A work in progress...
A work in progress...
Chapter One - Arrival
The outside air was unmoving and colder than the interior of an ice-box, but inside the train station the general impression was one of suspended animation. Sal Manda sat on a long polished wooden bench wondering what he was doing in this place. Yesterday he had received what seemed to him to be an urgent plea for help. He immediately packed a few belongings into a dusty dented suitcase and dragged himself over to Penn Station. There were two trains going to Utica, the next one leaving at 6 PM and arriving some time around Midnight.
The worn leather seats on the train smelled of misbehaving children and were not quite comfortable enough to allow sleep. He sat, his head inches from a window, as he watched the frosted countryside roll by, dimly lit by an underachieving moon and a handful of stars that managed to dodge the scattered clouds. Every so often the train would stop and jolt him out of his trance-like state in which he was thinking of absolutely nothing. Eventually a man in a blue suit wandered through the car yelling the name of the city. Sal emerged from the train ever so briefly into the night air before ducking into a tunnel that brought him into the immense waiting room of Union Station.
Two-thirds of a century ago this place was a center of enterprise, but Sal looked around at interior walls, which consisted mainly of boarded-up shops. The coffee shop, newspaper stand and ticket office were all that remained active within the terminal, and they had all been long shut down for the night. Sal sat down to wait.
The writer of the note said that she would be there to meet him. There were half a dozen passengers that exited at Utica with him, and they all dispersed into the night without a backward glance. Nobody had been there to meet any of them. Nobody had been there to meet him. And so he sat. The long wooden benches that took up most of the space in the waiting room were built upon marble supports that enabled the benches to be placed on either side of heaters that were covered by copper grates. Sal leaned his head back, his hair almost touching the grate, his ears listening to the pops and sizzles of the heater as long dead carcasses of unimaginable insects were incinerated and microscopic ashes sent flying into the atmosphere, eventually lodging in Sal's nasal passages.
Where was she? Sal scanned the station to see if there were any signs of other human life. For the tenth time since he left his pathetic excuse for an apartment in New York City, he dug into the pocket of his brown corduroy pants and took out the letter, still in its envelope. He unfolded it and read once it again. "Mr. Manda, come at once. I am in need of help only you can provide. I will make it worth your while. Take the next train to Utica. I will meet you at the station. Please, Terry."
Where was she? Carefully refolding the note, placing it back in the envelope and stuffing it back in his pants pocket, he looked around yet again. Nothing moved. He got up, stretching muscles that ached from sitting far too long in uncomfortable positions, and walked to a corner of the station. He walked around the perimeter, peering around large marble columns to see if he could have missed anything. All was silent and unmoving. In a dimly lit recess that led to doors exiting the station he discovered the restrooms. Slipping into the men's room he was immediately overwhelmed by a black and white tile pattern on the floor that made him feel faint. The tiles appeared to rush up to meet him and then rush down in oceanic wave patterns. He quickly made his way out and then stood at the door to women's room. "Hey!" he called out in as loud a tone as he could muster. There was no response from inside the women's room, but he thought he heard a faint rustling coming from a distant corner of the station.
Ambling over to the source of the sound, he saw a jumbled pile of crumpled newspaper sheets on the floor. He bent down and gingerly moved a couple of sheets aside.
"What're you up to?" a deep voice boomed from above and behind him.
Staggering to his feet, Sal saw a beefy policeman sternly looking at him. "I thought I heard something, and I was just checking it out," Sal stammered.
"Yeah, you probably did hear something. That's just old Mary down there, trying to get as good a night's sleep as she knows how before she has to get up and sell newspapers around the corner. Leave her alone."
Sal backed off a few feet and looked again at the floor. He could see no hint of a human shape under the newspapers.
"Who are you?" the policeman asked.
"I just got off the train from New York. I got a letter, see, and I was told this woman would be here to meet me."
"The last train came in an hour ago."
"That's all? It feels like I've been here all night."
"Nobody showed up for you, eh?"
"Well, how long you plan on waiting?"
"I'm a patient man. It's not like I got anything better to do. I was told to meet her here and that's what I'm going to do."
"This some relative of yours?"
"What does she look like?"
"I haven't a clue."
"You don't know this person at all?"
"The name kind of sounds familiar, but I can't quite place how I know it."
"Maybe somebody's playing some kind of joke on you."
"Maybe. But I'll just stay here and see who comes to laugh."
"I guess that's all right. Just keep your mitts to yourself. You can wait on these benches as long as you want, but I don't think anyone's gonna be coming down here at this time of night, in this freezing weather."
Sal wandered over to his suitcase and sat back down. The policeman followed a couple of paces behind. He had just thought of one more question for his stranger. "You ain't a vagrant, are you? I mean, you got money to stay in a hotel after you give up on this waiting, don't you?"
"I got a few bucks, yeah," Sal replied. "I'm not in the mood to waste any of it. No way of knowing how long I gotta make it last."
"You have a return ticket to the city?"
"Nope. I figured that Miss Terry would pay my ticket back after I did the job."
"The letter didn't say. She just asked me to come up and help her out."
"This is starting to sound shady to me. Let's see some identification."
