“Henry! Hey, Henry!”
Henry turned around and saw Jack waddling towards him. He had been headed out to the store for some cigarettes and was walking down the back alley.
“Where’s the fire, Jack?” he asked, jokingly looking around.
“Where are you headed?” Jack asked, ignoring the jest.
“Just going to get some smokes, why?”
“No reason,” he answered. “Mind if I tag along?”
“Don’t you mean, ‘Mind if I watch you buy them so I can bum one’?” Henry shot back, returning to his walk, now accompanied by his employer.
“Ha-ha” Jack let out sarcastically. “You should consider going up to the Palace Theatre and getting a job doing comedy.”
Henry chuckled. “So what’s this about, Jack? Either Marie is really on you, which is why you need a cigarette so bad you’re willing to chase me down, or you have something on your mind, so out with it.”
“I just haven’t had a chance to talk to you since your date and I wanted to see how it went. Sherman said you left in a bit of a hurry.”
“It was good,” he replied, not wanting to get too detailed. “We really had a chance to connect. I appreciate it, Jack. It was a great night.”
“I’m glad to hear that. The way Sherman tells it, you two ran out of there like there was something after you. What happened? Did she dump you right there at dinner? Dames! You can’t live with ’em, you can’t live without ’em, and you can’t kill ’em…outside of Jersey!”
Henry laughed. “No, it was nothing like that. She just suddenly wasn’t feeling well and wanted to get home.”
“Did she invite you up?” he asked, giving Henry a wink. “After a meal like that she better have!”
“Jack,” Henry began. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re kind of a creep?”
“More times than I can count,” he laughed. “But I’m married. Who do I have to impress anymore?!”
Henry gave an exasperated sigh as they walked into the store. When they came out, he gave Jack a cigarette and offered him a match to light it on.
“Seriously,” Jack started, exhaling a stream of bluish smoke. “I’m glad everything is going good between you two. I just want to tell you to be careful. You’re a good kid and I’d hate to see anything happen to you. Marie and I—well, you know. Marie thinks very highly of you, son.”
“Thanks, Jack. But I’ll be fine, I promise. Monica is a good person who found herself in a bad situation, just like me. And I really like her. I don’t know if I’ve ever liked anyone as much as her.”
“I know,” he affirmed, exhaling again. “I’m just letting you know.” They had reached the mouth of the alley behind the restaurant. “Now finish your smoke and get inside before you have no choice but to go down to the Palace Theatre!”
“You’re such a sentimental guy, Jack,” Henry noted sarcastically. “How did Marie ever get so lucky?”
“What can I say? She won the lottery.”
“Yeah, something like that.”
Jack put out his cigarette and walked back inside.
Henry was glad. In truth, he had come out here to be alone before his shift started. He wanted to think. He'd had a strange dream the night before that he just couldn’t shake. Actually, he had been having strange dreams every night for the last week or so. They were always about the same thing: A young woman.
He didn’t know her name or anything about her; he had never seen her before the dreams started. Her hair was the color of the sun, a deep yellow that reminded him of the corn fields back home. And her eyes were like the ocean, so blue that you could almost think you’d drown in them. She was beautiful; next to Monica she was probably the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
And that’s why he was out here. He felt guilty that he had dreamt of a woman and immediately felt for her the same way that he felt for Monica. That confused him. Did it mean that his feelings for Monica were less than what he thought? Or did he just have unnaturally strong feelings for this strange woman? And who was she? She was dressed so strangely, and he didn’t remember much else about the dreams.
“Henry!” Marie called from inside. “Get your butt in here and get to work!”
Henry put out his cigarette—which had burned itself close to his fingers by this point anyway—and went back inside, his mind racing.
He didn’t say anything for the next few hours, just washed dishes. This wasn’t an extravagantly large restaurant, but it did fairly well, so until after closing-time there was never a moment without dirty dishes. So he simply did the dishes in silence, the cacophony of kitchen sounds—which can only truly be known by someone who’s worked in a restaurant—faded into the background of his own thoughts.
