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Life and Debt

By Virginia Sue Foreman All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Adventure

Chapter 7

In the squalid little room of the boarding house, Mike lay on his bed, lethargic and depressed. The visit to Father John had not given him the lift of spirits he had hoped. Instead, he had even more fuel for his smoldering hatred.

Tom rapped on the door, opened it, and stepped inside. “You stayin’ in tonight? I thought you was meetin’ that little tart from the tavern.”

“I don’t feel like it.”

“Since when did that matter? She’s a pretty one, too. You’ve done worse.” He grinned as he plopped onto the chair beside the tiny table, and slouched back.

“I said no.” He ran his hand through his tangled hair. “Tell her I had to go out when you see her.”

“Go out where?” he said, sitting up straight and looking directly at Mike. “Where’d you have to go tonight? Back to see that minister again?”

“No. It’s none of your business.” Mike stood and turned his back to Tom, and rubbed the back of his neck nervously.

Tom left with a sniff, snapping the door closed behind him. There was a part of a bottle of wine on the tiny table. Mike rose and poured himself a generous cup full. As he lifted the cup to his lips, he caught a glimpse of himself in the streaked little mirror over the washbasin. His beard was such a good disguise that even Father John had not recognized him. He could safely stay here, and work without fear of recognition by Tolabert or his thugs, for as long as he liked.

But, that was not what would satisfy him. He did not want just to be safe. He wanted his old life back. He wanted to live in a nice house again, and wear clean clothes, and be able to walk about with his head held high, never having to worrying about where and when his next meal would come. And, the only way to get it was to take revenge on the man who had stolen it all from him. He stroked his beard thoughtfully. He could probably go right up to Tolabert, and he would not recognize him. However, Mike wanted him to know who he was when he exacted his pound of flesh.

It was dark in the room, and the one candle on the table did not give enough light for Mike’s task. He lit another candle, and placed them on either side of the mirror on the washstand, poured water into the washbasin and picked up his razor. Carefully, he began to shave off his beard. He was so intent on what he was doing, that he did not notice when Tom came back into the room, sat down, and quietly watched him with curiosity.

When he finished his shave, Mike put on his best shirt and coat, and inspected himself in the mirror. Satisfied with the image, he then opened the top drawer of his chest, and carefully lifted out a bundle wrapped in an oily rag. He opened it, and picked up his father’s pistol, checking it to see that it was in good working order, and then he loaded it. Mike had never liked using the thing, even when it was necessary, but tonight he did not feel the same aversion. He tucked it into his belt and buttoned his coat over it.

“What are you going to do with that?” Tom asked, his eyes narrowing.

Mike turned with a start, and looked at him. “I have some business to take care of.”

“With your pistol? That sounds more like trouble to me. Does Henry know what you’re up to?”

“No. And you’d best not tell him either, if you know what’s good for you.” He glared at Tom until he was sure he understood.

“I’ll go with you, then.”

“No. This is my problem, and I mean to take care of it. I’ll be back when I’ve done what I have to do.” He left, leaving Tom standing in the room looking after him, unsure what to do.

Mike walked deliberately and quickly through the streets, out of the tumbledown district. He did not hesitate when he reached the cleaner area where the wealthy lived. The houses here were large, with manicured gardens, and some of them had a carriage house behind. The plethora of flowers in the front gardens gave a sweet scent to the warm night air, and the windows of nearly all the houses glowed yellow in the darkness, like large golden gems. Still Mike trudged on, not knowing that Tom was in secret pursuit.

Suddenly, Mike stopped in front of a large brick house. He stood, staring at it for several minutes, and then he wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. After heaving a heavy sigh, he crouched, and moved quickly up the little front garden to the lighted window on the left of the big front door.

He looked boldly inside, then turned, stepped off the front step and went around the corner of the house. He tried the handles of the French doors that opened into the house from the large side garden. They gave quietly under his touch, and he entered the house.

Standing just inside the French doors, and looking around the room, Mike allowed the pain of his loss to fill him anew. The drawing room was empty of occupants, but an oil lamp burned on the ornate writing desk near the opposite side of the room. This was Sarah’s drawing room. The same room where Mike had sat waiting for his parents the night they never returned. The furnishings were unchanged. The chairs sat in the same place, waiting silently to receive the beautiful woman who had chosen them with such care. The brandy decanter stood on the same little table, waiting for Gerard to come in for a drop before dinner. The piano waited patiently for the fingers of the little girl, who had made it play so merrily. They waited vainly for ghosts. It was unjust that the man responsible for making them wait should now own them.

