New York - January, 1880
The nearly arctic wind bit through his wool coat, chilling flesh and blood. But even the cold could not quell the fetid smell of the open sewer a few feet away. The heat of human waste sent up a vapor visible in the chilled air. Reeking garbage marred the frozen snow rifts piled along the alley floor. Intent on his purpose, Joseph barely noticed the odors. He squeezed his fingers together, trying to get the blood to flow. His leather gloves provided little protection against the unusually cold day.
It wouldn’t be long now. He had been waiting nearly forty minutes, yet he knew this alley was where he would find the one he sought. Joseph had studied his quarry for nearly a month now, ever since the coward skulked back into town thinking it was safe to do so. Joseph had passed money around to keep ears and eyes open around the wharfs, piers and the streets. Three weeks ago, his investment paid off. Charlie Rhodes was back in town. Word on the street was that the man had crossed into Jersey, hiding out until everything had blown over.
For a time, the grisly murder of three men at the warehouse played on the front pages of most of the New York papers, the details glorified for the rabid readers. But with each passing week, and given the low pedigree of the victims, eventually the curious and sensation hounds found other news to sniff after. Work at the warehouse had resumed and blood was washed away, leaving no reminders of the deaths that had taken place there. It was as though nothing had ever happened.
As though his world had not been torn away, leaving him no foothold.
He knew Charlie took this way home from the job he had gotten as a stevedore. The route was a lone shortcut through the alley a few feet from the hovel Charlie shared with a decrepit prostitute named Sally. Hardly anyone ever came this way, wisely afraid of robbers or mischief makers. Which made Charlie a fool. And which worked into Joseph’s plan. A plan he had decided on after Rachel was found.
Nearly a month ago, a dock worker discovered Rachel’s body frozen in the East River. By chance, Joseph came across the article in one of the daily periodicals. The other papers hadn’t bothered to report the discovery. Even in the one paper, Rachel’s death had been summed up in very few words, a toss-away among news about the invention of something called a light bulb and the ever-growing media parade surrounding the Kiehl murder. The poisoning death of the eighty-one year old dowager had horrified the city. A Miss Catherine Zell was set to stand trial for the murder. But no one would stand trial for Rachel’s death. And with the discovery of her body, Joseph’s decision had crystallized within him. No, there would be no hue or cry for the death of a Negro woman, no matter how wonderful nor beautiful. And most of those who cared about her either had no power to bring her justice. Or were too cowardly to come forward. So in the end, he realized what he had to do.
There was something else driving him, also. A half-remembered dream…or rather dreams…that had been recurring lately. Dreams ensconced in a past that he couldn’t decipher but that piqued his suspicions about the workings of this world as well as the one beyond. That gave him hope.
As for these past two months, he had played his part well. Son to his father, friend to his cronies…masks that at one time he had worn comfortably. Lately though, the masks had begun to chafe like a hair shirt against the skin – prickly, burning, painful…
…or more like the bars of a prison which he had come to realize enclosed him as much as they once had his mother.
A sudden movement made him turn. A ball of gray scurried out of sight around the corner of a shack a few doors down. He breathed again, not realizing that he had stopped altogether. His pulse was racing. It was just some vermin scrounging for food. He heard its pathetic foraging in the snow, searching for discards from its human counterparts. In that second, his mind wandered as he thought of the rat. It was a second that almost cost him. He turned at another sound and saw the lone body rounding the northern corner of the alley. The newcomer’s feet crunched against the snow and the man wheezed into the lapel he held against his face, half hiding his features. Still, Joseph recognized him and knew that his wait had finally come to an end.
It was an early evening and the sun hovered among slate clouds, the sky dimmed by a pall that had settled over the city this winter. A pall that reflected the lifelessness within himself. Today was Friday. Appropriate. Rachel had died on a Friday.
Joseph stepped away from the building where he had been half hiding in wait. Charlie Rhodes stopped abruptly, his body stiffening at the sudden appearance of a stranger before him.
“Yeah? Whatcha want?” Charlie barked, his voice phlegmy. Then his mouth gaped and his eyes bulged with sudden recognition. He put a hand up as though to ward off the devil himself.
“Oh, oh, noww, noww, waittt, you … you got it all wrong!”
Joseph smirked. “Do I?
The man began backing away, shaking more from fear than the cold. “Noww, noww, it wasn’t me what planned the thing, Joseph. I didn’t want no part of it. I tole ‘em … I tole ‘em all it was a bad deal. But that lousy dago, Roberto, he was the one that wanted you dead. And the others, too. It was all them. Not me, Joseph. I just…I just went along ‘cause they made me. You gotta believe me.”