He could picture the unknown woman so vividly in his mind; almost hear her speaking to him. “Henry. Henry! HENRY!!” He jerked out of his own jumble of incoherent thoughts and looked around. “Jesus, kid! What’s with you today? You’re like a robot.”
Henry looked around to see Marie standing behind him. “Oh, sorry, Marie, I guess I’m just a little preoccupied today.”
“Yeah, well go be preoccupied somewhere else,” she ordered. “Your shift is up and I ain’t paying you extra.” Henry dried his hands on his apron and turned to leave. “Are you okay, son? You don’t seem yourself.”
“Yeah, thanks. Like I said, I’ve just got some stuff on my mind.”
She pulled him aside so his replacement could jump in front of the large sink. “You want to talk about it? It ain’t that girl of yours, is it? You just say the word and I’ll go show her how we do it in New York!”
“No, Marie, but thanks. It has nothing to do with her.” A lie, but until he sorted through his thoughts it was a necessary one.
“Alright,” she breathed skeptically, “But if you change your mind, I’m here; about the talking or about the girl.” She smiled and he offered the obligatory curl of his lips in return. He then turned to leave.
When he was just about to walk out the back door he heard Jack calling his name from behind him. "Jesus Christ! Will everyone stop calling my name?!" he cursed under his breath. “What’s up, Jack?” he greeted once the portly man was in front of him.
“There are a couple of men out front who are asking about you,” Jack reported, “Business-type; suit and tie and all that.”
Henry was dumbfounded. He had met only a handful of people since coming to New York, and none of them businessmen.
“Are you in some kind of trouble?” Jack questioned. “Want me to send them away?”
“No, Jack,” Henry replied. “I’ll take care of it. Thanks.”
“Alright, well I’m here if you need me. Just give me a holler.”
Henry offered his thanks and continued walking towards the back exit—Jack would’ve sent anyone looking for him around back so that the customers wouldn’t see. He wished that everyone would quit saying they were there for him. He didn’t know if it was just getting really annoying or if he was just in an ornery mood, but frankly he didn’t care.
When he stepped outside he was immediately overwhelmed with curiosity. Jack wasn’t exaggerating; these guys looked official. Two men in identical black suits, dark sunglasses and black fedoras, they stood in front of their black Cadillac as if enjoying the fresh breeze. Neither looked familiar to him, nor did he expect them to.
“Henry Addler?” one of them asked as soon as he walked out. Henry couldn’t tell which one had spoken because the sun was behind them and they both seemed almost identical.
“Who’s asking?” Henry responded suspiciously.
“Have you seen this woman?” One of the men held up a blurry photograph of Monica.
Henry masked his shock by leaning in closer, as if inspecting it. “Sorry, I’ve never seen her. Who is she?”
“She’s a dangerous fugitive that we’re trying to apprehend,” the man not holding the photograph chimed in.
Henry didn’t look at the man who had spoken, but instead stared directly at the one holding the photograph; he seemed to exude an air of authority about him, while the other just seemed the mouthpiece. “That girl is a fugitive? For what?”
“We have it on good authority that you were seen with her a few nights ago,” the mouthpiece stated, blatantly ignoring Henry’s lie. “Now I’m going to ask you again, and know that if you lie you are impeding an on-going investigation. Where is this woman?”
Henry was backed against a corner, but he trusted Monica. It was against everything that he had ever felt was right, but he had made a promise to her and meant to stick by it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never seen that girl a day in my life.”
“Fine,” the mouthpiece began, “Have it your way. You’ll have to come with us.” The man with the photograph returned it to his pocket and took a step towards Henry.
“Henry.” For the first time since he had gotten up that morning, Henry was glad to hear someone calling his name. “Is everything alright out here?” Jack asked sternly, letting the door swing shut behind him.
“Everything is fine, sir,” the mouthpiece claimed. “Please go back inside.”
“Can I see some identification, gentlemen?” Jack pressed, stepping up beside Henry.
Jack was not the biggest man in the world, and definitely not the healthiest, but in his apron with his sleeves rolled up he made for an intimidating figure. And it didn’t hurt that they already knew he was the owner of the restaurant from his initial introduction—he always introduced himself as the owner when greeting customers.
