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A black-hooded figure hovered over him and brandished a long, curved knife. Stanley shut his eyes tight, an unseen force held him down, and he couldn't move. The knife pierced into his eyelid, pushing further into his skull. Stanley screamed in agony.
Shouts reverberated in his ears, and Stanley sat up in bed, heart hammering in his chest. It took a few moments and shuddering breaths to realize it had not been real. It was still dark outside, and his bedroom was only illumined by the streetlamp outside his window. The dim outline of his dresser and the darkened mirror over it startled him a moment. But the movement in the shadows was his own reflection.
Just a dream, Stanley reminded himself. Just like the others. That's all.
The hairs on his arms prickled. No. That wasn't all. Stanley shivered and folded his arms across his bare chest. Something dark lurked in the room, staring at him. Like what he'd felt at the St. Louis Statue when Evelyn was killed, and in the caves when he found Hazel tied to a chair at the mercy of that maniac. His "street sense" rang like alarm bells in his head.
With the yank of a string, the bare, bulb lamp near his bed lit up the small empty room. The ordinary sight of the leaky ceiling and peeling paint grounded him. Stanley blew out a slow breath to calm himself. His eye stung. Lifting a shaking hand to his right eye, he winced and then looked at his fingers. A small drop of blood.
"What the hell?" he rasped. Stanley turned around and saw it laying on his pillow: a spiny, black, tree branch.
He threw off his covers and scrambled out of bed, tripping over his clothes as he reached for the baseball bat propped against the dresser. He stared at the black limb as if it were a huge spider about to scuttle away. How did that thing get in here?
Wrenching open his bedroom door in case he needed a fast escape, Stanley squeezed the bat in his hands and checked the bedroom window. The lock remained fastened. Just to make sure, he reached out to touch the glass, which remained solid and unbroken. Holding his breath, he crept out of his room with the bat raised. The floorboards creaked under his bare feet, and he froze, eyes darting to the darkened stairwell. He swallowed, but his mouth had gone dry.
Legion. Whatever or whomever that was, watched me sleep. They could have killed me. Did Charles escape the asylum? Something is here ...
Fighting the rising panic, Stanley crossed the hallway to check his uncle's room. Seamus went out on his beat early in the evening, so an intruder could easily lurk in there. He wiped his hands one at a time on his pajama pants and gripped the bat.
"All right you rat bastard, show yourself, and let me hit you like a home run," he growled through the door.
Stanley opened the door and flipped on the light switch. He blinked as his eyes adjusted, then he looked under the bed, in the closet, and checked the windows. Nothing. No evidence of forced entry. No sign that anything had been disturbed.
Moving into the hallway, he looked down the stairs into the darkened living room. Ears straining for any sound, Stanley gripped the bat, trying to gather the courage to go downstairs. Anything could be down there waiting for him, ready to kill.
If they wanted to hurt me, they would have done it while I was sleeping, not wait for me to have a baseball bat in my hands. The thought didn't make him feel any better. The blackness at the bottom of the stairs took on a life of its own, creeping along the floor and reaching up for him.
Taking a deep breath, he charged down the stairs, jumping over the last two steps. He landed with a thump, the bat held in front of him. Stanley did a quick scan of the room, half expecting a horde of hooded figures to emerge and stab him to death.
He flicked on the light. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. The clock on the mantel ticked away with tiny, metallic clicks. He searched the room, looked into the kitchen, and checked the doors and windows. No splintered wood from a forced entry or jimmied locks. Nothing.
Stanley dropped the bat to the floor. His hands shook, and he closed them into fists. Ashamed of his cowardice, he willed his body to stop trembling. Get a grip, Fields. Tea, he needed to make himself some tea.
In the kitchen, he filled the pot with water and turned on the stove. Hovering over the burner, he watched as the flames danced around the bottom of the kettle. He had no idea how Legion or whoever got into the house. They obviously wanted to intimidate him. Stanley touched his eye and winced; it was swelling shut.
The black stick was a message.
He didn't want to touch that stick, investigate it, or wonder about it. Burning it seemed like a good idea, turning it to ashes so he could pretend he'd never seen it.
Waiting for the water to heat, Stanley's mind tried to process what had happened to him in the two months since Hazel, Sandy, and he had emerged from Lemp Caves into instant stardom. Father Tim praised him from the pulpit during multiple masses, and the whole of Dogtown wanted to shake his hand. Even worse, the Ghosts of Smooches Past kept jumping out at him, giving him "eyes" in class, and a few even suggesting marriage. In the life before he met Hazel and all of the Veiled Prophet stuff happened, he would have eaten it up with a spoon, fork, and knife.