Joseph’s hatred made his voice clipped. “All I believe Charlie is that you are a liar, a coward, and that you are about to die.”
“No!” Charlie yelled out. Joseph advanced as Charlie continued backing away in panic. The predator steadily rounded on his prey, assured that there would be no escape.
Joseph saw Charlie reach inside his coat pocket. He had been expecting it. But he was quicker. He had his knife out before Charlie could clear the ragged tears of his pocket. In two steps, Joseph closed the space that separated them and shoved the blade deep into the other man’s stomach until only the Victorian bone of the hilt was visible.
Charlie’s eyes widened in pain and horror. Joseph, his soul as cold as his body, felt nothing as he pushed the blade in deeper, as blood spurted out on his gloved hand. Then he pulled the blade free and Charlie’s body fell slowly to the ground, his eyes vacant in death. Joseph dropped the knife next to the dead man, blood splattering the snow.
For a few seconds, Joseph stared down at the man who had become his obsession since Rachel’s death. Since it seemed his own life had ended.
He bent, reached inside Charlie’s pocket. He pulled out the cheap dulled-blade knife that Charlie hadn’t been able to retrieve.
Joseph knew how the accounts of his death would read. That he had died in a common knife fight. There would be speculation why someone of his station had died so casually. Those who knew him well would guess that it was his debauchery that finally caught up with him. And for once, his father would not be able to sweep away the scandal. Joseph felt a slight satisfaction at the thought.
At least suicide would not be linked with his name. As it hadn’t been linked with his mother’s.
Joseph cursed the dullness of the blade. It was going to hurt like the dickens. But it had to appear that there had been a fight. There could be no suspicion of any self-inflicted harm so he could not use his own knife. He opened the coat, tore off a few buttons to make the struggle seem authentic.
He placed the blade at the silk of his waistcoat. Hesitated for a second. The sky had darkened in a matter of minutes. It would be night soon. More than likely he wouldn’t be discovered until the next morning, if then. The alley rat would have a meal at least for the night. But these things did not bother him. He was beyond all that. Beyond this life.
He shoved the knife through the material, through the taut skin of his belly. The pain seared, paralyzing him. Immediately, his breath became fire in his lungs. He fell to his knees, his remaining thoughts of her. Remembering. Praying. Hoping.
As he lay taking his last breaths, he smiled a little. Because if his dreams meant what he had begun to realize, that he had lived before, that he had known Rachel before in another incarnation, then he was destined to meet her…again.
In the darkness, Tyne thought she heard him whispering to her. It came like that at times, both memory and fear, followed by a tear-and-sweat struggle to maintain her reality, to know he was not actually there in her room ready to claim her.
She raised her head from her pillow and listened. But the only sound was the distant throb of a motor that grew steadily louder as it approached then ebbed away, leaving her alone again.
Her eyes searched the shadows and found nothing. Still shaky, she let her head fall to the pillow, her forehead sprouting beads of sweat in a room that was sixty degrees on a cool Chicago night. She willed her heart to slow to its normal pace. Emptying her mind of threatening thoughts, she lay quietly until her eyelids grew heavy and consciousness began to die away. Finally she succumbed to the somnolent pull of a tired body and mind.
The dream world quickly sealed her into a vacuum of shapes and faces, a reality recognizable only on a visceral level. Images flitted one after another until her journey reached the last scene, the non-variable in her nightly excursions. Again, she found herself sitting at a long table laden with food she could see but not smell. People, some known, others not, sat talking and eating. The women wore evening gowns, the men, tuxedos. April and Donell sat toward the other end, their heads together in conversation. Everything played as it had before, except this time Eve chattered incessantly in Tyne’s ear, some nonsense she couldn’t understand. Tyne looked down and saw she was wearing the same green strapless evening gown, a color that shimmered against the latte of her skin. She reached to pick up her fork to taste the leathery meat on her plate, but at that moment, as always, a man’s hand fell hard on her bare shoulder. She looked up from her seat.
The table and guests faded away, leaving Tyne and the stranger alone. She stared up where his face should be but saw nothing but a dark void, an abyss into which her soul threatened to fall. She sat trembling, waiting. He reached out to her, the glint of the knife flickering under the light. It touched her throat lightly.
She woke with a start. Sweat trickled down her temples. The digital clock on the nightstand read a little after two, only minutes since she last drifted off. She had a few more hours to get through. Yet she didn’t know if she would make it out of the nocturnal web this time. Or the next. One night her heart would simply stop and she would be trapped in her dream world forever.