The man in charge looked from Henry to Jack and back, and he spoke for the first time. “You have no idea what you’re getting yourself involved in, young man. If I were you I’d stay very far away from that woman.”
And with that, both men turned, got into their vehicle, and drove away.
Henry let out an exasperated sigh of relief. “Thanks, Jack. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you hadn’t shown up.”
“I knew as soon as I met them that they weren’t cops,” he explained. “Thugs of some kind, yes, but not cops.”
“How did you know to come out?” Henry asked, lighting a smoke and offering one to his savior.
“Marie was listening at the door,” he replied. “When she heard them threaten you she came and got me. Though, truthfully, if they had pressed the issue I’m not sure what good I would’ve been. My fighting days are far behind me.” He chuckled. “Now are you going to tell me what that was all about?”
“Monica,” Henry answered. “She’s in some kind of trouble, Jack. I wish I could explain more than that but I can’t. I just know that I couldn’t tell those guys what I knew.”
Jack laughed uproariously, shaking his head slowly back and forth. “Always a woman,” he intoned. “Leave it up to a dame to get a man in trouble every time. Well you’re safe here as long as you want, kid, you know that. But sooner or later you’re going to have to tell me what’s going on. Those guys weren’t some hoodlums trying to steal your wallet.”
“I know, Jack,” Henry admitted solemnly, feeling bad about not telling him the whole truth. “And I will, eventually, but right now I need to talk to Monica and try to figure this out.”
Henry walked over to Monica’s apartment, taking the time to think about what had just happened. The dreams were the least of his concerns, but they had their place in his thoughts, too. He got to her door and started knocking incessantly.
He heard Monica yelling something from inside and then the door swung open. “What—! Oh, Henry, it’s you.”
“We need to talk,” Henry stated, pushing open the door and walking in.
“Sure, come on in,” she responded sarcastically as she shut the door behind him.
Henry stopped and realized that he had never been in her home before. It wasn’t large—homely might be the polite word for it—and there were only two rooms; a living area with a small stove in the corner and a bedroom with the door closed. The room that he could see had peeling yellow wallpaper with small flowers on it, and there were no photographs or decorations on the walls. The ceiling was molding on one of the corners, and it was a dingy gray, while the wood floors looked more like the deck of a pirate ship than the floor of an apartment. There were two floor-to-ceiling windows on the far wall with dingy and slightly-tattered sheer curtains over them, and a desk and chair were pushed up against the wall between them. There were two other chairs in the room—a surprisingly nice brown leather wingback chair in one corner by the window and a dining room chair to his left—and an old yellow couch pushed against the wall to his right. He immediately felt bad for her.
“I never intend to stay in one place very long,” she began abashedly, “So I never pay much attention to where I’m staying, as long as it’s warm and dry.”
Henry felt ashamed. About her living conditions, about her story, about that fraction of a second when the man had shown him her photo when he had doubted her, and about how he had stormed in here unexpectedly.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay,” she offered, consolingly. “I was just about to have a cup of coffee; can I get you some?” She started towards the stove without waiting for his response.
“That’d be great, thanks.”
She gestured for him to sit down and a moment later handed him a cup. “What’s wrong?”
He told her about what had just happened, and about the photo. For a long moment she just sat there, staring into her coffee cup as if it were a crystal ball and could show her the future if she gazed long enough.
“I knew they’d come eventually,” she muttered softly. “I just didn’t think it would be this soon.”
“Who are they?” he asked imploringly. “And what do they want?”
“I wish I knew,” she responded softly. She began softly sobbing.
Henry stood up and knelt down in front of her, putting his hand on her knee. “It’s okay,” he offered softly, comfortingly. “We’ll figure this out and everything will be okay.”
“No, it won’t,” she responded defiantly. “I lied to you, Henry. At dinner the other night, I said that after Chicago there were no more incidents, but that was a lie. I just really liked you and didn’t want to scare you away. I was almost hoping that you wouldn’t believe me, or at least that you’d think, if nothing had happened since Chicago, then it was all over.”
