Welcome to chapter four 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.
As the hammer sank the pin deep into the flesh of the primer, a spark nested in a bed of powder, heating it, igniting it, exploding it, forcing the bullet out of its cozy barreled home into the crisp December air. The cold didn’t slow its attack; it seemed neither bothered nor fettered by the chill as it ripped into the wood at the end of the lane much faster than my eyes could track it. Before the man-shaped target could recover from the first blow, a second, then a third, then a fourth pounded into his chest and neck. Every time the gun roared out into the afternoon, my eyes involuntarily blinked. Like a modern, metal Medusa, they didn’t want to look directly at the fury, lest it turn its deadly attention on me.
A fifth shot careened wide, just to the left. McGuire lowered his pistol and exhaled deeply.
“Don’t just stand there, kid. Either shoot or leave. I hate having someone looking over my shoulder. Makes me nervous.” he said, without turning to look at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, words manifesting as puffs of steam, “I don’t shoot. I mean I’ve never shot. My father didn’t like guns.” The targets shuddering under the force of all the slugs sent my mind down a dark alley that lead to an image of my father, down and bleeding, multiple holes in his back.
“Funny attitude for a veteran,” he said, carefully sliding bullets into the magazine with practiced, calloused fingers. “I suppose I can understand that. Your dad was a good soldier, but never really cut out for a life of fighting.”
The non-stop shots, coming at random intervals, echoed out into the skyline, eventually fading out somewhere near the clouds. I closed my eyes and in my mind tried to layer yelling, cries of pain, and artillery strikes on top of the gunfire. No one ever talked about the war much, and I had no way of knowing what my father, McGuire, and those hundreds of thousands of other men had endured. Every crack and bang crept through my subconscious like a worm made of fear, playing back all those nights my dad had woken up in the worst part of his dreams, screaming, crying, shaking at some memory of northern France.
“Nate told me you’d be here, so I…”
McGuire interrupted, “of course he told you I’d be here. Bet he didn’t tell you why I’d be here.” He fired his eighth shot with composure, plugging a perfect hole in the middle of the circle on the target’s right shoulder. “See that goon with slicked back hair in lane 10? That’s Joseph Cavoli, some glorified knuckleduster from New York. Next to him, in the sharp grey suit? Brian Cleary, a distiller from Boston. Both claimed to have come down here to find work, but it’s been two months, and neither have jobs. They’ve been chummy with detective Berman, and I want to know why.”
I watched the two men fire shiny new revolvers. They lacked the grace and precision of McGuire, but made up for it in enthusiasm. Six shots for every one of McGuire’s. They laughed with each other, dropping bullet after bullet into spinning chambers, but from this distance, it was impossible to make out what they were saying.
“Look kid, I know why you’re here. I knew you’d read those notes,” he said, finally setting the gun down and turning to face me. In his olive drab jacket he looked like a quintessential soldier; broad, brave, bold. “I can’t help you. Not yet at least. I’m working from the ghost of a hunch here. I knew you’d come find me, I just didn’t think you’d come find me here.” Smoke from the powder had started to choke the afternoon with sulfur and charcoal.
I stood silently, partly unsure what to say, partly intimidated by place and presence. McGuire forced a smile. “If I find out anything, I’ll tell you and your mother first. Please just trust me. Don’t you have more important things to do than follow me around, anyway? Like, maybe, oh, I don’t know, running a brewery?”
I blushed. He had a point. I’d just run off and left everything to George in my fog of selfish mourning. As I turned to leave, I stopped, brain whirring. “Wait, how did you know about that?”
“There’s not much goes on in this city I don’t know about,” he said. “Call it reporter’s intuition.” He smiled. I nodded.
“Oh, and kid? Do yourself a favor. Learn how to shoot. I have a feeling the streets of Philadelphia are going to get a lot uglier in the wake of the 18th.” McGuire turned back to his target, raised his pistol, and fired.
Virginia slung herself halfway into the window of the kettle, sucking in the sweet steam from the wort. “Hops! We need more hops!”
George sighed. “It’s a pale ale for chrissake! If we add any more hops it’s going to be too bitter to drink. You have to learn the limits of these things, Virginia.”
“But they smell so good! Looks, Jack will agree with me. Needs more hops, right Jack?” She swung down off the small step ladder and ran over to me. George glared at me before sinking his shovel into a huge pile of spent grain. “So glad you found some time to come see us. Are you just going to stand there, or actually try to do some work?” He said, tossing the shovel to me. “This pile needs to be moved so that farmer Prescott can come pick it up. I said he could have this batch.”
“Free?” I said. “Dad usually sold it for a pennies a pound.”
“Well your dad ain’t here, is he?” George said, “Prescott had a rough crop last summer and he needs to keep his animals fed, so I said he could have it. We ain’t using it for anything anymore. There’s more to this business than beer and dollars. Your dad knew that.”
Virginia nudged me with her elbow and whispered, “Don’t mind him. He’s just being grumpy. Come smell this wort. Don’t you think it needs more hops?” She grabbed my hand and jerked me across the room to the kettle. As she dangled again, steam rising up through her curls, the malt mixed with her Watkins hair rinse, flooding my brain with delicious memories. She reached up and grabbed me by the waist, pulling me down down to her level.
“I’ve got a plan, like we talked about before” she said, in the privacy of their bubbling kettle. “But we can’t tell George.”
To be continued…