Stanley just wanted everyone to let him alone. He forced himself to hang with the Knights, go to school, and be social. In the confessional, to Father Timothy, he admitted to being afraid, but would never admit it to anyone else. Still, some people knew he wasn't okay. Uncle Seamus had been drinking more than usual but hiding it from Stanley so as not to worry him. Sister Mary John asked him if he was ill, and Hazel suggested he should see a psychotherapist. Arthur said that Stanley's newfound commitment to chastity of the lips made him grumpy and crabby, so he should do everyone a favor and plant one on Hazel.
At the moment he was more concerned about the deadly message left on his pillowcase. He was reluctant to go back upstairs and examine it. Stanley walked over to the bookshelf by the sunken, shabby couch in the living room. On a low shelf was a small statue of St. Michael, patron saint of cops and defeater of the Devil. Stanley knelt down. Crossing himself, he prayed the St. Michael Prayer Seamus taught him when Stanley was old enough to speak:
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
Crossing himself again, he stood and climbed the stairs with determined steps. Setting his jaw, Stanley entered his bedroom. It was strangely cold, even for this time of year. He stooped down and grabbed a white t-shirt from the floor and pulled it over his head and tattooed chest. With a scowl, Stanley leaned over his bed and carefully picked up the branch between two fingers.
The bark had been stripped before the branch was painted black. He held it up to his nose and sniffed. The paint smelled fresh, probably only a few hours old. Holding the branch up to the light bulb by his bed, Stanley noticed that the twigs had been twisted off, leaving sharp, splintered points. What is this thing? The tea kettle screamed from downstairs, and Stanley jumped, fumbling the stick. One point pricked his finger and drew blood.
With a nervous laugh, Stanley dropped the stick, wiped his finger on his shirt, and went back downstairs. He poured hot water into a chipped mug, and bobbing the tea bag up and down, went to sit on the couch. Leaning back, he shut his eyes, the faint smell of dust and whisky coming from the faded cushions was familiar and comforting.
Ever since the World Series game with Hazel, Stanley waited for something like this to happen. But there'd been nothing, not even the sense that he was being followed. Even Arthur's pigeons stopped disappearing from the streets. Sometimes, Stanley doubted what had happened.
Now, the black painted stick, a declaration of war, a warning that the time of peace was over.
To steady his nerves, Stanley slowly finished his tea and tried to think of things that calmed him. The prayer made him feel a little better, but he needed something more to drive out the rest of the darkness. Stanley pulled out a Louis Armstrong album, set it on the battered phonograph bought from a second hand store, and lowered the needle. Satchmo's trumpet blew like the Archangel Gabriel on the Day of Judgement, blowing away the minions of evil.
Stanley leaned back into the couch and rubbed his face. He wanted to go back to the time when all he had to worry about was when the Raven's palookas tried to shake down school kids for money, and scrounging up food for hungry folks. Not that he regretted getting involved and saving Hazel and Sandy, but ...
Hazel's smiling face appeared in his mind. In the past weeks, he'd been at her house, they'd gone to a movie or two, with an escort this time, and had listened to the final game of the World Series together on the radio. They'd been interviewed for papers and on the radio together. In all that time, there were no kisses or anything like that, but it was nice all the same. Considering his past, it seemed like the right way to do things. He was a reformed gentleman now.
Despite his efforts, he sensed a reserve from Hazel and her family. Frowning with frustration, he thought about how he'd proven his character over and over. It seemed like somehow his position of birth was the only thing swells really considered. "He's a great boy ... for a Dogtown kid." He stared down at the black tinge of newsprint on his fingers. Washing them didn't help much. Didn't change who he was.
He wasn't really looking forward to the party at Hazel's house tonight with all the swells. She went on and on about it being for her birthday and also as a "reward" for him. But it sounded like pure torture.
As the needle on the record hissed the end of the music, Stanley stood and looked at the clock. 5:15 a.m. The newsies would be gathering at the street corner. He needed to find one of Arthur's pigeons. Fast.
He grabbed his hat and coat on the way out the door and jogged down the slowly wakening street to where the newsies gathered. It was December, and many of the shops sparkled with Christmas tinsel. The chilly air nipped at his face. Stanley eyed the mob of shabbily clad newsies, many of them scrawny and underfed, living off cigarette stubs and handouts. Teeth didn't seem to be among them, so he would need to get someone else.
"Jacksie, hey, I need you," he called to a slight, brown-haired boy who'd just reached down to get his stack of newspapers for the day.
"What's up, Stanny? I gots to get these papes over to Lindell."
Stanley reached into his pocket and pulled out his last two bits and held them out to the scrappy kid.
"I need you to get ahold of Arthur and sell my papers at my spot today."
The boy looked at the money for a moment. "I'll do it, but I won't take yous money. What should I tell him?"
"Tell him to come to The Castle."
The scruffy kid stared at him for a moment. "Is this Knight business?"
"Never you mind, bud. Just do it."
Stanley turned around without another word and headed toward Forest Park, his thoughts swirling around what the black branch could mean. A threat? A warning that he was being followed? Would more kids be disappearing from the streets? Was The Winnowing finally in motion?
