CHAPTER THREE: SMOKE (2/4)

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Sol didn't dare look back as he sprinted south out of the park onto Thompson Street. There, he ducked down the first dark alleyway he came across and threw himself behind a cluster of trash cans. His broad shoulders heaved as he gulped at the sharp air, exhausted from his long sprint.

When he'd recovered a little, he peered over the top of the trash to the mouth of the alley, convinced the car he saw earlier would pull up any second, but after more than a minute had passed, there was no sign of it.

Even so, Sol decided to stay behind cover for a bit longer while he recovered his energy. He noticed one of the trash cans' lids was lying on the ground by his feet and moved it aside, uncovering a circular patch of dry ground. He sat there and pulled his feet in out of the snow, sore from hammering the hard, wet ground. He heard a squeak and looked up to see a large rat sitting a few feet away by one of the trash cans staring at him, its whiskered nose twitching as though it had caught the scent of something tasty. Sol scooped up a ball of snow and threw it.

"Get away!" he growled, and the rat squeaked as it ran off into the night. Sol felt a stickiness in his fingers and looked down to see his hands smeared with dry blood. Horrified, he grabbed another handful of snow and washed them clean, but as he did, images flashed into his mind of the Indian man covered in blood looming over him. He could see him so clearly that it was as though it was happening all over again.

The missing fingers.

The rasping voice.

The white ring.

"The ring," he said, only then remembering. He checked his pockets but it wasn't there. What had he done with it? Had he dropped it? Perhaps it was for the best. If the police caught him with it, they'd surely think he'd stolen it.

He'd given up looking for it when he glimpsed a tiny flash of purple light coming from the ground where the rat had been sitting. He crawled towards it and saw the ring lying on the floor, realising it must have been in his hand when he threw the snow. He picked the ring up and examined it closely, finding it was made of wood. Trapped within it was a small purple stone, very roughly cutthough its colour was vivid.

He wondered if he should drop it into the pile rubbish and be rid of it, but he couldn't quite bring himself to do it. Its beauty was surpassed only by its mystery, and it seemed wrong to throw away another man's possession, even if he was dead. He tucked it away in his trouser pocket and stood up.

With sorry steps, he trudged back into the snow towards Thompson Street.

*   *   *

For two blocks, Sol couldn't shake the feeling that someone was following him, but every time he turned to look, he saw only empty streets behind. Even so, he picked up his pace until he reached a tired old terraced building where a flight of steps led down to its basement.

Sol descended and came to a door with a skin of cracked black paint and a sliding peep-hole. He knocked twice and waited a few seconds, and the peep-hole slid open, revealing the grey eyes of a haggard woman.

"What do you want?" she said.

"To get out of the cold," Sol replied.

"It's late."

"I know."

"You're not wearing a coat."

"I know that, too."

The old woman studied Sol for a few seconds, glancing behind him to check he was alone, then closed the peep-hole and unlocked the door.

Sol could smell the foulness of the place before he'd even stepped inside—a fusion of body odour and cheap alcohol. The Smoke House was one of thousands of speakeasies that had sprung up throughout the City, and though many of them were clean and respectable, this place was not one of them.

Sol entered into a long, thin room where over fifty men had gathered for the night, the lucky ones slumped in chairs lining the walls while the rest littered the damp and dusty floor. It would have been silent if not for the unbroken chorus of coughs and grunts of men hoping for sleep.

There were many lodging houses and homeless shelters in the Bowery, but most found them sombre places and preferred to wait the night out in all-night speakeasies where they could at least get a cheap drink to help them on their way. This was usually a cloudy cocktail of wood alcohol and water which often went by the name 'smoke', though only the poorest dared drink it; a bad batch could mean death. Sol sometimes wondered if that was what they hoped for.

Once Sol was inside, the old woman locked the door again and took her seat in the corner where she waited for the next soul to drift in from the cold.

Doing his best to not step on any of the men lying on the floor, Sol tottered tentatively across the room which was over sixty-feet long. Nearing the far end, he came to a makeshift bar of tables fencing in a rail-thin Italian man reading a week-old newspaper.

"Smoke's a dime," the man said without looking up.

"I just need some clothes," Sol replied. "Shoes and socks and a coat, if you have 'em."

The man looked up from his newspaper and frowned at Sol's lack of attire. "Hell, you're hardly wearing anything. Well, I don't think I have anything that'll fit a man of your size, but you could ask Danny over there. Hey, Danny!"

Sol swivelled to see a white man sitting on the floor in the corner just behind him. He was clean shaven and looked the relatively healthy compared to his drunk neighbours.

"I'm trying to sleep," Danny grunted. His eyes were closed.

"This man needs some clothes."

Danny cracked his eyes open and squinted up at Sol.

"What the hell happened to you?" he asked.

"Bad luck," Sol said.

"Yeah, well, I don't have anything that'll fit you. Sorry, pal."

"What about those?" Sol nodded to a pair of large black shoes on the floor by Danny's side. "What size are they?"

"Those are mine."

"You're already wearing shoes."

"I said, they're mine."

"For Christ's sake, Danny," the barman said. "Let him have the damned shoes. Can't you see he needs them?"

"They're good shoes!"

"Yeah, which you probably stole!"

"I didn't steal nothing!"

Just then, three slow, loud knocks erupted at the other end of the room. Some of the sleeping men awoke and cursed while others just rolled over, but there was something about the slowness of the knocks which bothered Sol. He watched as the grey-eyed old woman stood from her seat and went to the door. She pulled back the peep-hole and peered through, and after a long pause, she opened the door wide.

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