Chapter 31

“I think we lost ’em. What do you say we slow down a bit?”

I leaned forward, elbow on the dashboard and looked directly into Almira’s eyes. As focused as she was on driving, I didn’t want to risk distracting her, as we barreled down Clark Ave in the dead of night.

“No, dear. We haven’t and we can’t. Look out the back, and over to the right. Wait for the cross street coming up….. now!”

“Oh yeah. Damn!”

My mood was not improved by the sight of a pair of headlights racing across the opening in the city block created by the intersection.  We must have been doing fifty miles an hour, fortunately the streets were pretty much straight lines and right angles. The blocks of tenements, factories and, increasingly, storefronts and office buildings, were divided by compass-square intersections. The approaching traffic signal, swaying on cables over the next four-way intersection, demanded my attention.

“Traffic light up ahead, babe.”

Almira, being the woman she was, pressed the gas pedal closer to the floor, in response to my warning. She wanted to be sure I saw the other car that was racing along a parallel street. Our respective paths terminated in the center of St. Louis, which, in a peculiarly Midwestern literalness, was actually at the riverfront.

“Watch now…there, see it? Maybe three blocks back. They’re gaining on us. Our new friends are very much still on our tail. Of course, not counting the winos and extra hardworking girls, we’re the only two cars out on the streets of St Louis at 1:33 in the morning. They’re not going to have a problem keeping us in sight.”

Given the fact I was the only passenger in a car driven by my eight months pregnant wife, and therefore able to twist around and look in any direction I wanted, the headlights on the car behind us were not hard to see. Like the eyes of a predator in chase, occasionally blinking its eyes, the headlights of the car behind us would flare, then fade as they raced past cross-streets and the occasional vacant lot.

“Yeah, I see them now.”

Looking over at Almira, I was struck by two distinct yet overlapping impressions.

Despite being very pregnant, she was able to sit behind the wheel because she was all of 5′ 2″ tall. Her overall size being on the petite side, allowed her to sit forward enough on the seat to reach the pedals, without her mid-section interfering with steering the car. Part of the trick to this was in her posture. Almira sat very erect, her shoulders back, spine ramrod straight. She conveyed a certain prim and proper attitude by how she sat at the wheel. If you ignored the buildings passing at blurring speed from front to back through the car windows, my wife was the picture of a proper young woman, out for a bicycle ride down a quiet country road.

Contrasting this impression of a leisurely ride in a car was her face in the passing streetlights. The forward motion of the car produced an odd effect; the light coming in through the windshield illuminated her from the bottom upward, her face and eyes being last. And in the light they belonged to a woman possessed of such feral intensity that, were she not my wife and the woman I loved, I would’ve had to fight the impulse to run, or unable to do that, look away.

There was an energy about her that I’ve witnessed only twice before in all the time we’ve been together. It was not that she appeared under strain, the tendons of her neck remained smooth beneath her very pale skin, if anything she seemed almost relaxed behind the wheel. She gave the impression of a person focused on everything and yet nothing in particular. Almira projected a serene competency that was almost palpable, as we raced at suicidal speeds through intersections heading towards downtown St. Louis. And our pursuers were catching up. Even at the distance between us it was clear this was the same shiny black Lincoln that’s been parked or idling nearby, from the moment Almira and I stepped off the train in Union Station.

Almira focused intently on the road ahead, checking the rear-view mirror with only the briefest of glances. Being so late, (or early, seeing as it was well past midnight), most of the traffic lights at the intersections were in blinking mode. Extending straight ahead of our car they formed a solid row of round yellow lights, pointing to the riverfront and our hotel.

By chance or by design, the stoplights were synchronized in their blinking. Viewed through the windshield of our car, they appeared to be one long string of lights, except for the very last. Oddly enough this last shone with a steady green light, a silent promise of passage, provided we got that far. I sat back and said,

“Well, dear wife, on the basis of the evidence and information before us, the only reasonable course of action is to…. follow the yellow lights.”

Without looking away from the road stretching out before us, Almira smiled and said,

“When in doubt, go faster, my love, go faster.”

Almira’s eyes weren’t exactly shiny, however, a chance reflection of a street light off the plate-glass of a storefront, produced a glint, a spark of unnatural light.

