, an echoing darkness that wasn’t sleep, and a smell under the scent of Bridie’s fingers, the stench of black powder and raw meat.
“What, then?” I said, though I wasn’t sure what I was asking. “What’s that smell?” maybe, or “What am I doing on this damn stool?” Or “What happened in that hole between then and now?” Those two words were all I got out, and not even that; my voice was just a hollow gasp, like the lake wind fluttering in the flue.
But Bridie understood me; she had a way of doing that, hearing the cry in the crowd, finding the penny in the swirl of the gutter. “Ah, Billy, it’s a mad thing I’ve done,” she said, softly. “It’s an old, old magic, and not one you learn around the hearth, either, but from tales whispered in the dark, when no one afterward is sure who did the whispering.”
I tried to turn, but Bridie put her hand on my shoulder and held me down, and she just a slip of a thing. Pick you up and put you in my pocket, I’d said the first time I’d seen her, standing there on Market, hair gleaming like copper in the street and still smelling of Ireland. “You just sit there, Billy,” she said again, “and let me think a minute.”
I opened my eyes. Everything looked like it should, the best damn suite in the Lyon Hotel, the best damn hotel on the North Side of Chicago. My shadow and Bridie’s sprawled across the Turkish carpet to the dark oak door, the chairs bound with crimson leather on either side. No sign of struggle, no mad-eyed tailor leading me across the floor, shotgun barrel between my teeth. Nothing to explain that stench. I lifted my hand palm up like a question.
Bridie sighed into my ear. “Janicki’s gone,” she said. “Tommy Pens is out there now, but Janicki got away before he and the boys got here.” She tightened her grip on my shoulder; she had to be crouched there behind me, hunched over like she was working at her wheel. “Do you remember anything?”
“Waking up,” I said, in that hollow husk of a voice. “Gun in my mouth.”
“He was quiet,” she said. “I didn’t wake until you got out of bed. Janicki in front of you with the gun, telling you to keep walking.”
You come see what you done, he’d hissed in his broken English, you keep walking, you bastard, and I show you what you done. Those words had echoed in that dark gap.
“I sat up,” she continued. “And Janicki, he jumped like he’d been electrocuted. I guess he hadn’t seen me there under the covers.”
He’d been staring, wild white-edged eyes to mine, but all he’d been seeing was what he’d wanted me to see, wherever he was taking me.
“He jumped, and the gun went off,” Bridie said.
I tried to lift my hand to my head, but her grip stopped me, those small fingers strong from the spinning.
“Could have blown my brains out,” I said.
“Oh, Billy,” she said in a voice not much louder than my own. “He did blow your brains out.”
I closed my eyes again, shutting in the swirling stink of powder and blood and black anger. The only words I could find in that dark were, “What, then?”
Bridie brushed my cheek with her fingertips, that could spin a lost child to finding or a grown man to fear. “Then I caught them,” she said.
A fist thudded against the door, and Pens shouted, “For Christ’s sake, Brigid, we gotta talk!”
Bridie sucked a deep breath in through her nose, which usually meant she was about to give a piece of her mind, but her tone was mild enough. “So come in and talk, then.”
The knob turned, and Pens’s big fingers grabbed the edge of the door. “He comes into a room like he’s opening an oyster,” I’d said one time; he’d laughed and wrote it down in his little brown notebook. That book came through the door next, his fountain pen tucked into it. Then his big farmer’s boots, and his big head, chin first. “You said give you time, Bridie, and that’s what I done, but we gotta — ”
He looked down at me. “For Christ’s sake,” he said again, but solemnly this time, like the prayer it was, and lowered himself into a chair. He pointed over my head. “Is that…On the table there, are those his…” He blinked, and tapped his head.
“Well, I couldn’t just carry them around with me, could I now, Tommy Pens?” Bridie snapped.
Pens raised his eyebrows like a shrug, as if reluctant to assume anything about what Bridie could do. “And you’re not telling me that thread you’re holding…”
“I’m sure not telling you anything, if you don’t start finishing your questions,” Bridie said.
“You’ve put his brains back together,” Pens said, in that prayer voice.
“And spun his nerves out back to them,” Bridie said.
He finally met my gaze. “And is he…”
“There you go again,” Bridie said.
That was enough of talking around me. “Where the hell is Janicki?” I snarled, though all that came out was a sort of gurgle.
“He wants to know where Janicki is,” Bridie said.
Pens just stared for a second or two, then nodded slowly. “Back in his room in the Mayflower.” He checked his notebook. “Apartment forty-one. Dinny’s watching his door.”
