The wind that blew the frigid air against the rattling windowpanes was strong, and persistent. The inhabitants of the St. Matilda’s boarding house were not at all pleased with that wind, due mostly to the cheapness of Bulat Vidanyas, the owner of the St. Matilda’s. Bulat was a Russian Jew, who bathed about as often as he shaved, and shaved only for the high holidays. He prided himself on making as much as he could off the places he rented. Few panes of glass in the St. Matilda’s were without cracks.
Bulat did not live at St. Matilda’s. He had a cozy brownstone on 28th street, towards the middle of the island. He lived alone, an old man who had come to the country just at the turn of the century, a younger man. Bulat bought this apartment, as well as St. Matilda’s as a result of the one moment fortune smiles on all men. Unlike most men, Bulat happened to be aware of his fortune at the time to take advantage of it.
When disembarking from the packed passenger vessel, The Victory, which had carried him across the endless waves of the bleak Atlantic, Bulat was asked a favor by his pneumatic bunk mate, Gerome Ippolito. The two had shared a bunk with for most of the journey, in the packed immigrant quarters, and Gerome had rarely spoken. Bulat was surprised he spoke Russian, even if somewhat mongrelized by his heavy Roman tongue. Gerome had asked Bulat to carry a bag for him in through the immigration station. Gerome promised it would be retrieved on the other side, at a place he assured Bulat would be easy to find, and that Bulat would be well compensated for his troubles. The old man told Bulat the bag (which was clearly a physician’s bag, of fine black Toledo leather) would be too heavy to hold the long while waiting in the rumored-endless queues of the immigration station, but was far too precious to be let out of sight, or put down, for even a moment.
Bulat made all the appropriate shows of planning and honesty, arranging where to meet Gerome on the other side, when they were finally Americans. They had parted ways with Gerome taking the last of his fortifying powder in a small cup of water, hoping it would repel his cough long enough to make it past the immigration lines. Once out of sight, Bulat ducked into a newly abandoned passenger room on the ship, and forced the lock on the bag. Expecting some sort of contraband or riches, the Russian was surprised to find it full of books. These he removed, one at a time from the bag, stacking them neatly on the ground, until he came to the bottom of the bag. With a second thought, the unstacked the books, and checked each one carefully, looking for secret hollows or compartments. The contents of the books were all in alien tongues to him, and not all of them were typeset. Some of them had some very disturbing illustrations, but no precious goods hidden away in their bindings.
Hearing the whistle of one of the bosun’s mate, Bulat knew he had little time before he was discovered. In frustration, he kicked the bag across the room, considering abandoning the entire venture. When the back slammed against the wall as a result of his kick, it made a distinctly unleatherlike sound. Bulat picked it back up, quickly discovering the cleverly concealed pouch es worked into he bottom of the outside of the bag. These contained three chocolate-bar sized chunks of what appeared to be pure silver, and two of gold. Additionally, there was a black-veined ruby nearly the size of a hen’s egg, and a handful of other, lesser stones! Bulat quickly repacked the bag, ignoring the brittle paper and strangely entitled texts as he shoved them all back in. Like a blacksmith’s puzzle, the books had to be placed in the precisely right order and angle for them all to fit, which was the only way to prevent the telltale jingle of the secret compartment. After several minutes of frustrated shuffling, the Russian became concerned that he was going to be noticed by one of the immigration officers constantly roaming the annex where the queues began to form.
In a moment of rare inspiration, Bulat unpacked the bag once more, and emptied the contents of the secret compartment into his coat pockets. Disembarking the boat, instead of plunging into the vast lines awaiting processing, he went and sat on a bench, where he spent the better part of an hour working the smaller gems into the hem of his greatcoat. He traded his last three tins of oil-packed fish to a nearby babushka, in exchange for a needle and thread, which she haggled over for nearly ten minutes. With a clumsy hand, but dogged persistence, the Russian cleverly sewed the silver bars into the cuffs of his coat, and surreptitiously slid the gold bars into his socks, under the pretense of darning them. Unpon reshodding, he stamped his new-found fortune way to the bottom of his feet in his beaten up boots.