“When the devil is chasing you, dearest husband, you have the advantage. It can see only where it is you’re going. You are the one who knows where the chase will end.”

I laughed to myself as a portion of my worried mind briefly expressed sympathy for our pursuers.

In the car, grayish-blue light brightening then smoothly fading as we drove through intermittent daytime, the intensity in Almira’s eyes grew, the expression on her face, fiercely exultant.

Rough shards of memories of the war, my true military medals and decorations, seemed to rattle in the back of my mind. demanding an audience. I’d seen men wearing the very expression I saw on my wife’s face, men who no longer thought about surviving, only of the approaching battle. My favorite professor in Officer Candidate School used to end nearly every class in the 3 months of ‘advanced training’ with the pronouncement, “Gentlemen, not only is ‘the best defense a good offense’, it will more often than not be your only course of action. The alternative being to sit and wait for the enemy to make his choice of action.”

With a certain sadness I looked over at Almira. I could see that she was, once again, running into battle in a land that I would never know. It gave me confidence in our immediate survival and made me hurt for my inability to help her. I knew that I would do anything to protect her, but feared that I would not be in time to keep her from going farther, perhaps, too far into that place where she was so powerful.

I took out a Lucky. my lighter and raised my eyebrows in invitation to Almira, who laughed,

“Well, only if you have some moonshine to go with it. Otherwise, I’d better focus on the road ahead, as I’m about to surprise our friends.”

I felt a stray memory of the war, torn free from the wall of feelings that had finally become impervious and all but opaque. The memory, mostly flashes of physical and emotional sensations, was of the moment before being ordered out of the trench. It was late morning and the plan was for us to charge an enemy emplacement. Leaning against the claybrown dirt edge of the trench, like the railing of a pew in church, I let the fear soak into the dirt as I crawled up and out and stood in the first steps of a run. At that moment I felt nothing but a sense of quiet peace. Now, riding in an expensive car, in the middle of a December night, I let the bluish cigarette smoke pull itself up over my eyes, the hard edges of concrete, metal and glass became much less threatening.

The long black car full of company goons currently gaining on us as we raced towards the Mississippi River was courtesy of the management of the Curlee Clothing Company. Founded by a man from Alabama who decided to take a certain innate ability to dominate the weak and dependent away farming and apply it to clothing manufacture, the first Curlee store was opened in Dothan, Alabama in 1912. A man of great intelligence and little virtue beyond a drive to bend the world to his will, Shelby Curlee was not what you would call a natural champion of workers rights. From my reading on the train from Philadelphia, Curlee was rabidly anti-union. His tactics included forcing all new workers, even the most unskilled, to sign yellow dog contracts upon employment. The threat, of course, was not just that they could be fired, rather the more coercive element was that they would not find any work, anywhere in St Louis. Management tactics like that made the Essex Company, back in Lawrence, seem positively liberal.

During our first few days in town, two very large men spent most of their day sitting in a car outside the Claremont Hotel where we stayed. They’d always look like they’d just arrived, were just leaving or were waiting for someone from the hotel. As we began to spend more time away from the hotel, they’d follow us, always at a discreet distance. At first, the surveillance was very low-key, just obvious enough to be sure that we understood that we were being watched. A trip to the museum or a stroll along the river meant that somewhere, within a block of the museum, or at the point where the river walk rejoined the city sidewalks, there would be two very large men leaning up against the fender of a car, reading a newspaper, or sitting on a park bench. They were our constant companions, although it would be more accurate to say, ‘Almira’s constant companions’, since it was her visit to St. Louis that prompted this unwelcome attention.

Having been invited by delegates of several of the newly formed unions, Almira’s days quickly filled up with meetings and appearances. Neither of us was surprised when our host, the head of the local garment workers union, pointed our un-official companions out, sitting on the fenders of their car, across the street from our hotel. We both laughed when Roxanne Matthews, secretary of the International Ladies Garment Union (ILGU), said casually,

“They’ve got you on their list. Avoid going anywhere alone, and by alone I mean the two of you. We have people who’ll accompany you when you leave your hotel. Your best protection is to always be in public view, be sure there’s a crowd, not matter what you do. I mean, if you go out to a restaurant or the museum or even walk along the river make sure there’s plenty of people around. These people won’t do anything if there are a lot of witnesses.”