“And where the hell were you,” I said. Bridie started to translate, but Pens knew what the next question would be.
“We was in the lobby, boss, playing cards.” He flipped his notebook shut. “Things were quiet, you and Bridie still asleep, nothing happening in the ward since we burnt out Janicki’s shop last night, and who was he? Just some two-bit tailor as wouldn’t pay up, no friends in this town, no problem for us. Right?”
I just stared back, which is what I’d have done even if my voice worked right. His ears turned red.
“He came though the tunnels, can you believe it? Our own fucking tunnels. There’s a door in the basement of the Mayflower, he goes in there, and right through to the kitchens here, and up the back stairs.”
“And he’s back in his room? The hell, Pens, what are you waiting for, the damn cops? Get the boys to bring him here, and we’ll show him how the 42nd works.”
He was watching my lips, now, and the rest of his face went red. “The boys are, well, we just don’t have the manpower to do that right now, boss. Anyway, word’s bound to be out that, you’re, uh.” He winced apologetically. “That you’re dead, or what have you. The Black Hand gang will be heading here, or Volpe up from the South Side. So, boss. What, then?” He looked from me to Bridie and back.
That had been my question, but the answer was obvious in the stink of smoke and blood, in the dark between wakings. If Janicki wasn’t coming to me, I was going to bring that dark to him. So I put my hands on my knees, leaned forward, and pushed myself up.
Bridie hissed with anger behind me, and there was a tugging that ran down my spine and into my chest. “You’ll want to warn me when you do that,” she said. “If you snap this thread, there’s no mending it. Then that body falls over, and you’re no more than a puddle on the table there until your sorry soul gives it up. And do not turn around,” she added, as I started to do so. “You’ve got…”
She stopped, and blew out a breath. Pens raised an eyebrow as she trailed off, but wisely made no comment. “You’ve got sharp edges back here. As long as I’m behind you, and spinning out the nerves, you’ll stay…connected.”
Like a damn phone call, I thought, and in this part of Chicago it was a rare call that didn’t get cut off by impatient operators or wind in the wires. I made a noise that might have been a laugh.
“What do you mean, spinning?” I asked. “You’re using your wheel?”
“We were spinning long before the wheel,” Bridie replied. “I’m using my fingers, and my palm against my thigh.”
Pens shook his head. “It’s pretty damn messy, boss, is what.”
Bridie had that sweet tone in her voice, the one she’d get when she was about to let loose. “With the wool, we call it spinning in the grease.”
Pens flipped his notebook open and started writing. “Spinning in the — ”
“Christ’s sake, enough” I said. “So I’m dead, is what, or I would be but for you’re spinning me out. Jesus, Bridie, how much more me is there to spin? How far can I go?”
“How far will you go, you mean,” she snapped. “And where would you be going to like this?” She tugged again and everything went hard-edged for a moment. “You ever hear the expression ‘hanging by a thread’, Billy?”
“Hanging by a — “, Pens muttered, still scribbling.
“Pens,” I said, and he looked up. “Go get Doctor Lafferty.”
Bridie didn’t translate, but Pens had the hang of it now. “Doc Lafferty? He’s here.” He jerked a thumb out the door. “He’s drunk. I mean, more than usual.” Pens shoved the door all the way open with his toe. “Doc, get in here! Boss wants a word.”
There was the creak of couch springs from the next room, and the clink of glass on glass. “For all of Miss Brigid’s keening, your Mr. O’Fay has missed his chance for last words,” Lafferty said, with the careful clarity of a professional drinker.
He stopped in the doorway, and frowned at me over his glasses. He looked down at the rug at my feet, as if looking for my body there, and then up at me again, and let out a little sigh. Then he sat down across from Pens and crossed himself with the bottle. He took a swig for good measure, and said, “What have you done?” It wasn’t clear who he was asking.
“How long are people’s nerves?” I asked. Doctor Lafferty just stared at me with his mouth open.
“She’s spinning his nerves out, and the boss wants to know how far he can go,” Pens said, addressing both of our questions.
Lafferty looked past me to where my brains must have been sitting, and his eyes got round and vague. He took another swig, then hunched himself over a fit of coughing. Pens rescued the bottle before the Doctor could spill it and took a swig himself. Lafferty spat — that was my damn Turkish carpet, but I’d probably left a worse mess on the floor behind me — and said, “There are something like forty-nine miles of nerves in the human body. Of course, some are quite thin, and the,” he twirled the air between his fingers, “the spinning must shorten them.” He looked at Bridie behind me with something that might have been fear.
