Welcome to chapter three of “December, 1919″, a serialized novel written by Oliver Gray. New chapters will be published every Wednesday. Links to all published chapters can be found here.
Yellowing teeth snarled from chew-scarred gums, billowing hot, noisome breath inches from my face. The beast crept forward, thick skin partially obscuring dark, bloodshot eyes. If not for a wall of chained links, it would have been on top of me, tearing my clothes and skin. I kicked the fence near it to try to scare it off, but it only seemed to get more angry, dropping its head and growl to a lower, more serious pitch.
“Why do we always have to go this way?” I said, trying to refill my lungs. “You know that dog hates me.” I had toppled clumsily over the fence to avoid being mauled, landing awkwardly on my right shoulder. It throbbed in time with my panicked heartbeat.
Virginia laughed, watching me struggle to my feet as she sat on a trashcan at the end of the alley. “It’s a better way to the Inquirer,” she said right before crunching into an apple she’d magicked form her pocket, “you gotta get to know the city, Jack; the main roads will never teach you anything. Besides, I wanna make sure you haven’t gone soft, sitting at that desk all day, writing.” Her inflection on the last word pierced my pride. She scribbled her hand in the air in a condescending pantomime.
“I haven’t gone soft,” I said, “there’s a lot of hard work in reporting a story, you know.”
Virginia rolled her eyes. She’d known me long before I was infected with the journalistic bug. She remembered a version of me who spent hours scouring rooftops for perfect blackbird feathers, a version of me who’d rather have explored, and adventured, and gotten into trouble than sit at some desk being tutored by old men in suits. We’d slipped apart as the years got leaner, meaner, cursed by war. She’d never been happy that I’d snubbed my father’s chance at apprenticeship in the brewery, mostly because she couldn’t see me as anyone but the 13 year old boy who lived in her memories. I couldn’t get angry; I was guilty of the same. It was difficult for me to look at her freckles and not see the girl I’d swooned over in the throes of adolescent love, difficult to see her now, made hard and cold, all that playful jeux de vie snuffed out by the world. By the world, and by George.
We popped out of the alley and turned left onto Fayette street to cross the bridge over the Schuylkill. The frozen water caught the sun’s reflection and distorted it like a broken mirror. I imagined the individual droplets rolling on in unrelenting mass exodus to the ocean, only to be scooped up by our little brewery, forever married to malt before moving into a new, glassy home. Father always said that life began in the water. Looking off at the horizon and seeing the little river disappear into some impossibly remote unknown, it was easy to believe him.
“This is where I leave you,” Virginia said, throwing her arms around me in the most platonic of hugs. “Gotta get back before the mash rest is done, or George’ll have my ass.”
I watched her hair bob down another alley near Bar Harbor. Sometimes she seemed incapable of walking down the side walk like a normal person.
The Inquirer building loomed. I used to think the current building was architecturally impressive, but I’d recently been by the site of the new building, a massive, 18-story behemoth that was still under construction. It’s skeleton towered over everything around it, monolithic, austere, a monument to news that could not be ignored, especially by the neighbors who now lived in its shadow.
The old building heaved under the energy of too many people into too small a space. The entrance saw younger valets running around trying to move cars, older valets handling the occasional horse and carriage. The coat-check revolved nonstop as visitors, reporters, and assorted law enforcement officers paraded in and out of the building on errands secret, private, or both. The hallways, lined with tiny one-desk offices, sang a cacophony of ringing telephones, tapping telegrams, scribbling pens, and enthusiastic conversation.
My desk was near a window; which, according to the senior staff, was incredibly lucky for someone of my age and inexperience. I flopped my coat over the old chair someone had found for me on one of the upper floors, and began the tedious job of transposing my colleague’s hand written notes into the clean click-clack-ching of typewriter pages. I’d barely finished a single paragraph when a stack of papers fell directly over my flying fingers.
I looked up. Nathan smiled. “More for you kid. I left numbers on each in terms of priority,” he said, pointing his pencil at the tops of the sheets. “You’ve got something from McGuire in there, so I suggest you do those first unless you want him barging in here in a huff like he does. He’s been such a pain in the ass since he won that award.” I wanted to like Nathan, but he always dumped his workload on me, usually so he could cut out early with that blonde who worked in the telegraph office. I nodded at him, pushed the papers to one side, and tried to finish what I was working on.
“Hey, Jack?” Nathan posed the question with that sympathetic intonation that heralds an uncomfortable conversation. “I heard about your dad. We all liked him around here. Great guy. Great beer. I spoke to Mr. Knight about it; if you need a break, we can cover for you.”
I looked up again. “Thanks, Nate. I think I’ll stay though. The work keeps my mind off of it,” I lied, “I might like to take this Saturday off though, to be with my mother.”
Nate winked. “Saturdays are slow in here anyway. I’m sure Mr. Knight won’t mind.” He cancelled out most of his kindness with a second pile of notes that he dropped on my desk just before he turned to leave.
I grabbed the stack of papers, and began to quickly scan the titles to put them into a workable order. McGuire’s piece found its way to the top, partly to placate him, partly because the stories he worked on were usually packed with local intrigue. As I loaded a new ribbon and set to my sisyphean labors, a few hastily scribbled lines in the middle of the notes caught my eye:
“Spoke to detective Berman about the “accidental” death of Andrew Cooper. Claims he wasn’t aware of Cooper’s politics. Story doesn’t add up. Will follow up in the next few days.”
To be continued…