We weren’t planning on staying in St Louis very long, however since we were, my wife was immediately in demand. In our time in New York and Philadelphia, Almira’s days were divided between training and education and politics and socializing. There, the bulk of her time was spent in what she loved the most, teaching. It was different in St Louis. Most of the requests for her time was to attend social functions, meeting with union-friendly politicians, civil servants and other community leaders hoping to enhance their standing with their own constituency by having lunch or dinner in the company of my highly esteemed wife. Not that Almira wasn’t very good at this aspect of her profession, she had a natural gift for commanding attention and a skill at presenting ideas that captivated people wherever she went.

***

The car chasing us passed through a parallel intersection (in a sense, another form of the same intersection that we were driving through), at nearly the same second. I could see, looking past Almira and out her window, the man in the passenger seat of the other car. I had the odd thought, ‘Maybe he and I are the champions and are meant to fight. The outcome of our contest to determine the future.’ Then I saw the slightest hint of a smile hiding at the corners of my wife’s mouth, and it was clear that it was she and the driver in the other car who were the knights in this contest. My role was every bit the passive squire. I was attending to Almira, she was the champion in this contest. The battle was, in fact, already engaged.

“Now would be a good time to close your eyes, darling. I need to make our friends understand exactly who they’re dealing with,”

Almira did not take her eyes off the road, though she did shift in her seat, just slightly.

She reached forward, turned off the headlights and stepped on the accelerator. We were approaching a section of the city, just a block from the police station, where there were two missing streetlights. Maybe the sense of security from being in running distance to St. Louis’s finest, lessened the urgency to replace the broken bulbs. The result was that in the center of the block, the street was nearly as dark as the night that surrounded us. Almira slammed on the brakes and, once stopped, backed our car between two buildings. We sat in an alley between Salzmann’s Fine Fur and Jewelry (since 1879) and Solomon’s Shoes. Almira turned off the car’s engine.

The city was as quiet as any night in the wilderness. Instead of the distant howling of a predator or the nearby rustling of underbrush by nocturnal prey, there were random whistles from late working factories on the far edges of the city and the mechanical groans of trains, linking together, a post-industrial midnight orgy, heard from the train yards that huddled by the river’s edge.

I looked over at Almira and she held a finger up as a signal to listen and I heard the angry squeal of brakes. It sounded to be from about 2 blocks back the way we’d come. Our pursuers were clearly confused, our easy-to-follow car lights having suddenly disappeared. After a minute’s pause, surely to allow for some quick arguments in the car, we heard gears grinding as the driver, no doubt on the losing side of whatever discussion of strategy that had just concluded, let his frustration interfere with his driving. A slight squeak of tires told us they were turning, and two blocks down our street, the headlights of their car lit the intersection.

The long black car turned in our direction and seeing nothing, no tail light receding in the distance or any other sign of another car, accelerated in our direction. As I watched, they raced through the first block. I heard the engine in our car start-up.

Looking over at me, Almira held her index finger to her smiling lips, for all the world a girl anticipating the arrival of the guest of honor at the surprise birthday party she’d arranged. We drove out of the alley and turned left into the street heading towards our determined pursuers. Our car moved very slowly, clearly Almira wanted to stay in the dark, in the middle of the block, for as long as possible. I saw the headlights of the other car closing the distance between us. As soon as they crossed the intersection and entered the much darker section of the block where we sat, Almira hit the accelerator and, a few seconds later turned on our headlights. For reasons I never found necessary to ask, though I could easily guess, she held the button of the car horn down as we raced towards the rapidly approaching car.

The other car swerved to our right, little more than fifty feet away. Whether it was defective or there was something in the road, their right front tire chose that moment to blow out. Their swerve turned into a skid and the driver, no doubt more skilled in physical intimidation than was he in driving, slammed on his brakes, which had the expected result, and the car began to skid. Their speed was such that they no sooner started to skid than the front and back wheels hit the curbstone. The Lincoln stopped skidding and began to roll. Had they started their turn even a second earlier, their path would have been blocked by the bus stop kiosk. The passenger was ejected through his own window, to his misfortune, his path was blocked by the top of the bus stop shelter. He appeared to fold over and under the leading edge of the shallow metal roof. Neatly divided at the waist, his legs on the top of the roof, his head and torso, continued under the enclosure. The car managed one-half additional roll before it hit the plate-glass window of Muriel & Stanford’s Fine Furnishings. There was a tremendous crashing sound, snapping and breaking of wood and fabric adding an oddly less jarring note to the scream of rubber and metal.