Then he pulled himself to his feet. “I’m sorry, this is all quite beyond me. There was nothing I could do for the Janicki woman, and there’s nothing I can do for Mr. O’Fay here. I’m afraid I must leave now.” He walked out through the parlor with small uneven steps. He did not look back when he reached the door to the corridor.
“What’s he mean, the Janicki woman?” I asked.
Pens still had the bottle; he finished it off and shook his head. “Want me to go fetch him back, boss?”
“Nah, he’s right, nothing he can do for me.” Forty-nine miles, he’d said. The Mayflower was just two blocks away, and that was as far as I needed to go.
The argument with Bridie was as short as herself, but not near as sweet.
“I didn’t bring you back for some mad attempt at revenge,” she said. “What do you think you’re going to do, have Pens carry the table with your brains behind you, like a bridesmaid with a veil?”
“Why did you bring me back, then?” It seemed a reasonable question, though I had my own answer already.
“Oh, do you need to ask me that, now, Billy?” she said in a low quiet voice, and her shadow cocked its head. A dangerous voice, that was; I guess I was wrong about the question.
“Well, can’t you put my brains back in?” I asked.
“Can I what?”
Pens made a molding motion with his hands, like he was making a snowball. “You did, you know, spin ’em back together,” he said. “I mean, they must have been blown to oatmeal…”
“You want to do it, Pens?” she snarled. Her shadow held its hands out. The thread must have snagged, because I was suddenly back in that gap, nothing but smoke and echoes and rage to keep me oriented. It was just a few seconds, though; when I came back I was still upright, and Pens was pale, and shaking his head.
“You’re unraveling, Billy,” she said, hot in my ear. “I can’t put anything back. Best I can do is draw it out just a bit longer. There’s your answer, if you must have it. I just wanted you a little longer.”
The tone in her voice was enough to set me staggering back into the dark. But I focused on the stench, and the anger, and the thought that a little longer is what I needed, too. “I’m taking a step now, Bridie,” I said, then I did. I could feel the nerves pulling, another few inches gone for good, I guess, but I was one step closer to the door, and to Pens’s big ugly face.
“Will you look at that,” Pens said, and tried to squeeze another drop out of the bottle.
“Don’t you try, Billy,” Bridie said. “You turn, and you’re done.” And something hit the floor with a splat like an exclamation point.
I had no problem with blood and brains, not even if they were my own, not even if all that kept them together was a thin silver thread, not as long as the thread was in Bridie’s hands. I trusted those hands. It was her face I wanted to see.
“Get me that mirror off the table, then,” I said.
But Pens turned pale. “Your brains are kind of up against it, boss.”
And Bridie added, “No use look back at things you can’t fix.”
“Then I’m going out that door,” I said, and took another step.
I could hear Bridie breathing, long deep breaths like she took when she was spinning her spells, or holding onto her patience. “I could stop you, Billy. Dead in your tracks.”
“I trust you, Bridie. I always say that. When the boys get nervous about the spells, when someone say ‘witch’, what I say is ‘I trust Bridie with my life’. Don’t I, Pens?”
“You do, boss. Got it written down,” he said, and patted his notebook.
I took another step.
We crossed the parlor that way, me taking one slow step after another, and Bridie behind me, breathing curses or spells, spinning me out. When we reached the door out into the hotel, though, Pens turned and leaned against it, and scratched his head. “Not sure that going through the lobby is that good an idea, boss, in your condition and all.”
I took another step, and poked him in the chest with a trembling fingertip. “We’re going down the back stairs and through the tunnels, just like Janicki. Round up the boys, and have ’em clear out the guests. I don’t want someone tripping over this damn thread. And get Rabbit in here to guard my brains!”
Bridie was still refusing to translate my blown-out voice, but Pens seemed to be getting the hang of it. He looked down, and flipped open his book. “See, boss, about the boys…” He turned the pages like he was looking for the words he needed. “There ain’t that many left to round up.”
He marked his spot in the book with his finger and looked at me. “When we heard the shot, we all got up here fast as we could. It was a sight, boss. You were face down on the floor, there, and the back of your head was gone. You looked like a damn punchbowl, is what Dinny said. And Bridie was standing there, head to toe in blood, and with your brains in her arms like a fucking baby, and keening like the banshee. It was a sight, all right. Too much for some of the boys; they just turned and ran. And then she says, like she’s still wailing, she says ‘Get out, get out, you leave him to me.’ Some more of them ran at that. And of the ones that didn’t, well, we shut the door and had a discussion, and there was some said that she had done it herself. Begging your pardon, Miss Brigid.”
