Gaining consciousness, Lieutenant James Folks awoke to darkness. Groggily, he reached around to find that his hands were tied behind his back. Stretching his numb hands as far as they could go, he could just feel the stomach of the girl lying next to him on the bed. He mumbled frantically through the gag wrapped around his mouth, but she did not respond. Her stomach was wet, but from what, he could not tell. He suspected she was dead since he could not hear her breathe. Trying to roll off the bed, he discovered that his feet had also been trussed tightly.
The last thing he remembered was entering her small home and finding the front door ajar. He thought that she must have been expecting him. He had walked in feeling elated. She was a beautiful girl and had taught him pleasures that he had never known even existed. He remembered walking into the room and seeing her tied up, looking at him with pleading eyes. After that, there had been a blow to the back of his head, and he fell into darkness.
James was forced back into the present by hearing approaching footsteps. He pulled desperately on his bonds again but still could not free his hands. He heard a man’s heavy breathing and the presence of someone standing over him. A match suddenly flared in the dark, and an oil lamp next to the bed was lit. James blinked hard in the sudden glare of light. He could see a man wearing a black hangman’s hood. Two slits were cut out for eyes, but in the shadows he could see no sign of them. Seized with terror, James pulled harder on the ropes and tried to twist away. He managed to turn his body towards the girl, and his eyes widened with terror as he saw that she was nude and covered in blood.
The man laughed as he saw James’ struggles. He pulled out a long cavalry sword and said, “You shall be good sport for my sword, Lieutenant. Don’t bother to cry out or struggle. No one can hear you now.”
The blade rose and cut cruelly across the lieutenant’s chest. He screamed as loud as he could through his gag. It came out as a muffled grunt, and he arched his body up as the sword was raised again. The cords bit tightly into his wrists. The red fires of pain swirled in front of his eyes.
“Now feel my punishment,” the hooded man whispered.
With his arm lying loosely over his eyes, Jack Blackwood desperately tried to sleep on his sweat-stained bed. The morning summer sunlight glared through his worn, moth-holed curtains and shined directly into his eyes. He groaned and turned away from the window and drew the dirty covers over his head. He felt like hell. Swallowing hard, the back of his throat felt dusty and unbelievably dry. Summer had been hot this year, and it drove many men to drink. He was honest with himself and realized that he was one of those men. He had spent the night at the local saloon and had drunk whiskey until he could drink no more. He had come home, though he couldn’t be certain what route he’d taken to get there, and fallen into his bed before passing out.
The faint smell of fried food reached his nostrils. Jack’s stomach growled as he thought of hot eggs and bacon. After a brief battle between sleep and hunger, his stomach won. Jack crawled out of bed. He clumsily opened the door and staggered, still half-drunk, in the direction of the kitchen.
Ezra looked up from his breakfast and frowned as Jack entered, holding himself up against the wall. “You look terrible,” Ezra commented blandly. Ezra was Jack’s business partner of many years and by now wasn’t surprised to see him still drunk in the morning.
Jack felt ill and noticed that his hands were shaking. The pounding in his head was getting worse, and he grabbed the kitchen chair with one hand. He rubbed his grizzled chin before replying, “I feel like hell, Ezra. Is there any food left?”
“I was hoping you would find the strength and crawl out of that bed of yours. I made some extra food just in case you took a chance and decided to face the day.”
“I thank you,” Jack replied graciously as he could manage.
“Go ahead and sit down,” Ezra said as he rose. He grabbed a chipped mug and poured out some coffee for Jack. “I’ll go and make a plate for you.”
“Coffee would be good - plenty of coffee.”
Ezra nodded and placed a full mug in front of Jack who began to cautiously sip at the hot drink. Ezra scooped some eggs and bacon out for Jack and put it before him.
Jack put his coffee cup down and studied the plate of food before him. His stomach churned uncomfortably. “I’m not sure if I can even eat right now. It looks good, mind you, but my stomach says otherwise.”
“Take it easy and have a few bites. Then you’ll find out if you’re hungry or not. There’s plenty of time to find out.”