On the small desk where the lamp burned, spread out in its halo, Mike recognized documents and ledgers. They were from Harrington’s Dry Goods. Obviously, someone had been working here, and had stepped out of the room for some errand or other. Mike quietly took a seat in the chair farthest from the light, near the fireplace. In the deep shadow, he drew his pistol from his belt, laid it gently across his lap, and waited, like a cat before a mouse hole.

The passing moments seemed like hours, and Mike became more tense as each crawled by. Then, footsteps were in the hall. The door opened, and Jacob Tolabert entered carrying a steaming cup of tea. He placed it on the desk out of his way, and sat down to continue his work. Mike silently watched him. It struck him how like a weasel the man seemed, as he sat fidgeting with the papers and mumbling to himself.

Tolabert gave a little shiver, rose, and crossed the room to the fireplace. The fire had burned down to glowing coals. He poked at them, coaxing a small flame back to life, and tossed in a new log. As the flames grew, the light brightened the room. He was about to turn back to his work when he finally saw the shadowy figure in the chair. He gasped, and took an involuntary step back when he saw the barrel of the pistol leveled at him.

“Good evening, Jacob. Good of you to join me,” said the vaguely familiar voice. In spite of his attempt to regain his composure, Tolabert stammered, “Wh-what do you want?”

“Sit down.” It was a curt command. Mike pointed with the pistol to the chair opposite him at the other side of the fire. He leaned forward into the light. His face was somber, as if carved in stone. The flickering light of the fire cast grotesque shadows, making it hard for his host to distinguish his identity.

“I am here to settle a debt, Mr. Tolabert.”

Tolabert nervously gripped the arms of the chair. Debt? I do business at the office. Y-you should come see me there.” He glanced nervously about the room. “Who are you? How did you get in here?”

Mike gave him an elegant, slow nod of his head, keeping his eyes on his adversary.

“Forgive my manners. I suppose I have changed a bit since you saw me last … Michael Harrington, at your service.”

Even in the dim firelight, Mike saw the blood drain from Tolabert’s face, and his feeble attempt to mask his fear with a surly response was transparent.

“There is no debt between us, Harrington. I paid you cash for your share of the company, and you left,” he snapped, drawing himself up in the chair.

“Oh, the money is the least of it. That paltry sum you gave me didn’t come close to what you owe me—even if you hadn’t had it stolen back the same day.”

Tolabert shifted in his chair. “You’re mad! I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You know, I remember hearing in church that crimes should be repaid in like manner. You remember—an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.”

Cold sweat glistened on Tolabert’s forehead. “I don’t know what you’re raving on about. What do you want? Do you want money? I’ll give you all you want—the thousand—”

Mike clucked his tongue. “Thanks to you, I no longer have use for the money. You can’t pay this debt with gold, because what you took from me was more than money.”

“The company then! You want me to sign it back over to you?”

“No, I’ve learned my lesson there. You’d have me beaten, and robbed of it again, before the ink was dry. Besides, you’ve changed it so much, an honest man couldn’t run it now.”

“What then?” He nearly shrieked from the tension.

“Jacob,” Mike wagged his head, “you took something from me worth more than the company and all the money in the world. You took my family. You had my parents killed, and because of your further misdeeds, my sister died. That is the debt I’ve come to collect.”

Before Tolabert could voice his objection, there was a loud knock at the front door. Mike had not expected him to have callers at this time of night. His mind raced, weighing the possibility of handling another person.

“Who’s that?” he whispered hoarsely.

“It-it’s the messenger I sent for.”

Mike waved his gun, indicating they were going to the door. “We’ll let him in together. Don’t try to warn him, if you know what’s good for you.” Mike held his gun higher, into the light, so Tolabert could see it clearly.