Of the books, Bulat cared nothing, but he did not dare leave the bag where it might be found, for fear that he might actually find Gerard on the other side of the vast lines which seemed to go on forever. Bulat carried them through, surprised to find that many of the people who asked the endless questions spoke no other languages than their own. Bulat answered as honestly as he could, the huge ruby nearly cutting into his hand as he clenched it in nervousness answering the endless incomprehensible questions. Eventually, he was through, and Bulat, relieved after spending nearly a day waiting for the moment, finally stepped through the black-iron gates, into America. The Russian Jew never heard from Gerard, despite waiting for over an hour at the appointed location they had agreed on. Before wandering into the night, seeking someplace where he could secure some form of lodging, Bulat left a message with a nearby cart vendor, an apple seller, that if he saw Gerard waiting for him, that he should approach the man, and tell him to return the next day.
Bulat did this for three days, before he decided that Gerard was not coming. The apple-seller had seen nobody waiting by the green light post in the northwest corner of the small park in three days who matched Bulat’s description. Elated, Bulat haggled over a half-dozen apples, and disappeared into throngs of New York. It had not taken Bulat long to find a community he could survive in, in the shadow of what would one day be the Flatiron Building. Bulat found ways to convert the gems and precious metal into quite a bit of capitol, which he used to buy a brownstone on 28th street, leaning heavily on the translations of an Orthodox Priest, who Bulat had convinced he was on the verge of converting faiths, to negotiate the particulars. He lived in the basement, letting the upper floors to other immigrants, like himself, and outrageous prices. Of his people, he wanted nothing but the money they sweated and worked for, for they had given nothing fleeing Russia. Quickly, he found himself wondering what he could do if he had even more space to rent.
St. Matilda’s, built of salvaged planks and stolen nails, squatted tenuously on the Hudson riverside, close to the Western end of Canal Street. It had started as a military hospital, converted to a warehouse after the war of 1812, then later rebuilt hastily when half the building was damaged by a fire in the late 1880’s. It was rat infested, with little in the way of amenities, and Bulat had gotten it for a song and a dance from the previous owner, who was fleeing to Brazil owing to the fact that he had fallen behind on the payments he owed to the group he had borrowed the principal on the investment from. Bulat bought it, spent as little as possible to fix it up, and twice that much on a well-placed bribe to a petty city inspector, which earned him the right to subdivide the storage space into some living quarters. These he then further subdivided into slum-like closets. The quayside and waterside areas he kept as storage, the rest he converted into places where people new to the potentials of the land paved in gold would pay hard-earned dollars for conditions no better, if not worse than what they had left behind. Not many stayed long, but there were always new people to replace the old at St. Matilda’s.
That same late December that rattled the windows at St. Matilda’s did not cause so much as a flicker in Bulat’s roaring coal stove. The change in the skies had carried in a cavalcade of large, slate clouds, ending the shortened December day even more quickly than usual. With the clouds came a dampness which seemed to promise snow, but, so far, just before midnight, had failed to arrive. For the tenants on the top floor of the St. Matilda’s, whose roof was just as rickety as the tar-papered walls, the hope of snow was the only thing that allowed some to go to sleep, instead of staying up to tend the small coal stoves in each of their rooms for fear of freezing to death. The snow would temporarily insulate most of these top-floor rooms, and though it would bring inevitable leaks when the weather warmed, between now and then, the apartments would be practically balmy.
Lucinda frowned at the dusting of tooth-powder on the brush, grimacing in anticipation of its camphor taste as she began to scrub her teeth a moment later. Though she was over forty, she still had nearly all of her teeth, and the street hawker who had sold her the powder guaranteed it would help her keep the ones she had left. Though Lucinda was usually quite disdainful of all the remedies the blancos tried to sell her to cure what ailed her, she was horribly vain about her teeth, and decided, in this case, to make an exception.
The spindly Hispanic woman listened to the whistling of the wind through the cracks in her apartment, as she quickly dressed from her work clothes into a thick wool nightgown. Though she had coked her little stove nearly to full, she still was unsure it would keep her warm enough through the night. Though she had been in Nueva York for more than half her life, her blood was cooled, to allow her to survive the brutal summers of San Juan. It served her well in August, but rarely in December. Wishing for the hundredth time she had never come to America, Lucinda shivered as she spit into the chamberpot.
Finishing her nightly routine by washing her face and hands, then briefly kneeling to say her prayers, Lucinda crawled under the thick blankets of her bedraggled cot, hoping that the cold seeping through the thin walls would keep away the worst of the bedbugs which infested the building, but knowing, somehow, it would not.
As Lucinda fitfully tried to find sleep, the couple in the apartment next to her were doing anything but. Despite the fact that they had found a way to stow two children and two adults in a room meant for one person, they were quietly engaged in activity which would hopefully bring them another. Before the influenza, Rodger had been one of many children, and he had always assumed he would have a large family, the way his parents had. He could not have foreseen the death of all of his siblings, and his mother, within a few weeks of each other.
