Spring 2008, Volume 4

Fiction by Sid Hoskins


Nolo Blunt sat in an overstuffed green velvet chair in the lobby of his New York Bowery hotel. He looked around the room at the flowered wall paper, reminding himself of some of the hotels he’d stayed in out west. In New York, the tiny blue daisies in the pattern looked appropriate. Out west, this kind of design would be obscene. The cowboys would tear it off the walls or shoot holes in it with their revolvers. They’d declare it too dainty and feminine for them.

And the differences didn’t stop there. The hardwood coffee tables of this New York establishment would be out of place in New Mexico or Texas. Cowboys wear spurs and the men have a habit of putting their feet on the furniture. They’d tear this fine mahogany wood to pieces in no time.

Carpeting on the floor; Nolo gazed at the intricate woven and colorful pattern of the Turkish rugs in front of him. Real, natural lamb’s wool. These priceless floor coverings would be nothing but rags after one day out west.

Where was Joline? She had said she would be down soon, but Nolo had been waiting a half hour already and there was no sign of her.

He looked at the staircase, hoping to see her slim figure descending; her mop of light brown hair bouncing to the rhythm of her steps, her smiling face reflecting the inner beauty of the woman. But there was no Joline on the stairs. What could be keeping that woman?

The gaslight next to Nolo flickered as if a person were passing by, but there was not a sign of another human being in the lobby, except for the visored man behind the desk who looked busy.

Nolo thought back to the story he had handed in this very day at the editorial offices of Frontier Magazine. His editor, Tom Menace, had been impressed. It was the final chapter in a continuing story he was writing about Elfego Baca, a tough New Mexico sheriff in these years of 1880. He’d been writing about this colorful character for the past year. Only recently had Nolo returned from the west and situated himself in this modest hotel in the Bowery of New York City.

The hanging of José Garcia still rattled in his brain, and as he thought about it, he could see the entire event unfold once more.

A crowd of people, citizens of Bernalillo in New Mexico, stood near the oak tree where a mule had been tied in preparation for the hanging.

Nolo had talked with Garcia just before the man was led away to participate in the last event of his life on earth.

Nolo found Garcia an intriguing character. He actually felt pity for the condemned man, even though Garcia was a convicted murderer of a woman. He’d killed the Mexican girl, cut her up into small pieces and placed the parts in the very same oak tree where he, Garcia, awaited the knotted rope with thirteen twists in it, thirteen being his unlucky number.

Garcia had even put his arm around Nolo’s shoulder as the two men talked in the Bernalillo jail. Nolo on the outside, Garcia behind the bars. A tender moment. Nolo had felt an instant connection with the man, a bonding that would last a lifetime, but Garcia’s life would last only two hours more.

Nolo looked up toward the winding hotel staircase. Still no Joline. What could be keeping that woman?

Again the gaslight fluttered and Nolo looked around the lobby. Some door must have opened in the rear of the hotel to make such a draft.

The rope around the condemned man’s neck was partly frayed as if it had been used for this purpose before. Hemp. Nolo had watched the executioner knot the rope, crafty hands turning, twisting the strands into the noose that would tighten around Garcia’s neck and squeeze the life from him.

A picture of the bird in the top of the oak tree popped into Nolo’s mind. A vulture, feathers aflutter, scrawny neck stretched downward, eyes focused on the man below who was about to become dead meat, the vulture’s prize if everything went well. And then the final scene. Garcia on the mule, hands in steel cuffs behind his back, knotted rope around his neck, the knot hanging limply on the man’s shoulder, the noose, loose enough to give some slack when Garcia took his last mule ride.

Then there was the moment. Bernalillo’s local sheriff standing to on eside, raising his hand, his hat pushed back on his head, his eyes staring at the condemned man.

The hand drops and the executioner whacks the mule with his open hand. The mighty animal flinches, then kicks forward, Garcia being pulled from its back.

Instantly the noose tightened and the knot closed around Garcia’s neck. There was the distinct sound of bones breaking, Garcia’s neck bones. The condemned man hung in the air now, his feet kicking, his arms struggling, but the steel cuffs held his hands helpless.

A shudder ran down Nolo’s back as he saw in his mind the hanging once again. He knew he would continue to see that picture for years to come.

A soft wind blew across Nolo’s face. There surely must be a door open somewhere. That’s it, an open door that lets in the foggy New York air. Where was Joline? Nolo stood, adjusted his trousers and tucked in his shirt. He reached up to his hair and patted the top of his head. Seemed like all was in place up there.

Garcia just swung in the air, his head alop, the rope making a twisting sound in the early morning breeze. Twist, twist. Garcia’s body swayed.

The man’s face was red at first, a deep red from all the blood that was trapped there. Then there was a purple color that formed, replaced soon enough by a grayish tinge, the color of death.