He stopped at the edge of Forest Park and patted his coat. A few weeks ago, he'd carefully ripped the inside lining to store the diary of Evelyn Schmidt. He never went anywhere without it, not even trusting his own house as a safe space. He'd been right.
After a few minutes of walking, he reached the edge of the Hooverville in Forest Park. The normal crew of homeless people in tents milled around, doing laundry, cooking whatever kind of breakfast they could lay ahold of over fire pits, and some looked at papers hoping to find nonexistent jobs.
A group of about ten college-aged kids were circulating among the tents. They carried colored flyers, handing them out to everyone they could find. Furrowing his brow, he walked to the nearest person, a pretty, college coed with carefully done up blond hair, puffy red lips, and a friendly smile.
"Hi, handsome, what's your name?"
Turning on the charm, Stanley smiled and said, "Well, that's secret information. Don't just give that out to everyone, you know."
She held her hand out for a shake. "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours."
"Nah. You'd be shortchanged." If she recognized his name from the papers and the radio, he might never get rid of her. Plus, he could tell she was trying to snare him.
She looked a little offended and began to lower her hand, so Stanley reached out and shook it anyway. "You're not from around here." He gave her big smile.
The girl had to smile back. "What gave me away?"
"You've got a bit of a New England accent."
"Guilty. I'm here to help at the new Family Care Clinic. It offers health care for the poor."
Stanley narrowed his eyes with interest. "That's nice of you. What kinda things does the clinic do?" Hazel volunteered there, and she seemed convinced it was the best thing for the poor since FDR's New Deal.
The blonde handed him a flyer. "Basically just trying to give street kids a healthy life, you know? Inoculations, take care of injuries, all of that."
He took the flyer. It seemed on the level, inviting people in with little or no cost. But something about this clinic run by swells made his skin crawl, something he couldn't put his finger on at the moment. His street sense, or Second Sight, as Uncle Seamus called it, seemed to be on overdrive lately.
"Huh. Well, I could spread some around."
"That would be helpful. We'd appreciate it." She handed him the stack in her hands and gave him a smile full of white, straight teeth.
Stanley nodded at the good-looking girl. "Sure."
"You know, I'm going to be doing an internship at the clinic after the holidays. You should come see me there. And maybe show me the town?" the girl said, playing with the lapel of his jacket.
A month ago, Stanley would have said something like, "How about tonight, doll face?" But now, he couldn't. He was too stuck on Hazel. Even if this New Englander was a looker.
"I might see you around," he said, not wanting to be rude.
She winked at him. "I'll be around the park or Gaslight Square handing out these most days until Christmas."
With that, she walked away, joining another cute dame. They whispered and turned to wave at him. He gave them a wave back and then headed toward The Castle.
He wondered why out-of-towners would come to St. Louis to hand out flyers for a new health clinic. Looking at the flyers again, he looked for the organization sponsoring the clinic and found the small print at the bottom.
Funded by the Society for Fitter and Healthier Families.
Maybe he was being paranoid after finding the black branch. Everything in the world wasn't sinister, after all. Who wouldn't want a fitter and healthier family?
He made his way to The Castle, an abandoned, red boxcar in the middle of the woods in Forest Park. He'd found it one day while exploring the woods and figured it would be a perfect hiding place for a gang. From here, his Knights of St. Louis launched their raids on the abundant trash cans of the fancy Lindell set, in order to help feed the poor and needy. Now, The Castle was a sort of war room to figure out what to do next. Which lately, had been precious little.
He heard the voices of the Knights from inside the boxcar.
"Mine was left in our milk bottle on the doorstep this morning. Ma was sore at the milk guy, until I told her it was probably some kinda prank."
"Bastards left mine in my hat on the kitchen table."
So, they all got one too.
He lifted himself into the rusty boxcar and stood up. The interior was dim and cluttered with old blankets, an old sofa full of holes, and a small three-legged table with several lit candles on it. The Knights turned to face him, each of them holding a painted black branch. No one spoke for a moment until Arthur, ever present bowler hat and cigarette in place, said, "Took yous long enough."
"You guys got here pretty quick," Stanley said.
"It was an emergency," Anino piped in, holding up his own black branch.
Stanley nodded and then motioned to Arthur and the pack of cigarettes he held. "Can I have one of those?"
They all looked at him, not bothering to hide their surprise. Even Arthur, who often badgered him about smoking a pipe or something, hesitated before shaking out a cig and giving it to Stanley.
He put it in his mouth, grabbed the matches from his coat pocket, lit it up, and said, "What are you all staring at?"
As a response, Shuffles said, "Nothin', boss. Are we gonna talk about these here fancy, painted sticks or we just gonna use them for firewood?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stanley & Hazel 2"
Copyright © 2019 Jo Schaffer.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
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