“Hmmph,” Bridie said.
“Not me. But Rabbit was the first one to say it, boss, and when we wouldn’t let him at her, he took off. The Mullens and that lot went with him. All of them, boss. By the time I figured out what had happened, that it was that twerp Janicki…Well, like I said, the damage was done.”
Rabbit had never been comfortable around Bridie and her spinning, even though every gang on the North Side had someone like her, and the Sicilians down South Side had worse. Rabbit didn’t trust anything he couldn’t cut through, is what he would say; I beat him pretty good one time after he’d said that to Bridie’s face. We’re here to protect her, I said to him, the women and children and the folks just off the boats who ain’t got this place figured out yet. We ain’t bullies, I said. He just held his jaw and looked at his feet.
Rabbit and the boys bugging out on me, it was like those nerves pulling free. Unraveling. More fuel on the fire, at least, stoke the rage until it burned the smell clean out of my nostrils. Clear my head, I thought, and wheezed one of those almost-laughs again. I must have made some kind of a face too, because Pens looked down and said, “Jesus, boss.”
“The hell with them, Pens,” I said. “Rabbit and the rest of them, let ’em rot. Grab some people off the street, for Christ’s sake. I’ve been watching over this neighborhood long enough, they owe me. And get me a gun.”
Pens wouldn’t look me in the eye. “You sure this is a good idea, boss? We can find someone to make the hit, and you can stay here and — ”
“Make it a Smith, a twelve gauge, give that damn tailor nobody a taste of his own medicine.” I said. “I was in my damn bed.”
Pens didn’t look up, but he nodded like he understood.
Pens came back with a bunch of kids, on the promise of a fiver each. “Best I could do, boss. Lot of rumors in the ward. Folks are jumpy. I hear Volpe is on his way up from the South Side. And Doc Lafferty’s down at O’Banion’s telling tales fit to curdle your brains. Beggin’ your pardon, boss.”
“After all I’ve done for this neighborhood? O’Banion wouldn’t have a bar, hell, Doc wouldn’t still have his license, wasn’t for me. And where are they when I need ’em?” I said.
“Gone, all gone,” one of the kids said, but he was talking about my brains.
There were usually the better part of a dozen of them kids hanging out in front of O’Banion’s begging change and beers, a ragtag collection of boys and the odd girl, interchangeable under the dirt. They didn’t blink an eye at what Pens called ”my condition,” though a couple of them kept trying to look over Bridie’s shoulder and into my head until she threatened to pull their brains out as well.
“Ain’t got much use for ’em, anyway,” one said with a shrug, but they kept their distance after that.
Pens had cleared the guests from the upper floors. “Fire,” they said, which no one believed, but after the shotgun blast that morning no one seemed inclined to argue. Just to be sure, the kids ran along the long line of nerve shouting, “Danger! ‘Lectricity! Burn ya to a crisp!” And one small, solemn girl followed after Bridie and made sure the thread lay clean.
Pens turned up a shotgun, an old twelve-gauge like the one Janicki had used on me. “Sorry it’s in such crappy shape, boss. Only Smith I could put my hand on, short notice and all. I dunno how many shots it’s good for.”
I said, “All I need is one.”
I felt a bit better walking with the weight of that gun in my hand, and if I used it like a walking stick now and again, no one said anything about it.
“I got some news, too, boss, about Janicki,” Pens said.
“If that bastard did a runner, Dinny is damn well going to find him and drag him back there.”
“Nah, the tailor is still there,” Pens said. “It’s his wife. I guess she ran back into the store, after we started the fire. To get the money and such.”
“If they had just given us our cut, they could have kept their share, and still had a store,” I grumbled.
“Sure, boss, that’s what I told them before. But the thing is, she runs into the store when it’s still on fire, see. And she didn’t run out again, neither.”
Bridie made a low sound, like a growl. “Do you wonder now, Billy, why the neighborhood has not turned out to see you on your way? That’s some protecting you’ve been doing.”
Pens kept his eyes on his book. “Janicki, he goes in and gets her, and carries her right down the middle of the street to his apartment. Doc Lafferty was over there last night. Guess that’s what he meant when he said he couldn’t do nothing.”
You come see what you done, Janicki had said. Well, I was on my way now.