The body wiggled no longer. The last attempt at a struggle for life had passed. Garcia was no longer among the living.

As if it knew, the vulture flapped its wings, perhaps in delight, and settled itself once again in the top of the tree. There would be time. Let the meat get a little moldy. Let the flesh begin to drop from the bones. Acids in the vulture’s stomach began to foam and the bird belched in anticipation. What a feast there would be. Eyes to pluck from their sockets. Delicate neck parts that would slide down the bird’s throat with no trouble at all. Where was Joline?

Nolo stepped toward the clerk’s desk and strode across the patterned Turkish carpet until he reached the counter.

The clerk looked up at Nolo.

“Yes, sir. May I help you?”

“Send a page up to my room. I fear something dire has happened to my friend.” The clerk adjusted his green eyeshade, stood and extended his hand to slap a small bell that rested on the counter, the sharp “ding” echoing.

A young boy, maybe only 15 years of age, came running from somewhere. The uniform he wore looked ancient, buttons missing from the blue tunic, a tear appearing at the shoulder seam.

The clerk pointed up the stairs and told the boy to take a message.

The young man’s dull eyes sharpened as he listened. He nodded his head and took off at a lope, his feet skipping up the staircase with little effort. He disappeared from view.

They left the body in the tree for a week, a lettered sign hanging from Garcia’s feet. Big handwriting spelled out the word, “MURDERER.”

It didn’t make any difference to Garcia. His soul had already mounted on high to face the ultimate judge of all. Nolo wondered what St Peter must have said when Garcia’s spirit appeared before him.

Nolo felt something brush against his leg, his trousers blocking the full effect of the bump.

He looked down to see if some small animal had passed near him. But this wasn’t the west, it was New York and there were no small animals to brush against his leg, except maybe a Norwegian rat and there certainly were a lot of them around the boats at the wharves. Surely no rat could make it into this hotel.

The wind once again swept across Nolo’s face. He heard it distinctly this time. A creaking sound emanated from the bowels of the ancient edifice. It was as if the wind were saying his name. “N o o o o l o o o.”

Nolo looked toward the desk where the clerk sat. No one was there now. In fact, no one was anywhere within sight in the hotel. A cold feeling descended down Nolo’s back. He straightened his body, put his hand on the armrest and rose to his feet, his head twisting from side to side, his ears wide open for any sound.

Again the wind played tricks on him. A second time came the sound of his name as blown by the breeze. “No-lo.” This time it sounded more like his name, not so drawn out as before.

A puff of wind extinguished the gaslight. Nolo blinked his eyes. He reached into his pocket for a kitchen match, found one and used the sole of his boot to strike it. The match head flared up, then the breeze caught the flame and the light went out.

Again, Nolo reached into his pocket. This time he struck the match, then formed his hand around the fire to keep it going. He succeeded, and with one hand guarding the flame, he reached up to the gaslight and turned off the gas valve. He raised the glass chimney on the fixture, set his flame over the gas slot and turned the valve on again. This time the lamp stayed lit. Nolo dropped the chimney in place and looked around the room. Nothing had changed. No other living person was near him.

There was a “whoosh” of air that passed in front of Nolo’s face. Once again, the gaslight failed and Nolo was left in the dark. Only the moonshine lit the room.

Nolo stood very still. A scraping sound reached his ears. He turned toward the sound. Nothing. Then came the hollow “No-lo” sound once more. It was even more distinct now, and it was coming from the stairwell that led to the basement of the hotel.

Despite the darkness and the eerie feeling rolling around inside of him, Nolo stepped toward the door that opened to the basement. He had only been down there once before when he had searched for his lost baggage that suddenly had arrived from the train station. He knew the stairs were steep.

Carefully he opened the solid oak door and pulled it back to its maximum position. It was one of those doors that stayed in place when someone opened them. Nolo was glad of that. He wanted to be able to escape rapidly if there should be anything threatening him in the basement.

Down he went, the stairs creaking under his weight. A musty smell reached his nose and reminded him of the jail cell where Garcia had been kept before his hanging. The Bernalillo prison wasn’t exactly on his list of places he’d like to spend any time.

Complete darkness surrounded Nolo, and he pushed a hand out in front of him. One hand he kept on the railing that ran the length of the stairs. He knew there was a gaslight fixture at the bottom of the stairway. He could strike another match there and then he would be able to see.

His feet struck concrete and Nolo knew he’d reached the lower level. His hand moved up the wall beside him. He found the gaslight, kept one hand there, reached into his pocket with the other hand and found a match. He struck the match on the wall just below the gas fixture. The flame startled him. His eyes had become accustomed to the darkness and it took a few moments for them to adjust.

Nolo raised the glass chimney, turned the valve and lit the gas. He replaced the chimney to its natural position, then looked around the basement.