Roger was not preoccupied with these thoughts, as engaged in his pleasurable activity that he was, but they hummed softly somewhere in this mid-brain, just below the tide-line of his consciousness.
In the afterglow of coupling with his wife, Roger smoked silently in the dark, trying to fend off the frigid blue fingers of despair which threatened to overtake the warmth suffusing him.
“If only father had come back, all of this would be different.”
Roger’s wife stirred in her half-sleep, asking him drowsily what he had said. He whispered a meaningless goodnight to her, and patted her on the head. He had not realized he had spoken aloud. Silently, by muscle memory, he lit his last cigarette with the box of matches that sat on the rickety bedside table. In the feverish red glow of the cigarette’s lit end, Roger contemplated just how different his life would have been, if his father had returned from Europe after the flu struck. He had been too young to do much of anything for himself, and he was subsequently shipped off to a far-flung cousin in Massachusetts.
Roger returned to New York, decades after his departure, in a vain attempt to settle his father’s affairs, and put some claim forth on the family fortune. Instead, he found that the trustee of the estate was unwilling to part with the ancillary wealth it garnered him, and without “legitimate” proof of parentage, he found himself quickly barred from the offices of the trustee, and fighting to find a job amidst a sea of fresh immigrant labor. As his savings dwindled by the day, Roger had become more and more convinced that he should have just died with his siblings years before.
Meeting his wife had saved him somewhat. Jordanna was an unusual woman, sharply witty and intelligent, schooled in Europe, though not held in high esteem by a German family of good fortune. She seemed to have someone back home well-connected enough to send her money sporadically, which, combined with his odd income, kept the two if them out of the gutter. Roger did work when he could find it – occasionally as a typesetter (which he had hoped would evolve into a reporting job, but so far, fruitlessly), and occasionally as an assistant in the local apothecary. Neither job brought in enough steady income for them to permanently improve their situation. Finishing his cigarette, Roger supposed it was going to have to, if Jordanna found herself pregnant once more. At least this child would be his, and not the offspring of some far-flung Pole, who, apparently, had abandoned his wife in a moment of socio-political revelation.
Across the hall from where the Roger and Lucinda’s found slumber at nearly the same time, the three inner apartments, all facing the jumbled chaos of the climbing skyline of lower Manhattan. In the first of these, a porter on the British vessel The Excelsior was hastily clothing himself, wishing that he had sufficient time to visit a bathhouse before returning to the cramped quarters of the trading vessel he was going to spend the next twelve to seventeen weeks on.
Partnam washed off as much of the night’s frivolities from his body as he could, before hastily donning his clothes, and beginning the arduous process of combing and wrapping his long hair into his turban. Though he would not miss the last bell at the port, he was running later than he wanted to, particularly since his head had not entirely cleared from the evening’s distractions. On a padded pallet, next to him in the small room, slept a raven-haired, milky skinned prostitute, with whom Partnam had spent the better part of the last three days of leave.
Partnam did not normally have the funds for such a liaison, but, after ensuring that the Company wired the majority of his meagre salary to the depot back in Delhi, he had taken the small amount of currency he had remaining, and had gotten himself involved in a fairly serious game of cards with several of the officers. Unlike many of the other porters, Partnam spoke excellent English, owing to his forced household education as a child of servants under an enlightened and wealthy plantation owner. Though none of the officers would have ever admitted to it publicly, they all liked Partnam. They liked him decidedly less, however, after the quick-eyed Punjab, wits addled with just as much cheap gin as theirs, had cleaned them all out after hours of gaming.
Partnam struggled with his Kam, and, lacking a wife, decided that prostitution was the most obvious means of preventing it from overtaking his chances for prosperity the next life.
Partnam had joined with the merchant ship in the hopes of seeing the world, and the world had seemed disappointing, thus far in his third year of labor. His sudden windfall, however, allowed him to explore parts of the world he had always wondered about, but were so taboo that he couldn’t even express wondering about them aloud, much less think to act on them. Smiling to himself as he clasped his bracelet on, he mused at having spent the last three days doing just that. His explorations showed him, among other things, the principal reason, to the best of his experiences, that white men were so tightly wound and capable of such heartlessness. After three days in the arms of a paid woman, and what she, whose livelihood depended on her talents, seemed to know of the affairs of the bedroom were fairly demonstrable. Partnam had done his best to educate her, in the short time they were together, but it seemed, for all their talk, he was surrounded by men who knew nothing of the arts of love, if the raven-haired wench was any indication.
