CHAPTER TWO: TRIUMPH (5/5)

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The Alexandria bookstore was blissfully quiet.

It had taken Sol a little more effort than usual to lift himself over the black gate in the alleyway, which was probably as much to do with his full belly and the rye bread stuffed in his pockets than the day's exertions. After leaving the street cleaning station, he'd gone straight to the Tub where he'd stayed twice as long as normal, consuming no less than four servings of Zero's thick stew and three cups of black coffee.

Once he was safely inside the shop, Sol removed his wet hat and coat and hung them from a bookshelf to dry out. He then kicked off his shoes and peeled off his socks which were heavy with water, finding his feet icy cold and badly wrinkled. He spent half an hour massaging some heat back into them, wishing for nothing more than a pair of dry socks and a fire, but his spirits were still plenty high and the air was surprisingly warm.

After a brief scan of the shelves, Sol settled on a copy of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. He made himself comfortable on the floor, opened the book to the beginning and started reading, but before he'd even finished the first chapter, his eyes had grown heavy and he was struggling to follow the thread of the story. He persevered for a few more pages before deciding it was a battle he could not win, and although he usually tried to avoid sleep, he also knew a hard day's work worked wonders on the mind and supposed that if he'd ever get a good night's sleep, it would be tonight.

Before closing his book, he took out his time ticket for the umpteenth time that night and just looked at it. It was proof that good fortune hadn't left him entirely and he hoped it might bring him pleasant dreams. He tucked it safely inside the pages of his book to mark his place before closing his eyes and relinquishing himself at last to the darkness of his mind.

*   *   *

A blood-soaked hand clawed at Sol's face, digging fingers into his mouth and eyes. He tasted mud and metal while the flesh between his hands squirmed and thrashed, but he refused to let go.

He couldn't.

Through blood-smeared vision, he glimpsed a flash of silver slicing through the darkness and suddenly the left side of his face was wet and hot. He freed his left hand and grabbed at the air, his fingers closing around the edges of a blade. It tried to pull away but he held it in place, squeezing tighter and tighter until he could feel it cutting into his bones.

He squeezed hard, this time with his right hand, and felt the snap.

The thrashing ceased. He screamed, but it was not the scream of a human but that of a crazed animal. It forced its way out of him like a demon escaping the pits of Hell, turning the air mad with fear and pain and regret. The world started to spin. As it did, his scream sounded less like an animal and more like himself. The blood in his eyes turned black, and when it finally cleared, he found himself back in the bookstore, sitting on the dusty floor, drenched in sweat.

His scream died in his throat, but as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he picked out the shape of a man standing several feet away.

"Don't you goddamn move," the man said, and Sol realized with a fright that it was Mr Debogorski. He had a rifle pointed right at him.

"I was cold," was all Sol could think to say.

"Shut up. Save your story for the police. They'll be here any min--"

Sol didn't mean to do it. His heart was already racing from his nightmare and the sight of the rifle had tipped him over the edge. His leg acted on its own, sweeping Mr Debogorski's feet out from under him so that he swivelled in mid-air and landed hard on his back. While the old man yelled and grabbed at his hip, Sol jumped to his feet and made a crazed dash for the back door, convinced a gunshot would beat him to it—but all he heard was Mr Debogorski groaning loudly.

Sol burst out of the back door into the alley, only realising as he stepped into the snow that he was still bare-footed. In that moment he realised he'd left everything behind in the store—his shoes, hat, coat, his five dollar ticket...

His saxophone.

But it was too late to go back. If Mr Debogorski had been telling the truth about the police then Sol needed to be as far away as possible by the time they arrived.

He ran to the black gate and scrambled upwards, the frozen metal stinging his fingers as he pulled himself over. On reaching the mouth of the alley, he was relieved to find the street empty and immediately started west, knowing the nearest police station was to the east. If a passing police car spotted him walking briskly through the snow without a coat or hat or shoes, they had every excuse they needed to pull him aside and ask him a few questions.

He stuck to the shadows as much as possible, all the way to Fifth Avenue where he turned left towards the Bowery. Within a few minutes, he'd arrived at Washington Square Park where the long road kinked as it passed under the Arch at its northern side.

With no cars in sight, Sol hurried along the middle of the road towards the Arch where two sculptures of George Washington watched him approach from its piers. He was out of breath and desperately needed to rest, so he allowed himself to slow as he passed under the Arch.

The park was deathly quiet. The hair of a moon was present in the sky, suspended above the great elm known to locals as 'The Hanging Tree'.

Sol staggered away from the Arch and stopped in the middle of the road, wondering for a moment if this might all just be part of his nightmare and he was really still just fast asleep in the bookshop.

But the longer he stood there, coatless and shoeless in the snow, the more he knew it was real.

He was about to continue on when a horrible rasping sound behind him gave him pause. He turned around... and his legs went weak.

The Indian man beneath the Arch looked to be in his seventies, though it was hard to tell under the thick mask of blood. The left side of his face was drenched in it, painting half of his grey beard red and dripping on his rags of orange and yellow. The snow by his feet had turned crimson where his blood was pooling on the ground. His eyes were so wide that the whites around his pupils practically glowed in the pale light.

Sol couldn't move. To his horror, the stranger suddenly started towards him, leaving a trail of bloodied footsteps in the snow. He opened his mouth and let out a terrible rattling gasp.

Sol staggered backwards but lost his footing and tripped, landing with a heavy thud on the wet road, and suddenly the Indian man was looming over him, threatening to fall on top of him.

"Get back!" Sol shouted, and the man stopped and swayed, his mouth hanging open, breathing loudly. Sol noticed that the man's ears were slightly elongated and pointed at the tip, though his attention was quickly drawn to his left hand which was missing three of its fingers. Where his outer digits had been, a trio of small red stumps now oozed blood.

With his remaining thumb and forefinger, the stranger clutched at his good right hand and pulled, and a small white circle came loose in his grip.

A ring.

He held the ring out to Sol like he was offering it to him. Sol shook his head and the man dropped heavily to his knees. He grabbed Sol's left hand in his right and before Sol knew it, the blood-glazed ring had been forced into his palm. The two men locked eyes with one another as the Indian man tried to speak through the blood.

"Wen...dy..." he spluttered, and with that, his eyes relaxed and he collapsed on his side and became still.

His heart racing, Sol scrambled backwards on his hands and feet until he was off the road. He briefly considered going back to see if the man might still be alive, but then a pair of bright lights blossomed in the near distance and his panic multiplied. A car had emerged from the city and was driving towards him.

Sol got to his feet and started running.

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