Excerpt from Dead Man’s Hand by Pati Nagle. Copyright © Pati Nagle. All rights reserved.
(listen to Clive’s soundtrack on Pandora)
Bloomfield, New Jersey
He woke from one nightmare to find himself in the middle of another. He’d been dreaming of Orson Jones, the captain of the Silver Slipper, who had taken exception to his success at cards in the Slipper’s saloon and pursued him into Bloomfield.
Clive remembered quite clearly running from the captain, who had been rendered unreceptive by drink and who, most unreasonably, demanded the return of the monies Clive had won. Memory clouded after that. The dream had been terrible, and seemed to have repeated itself over and over. There was always a knife, a wicked blade in the captain’s right hand. The other details were unclear, but the blade shone sharp and bright, though it had felt much the same as a punch, going in.
Clive moaned and rolled over. The ground he was on was very hard. He put a hand beneath his face to shield it and tried to recapture sleep, but it was hopeless. He would only dream again, and he had been caught in that dream far too long.
Over and over, the knife, the blow, falling and more blows, Jones’s hands rifling his pockets, the chink of gold as the captain took his winnings. Then the dragging, the endless dragging.
He put a hand to the back of his head, expecting to find it sore. It was not. The night was silent except for the occasional swish of water from the paddlewheel of a passing steamboat. He listened for the creak of wagon wheels on the towpath. It never came.
Strange. Clive opened his eyes. There was an odd, smoky smell in the air. He had an intuition things weren’t right.
He lifted his head, and in doing so became aware that he was not in Bloomfield, at least not in any part of it he remembered. The road beneath him was peculiar, like pressed gravel coated with tar. He sat up, and found that it was not a road at all.
He’d been lying between two monstrous machines, somewhat like locomotives though smaller, and not sitting on any rails. They were painted identically with shields labeled “New Jersey State Police” on their sides. Clive sat still for a long while, listening and pondering.
It occurred to him to check the wounds Jones’s knife had given him. He wasn’t able to find them, which rather annoyed him after all that endless dreaming. He felt perfectly all right.
Had it been a trick knife, then? The sort used on stage, with a disappearing blade; it must have been. Jones had used it to catch him off guard, and had robbed him. And he’d fallen for it!
His pockets were empty of everything, valuable or not. A glance around where he’d been lying informed him that Jones had apparently taken his valise as well. And his beaver hat.
That was the last straw. He’d find that miserable bastard and have his hat back. It was a good hat, it fit him well, and he wanted it.
Let Orson Jones beware! Clive’s dignity had suffered a worse blow than his person, and he brooked no insults to his dignity. He wanted his own back on that rascal.
He stood up and looked around, trying to get his bearings. He saw a building, large and blockish, lit very brightly by what had to be electric lights. He’d seen those in Manhattan, but not in Bloomfield.
Doubt shook him, stopping him in his tracks. This building was no part of Bloomfield, either. Though to inquire within seemed the simplest way to get help, his intuition warned him away from it.
Go south, a silent urging told him. South, to the coast, to the sea. To the Atlantic.
A seaside resort, yes. Pleasant weather, pleasant company, civilized folk who might enjoy a friendly game. A smile tugged at the corner of Clive’s mouth.
The thought of such company was certainly more alluring than the idea of confronting Jones, knife or no knife. He’d get his own back, make no mistake, but at present he was disadvantaged. If he could build up a stake he could hire a lawyer to harass Captain Jones, and perhaps extract additional damages from him.
Clive’s eyes narrowed even as his smile widened. Yes, that would be the way to handle that brute. The gentleman’s way.
Parentage aside, Clive considered himself a gentleman in every respect, saving the minor detail that he was not above turning a card to win a pot. A fellow had to make a living, after all.
The night sky was starless, heavy with cloud. With a last glance at the strangely lit building, Clive turned away and walked out into the darkness, toward the swishing sounds that must be coming from the canal. There he’d find passage with the next willing boat captain.
Jones and his Slipper were probably long gone. He knew Jones had been heading down to Jersey City, so he might as well head that way himself. If the Slipper was not in evidence, he’d proceed down the coast, restore his finances, and then come back and find Jones.
Happy to have this plan settled, he dared to whistle a tune as he strolled down a street toward the canal. Houses on both sides—strange, boxy structures—unfamiliar, but never mind. The rushing sounds were growing louder. They came and went, stopping and starting, which Clive found rather disturbing. No steamboat he’d ever been on had operated in that way. He found himself revisiting his nightmare, realizing this sound had been in it, sometimes. Not every time.
The more he listened, the less it seemed like any sound he’d heard associated with a riverboat. Some other kind of machinery, then? Locks, or something? He knew the Morris Canal was fully contraptionized to an extent that bored him silly. Engineering had never interested him. He was a man of opportunity.
There were more lights ahead, electric lights on top of preposterously tall posts that he could see even above the buildings and trees. A drizzling rain began to fall and he turned up the collar of his jacket, wishing for his greatcoat which, alas, had been in his valise. He uttered a curse at Orson Jones’s expense.