Sal pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and handed a small cardboard rectangle to the policeman.
"This is expired," the policeman said.
"Yeah, I know it. I don't have a driver's license. Don't need cars in the city."
"This says you was a private investigator up to a couple of years ago. Expired December 31st, 1964. Why didn't you renew it?"
"I've been down on my luck."
"So you think this woman has some investigating for you do?"
"You ain't gonna do anything that will get you in trouble before you come down to the station and put in a new application for a license."
"Yeah, yeah. First let me find this woman and then I'll take care of all the paperwork."
The policeman took out a little notebook and scribbled in it with a stubby pencil. "I'm going to be on the lookout for you. Keep your nose clean if you stick around for any length of time. Last thing this city needs is another troublemaker. Good luck to you. I'll probably be seeing you soon."
The policeman spun on his heel and strode rapidly out of the terminal. The distant door made a soft whoosh as it closed behind him.
Sal sat and let the silence embrace him once more.
The hours dragged on. There was no way to get comfortable on the hard wooden bench, but Sal's head gradually fell forward. His eyelids flickered and grew still. His barely-remembered dreams were full of motion, sometimes in a train rocketing down a roller-coaster like track, sometimes on foot, shuffling along dusty streets lit by lamps not bright enough to render the impossibly tall street signs legible.
His eyes blinked open just in time to see the pile of newspapers in the corner peeling open like the petals of a flower to allow a small person to emerge. As she stood up, Sal could see this was a tiny elderly woman. After just a bit of a stretch, she swiftly folded all the newspapers into a cloth bag and stalked out of the terminal. Sal looked at his watch. It was 4:30 in the morning. It was clear to him that he would not be able to fall back asleep. It would be hours before there was any activity in the station. He felt that he had to do something. He decided to follow "old Mary" and see what she was up to so early in the morning.
The cold air hit Sal like a smack across the face as he slipped through the doorway of the train station. His entire body felt like a stretched rubber band. There was no sign of morning light yet. Sal kept Mary in sight as she walked diagonally across the intersections of empty streets. She walked past the front of a large building emblazoned with the legend "The Observer Dispatch/The Daily Press." Sal could see trucks pulling up to and away from the back of the building.
Mary scurried two or three blocks further until she arrived at a long wooden shed that nestled on the sidewalk, leaning against a tall office building. Mary took a key-ring out of her pocket and slipped a key into a padlock. A truck slowed to a near stop and the rear panel opened to reveal a burley man throwing a bundle of newspapers toward the shed. For the next ten minutes Mary was busy opening doors in the shed to expose racks of newspapers and magazines. She gathered up the bundle the truck had just deposited and slit the rope with a razor blade. Soon she was pacing up and down the length of the shed, newspapers in hand, waiting for her first customers.
Within a few minutes cars were gliding up to her, the drivers rolling down windows, thrusting money at her and get papers in return. Soon her arms were empty of papers and she headed back to the shed to get more. Sal approached her as she bent down inside the shed.
"I'll take one, Ma'am."
Still bent over, she peered up at him. Within this proximity, Sal could see the deep lines that etched deep into every inch of her face. He could see the collar of her jacket was frayed to the point of near disintegration and that the dress she wore under the jacket had long rips and that pieces of cloth were hanging by threads.
Mary stood up. She was at least a foot shorter than Sal. "Here ye go," she squeaked at him. There was the slightest hint of a smile playing across her wizened lips.
Sal handed her a quarter and wandered over to the corner where a streetlamp still burned, even as the first light of morning spread across the sky. Sal opened the paper and scanned the headlines. Lots of action in Vietnam. Not much local news. Still early in the new year. Weather predicted to be very cold, but not much snow. "She's a millionaire, you know," came a voice from behind his shoulder.
Turning around, Sal looked at a middle aged man wearing an overcoat, under which Sal could see he was wearing a suit and tie. "What's that?" Sal asked.
"Mary. With the newspapers. She's been on that corner forever selling those papers. People say she puts nearly every dime in the bank and never draws it out. Where's it going when she dies? Her husband used to be on the corner with her but he died years ago. She knows everybody in the city. Probably knows lots of secrets. But she won't tell any. "
Sal was unsure how to respond to this man. Sal managed a low murmured "Hmmm" in an attempt to express interest.
"Hey pal," the man continued, "could you let me take a peak at the sports section for a moment?"
Sal pulled it out and handed it to the man. The man opened to the third or fourth page, looked at it for not more than ten seconds and murmured to himself "Dog Biscuit. That horse can't lose. Got to find a bookie."
"Thanks!" the man called out, thrusting the paper in Sal's hand and turning away at the same time. In a flash he was around the corner and out of sight.
Sal noticed that a lull had occurred in Mary's sales. He walked back over to her. She had her back towards him. "Excuse me,' Sal said.
Mary whirled around and glared at Sal, her eyes burning like red hot coals. In her squeaky voices she hissed at him, "Hah! Terry. You'll never find her!" Then she purposefully turned her back on him.
Sal reeled backwards a few steps in shock. It was clear to him that this woman would say not another word to him. He tossed the paper in a trash bin, picked up his battered suitcase and headed off down the borad main street of the city.
To be continued...