There still wasn’t much light there, but he could make out stacked mattresses and roll-away beds against one wall. He thought he heard a moan and stopped, listened, then moved toward where the moan seemed strongest. Again, there came the “No-lo” sound and it was stronger than before.

He stumbled on a rolled rug that stuck out into his pathway. He caught himself in time and steadied himself with a hand on the wall. He pulled his hand away and there was blood on it. He could tell it was blood even with the dim light from the gas fixture far back at the stairs.

‘Now what would blood be doing down here in the basement?’ he muttered to himself.

The moaning grew louder as he approached a door at the end of the hall. His hand felt for the knob, found it and he twisted it. The door opened and Nolo heard the moaning really loud now. A flattened-out roll-away bed and mattress appeared to him in the corner of the room. There was something on it. He moved closer.

Joline’s eyes looked up at him, the dark blue eyes he had grown to love. A necktie stretched over her mouth and her lips moved slightly as she tried to make a sound. Her hands were tied behind her and a rope looped around her legs, holding her tight to the mattress and bed. A nasty wound on her head bled slightly, making her hair a matted mess.

Nolo leaped to Joline’s side and reached down to untie the gag in her mouth, but a hand stopped him, a hand with a pair of brass cuffs dangling from the wrist. Even in the lack of light, Nolo knew that hand and a deep shudder stormed up and down his spine.

“Wait, No-lo,” a voice said. “She’s all right. I didn’t harm her. But I could.” A man stood next to Nolo, but the gaslight was fading and Nolo couldn’t make out the features. Then darkness came. The gaslight went out completely.

Nolo stood very still. He could hear Joline breathing, but no more did she moan. She too must be entranced by what was happening. Nolo felt her eyes still staring at him even though her face had disappeared in the darkness.

“Only wanted to get your attention,” the voice said. “You remember me don’t you?”

What kind of person would kidnap Joline, bloody her and drag her to the basement, then entice our reporter to descend to the basement?

There was only one man that Nolo could imagine doing this. But he still hung from an oak tree back in Bernalillo and he was definitely dead.

Nolo still stood rigidly, every muscle in his body taut.

“Garcia?” he said. “But you’re a ghost.”

No one answered. Only Joline’s moaning broke the silence.

Again Nolo reached down to untie his friend. This time he was able to release her from the gag in her mouth. She gasped.

“I can’t see,” she said. “Oh, Nolo. I’m so frightened. Who was that man?” “I don’t rightly know. Could have been the ghost of José Garcia, but ghosts can’t tie people up and talk. At least I’ve never heard of it.”

“Get me out of here, Nolo.”

“I’m working as fast as I can. Move your body over. I can’t find the knot that holds your hands.”

Nolo reached into his pocket, found a kitchen match and struck it on the wall. The match lit, then immediately the flame blew out leaving the room again totally dark. But during the brief illumination of the match, Nolo had spotted the place where Joline’s hands rested. He moved quickly to find the knot of the rope, untied it by feel and soon Joline was free.

Nolo felt her stand up from the bed. She was in his arms now and he crushed her to his chest. The woman melted to him and her head pressed strongly against his cheek.

“Let’s leave here,” she said.

The two of them felt their way along the wall. The door opening was barely visible as a gray shadow. Then a gust of wind arose and the door slammed shut in their faces, the resounding “boom” echoing in their ears.

Nolo tried the handle. Locked.

What was happening to him? Had a ghost really taken over his life and caused all these things to happen to him?

Nolo grabbed Joline’s hand and pulled her to him.

“We are in serious trouble,” he said. “It’s dark in here and we don’t have a way out. Any ideas?”

“Someone’s bound to hear us if we yell loud enough.”

“Have you looked at the door? Solid oak, same oak wood as the tree where Garcia was hanged in Bernalillo. If we get out of here, I’m going to write the story of my life.”

“What do you mean, if we get out of here,” Joline said. “Let’s work on a plan. We’ve got to get the door open. How do we do it?”

Nolo reached into his pocket. He counted the matches he had there. Three left. That wouldn’t go very far. He lit one and let it burn all the way down. Moving his head quickly to look around the room while there was light, he saw a tool box in the corner. The match burned his thumb, but he had a lead.

Tool box.! He stooped down to examine it. All it had in it was a pipe wrench and a pair of pliers.

He struck another match.

In another corner of the room, he saw a pile of old letters on a desk. That gave him an idea. A desk. There were always keys in a desk.

He’d once opened the door to his own room on Cortlandt Street with an odd key. He was younger then. Should be easy now.

Again, the match burned down to his fingers and Nolo dropped it quickly.

He walked directly to the desk, even in the dark. His body told him the direction having seen a flash of the desk with the lit match. He opened the top drawer and felt inside. No keys there. Nothing in there. He gulped. He opened another drawer and there was a rattling sound as he did so. Carefully he felt inside. A ring of keys. Nolo felt them. Must be a hundred. It would take time to find the right one for the door, but at least he had a chance.