Jack ate slowly at first and then began to eat greedily until the plate was empty. He crudely wiped his chin with his sleeve and drank two more cups of coffee. He began to feel better and was sure after some further sleep he could manage to blink without hurt.
Ezra watched in silence while smoking a cigarette.
After Jack finished, he pushed the plate away and leaned back in his chair. He patted his heavy stomach in appreciation. “I guess I was hungrier than I thought.” His voice had a trace of embarrassment for he knew that Ezra was never a hard drinker.
“I hope you are feeling better now,” Ezra remarked. “It’s time you forget that girl and move on with your life.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jack said lamely. Last spring he had taken a case concerning the missing son of a retired congressman. He had become romantically involved with the congressman’s daughter but was forced to break off the relationship. It had been hard to leave her but he had no choice in the matter.
“Don’t lie to me,” Ezra snapped. “You’ve been moping around here and drinking yourself sick every night. The money is getting low, and I don’t look forward to living in the gutter again.”
“Oh, we aren’t doing that bad,” Jack lied. His nervous stomach began to churn violently and he gulped nervously. He knew that Ezra was right but did not want to admit it.
Ezra handed over a cigarette and lit it for Jack with a single swipe of the match. “Have you looked into our account books lately? With your constant drinking, we’re getting near to being broke again. I’m not sure if we can even make next month’s rent.”
Jack stood up quickly, his face flushed with anger. “Damn it, Ezra! You’re worse than an old woman. Now leave me be.”
“I’m not your servant. I’m just telling you what I’m seeing. And right now I’m seeing a drunk who is feeling sorry for himself.”
“Something is bound to turn up. It always does sooner or later.” Jack felt dizzy and sat down again, the room spinning. He puffed hard on the cigarette, trying to gain his composure back.
“Something already has turned up for us,” Ezra said in a low voice. “I just hope you can handle it right now. While you were sleeping it off this morning, Henry Garrett stopped by to see if you were around.”
“What did Henry want of me?” Jack asked. Garrett was an old friend who was in command of the City Watch, and Jack hadn’t seen him since the last case he had done. Perhaps Henry was still angry that Jack had let a murderer go free.
“Oh, Henry told me a little about it. It looks like another case of disappearance. You know it seems that Washington isn’t becoming safe for anyone these days. I told Henry we would be there as soon as possible.”
“You could have woken me up.”
Ezra snorted derisively and said, “Henry was a little worried when I told him that you were still sleeping. He guessed soon enough that you were out late last night getting drunk. He knows you as well as I do.”
Jack felt angry hearing of the two of them talking behind his back like that. “That old fool worries about me as much as you do. Why don’t the both of you stay out of my business?”
“Henry may be an old man, but you aren’t much younger. I’ll make it my business if I want to get paid anytime soon.”
Jack stubbed out his cigarette and studied Ezra’s face but didn’t say anything.
Ezra looked him in the eyes, his face softening. “I know you’re hurting something bad inside. Some men put a brave face on their heartache. Other men just try to kill the pain inside with whiskey. I know you’ll eventually come around or die trying.” Ezra no longer met Jack’s gaze and fiddled with his matches instead. He lit another cigarette for himself and began gathering up the dishes on the table.
Jack smiled, suddenly feeling less dizzy. “Those are some pretty words my friend. I’m not sure I can even believe a single word of it.”
Ezra returned his gaze and almost imperceptibly shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t care what you think, Jack. I just want to keep a roof over my head and keep on eating. We’re partners in this business and I can’t make any money without you doing your part of the job.”
Jack reflected to himself that Ezra was right: It must be near impossible for an ex-slave to get work as a detective. “You really are a heartless bastard when you get down to it. I’ll go clean up first and get ready to visit Henry.” Jack steadily got up on his feet and made his way back to his bedroom. He still felt bad inside, but felt he could function enough to make it over to see Henry. He also knew that Ezra was right about the girl, but he didn’t care either way.
With a smile, Ezra began washing the plates.