The back stairs of the Lyon were narrow and steep, slick speckled linoleum instead of the oak and runners of the main stairs. Bridie worried over the thread catching the iron railing. “And you’re dripping,” she complained. “Stuff a rag in,” was my suggestion. When I slipped on something slick on the second floor landing, she snorted triumphantly. I fumbled the gun; Pens caught it before it bounced down the steps and blew a hole in someone else.
“My fingers feel funny,” I said. “Like they’re numb.”
“Gotta pull the nerves from somewhere,” Bridie said.
“Damn it, Bridie, how about somewhere I don’t need?”
“Plenty of that, then, isn’t there,” she said, with a vicious tug. I could feel the damn nerves slipping, down the length of my spine and into my groin.
“For fuck’s sake, Bridie.”
“Not anymore,” she said sweetly.
Volpe was standing by the big ovens at the rear of the kitchen, hands in the pocket of his camelhair coat, whistling his usual opera crap. None of his muscle was with him, just Osso. On any normal day Volpe wouldn’t have dared the North Side without a dozen of his own boys around him, but I guess it wasn’t a normal day. Rabbit and the Mullen brothers were there, bunched together like sheep caught between dogs. They were all pointing guns our way, but I was used to that.
Volpe took his hands out of his pockets like he was going to cross himself, adjusted his lapels instead.
“Will you look at that, Osso,” he said. “Man don’t know when to lie down and quit.”
I swung my shotgun up, got it pointed more or less at Rabbit and the Mullens. “You got some nerve showing your faces around here,” I said.
“Boss says you should fuck off and die,” Pens translated.
“After you, Billy,” Rabbit said. “If there even is a you left, and she’s not just playing with your corpse like some damn puppet.”
Volpe laughed, a girlish giggle. “Hey, Osso, is that what the lady has done? Is she,” he wiggled his fingers over his head, “is she pulling the strings?”
Osso was small and round, stuffed into his black suit like offal in a sausage. His glasses were small and round as well, and somehow always caught the light. I’d never seen his eyes, didn’t know anyone who had. There was a small bag dangling from a chain around his neck; story was, it was filled with finger-bones. He looked like a bookkeeper, but he was as feared as any gun-toting gangster in Chicago, maybe more so.
“Mr. O’Fay is still here,” Osso said. His voice was like the scrape of steel on bone. “Not in this body, however, but at the far end of that thread.” The blank gleam of his lenses turned toward Bridie. “She has set him on a path, and one he must walk to the end, but the steps are his own.”
He fingered the bag around his neck — a dry rattle that made me think of snakes and fingernails — and stepped back behind Volpe.
“This is dangerous work she does. Such paths go one way only, and to travel backwards along them is to invite…others to follow.”
“I am not afraid of what might come up widdershins out of the dark,” Bridie said. “But I reckon some of them might have a bone to pick with you.”
“A bone to pick. Hey, Osso, that’s funny,” Volpe said, but he took a step back from Osso, gave him a sideways glance. “So you think the lady is in over her head?”
“I know what I’m doing,” Bridie said calmly. She wrapped her right arm around me, and walked me three steps forward to the butcher block table. She picked up a knife from beside a pile of onions; the blade had been sharpened so many times it was just a thin curving sliver of steel, a skeleton of itself. “I know what I’m doing,” Bridie said again, in my ear, and sliced off the last joint of my left pinkie.
There wasn’t much pain — those fingers were mostly numb — and no blood, not as such, just an ooze of sticky black like rotten jam. Bridie picked up the fingertip between her own and held it out to Osso.
“Here’s something you can understand. Go on, take it.”
Osso’s lenses flickered like flame. That wasn’t anything uncanny; he was shaking.
“You men think you’re atop of things. All you men,” Bridie said. Pens blinked at her, but kept his mouth shut. “But you’re just at the tail of something longer and deeper and darker than you know. We remember. Go ahead, Osso, take a look.” She threw my fingertip at the little magician’s feet. More of that slime spilled out, a pool of black that steamed like meat from a freezer. Osso frowned, and took a step back, and the pool followed, the steam coiling up like a snake about to strike.
“Fuck. That,” Rabbit said, and shot the thing point-blank with his 38. The slime splashed up into the air and hung there, my fingertip at the head, swaying like a cobra.
Rabbit didn’t waste any more words, or bullets; he went straight through the dining room doors with the Mullens on his heels.
The bag of bones had lifted off Osso’s chest, was jerking from side to side on its chain to track the thing at his feet. Osso fumbled at the chain, but the bag had pulled it tight around his neck. He took another step backward, and another, right through the swinging doors, with the black pool following.