He returned to where he hoped Joline was still standing. She was there and she grabbed hold of Nolo’s waist, pulling him closer to her.

“I’m really scared, Nolo.”

“So am I. But I’ve got hope. I’m going to open this door with one of these keys. It’ll take a while. Wish me luck.”

Joline bent forward and kissed him on the cheek.

“My Nolo. He can do anything,” she said.

Nolo felt for the door handle. He tried to twist it. There was a click, like one of the tumblers fell into place. He turned the handle again. Nothing.

He brought out the cluster of keys and fitted one into the lock. It made a match and he turned it, hoping a twist of the key would open the lock. He twisted. No action. He twisted again and jiggled the key. Nothing. He pulled the key out of the lock a little and tried again. The door remained locked.

A hissing sound caught Nolo’s attention. Then he smelled something. He recognized the smell! It was the gas from the light fixture. He felt around the keyhole and pressed his thumb over the hole. The gas smell lessened. Someone or some thing had piped the gas into the room from the keyhole.

Nolo whispered to Joline.

“We’ve got a new problem, dear. I have to find the right key, but there’s gas coming in through the keyhole. Hold your thumb there and when I tell you, take it away so I can try a new key.

Nolo felt the tip of another key on the ring. He couldn’t light his last match. There’d be an explosion and he and Joline would surely be killed.

He grabbed the pliers from the tool box, opened the jaws and set the teeth of the key between them. He applied pressure to the pliers and twisted. It wasn’t much of a twist, but Nolo wanted to try something different. After all, the key had almost worked.

He tapped Joline’s hand. She removed her thumb and quickly Nolo inserted the key in the lock.

Something went click again. He turned harder. Another click and then the lock opened. He pulled hard on the handle, but the door wouldn’t open. It was as if some force or some thing were on the other side keeping the door from opening.

“Help me pull,” he said.

Joline grabbed Nolo around the waist and pulled hard. Nolo had a grip on the doorknob. The door moved slightly. Nolo stuck his foot in the space between the door and the jamb. He peeked through the opening to see what was on the other side. Nothing there, except maybe the hint of a gray shadow. As he stared at the shadow, it disappeared and the door swung open with a crash against the wall. Nolo and Joline fell down on the floor in a tumble, Nolo still holding onto the doorknob, the gas smell increasing in density.

The oak door stood open for them. Nolo was on his feet hurriedly and thrust his body against the door to keep it open. Joline stood and walked through the doorway, grabbing Nolo’s hand and leading him to safety.

A small rubber hose ran the length of the hallway. Nolo felt it in his hands, and then followed it until he came to the gas fixture near the bottom of the stairs. He turned off the gas valve and disconnected the rubber hose from the gas slot. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble in their attempt to kill him and Joline.

The two of them mounted the stairway, climbed the risers and exited into the lobby above.

Nolo wiped his forehead with his hand, found the same overstuffed chair he’d been sitting in and dropped into it. He could feel his heart pounding. Joline sat down beside him in another velvet chair.

“What happened down there?” she said.

“I’ll never know, but I think it may have been a ghostly experience,” Nolo said.

“You mean Garcia?”

“Exactly,” said Nolo. “He’s after me. Probably angry about the way Elfego chased him through northern New Mexico. Fellas like that hold grudges.”

“But a ghost!” said Joline. “How could he find you here in New York?”

“Musta trailed us on the train. Never know about those ghosts.”

A tight grin formed on Nolo’s lips, and he pulled Joline onto his lap. He kissed her and held the kiss a long time. Joline snuggled against him, then she broke off the kiss and sat upright.

“Nolo Blunt. You’ve finally done it. You’ve gotten us wrapped up in a mysterious happening. Where will it end? You and your stories you write.”

“That’s how I make my living. Garcia’s ghost has probably returned to hell where it belongs. We won’t have any more trouble now.”

The gaslight dimmed and Nolo felt something brush against his pant leg. The wind howled up from the basement and Nolo thought he could make out a deep bass voice saying something like Nooo-looo.

BIO:  Sid Hoskins is a graduate of the University of Southern California and received his Master's Degree from California State University at Long Beach. He spent thirty-four years with the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a principal when he retired in 1984. He began his writing career at the age of fifty-seven. He has published over sixty articles and short stories and has been involved in television news work. He produced and appeared on his own cable TV show, "Long Beach Forum," for five years. He and his wife of fifty-eight years, Leslie, live in Long Beach, California and have two children and two grandchildren. He has published two novels. The first was titled How I Covered Sam Bass and the second is There Really was an Elfego Baca. The Baca book is available from www.virtualtales.com and is a Western.