The rushing sounds grew louder as he crossed a final street. On the far side of it he found not the canal, but a wall, a good ten feet high or better, and made of concrete. The noise came from beyond it, a river of sound, and a line of the lights on tall posts stood beyond it as well. A road of the same tarred gravel upon which he’d awakened ran alongside the wall.
Hearing a mechanical growl to his left, he turned and saw two bright, white lights barreling toward him at phenomenal speed, raindrops sparking in their beams. He caught his breath and stepped back, blinded. An airhorn sounded, making him jump even more, then the thing swept past him, spattering him with water. It resembled the locomotives he’d woken among.
Perhaps he was still dreaming. He knew of nothing like that contraption, even in Manhattan.
Suddenly his knees felt weak. Not wanting to faint, he squatted at the side of the road. He rested his face in his hands and took deep breaths, trying to calm himself. After a moment he had a sense of not being alone, and looked up.
To his right, a riverboat was gliding toward him where a moment before there had been nothing. The boat was black as soot all over, with lanterns flickering orange on its upper deck like evil, winking eyes.
Clive shuddered. Another dream? He almost hoped he was asleep, but reason told him he was not. Reason could not explain the steamboat, though, floating along without any water beneath it.
The boat was coming for him. It was Charon, come to take him across the river Styx, to the underworld. Come to claim his life. A sense of doom washed over him, and endless sadness.
He heard the rushing of another locomotive from the left. He had time to do no more than glance up before it was upon him. This one slowed, rolling to a gentle stop beside him. A woman’s voice called out from it.
Clive slowly stood up, blinking rain from his eyes. The lights were pointing off into the night, raindrops glinted in their twin beams until they fell upon the riverboat which swallowed them into its blackness. The boat was closer now, and he could see a young man dressed in black standing on its deck, the orange lights from the torches glinting in his eyes. The youth waved to him.
“I-I was looking for the Morris Canal,” Clive said, turning away from the boat.
“You’re right next to it. It’s the JFK Parkway up here, mostly.”
Her face, dimly seen in the darkness, seemed kind but her words made no sense to him. She turned her head away and he heard her talking in a low voice. A man’s voice answered, then she looked at Clive again and smiled.
“Lousy night for a history walk. Want a lift to someplace dry?”
Clive’s heart rose at the suggestion. He glanced at the riverboat bearing down on them and hesitated no longer. “Thank you. Much obliged.”
“Climb on in the back.”
He stepped toward the vehicle and hesitated. It was smaller and lower to the ground than the locomotive things. He had no idea how to get into it.
“You sure you’re OK?” the woman asked.
“I-I’m sorry, I—I was robbed.”
“Oh, you poor thing! Let me help you.”
“Sheila—” called the man’s voice.
A hatch on the side of the contraption swung open and the woman stepped out, wearing a greatcoat over trousers and boots. She pulled open a second hatch behind the first, then took Clive’s elbow and guided him toward the vehicle.
“Watch your head,” the woman said, putting a hand on the vehicle’s roof above him.
Clive obeyed, ducking his head as he sat on a cushioned bench. The woman bent closer to him.
“Let me find the seat belt for you. It likes to slip down behind the seat.”
He sat completely still, afraid to move while she leaned across him. In the front of the vehicle a large, heavyset man sat looking back at him. Clive couldn’t see his face in the darkness, but knew the fellow was keeping an eye on him. Beyond him, through the rain-dappled glass window at the front of the vehicle, the orange eyes of the riverboat loomed. Clive drew a sharp breath.
The woman stepped back, and Clive found that she’d lashed him into the seat with a couple of broad straps. He was about to protest when she shut the hatch, startling him. The vehicle sagged as she climbed into the seat in front of him. Instead of facing his as it should have in a carriage, it faced forward, like a rail car’s.
Ahead was the riverboat, still coming nearer. Would it crush them? Didn’t these people see it?
The young man on the boat’s deck put his hands to his mouth, calling out, “Mr. Sebastian!”
The vehicle rumbled, then started forward, rolling smoothly over the road. The riverboat vanished, the vehicle passing swiftly through the space were it had been. Clive stifled a gasp.
“Do you want to go to the police station?” the woman asked. “There’s one close by.”
Clive shook his head, weak with relief. “No, no. I just want to get to the coast.”
“Where are you headed?” the man asked.
“Atlantic City,” said Clive, naming the first seaside resort that came to mind.
The man harumphed in his throat. The woman spoke to him in a low voice again. Clive let the sound wash over him as they conferred. It was marvelously warm in the vehicle, so warm it made him realize how chilled he’d become.
“We can drop you at the bus station in Newark,” the woman said. “That OK?”
“Oh, yes, thank you.”
“I think there’s an evening bus to Atlantic City,” the woman continued.
“It may have left already,” said the man.
What was a bus, Clive wondered? He’d find out, he supposed. If it was a means of conveyance and would take him to Atlantic City, he’d be satisfied. He had an intuition that his troubles would be solved if he could hie himself to that resort.
A spell by the sea would soothe his soul. A game or two of bluff would restore his pocket, and he might find some pleasant feminine company. All would be well.
“We’re Bob and Sheila Dickerson,” the woman said, turning her head to speak to him. He could hear the smile in her voice.