“It’s okay,” he repeated. “What happened? You can tell me.”
“It was a few months before I came here,” she began. “I hadn’t found a stable place yet and was wandering around, sleeping where I could, eating what I could. I wasn’t low on money—I still had quite a bit from Chicago—but I was too afraid to settle down because I always had a feeling that someone was following me, watching me.
“I was in Baltimore; I had been sleeping in a sewer entrance for the past few nights. They were quiet and no one bothered me.
“I remember the night like it was yesterday. It had been raining all day so it was damp and humid; the bottom of the tunnel had an inch or two of water on it. Even though it had stopped raining a few hours ago, the air still had a feeling of pressure, as if it were a balloon filled with water just waiting to pop, and there was still thunder and lightning in the distance.
“It wasn’t a quiet night—nights in Baltimore rarely are—but it was a silent night. The sounds of the city and its people were faded in the distance, as were the lights beyond the sparse trees. There were no owls or other nighttime creatures; only the wind and the faint sound of thunder.
“I was wet and cold, though I wasn’t crying. I remember that because I learned long ago that cold, nighttime, thunder, these things are nothing to be afraid of. It’s what’s hiding behind these things that you should be afraid of, and crying won’t help that. I had huddled up deeper into the tunnel to shield myself from the wind, and I was finally starting to feel my eyelids getting heavy when I heard a voice.
“‘You, girl!’ the voice shouted. It was an older man; he was a streetwalker, I could tell right away. His voice was raspy and deep, as if years of smoking had finally taken their toll. I stood up and looked towards the entrance, making sure that I could run if needed.
“‘What do you want?’ I demanded. ‘Stay where you are!’ But he didn’t. He kept running towards me. You’d think after all this time that I would have a gun, but I don’t. I don’t trust myself with one. I pulled out a knife that I always keep with me, though, and held it where he could see it, though it didn’t seem to faze him.
“When he got within a couple feet of me he stopped and spoke. ‘They’re coming for you, girl. And they won’t stop until they find you!’
“‘Who?!’ I cried out. ‘Who’s coming for me? And what do they want?’
“‘They know what you’ve seen, and they won’t let you run around with that.’
“‘I haven’t seen anything!’ I shouted at him, even though he was just a few feet in front of me. ‘I don’t know what they want from me!’
“‘Run, girl!’ he hollered at me. ’Run, and never look back! Run like your life depended on it, because it does!’
“I tripped over something as I turned to run away. I wasn’t afraid of the old man, but I knew that I had to leave; if he could find me, then it was only a matter of time before they did. I ran all the way to the train station and bought a ticket for the first train out of town. As always, I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t care. I just knew that I needed to leave, and fast.”
Henry had leaned back on the couch and was watching her intently, absorbing her words. After she was done speaking the silence in the room seemed deafening. He took a sip of his coffee and thought for a moment.
“Did you ever see the man again?” he pressed cautiously. “Did you know him?”
“No,” she replied. “I had never seen him before and haven’t seen him since. I have no idea how he knew me or how he had the information that he did.”
“Is it possible that he was just mad?”
“Possible? Yes,” she mused. “Plausible? No. Given everything that has happened in my life since my parents died, I don’t believe in coincidences like that. He knew who I was, and he spoke to me with a purpose.”
“And you have no idea what he was talking about?”
She lowered her head and was silent for a moment. “I’m not sure.” Henry wanted to shout, but he gave her the time she needed. “I told you that my parents had died of Consumption; first my father, and then my mother. I remember the last day that I saw my father vividly. That particular sanitarium was fairly new—Virginia was infamous for them around that time—and my father had been ill for a little while, though we didn’t think anything of it as the Consumption hadn’t been prevalent in our town at the time.
“He had just gotten home and was taking off his jacket when a knock came at the door. When he opened it two men in white coats grabbed him and pulled him into a truck. A third man stopped and spoke to my mother. Once they had left, my mother sat me down and explained that he had to be taken to a special hospital because of the type of illness that he had. I was only a child so, though I was upset, I didn’t realize that would be the last time I ever saw my father.