“You yawning again? Musta been some night. How was he?” Gail smirked. Tyne winced. Gail defined herself by her blatant carnality (she referred to herself as an “open sista…Big O, that is.”), and words often tumbled carelessly from her lips. Tyne turned around to the cubicle that faced hers and held up her middle finger. The older woman threw back her head and laughed, causing her medium-length auburn-by-the box hair to swing stiffly around her shoulders. Tyne sighed and turned back to her computer.
“Girl, you wouldn’t tell a soul if you was getting some. Ms. Born-Again-Virgin.”
“Mind your business, Gail,” Tyne warned over her shoulder. “Besides, the way I hear it, you’re getting enough for me and half the female population as it is. Might do you good to abstain for a while.”
A few cubicles down, she heard Rhoni cackle, obviously listening. Tyne wondered at her lie. She hadn’t heard any gossip about Gail. It just felt good getting a dig in.
Gail hrrumphed, mumbling beneath her breath. Tyne smiled to herself, at the same time wishing she had an office instead of a cubicle that sat in a maze of disjointed walls that didn’t provide even the illusion of privacy. She often had to modulate her voice whenever she made a personal call, knowing that Gail, Lem, Rhoni or any of her other nearby co-workers might be listening in.
Not that her life was fascinating. A researcher and copy-editor at The Chicago Clarion, a small black community newspaper on its last legs, she hardly lived life on the edge. As for her social life, her last relationship had been a couple of years ago and had ended rather badly. Hardly something to divulge to her nosy co-workers. She believed in keeping her personal business to herself. Which made her business that much more intriguing to the busybodies who peppered their lives with the goings-on of other people. Yet they knew more about her than she liked. She shook the flurries out of her head and got back to work.
A few minutes later, in the middle of typing her report for Stan, she hit the Enter key. Nothing. She hit it again. Still nothing. The computer sat frozen. “Damn!” she muttered. She hadn’t saved the document for some time and would probably lose several paragraphs if she re-booted.
“Lem,” she shouted over her cubicle. “could you come here, please?”
Lem shouted back, “Be right there.”
Alem, or Lem as he was known around the office, was the official copy editor as well as the unofficial tech guru. Everyone knew to call him whenever anything broke down, which kept him pretty busy. Being a two-fer on one salary made him indispensable to the paper since it kept down some of the staggering overhead. In the end, this would prove a boon for Lem. Rumors going around now predicted that heads were going to roll, as the paper’s circulation had dropped 40 percent from a couple of years ago. Making matters worse, the Clarion had just lost a major advertiser this January and stood to lose three more. But if there were going to be any survivors among the carnage, Lem would definitely be one of them. Everyone else, including herself, was dispensable.
Within a minute, he loomed (there was no other word for it) at the entrance to her cubicle. Six feet five, Alem Gebre always had a smile, his teeth luminescent in a walnut-complected face, his Eritrean heritage evident in the broad forehead and slightly flared nose.
“What’s going on?” he asked with an accent that always made Gail and a few of the other women suck air through teeth, lick their lips, and, Tyne suspected, clinch their crotches. Yet to Tyne, Lem’s cocksure confidence was a turn-off.
“Help,” Tyne mock-pleaded. “My computer’s locked up again. I don’t want to lose this report.”
Lem shook his head. “And I bet you didn’t save, either.”
“Yes, I did … well, sort of. But it’s been some time, and I’m going to lose a lot of input.”
Lem came in and Tyne moved out of her chair to let him sit down. He pressed a series of key combinations and then shook his head.
“Nope. The only thing I can tell you is that we may be able to retrieve something from the auto save files. I have to re-boot. Sorry. After that, I’ll search through your temp files, see if I can find the last save.”
Tyne closed her eyes in frustration, mentally castigating herself for her stupidity. This had happened before; she should have remembered to save every five minutes. Especially on this ancient equipment. The Clarion hadn’t updated anything since 1998.
The screen flickered as Lem did an Alt-Ctrl-Del and the Microsoft 98 logo appeared. The dialog box asking for username and password followed.
“Your call here.” He moved aside, and Tyne sat and plugged in her personal info. After the computer entered Windows, Lem again took the seat, went into Windows Explorer and did his thing. His nimble fingers tapped a rhythmic litany on the keys that had her temporarily hypnotized. She watched him and an unbidden thought of long, tapering fingers moving along her flesh, caressing slowly, softly, each finger pursuing its own rhythm, coming together in a tingling chord. …
“OK, I’m done,” he said. “This is the latest auto save, which was a few minutes ago. So whatever you typed after that is lost. Sorry. Wish I could have done better.”