“Christ, Bridie,” I said.
She snorted, and said, “It’s your finger, Billy Beg.” And in a darker voice she added, “That man will have a far harder time than you, when it’s his turn to walk the path. There are things waiting for him.”
Volpe watched the kitchen doors swing, and shrugged. “Little creep’s supposed to be the best. May be I’ve been wasting my money.” He looked at Bridie in a way that would have got him shot if Bridie hadn’t had a hand on my gun arm. “You could make a lot of dough with that sort of power, you team up with the right guy.”
“I’ve got my work right here,” Bridie said, low and soft.
Volpe pursed his lips. “I’ll ask again once O’Fay has rotted all the way through. You mark my word.”
“Oh, I do, Volpe,” Bridie said. “I mark it, all right.”
And Pens added, “You want to talk to the lady, you make an appointment with me and I’ll get back to you. I got you down in my book.”
Volpe split a long, considering look between Pens and Bridie, then shrugged again and laughed. “Thought I had an invitation. Guess I was mistaken, huh?” He put on his hat, and looked at me. “Luck getting where you’re going, O’Fay. Send me a postcard. Do yourself a favor, though, and don’t look back.”
He threw out his arms, a gesture that encompassed Pens and Bridie and the door and everything beyond it. And as he turned away, he started to sing in a clear tenor voice, “Ah! non m’avanza, più soccorso, più speranza né dal mondo, né dal ciel! Che farò senza Euridice! Dove andrò senza il mio ben!”
“Arse,” Bridie muttered.
Pens nodded. “He comes back makin’ trouble, I’ll teach him another tune.”
I felt a little better, then, about leaving those two.
The tunnels undercut the North Side like worm holes and dry rot. We hadn’t built them; no one was sure who had, or when, though some of them dated back at least as far as the Raising of Chicago before the Civil War. But we used them, to move booze and guns and people, and we’d added an entrance or two and shored up the worst of the weak spots.
I’d always hated them, though, even back when I was a kid running messages for the Market Street Gang. I hated the darkness; lanterns and gas flickered in the dank air and even the electric lamps we’d strung in some of the main passages seemed muted, their light a dim mossy green. I hated the way the soft ground gave way under your foot, but clung when you took the next step. And I hated the smell, seeping sewage and dead mold and a sweet sickly edge as if the tunnels cut through forgotten graves.
I hated the idea of hiding, too, of scurrying like a roach through the cellars. These days I walked down the sidewalk under the sun, and even the damn cops took off their caps and called me “Mister O’Fay.” That was another thing Janicki had taken from me: the daylight.
We were halfway to the Mayflower, and Pens somewhere behind looking for a lantern, when my legs gave way. It felt like every inch of me was on fire, inside and out, even those places that had gone ever more numb as I walked. Sight and hearing and touch all disappeared into a searing white that sheared clean through the dim of the tunnels.
If I’d fallen forward and snapped the thread, that false light might have been the last I saw. But I staggered back and Bridie put her shoulder into my spine and pushed and we stood like that, leaned together, until the pain flickered and went out.
Bridie was breathing fast enough for the two of us; her heart beat against my back.
“Cait, love,” she said to the kid behind her, the one who had been laying the thread down clean. “Are you brave enough to walk back through the tunnel by yourself?”
The kid must have nodded, because Bridie went on, “Go back, then, please, and see if Pens or any of the other kids know what happened to the thread.”
There was sound of bare feet on dirt, and then there was nothing but the sound of Bridie’s breath in my ear.
“The hell, Brigid.” I desperately wanted to take a deep breath of my own. “You told that creep Osso you know what you’re doing. So what is it?”
“I’m giving you a chance,” she said. “If you’ll take it.”
I got my weight back over my feet. “What the hell does it look like I’m up to, then, if not taking a chance?”
She stepped back, with something between a sigh and a moan. “Not for revenge. For forgiveness.”
“You want me to forgive that damn tailor for blowing my head off?”
“To be sure, you should ask for his forgiveness for what you have done to his wife. But it’s not his forgiveness I mean.”
“Who, then? Those ungrateful farmers out on the street? I’ve given them more than I ever got. I protect them, from the likes of Volpe and Osso and — ”
“From the stink of black magic, you mean?” she snarled. “From their children running the tunnels? From having their livelihoods and their lives burnt out?”
The echoes of her shout fluttered to silence, and it was like she had disappeared. I couldn’t even smell her warm wool scent over the mold and dank of the tunnel and my own scent of ash and dry blood. “Hell, Bridie, come around where I can see you.”