Mike stepped behind the door as Tolabert opened it, the gun pressed into Tolabert’s ribs. Peeking through the crack to see who was on the step, Mike could distinguish two men, in the dim light of the hall candles. As they stepped further into the light, he could see that they were the same two men he had seen in the warehouse so long ago. They pushed their way past without word or hesitation, as if they had been here many times, and went straight for the brandy decanter on the small table in the drawing room, where they helped themselves.

After they had swallowed several gulps, they turned their attention to the man standing behind their host. The smaller one pointed with his glass.

“I thought we was the only ones in on this job. Who’s this, then?”

His nerves taut, and his frustration at the intrusion increasing, Mike nudged Tolabert to follow them into the room.

“Shut-up, you fool!” Tolabert hissed.

Mike again clucked his tongue. “Manners, Mr. Tolabert. That’s no way to address these fine gentlemen.” Realizing his need to keep the three of them together where he could watch them closely, he gave Tolabert a quick shove, and sent him stumbling against his visitors, exposing his weapon at the same time.

“Here! What’s this?” demanded the bigger man, as he caught Tolabert and assisted him to straighten up.

“This is a stroke of luck,” Mike answered. “Actually, I am glad you’re both here. I hadn’t expected to be able to repay the two of you as well.”

“What’s he talking about?” demanded the smaller man of Tolabert, as he gave a nervous little twitch.

“That’s Harrington, you twit,” snapped Tolabert, straightening his smoking jacket and smoothing his hair.

“Harrington! I thought you said you was rid of him.”

“You shouldn’t be so hard on our host. He is only as good as his help,” he said looking directly at the man. “Sometimes you just can’t depend on hired help to do the job as well as you can yourself.” Mike grinned maliciously, but these men were not what he had bargained for. He had to think of something before they overpowered him. If he tied them up, he could deal with them separately. But, what to use for rope?

The flicker of hesitation that crossed Mike’s face was almost imperceptible, but it was enough for the two hoodlums to spring into action. They charged the short length of the space between them and the intruder.

Mike yelled, “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” But, on they came. Mike felt his finger tightening on the trigger and heard the explosion of the powder. Tolabert yelped, and sank to his knees, clutching his arm. But, the two men were on top of Mike wrestling the gun from him, each striking him repeatedly with their work roughened fists. He managed to block some of the blows, but most found their mark. He was sure they would kill him before they stopped.

When his struggling ceased, they stood, and dragged him to his feet. Supported between them, Mike swayed, semiconscious. When Tolabert was sure the struggle was over, he got up, and stepped close. He held his left arm tightly with his right hand, blood oozing between his fingers. Then, with his bloodied fist doubled tightly, he swung with all his might, crushing his knuckles into Mike’s left cheekbone. Mike’s knees buckled, and he went limp.

“Go get the authorities!” Tolabert commanded the small man, and he left immediately.

Then Tolabert and the other man lay Mike on the divan, crossed his hands, and tied them together with the silk scarf Tolabert pulled from around his own neck. Tolabert then managed to bandage his own arm with a handkerchief.

When he finished, he grabbed the brandy decanter and poured some of the brandy on Mike’s clothes, then forced him to swallow some. Mike coughed and sputtered, swallowing some and spitting out the rest all over himself. Tolabert continued to force him to drink, until the crunch of footsteps on the walk outside heralded the arrival of the law.

“Good of you to come so promptly,” Tolabert said to the new arrivals. “This man broke into my house and tried to rob me. When I wouldn’t give him what he wanted, he shot me.” Tolabert showed the constable his wound. “If my friends hadn’t come along when they did, and overpowered him, I’m certain he would have killed me.”

The night watchman approached the nearly unconscious man on the divan, and wrinkled his nose. “He’s drunk. He smells like he’s been swimming in the stuff.”

“Undoubtedly, that is why he thought he could get away with this,” barked Tolabert as he stood back still clutching his wound.

“We’ll take him along, then. You can come to the magistrate’s and make your complaint against him.” The watchman motioned to his companion, and they attempted to sit the very limp Mike upright.

“I’ll be there shortly. I want to see him hanged for what he’s done to me.”

“Most likely he will. You need to send for the doctor, sir, and have that wound tended. We’ll see you at the magistrate’s when you’re able to get there.” He tipped his hat to Tolabert, and helped his fellow pull Mike to his feet. Supporting him between them, they half dragged him from the house.

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