“That’s OK. No need to apologize. It’s my fault. You told me what to do last time, and, of course, I didn’t.”
“Not that any of you ever listen to me. After all, I’m just the token guy around here.”
He smiled, taking the bite out of the criticism, but she knew he really felt this way. He was one of only two men in the seven-people office, including the Clarion’s editor-in-chief, Stan Johnson. Cultural differences between Lem and “the Americans” as well as gender differences between Lem and “the women” sometimes created tension. For all his cockiness, Tyne got the feeling he didn’t really like the female adoration. He was probably one of those brothers who liked a good chase and didn’t want an easy thing. Probably held fast to his African -- and patriarchal -- belief that men should do the pursuing. Which put Gail out of the running. But for some reason, she continued to chase. Like now.
“Lem, I think something’s wrong with my computer, too.” The woman had the nerve to be standing at Tyne’s cubicle entrance, looking all helpless and “female.” Never mind that she had the heft of a good 190 pound construction worker. Tyne blinked as the woman actually batted her eyelashes.
Lem sighed and nodded to Tyne, then left, following Gail like a reluctant child. Tyne sat at her computer, looked at the temp file, then exhaled in relief to see she was missing only a couple of paragraphs from her report. She began typing, forcing herself to ignore the almost-purring sounds of pussycat Gail trying to make a kill. The woman was too obvious.
Tyne found Gail antagonizing at times, but in all honesty, she envied her, too. Gail might be shallow, but at least she knew what she wanted. Gail aimed low and achieved what she aimed for. Tyne had aimed high all her life and been miserably disappointed when she fell short. So, she couldn’t even really look down on Gail.
Besides, most likely Gail slept well at nights. Didn’t have someone chasing her in her dreams, touching her, making her do things -- and, for the last few nights, caressing the blade of a knife against her throat.
As Tyne continued typing, her tired mind threatened to shut down. Sleep, elusive at night, threatened to take over in this safe sun-filled place. She battled the lethargy pulling at her lids, slowing her fingers on the keys. Despite her efforts, her breathing deepened, her vision blurred. The sounds of the office -- the disparate syncopation of keyboards, ringing phones, Gail’s coos -- began to fade.
A breath –- soft and whispery -- grazed her cheek as the hand moved slowly down, its fingers pushing aside the satiny material of her dress, seeking,, finding one nipple ready, pliant, massaging it between two fingers, stroking the orb as lips moved to her ear, touching, licking, whispering…
“You know what you want. So do I.”
Another hand navigated a silky thigh, found the crevice that separated it from its mate, found her bare beneath, wet and waiting…
She shook herself awake. Her hands lay motionless on the keyboard. She sat dazed for a moment, trying to grasp what had happened. Just that quickly, she lapsed into a dream state and found him waiting for her. She felt disoriented, unreal -- and frightened. The dream had continued where it’d left off. It had followed her here to this innocuous place where sunlight streamed in through large but dirty windows and kept shadows from merging into other shapes. The dream had never invaded her days before, never left her trembling as she did now.
She lifted her fingers, her mind pushing them to finish her report, but they wouldn’t obey. They hovered over the keys, tremulous. Her mouth was dry and she found it hard to swallow. She had to get control over her flayed nerves. If she didn’t, she’d have a full panic attack right here in front of everybody.
Tyne stood on wobbly legs, left her cubicle and headed toward the water fountain. As she passed Rhoni’s cubicle, she caught a glimpse of her co-worker idly talking on her phone, probably to her boyfriend, Stephen. Tyne envied the carefree laughter the young woman burst into. As for herself, she felt like bursting into tears. She reached the fountain and bent to take a few sips. But the water ran dry over her tongue, barely lubricating it. Still, just getting up and walking a few steps had slowed her racing pulse. She took a few lung-cleansing breaths, drank some more water. Feeling better, reality edged back in with the thought that she had several pages to finish on the report before she headed to lunch. She started back, passing Lem on his return, or more like escape, to his workspace. Obviously relieved to be away from Gail, Lem smiled at Tyne, then disappeared into his haven.
Back in her cubicle, Tyne sat down at her computer, her nerves steadier now. She still had to input the percentages from last quarter; most of the numbers were in red. She positioned her fingers to type and looked at the screen.
Her breath caught in her throat as her eyes read over her last line. It stared back at her, blatant in all caps. Bold. Underlined.
WE’RE GOING TO BE TOGETHER FOREVER
But how? She had fallen asleep. That much she was sure. But somehow, in her sleep, her fingers had typed out a message for her … to her. The same message he whispered in her ear nearly every night for the past few months, the last thing he said to her before she woke up and escaped.