“I told you, I cannot,” she said, eventually. “This thread is not spun easily. It does not want to bind, and if I take my hand away it will unravel, and you with it.”
“And I can’t turn my head,” I said. “Not to see your face, and what the hell you’re on about.”
“If you turn, the thread will surely break.”
I threw my hands out, and slapped the walls on each side; they were cold and wet, and that dank smell could so easily be the stench of the grave. “Christ’s sake, Bridie, it’s going to run out soon enough!”
The silence, again, which left me alone, and that was like the grave as well.
“Why did you bring me back? Is it for Christ’s sake?” I asked, quietly. “Is it Heaven’s forgiveness you’d have me find, walking in the dim like this?”
“Oh, Liam Baeg Ó Fathaigh,” she said. “There’s no heaven for the likes of us.” She leaned against my back, and I caught a waft of lanolin and spice; for a second I could picture her sweet round face hanging in the dim tunnel before me. “No,” she said, sounding sad and certain and strong, “maybe it was a selfish thing I did, but…it’s for my own forgiveness you have a chance. If you want it.”
Footsteps came squishing and splashing down the tunnel from behind us. A kid darted in front of me, dangling a rat by its tail.
“He was chewin’ on your string,” he said. “I stepped on his head.”
“Sure you did,” Bridie said, “and thanks for that.”
I’d seen the kid before, running messages for Pens. He was the sort of kid I had been, the sort I’d said I’d look after when I grew up and got the muscle. I straightened, and croaked as clearly as I could, “Hey, boyo, you ain’t scared of me, are you?”
He swung the rat, splattering red and gray across his toes. “Not no more I ain’t,” he said.
As we climbed the stairs of the Mayflower, the doors slammed shut one by one, like we were dragging the dark of the tunnels up behind us.
The Mayflower was a flophouse, the sort of place that packed in new arrivals as fast as the trains and ships could deliver them. I’d lived in places like this when I was a kid, and my parents had died in one. If I had ended up like my father had always predicted, at least it had been on a thousand dollar carpet in a suite at the Lyon.
Dinny was on the landing of the fourth floor, hands in pockets. The only light spilled in thin strips from under the apartment doors.
“That one’s Janicki’s, boss.” He pointed with his chin, but he was looking at me out of the corner of his eye.
“Does he still have that Smith?” I asked.
Dinny’s eyes went wider. He looked from me to Pens, who had pulled himself onto the landing with us.
“Boss wants to know if the tailor is still packing,” Pens said.
“Prob’ly,” Dinny said, with a shrug. “Didn’t come across no shotgun on the way over here.”
The way he was looking at me sideways reminded me too much of Rabbit, and his hands were still hidden in his jacket.
“You can head out now, Dinny. Check in with Pens at the hotel tonight; he’ll have work for you.”
“You heard the boss. Beat it,” Pens said.
He squeezed past us, back to the banister, like he’d rather risk falling down the stairwell than brush up against me.
Pens watched him down the stairs, then looked at me. His back was to the light coming under Janicki’s door. I couldn’t see his face, just the gleam off the leather cover of the notebook in his hand. He shook it, slowly, like a benediction, and said, “Best I follow him, boss, so’s there isn’t an accident with the thread there.”
“You walk careful, now, Pens,” was all I could think to say. I think he knew what I meant. He nodded, and turned, and clumped down the steps.
“You go on now as well, sweetie,” Bridie said. I started to ask her what the hell she meant, but she went on, “Ask Pens for your money.” I had forgotten about the girl who had been helping Bridie lay that thread down.
“Tell her thanks,” I said. “And tell Pens to give her ten dollars.”
The girl climbed to the landing and looked up at me. She was the same dirty brown as the carpet, head to toe, and almost invisible in that light. She nodded, as if she’d been wondering what I looked like from the front, and found what she was expecting. Then she slipped past me like a ghost.
“I was her age when I saw my first dead man,” I said. “A kid shouldn’t have to think about stuff like this. Thought I could change that.”
“Better that she knows, Billy, in this town. Anyway, she isn’t worried about you, dead or not. She’s worried about where she’s going to find food tonight, and whether her Da’ will be too drunk to hit her. I guess neither of us have changed much of that, in the end.”
For a second, the dark and the stench and the rage all swirled into something too big to fit in my head, or in that stairwell, or in the whole damn city. For that second, I almost lost track of where I was going. But the light spilling out from under Janicki’s door traced a path to my feet. I watched it gleam off the spattered leather of my shoes until I felt steady again.