Sarah stretched like as cat, feeling soreness in places she barely knew could ache, as her odd client performed some sort of ceremony as he wrapped his head in his special head cloth. Sarah groaned slightly as she, too, found her feet and began to dress, the soreness worsening with her activity. With the money she had made in the past few days, she would finally have enough to let a room in a respectable place, among her own people, instead of constantly having to scrimp to survive in a place not so much better than the ghetto she had fled.
Sarah’s husband had remained behind, leaving her to care for their son, Seth, without any means of support. Noah had put her on the train leaving Warsaw with a thick sheaf of marks, which she had found out quickly, were not worth as much as her husband had thought they were. She managed to book passage to America by catching the eye of a ship man, who secured them passage for off-hour interludes. Seth had been taken care of by the other immigrants, in those hours. Of all the promises Noah had made, the Synagogue was the only one that held true – all his contacts had moved on, to Chicago or California, leaving her quite alone in a city where being alone, with a small child, was quite a hopeless situation. Now, at least, she could leave her child int he care of the Cantor Krantz, but, if they ever found out what she was doing for work, when she was supposed to be working in a button factory in Brooklyn, she knew she would be hard-pressed to survive, with her young son unable to fend for himself yet.
As the musing Sikh carefully wrapped his Turban, in the subdivide next to him and his sleeping partner, another night worker was preparing for a long shift at the docks. David Sexton, named after the king of Old Israel, by parents who abandoned the old gods when they abandoned the old world, struggled to cram his blocky feet into his thick work boots. The swelling from his previous night’s labor having barely subsided sufficiently to allow the possibility of the task, David soon found himself sitting on his pallet, struggling like an upended turtle to force his aching feet into his stubborn footwear.
Though David was better educated than any of his peers or profession seemed to suggest, he found sublimity in the simplicity of his life. After managing to squeeze his left foot into his thick rubber boot, he stamped his feet gently, trying not to make too much noise, which is to say he made as much as an unloaded freight train, rather than a fully loaded freight train. The boards of his room creaked in protest as David crossed the room to get his rubber-coated work coat, pausing to open a small tin of anchovies for his cat, Archimedes. When the towering bulk that was David bent to place the can by the door, he paused momentarily to pet Archimedes, and listen at the wall to see if his eccentric neighbor was still at it. As Archimedes purred loudly, digging into the anchovies as David pet him, it seemed to the titanic dockworker that whatever the strange Italian next door was working on was still a matter of much cursing and coughing, in addition to the weird noise the apparatus made.
As David wrestled himself into his coat, he supposed that the Italian, a wrinkled old man, Dr. Ippolito, or “The Doctor”, as the other tenants in the building called him, could be some sort of repair man. Because they kept similar hours, David had run into him once or twice in the thin-slat stairwell that led down to the main entrance to the building. Each time he had and been carrying a box of tubes and wires, likely radio components, up or down the stairs, wheezing heavily, with bloodshot eyes and bedraggled hair. The Doctor’s work rarely bothered David, but he had heard from the Boston boy down the hall that, apparently, one night, while everyone was trying to sleep, something in The Doctor’s room was making a horrible racket, and no matter how hard they had banged on the door, they wouldn’t get him to come out, or shut it off.
The bang which issued from the The Doctor’s apartment, just as David was squeezing his bulk through the narrow doorway into the cramped hall, was sufficient in impact to cause dust to shake itself from the cracked plaster in the corners of the ill-kept hall. The single flickering light in the hallway went out with a pop, and the Doctor screamed loudly into the newborn darkness.
“Apollo palle, l’ho fatto! La strada è ancora chiaro… La terra di sogni e di Thalarion all’interno! Non è più il tuo mura dorate del mare mi trattenne, mostro. L’ho fatto, e io l’ho fatto senza l’utilizzo della vostra pietra maledetta. Il mio scienza sconfiggere i vostri sortilegi rosso. I. .. No! Desistere! Cosa stai facendo? No! Nooooo!”
Blinking in the sudden change of light, David took two strides towards his neighbor’s door, just as a horrible arcing sound began to issue forth, accompanied by the Doctor’s screams of pain and surprise, punctuated by quick flashes of blue-white light emanating from the crack beneath the Doctor’s door. David pounded on the door, screaming hoarsely over the sounds issuing from the room. A few doors in the hall opened, just as David decided he had heard enough, and kicked the door in, releasing a billowing cloud of acrid smoke into the slum’s hallway.