Almira continued on her path up the street to the intersection, turned right and then right again. Now on Market Street, we rode along in the now quiet St. Louis night, down to 4th Street and the Claremont Hotel.

***

“I’m sorry, Captain Herlihy, Mr. and Mrs. Gulch are away.”

Captain Gareth Herlihy stood on the steps of the very imposing house on Loring Ave, on the East Side of Providence, Rhode Island and silently cursed Frederick Prendergast and the Essex Company. Gareth Herlihy was respected by the men of the Lawrence, Massachusetts Police Department and widely regarded for running one of the most effective and progressive police departments in New England.

‘So why are you still an errand boy for that fop Prendergast, and the damned Essex Company, Gareth?’ he would ask himself every time he found himself on a train bound for Providence RI. Not blind to the facts of life in a New England mill town, he found resentment growing whenever he had to endure a meeting with the CEO of the Essex Company. Owning the textile mills meant that the Essex Company owned the city and it’s citizens and, more to the point, it owned the police chief. The meetings, mercifully infrequent in the last few years, always ended the same,

“Herlihy! Do I have to spell it out? You persist in making me think that I do! I don’t enjoy this, but until the murder of Robbie Maclachlan is solved I will keep sending you where I must, to get me the people who are key to this case. We’re approaching the tenth anniversary of the strike and the murder. Go to Providence and get me new information that will help close this case or, bring back some suspects. I don’t care which!”

Standing on the doorstep on a grey-cold December afternoon, Captain Gareth Herlihy was feeling displaced frustration, an occupational hazard, but real nonetheless.

“I understand what you said, I’m more interested in where they went than in hearing that Sterling Gulch and the former Almira Ristani are not at home.”

Gareth Herlihy felt the muscles in his right arm tense and reminded himself that force was not always the most effective way to get people to provide the information he needed. Besides, there was something about this tall grey-haired man standing in the doorway that put him on edge. His success in becoming the chief of police in a very tough town was in no small part due to the quickness with which he sized up the other guy. Not only was this talent important to his success, it had, at times made the difference between life and death. This man who dressed like a butler had the eyes of a killer. It was obvious that there was no point in trying to intimidate him. If anything, he seemed mildly amused at the conversation.

‘Well, Gareth,’ the Captain of the Lawrence Police Department thought, ‘you’ve travelled four hours on a cold and drafty train to get down to this god-forsaken state, lets not leave empty handed.’

“If your employers happen to send you a post card from their travels, I don’t suppose you’d mind forwarding  it to my office?”

Gareth Herlihy, one of the toughest police chiefs among those charged with maintaining law and order in the industrial cities of New England, stepped forward with his card in his right hand. He managed a smile that seemed to falter and fall into the expressionless gaze of the tall man in the butler’s uniform. Finally, Edward, with an upward twist to the corner of his mouth said,

“Rest assured, Captain Herlihy, that should new information be vital to your investigation, I will personally deliver it to you.”

***

On the four-hour train ride back to Lawrence, Gareth Herlihy sipped from his flask and thought about retirement.

***

Asleep in the Presidential Suite of the Claremont Hotel, Almira Gulch had dreams of flying and her tears flowed down to the pillows.

Awake in the Presidential Suite of the Claremont Hotel, Sterling Gulch had serious doubts about his responsibility to the man who talked him into enlisting and going to war. He wondered whether California might not be a better place to end the journey with his wife and family-to-be.

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3 thoughts on “Chapter 31

  1. If I didn’t like her so much, I’d say Almira is one scary woman. Wait a minute…she is a scary woman! lol
    Nice bit of action going on here but the ending has me fearing the worst.
    Sterling and Almira fit so well together…looking foward to Chapter 32!

    Like

  2. The city was as quiet as any night in the wilderness. Instead of the distant howling of a predator or the nearby rustling of underbrush by nocturnal prey, there were random whistles from late working factories on the far edges of the city and the mechanical groans of trains, linking together, a post-industrial midnight orgy, heard from the train yards that huddled by the river’s edge.
    Such awesome setting description. I can’t stop imagining all this you describe.

    Like

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