“So you tell Pens to make sure she keeps that money, then. No one takes it, Dad or otherwise.”
“I will.” She leaned her cheek against my back. “You were always kind with the little things, Billy.”
“‘Were‘? Have I come to that?”
“There are no more little things left now, Billy, not for you. Just one last big one, and bless me or damn me, I don’t know what it’s going to be.”
I turned the knob. The door was unlocked, like we were expected.
Janicki was sitting on a little three-legged wooden stool, could have been the twin of the one I’d woken up on, with his knees tucked up and that twelve-gauge clutched across his chest. He sat in the center of the room, in front of the bed; from there he could reach to the sink on one side, the table under the window on the other. The place stank like the inside of my ruined head, that slum smell of garlic and piss lost under the stench of smoke and drying blood. There was a small bent shape in the bed, a moth-holed blanket drawn over it.
Janicki had seemed tall that morning at the other end of that gun. But he looked small on that stool, shoulders hunched under his thin face, hair sticking out over his ears, like one of the ragged crows under the tables behind O’Banion’s, watching to see what might fall, waiting for the thrown stone.
If he was surprised to see me standing in his doorway, those black crow eyes didn’t show it. “You come see what you done,” he said.
“I came to blow your damn head off,” I said, and cocked the shotgun.
He just stared up at me, unblinking, his own gun still sideways and useless in his arms. I couldn’t tell if he had understood a word.
“But Bridie here has given me a chance. Hell, she’s been holding out that chance for as long as I’ve known her. I only just noticed it now. Funny, ain’t it, that in a way I owe you for that, for waking me up.” I coughed my excuse for a laugh. “But I owe her a hell of a lot more. She says that shooting you out of revenge is a poor way to use this chance. It doesn’t even matter that she’s right, though I reckon she is. I’ll give up revenge because that’s what she wants.”
I would have prodded him with the shotgun, but it was all I could do to get the stock under my arm and lift the long barrel. “You get that, Janicki? I’m not going to shoot you because you brought your damn stink into my room, into my bed, and blew my brains out in front of the woman I love.”
Bridie said something soft, like a spell, but I couldn’t hear it over the empty echoes in my head. The gun was slick with the slime from my maimed hand, and the remaining fingers were numb, dead, but I got it pointed between those crow eyes, or close enough. “I’m not going to shoot you because you shot me. I’m going to shoot you because you have taken me away from her.”
Bridie gave a long low keen.
And Janicki, he could understand me, despite his broken English and my shattered voice. I could see it in his eyes. Surprise, finally, and then something subtle and strange. I’m not sure I would have recognized that look before that morning, but it was a look I’d have had on my own face, if the nerves hadn’t been spun out from it. It was sorrow and wonder in equal parts. You might call it revelation.
“You see now what you done to me?” he said. “You see with your dead eyes what you done?” He reached back and fumbled at the edge of the bed, still looking at up me, caught the edge of the blanket and pulled. His wife’s body was curled on its side, like she was asleep. There wasn’t an inch of her that wasn’t black over cracked and mottled red, except the pale gleam of her bared teeth and the slits of her eyes.
“Was not revenge for me either, what I did to you. I just wanted you to see. Now I think you do see, what you done. Now you say it. You took her away.” He levered himself to his feet, leaning on his gun. “So what you gonna do now,” he asked, “with your last chance?”
Standing, he was my height exactly.
Bridie put her hand on my cheek. I guess those nerves were some of the last to go, because I could feel every soft warm clever fingertip. And for a second, the clean smell of wool swirled in my head. Her fingers trembled like she was crying, but her voice was steady. “What, then?” she asked.
The gun was just too heavy, was what. I let the end slip down to the floor. We stood there like that, Janicki and me, eye to eye. I’d finally found my mirror. But it didn’t show the one thing I needed to see.
When I started to turn, Bridie’s hand slipped to my shoulder.
I said, “You holding me, Bridie? Pick you up and put you in my pocket. I had no idea.”
A sharp breath in, and she said, “Billy Beg, I forgive…”
I saw the gleaming of copper curls against the dark of the door, and by my cheek her fingers reaching for a silver thread that spun from her grasp, and —
|Gregory Norman Bossert started writing in 2009 and attended the Clarion Writers Workshop in 2010. He won the 2013 World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction, and was a finalist for the 2014 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. When he’s not writing, he’s wrangling spaceships and superheroes for Industrial Light & Magic. Upcoming publications include Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.|