The tiny flat beyond the broken-down door was rank with thick black smoke, which appeared to be pouring from a strange device taking up the majority of the room’s space. Seated on a wheeled wooden chair, before the enigmatic apparatus, was the Doctor, howling in pain, apparently unable to extract himself from the myriad of wires connecting the strange hat he wore to the machine he sat next to. Large black boxes, like welder’s trunks, sat next to the apparatus, which were throwing up sparks, and the occasional ripping arc of blue-white electricity as the wires attached to their tops smoked and sparked. David forced his way into the room, holding his breath, as the Doctor continued to buck in his chair, shrieking and screaming, while desperately attempting to unbuckle the thick leather strap around his chin, which was holding his strangely wired cap on his head. The cap, and its nest of wires, were attached to the frame of the chair with some sort of strange metal framework, riddled with small red lights, which pulsed in time with the strange composite lenses fixed over the Doctor’s eyes. Unsure of what to do, David yelled once more to the Doctor, hoping for some instruction, as the smoke thickened, and the arcing from the metallic boxes increased in violence and rapidity.
In the hallway, Roger, unclothed, wielding a candlestick like a cudgel, collided with Lucinda, carrying her stove-poker in a similar grip. The two of them fell to the ground, and, just as they were righting themselves, Sarah, and Partnam ran into them, knocking them back over, as they exited Sarah’s flat and tripped over her neighbors. As they all found their feet in the frightening din, occasionally brilliantly illuminated from the end of the hall, all of them winced at the horrible sounds issuing forth from the Doctor’s room. As the four all tried to reassure each other in a smattering of accented English as they their way down the hall, all of them wondered to each other, in their own mental tongues, if they shouldn’t be going the opposite direction from the one they were moving in.
Just as the quatrain of terrified but intrepid neighbors of the Doctor made their way to his door, peering into the weird vista they could glimpse beyond David’s bulk, David seized the frail and foul-smelling old man by the shoulder with one hand, Nearby lay a pile of tools, from which David had grabbed a pair of wire cutters, which he used to start to hack through the chinstrap the Doctor was ineffectively trying to unbuckle, his gibbering howls having devolved into low gurgling moans as he did so. Cautiously, but not bloodlessly, the giant succeeded in cutting through the chinstrap. just as one of the black boxes let out a bang, similar to the one which had rattled the hallway, issuing a corona of red glowing energies, which washed in a scalding wave over the moaning Doctor, and David, who finally forced the odd apparatus off the Doctor’s head.
As soon as the Doctor’s head was free of the leather cap, David slung him over a shoulder, and ponderously turned to exit the room. As the other two boxes exploded with their accompanying waves of crimson plasma, David was knocked over, sprawling onto the Doctor’s book-choked cot, dropping his would-be rescue as he did so. With a weak yell, the Doctor fell to the ground, as the occupants of the hallway cried out as two more waves of red plasma washed over them, the first having knocked them all to the floor. The machine, on the far end of the room, suddenly began issued forth an otherworldly whine, which was all at once so painful, and so loud, that it forced both the occupants of the room, and the occupants of the hall to scream out, as if their cries could somehow drown out the alien sounds warping the air around the strange machine. Like a rapid release of firecrackers, the red-glowing glass tubes across the strange apparatus, and along the back of the doctor’s chair exploded, one after another, releasing a sulfurous stench into the air, which overpowered everything, including the smell of burning rubber, issuing from the smoke pouring from the apparatus’ guts.
Just when the noise seemed so unbearable that it would surely cause all those in proximity to it’s origin to lose consciousness, it stopped, suddenly. Weakly, the light in the hallway sputtered back to life, and in the newborn silence of the wake of the departing cacophony, none of those left living in the room could hear more than the whine of protesting inner ears for some time.
When David regained his feet, groggily, he bent down and turned over the Doctor, who had collapsed on his face following the destruction of the machine, to see if he could feel for the old man’s pulse. When he did so, the huge man recoiled in horror from the Doctor’s remains. The old man’s face was a mask of pain, and along the deep furrows cut across his agonized cheeks ran the liquefied remains of his melted eyes. Just as David began to be able to hear again, dimly recognizing the ringing tones of the church’s midnight bell, the twin sockets where the dead Doctor’s eyes had once resided stared up at the giant accusingly, issuing thin tendrils of red steamy mist.
::Int checks at a DC 10, sanity checks if you make ‘em::
Continued at Scene 2: The Seeking