“Within a couple weeks, my mother sat me down and had another talk with me. She told me her true suspicions about that incident. She said she didn’t believe that my father had Consumption at all, and that the sanitarium was a lie. Oh, yes, she believed that the building existed—we had both gone and tried, unsuccessfully, to see my father on more than one occasion—but she didn’t believe that it was a sanitarium at all. She said that there were rumors circulating that there were experiments being done in there; in all the sanitariums in Virginia, in fact, and that the Plague was just a convenient cover so they could do these things, though she didn’t know what exactly the experiments were. She told me that my father had met someone who had escaped and he helped him disappear, and that’s why they ultimately took him away. Not long after she told me that they came and took her away, explaining that she, too, had come down with it, though she showed no signs that I could see.”
“And you decided to run before they came for you, too,” Henry concluded. “That’s why they’re after you.”
“Neither my father nor my mother showed signs of it,” she defended herself, “And after each of them died they would not let me see the bodies. They claimed that they had been cremated, though as you know that’s not the automatic custom for Consumption victims. I went and demanded the autopsy reports and they refused, claiming that there had been a ‘filing error’ and the paperwork was lost. And I wasn’t the only one; people were disappearing like this all over town, and with each of them there were ‘filing errors’ and cremations. I decided to go to the town doctor and have myself checked, and he gave me a clean bill of health, but the very next day the doctor was taken. Less than a week later I decided that it was time for me to go, so I packed what I could and left in the middle of the night. Fritzie’s death confirmed to me that not only was my mother right, but that she knew something about it. What she knew or how, I don’t know, but she knew something, and she gave her life to protect me from it.”
Henry set his half-empty coffee cup down and began pacing the floor, mumbling to himself, incoherently repeating her story out loud.
After a moment of watching him, Monica pleaded, “Henry, please sit down and talk to me. Henry!”
“Jesus Christ, Monica!” Henry exclaimed. “Why didn’t you tell me this?!”
“Because I didn’t think you would believe me,” she replied softly. “And I didn’t want to scare you away.”
He stopped pacing and looked at her. “Obviously I wasn’t going to get scared away! You must’ve known that after the Stork Club! So why didn’t you tell me? At least let me know what I was getting into when those guys showed up at the restaurant!”
“I’m sorry!” she lamented. “I’m sorry, Henry, but I didn’t want to get you involved.”
“It’s a little late for that!” he cried out. He began pacing again, and she only watched him. Finally, he stopped and sat down. “Okay, here’s what we’ll do: I’ll go talk to Jack and see if he has any contacts that can get us hidden and out of town. Meanwhile—”
“No!” she interjected. “You can’t tell Jack!”
“Monica, he has to know,” he explained slowly. “I’m living with him. He’s in this as much as I am right now. Besides, he’s the only one who might be able to help us.”
Monica sighed and put her head down. “I can’t ask you to do this, Henry. You know what my life has been like since I left home, and I can’t ask you to abandon everything you’ve built just for me.”
Henry got down on his knees in front of her. “There’s no ‘just’ about it,” he reassured her softly. “You are the closest thing to home that I’ve felt since my parents died. And I know that sounds crazy because we haven’t known each other long, but I promised you that I’d look after you, and I’m going to stick to my word.”
Monica looked up, tears in her eyes, and she leaned forward and kissed him. It was a deep, passionate kiss, the type that intertwines souls and connects two people more than just physically. At that moment he had never been more sure of anything in his life; he would stay by her side and protect her no matter what. After a moment, he slowly pulled away and looked at her.
“You stay here,” he instructed. “I’ll be back soon and we can go over everything then. In the meantime, don’t go outside; they’re here somewhere and I don’t want to risk them seeing you.”
“Thank you,” she softly, running her fingers through his hair. Henry got up and began walking towards the door. “Henry, wait!” He turned and looked at her expectantly. “I…love you.”
Henry smiled. “I love you, too.” And then he turned and left, closing the door behind him.