“Nice to meet you, Clive. I’m sorry it’s under such unhappy circumstances.”
“Thank you kindly, ma’am. And thank you for your assistance. I’m most humbly grateful.”
The vehicle was accelerating at a frightening pace. Clive was suddenly glad of the lashings holding him to the seat. He bit down on a scream of terror as they hurtled forward into the night.
“You really ought to report being robbed,” said the man sternly.
“If he doesn’t want to, that’s his choice,” said the woman.
Clive couldn’t answer, as he was still occupied with fighting not to scream. Lights of other vehicles sped toward them, then just when he was sure they would collide they swept past, so close he could hear the rush of wind. The car leaned from side to side as the man, who was driving, followed the road that disappeared before them into the dark.
It was a nightmare after all, Clive decided, which might be a blessing. Eventually he’d have to wake up.
“Sometimes the police aren’t any help, I’m sorry to say,” the woman added.
Clive had an intuition these were God-fearing people, in spite of how the woman had been dressed, how familiarly she addressed him and how intimately she’d touched him while lashing him to the seat. He knew how to speak to such folk.
With an effort he swallowed, then unclenched his teeth long enough to say, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
“Amen,” said the woman.
Aha. He’d been right. He revised the little plan he’d been making of suggesting a game of cards to the gentleman when they stopped. He’d been hoping to begin repairing his pocket. Not with these folks, though, and just as well. Their generosity should not be repaid with despoiling their financial resources. Clive made a silent vow, in case Mr. Dickerson did want to play cards, not to cheat.
“Where are you from, Clive?” asked Mrs. Dickerson.
He cleared his throat. “Tennessee, ma’am. Clarksville.”
“And what do you do?”
That question posed him a difficulty. To admit that he made his living by gambling would not win him any favor from these good folk. He decided on an answer that was truthful while avoiding the mark.
“I am a traveler, ma’am.”
“A traveler?” said Mr. Dickerson, sounding displeased. “You mean a migrant?”
“Bob, please,” said Mrs. Dickerson.
Clive sensed he was on dangerous ground. “I have been a stevedore, a fireman, and a roustabout,” he said. “I make my living where I can, sir. It may not be glamorous, but it’s honest work.”
“Of course it is,” said the lady, her tone reproachful toward her husband. “And how terrible that you’ve been robbed! Oh, my goodness—are you hurt? I didn’t even think to ask!”
“No, I’m all right,” Clive said, even as a memory of Jones’s knife flashed in his mind.
“We could take you to a hospital—”
“No, no. Thank you, ma’am, but I am unhurt.”
Reminded of how unexpected that was, Clive fell into silent pondering. Where had Jones got hold of a trick knife? If indeed that was what he’d used. Maybe Clive should get one. He had a general dislike of weapons, but an item like that might prove to be handy.
The vehicle leaned to the left, following a curve in the roadway. Clive’s stomach protested. He closed his eyes, hoping the queasiness would subside.
“What’s a stevedore?” said Mr. Dickerson after a moment.
Clive took a deep breath and swallowed. “One who loads and unloads freight from a boat, sir.”
“Oh, a dock worker. Longshoreman?”
“I’ve worked on the rivers, mostly.”
“You a union man?”
“Absolutely, sir, of course. Though I was too young to fight in the war.” He didn’t bother to add that his father and elder brother, who had fought in the war, had been Confederates.
A long, uncomfortable silence stretched out. Clive had the feeling he and the gentleman had not quite understood one another properly, but never mind. They would not be in company together for very long. An hour at most; Newark was a matter of six miles from Bloomfield, and this vehicle was traveling inordinately fast.
Even on the thought, the vehicle slowed and he cautiously opened his eyes again. There were more lights now, everywhere on both sides of the road. Lighted signs flashed by, too quickly to read. Trying made his head ache, so he kept his gaze forward.
“You said you’d been a fireman,” said Mrs. Dickerson in a kindly voice. “That’s a hero’s job.”
He hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but then womenfolk tended to have romantic ideas. Maybe the thought of a man shoveling coal into the belly of a steamboat’s boiler appealed to her.
“Why did you quit, if you don’t mind my asking?” she said. “Was it nine eleven?”
“Ah—no, ma’am,” he said, wondering what the time of day had to do with anything. The thought made him reach for his watch chain, which he was unsurprised to find missing. He’d give Jones what for when next they met.
“I suppose I just got tired of all the soot,” he added.
“Oh, I see.”
“I’d do it again, if I needed work and the opportunity arose,” he added for the benefit of the husband.
“I’m sure you could find a job,” said Mrs. Dickerson. “They always need more firemen. It’s such dangerous work.”
That was one of the reasons it wasn’t his favorite way to earn a few dollars. He’d been on one steamboat whose boiler had exploded. On that occasion he’d been traveling as a passenger, fortunately, and had escaped the misadventure intact, but a couple of the firemen had been scalded to death.
The vehicle slowed suddenly, and Clive instinctively grabbed at anything his hands could reach. The lashings held him to his seat as the vehicle swung hard around a corner. His stomach protested again. Had there been anything in it, he would surely have disgraced himself.