Vindication

 

Jesse F. Knight

 
San Francisco Bay, 1849
 

In the silence of the hold the breathing of the two men was raspy, sharp, and metallic. A set of crude wooden steps, behind them, led upwards. A woman leaned against the side of the steps, not cowering, yet still unafraid. Her ginger-colored hair, pulled back severely, shimmered like a halo; her aristocratic face was an ivory cameo in the dimness.

One of the men, dressed in a uniform, was slender, but he must have been strong for he was holding his own with the other larger, bulkier brute. As the two men struggled, a revolver clattered to the wooden floor. The man in the uniform kicked the revolver towards the woman.

"Pick it up, Countess," he gasped. "Get out of here."

She bent down and picked up the revolver, cradling it against her breast. "Not without you, Randell" she muttered, determination set in her lips.

Murdock's only words were a rough laugh as they parted momentarily; he launched himself upon the slimmer man again.

Flung by candlelight against the wooden walls, the gaunt shadows of Randell's powerful fingers closed on the shadow of James Murdock's thick neck. With a spirit that would not be denied, Randell gripped the larger man. Murdock's face was a purple smudge in the wavering light. Randell wouldn't let go. Murdock fought desperately, trying to pry the man's hands away from his throat.

Randell gripped him tighter and tighter. His fingers pressed into the other man's spongy throat. Randell could feel the cartilage of the other man's windpipe. Murdock flailed. He gurgled coarsely. His eyes bulged. His hold weakened. Gradually, his hands loosened and fell away, and the big man limply slumped to the floor.

Randell was slouched over, panting harshly. He found his fingers were so stiff that he had to will them to relax. Drenched with sweat, he stood stock still, drawing in huge draughts of air into his hot lungs. His aching and tired arms hung at his sides.

Slowly, he turned away from the body and looked at the Countess. He was so exhausted he couldn't move; he could do nothing but gaze at her ivory face with a devotion that made him think his heart would explode. He had saved her -- he, a mere attaché who worked for her father.

They had been in Japan, and Randell had been asked by the old ambassador to accompany the ambassador's daughter back to Vienna. They had stopped in San Francisco to requisition supplies, when not only had all the sailors jumped ship, but so had Randell's subordinates.

All that had been left on the ship were Randell, the Countess, and Captain Murdock. Little did Randell realize that the Captain knew of the family jewels that the Countess was bringing back to Vienna. Randell and the Countess had surprised Murdock in the hold of the ship where the Countess had hidden the jewels in a large trunk.

"Well, well," said Murdock. "It looks I'm going to get all the family's jewels."

Only Randell stood between the brute and the Countess, and the American officer had valiantly defended the woman he had secretly loved for several years.

Now, relief washed over Randell at his success, still gasping to regain his breath. Behind him, a blackness rose up as if to envelop him. The blackness lifted a strongbox. It was in that strongbox that the Countess had secreted the jewels. The Countess, bringing a hand to her mouth, uttered a cry, but it was too late. The strongbox, filled with emeralds, diamonds, rubies, and sapphires, crashed against Randell's head. The back of his skull caved in with a sickening sound. And Randell dropped to the floor.

Awash with horror, the Countess gazed at her protector on the floor. He was obviously dead; there was no hope. Captain Murdock stepped over the body. As the candlelight flickered over his brutal face, cruelty like the waves rocking the boat, washed across his eyes. His hands clenched and unclenched spasmodically.

"You're mine, by God."

His lips twitched into a cruel smile.

The woman with the ivory face shook her head. "Never." She lifted the gun.

Murdock made a cruel smirk. "Give it to me."

She lifted the gun as he lunged towards her. The revolver exploded viciously in her hand. Her scarlet mouth opened, but no words spilled out, only blood. She slumped against the dark animal in front of her who pushed her away as she drifted to the floor in a pile at his feet.

One look at the scarlet flower blossoming on her chest told him she was dead or near enough to it that she was no use to him. "Damn," he muttered, then shrugged. Strongbox in hand, he stepped over the second body in the hold of the ship and went up the wooden stairs onto the deck.

San Francisco lay a couple of hundred yards away over the choppy water. The smells of the harbor were like a tide in the night, heaving back and forth. Lights bobbed in the darkness. He could hear across the water raucous laughter and the murmur of men in a hurry -- men in a hurry to get to the goldfields. Like a forest, dozens of masts poked into the moonlight -- all abandoned just like the one Murdock was on. Murdock grinned and tossed the strongbox into the rowboat that bobbed beside the ship. All the fools had gone into town to head out for the goldfields. As Captain of the ship, only he, among the ship's contingent, had known of the chest full of precious gems -- only he, that is, and the two owners of the chest, the Countess and her guard Gerald Randell, who had vowed to protect her no matter what. Just went to show you, mused Murdock, how little vows really meant. Rope in hand, Murdock jumped over the side, into the dinghy.

Murdock was a wealthy man now. He chuckled softly as the oars plashed quietly in the water. He rowed through the inky water towards the docks. No one would ever see what had happened. Or if someone happened across the bodies, he would be long gone. And if they did manage to track him down he would claim he had abandon the ship like the rest of the men. He had no idea, he would tell the authorities, who had murdered them.

He had gotten away with it! he exulted, a grim smile on his lips. He had done it. All he had to think about now were whores and whiskey. And he gave no further thought to the two bodies left behind, rocking gently as if asleep, in the ship that was not a bed but a coffin.

 
 

San Francisco, The Financial District, 1949

 

Horns blared in the street, mufflers rumbled, gears ground, and tires squealed. It was hot, and after the rain, the sun emerging again made the atmosphere sticky and steaming.

The morning had not gone well. The pile driver had broken down, which required getting a mechanic on site. Then a part had to be driven in from fifty miles away. So here it was one-fifteen in the afternoon and not a lick of work had been done all day.

Pete Crenshaw, the on-site super, his hands on his hips, watched as Johnny Worthington began to drive a piling into the ground. The site was soggy from days of rain. Each blow of the pile driver echoed off the skyscrapers around the site. As the weight fell down, an instant later the sound struck Crenshaw's ears. Steadily, the blows fell, one after another, monotonously, again and again. The piling disappeared three inches at a time.

Suddenly, in an instant, the piling drove into the muddy ground and sunk six feet at one stroke. A gaping hole yawned where the piling had disappeared.

"What the devil--" Crenshaw strode towards the hole.

Worthington craned his neck from the cab.

"I know what it is, Boss."

"Tell me about it."

"It's one of those damn ships from the Gold Rush Era. It's down there in the mud and landfill. I saw one when I was working on the Woolworth Building over on Geary last year. Same thing happened."

Crenshaw scratched his head, puzzled. What should he do? He didn't want to contact the city. He knew his employer would be pissed at the delays that finding a piece of wooden junk under the site would cause. They would bring in archeologists and historians, and there would be a hundred people who would want their pictures in the paper with the wreck.

The driver leaped down from the cab, and the two of them stood before the gapping, ragged hole, gazing into the impenetrable gloom.

The super said, "All right. We'll fill it up with mud and be quiet about it. Do you hear?"

Worthington grinned. " I hear, Boss. No one will ever know it was there."

And so the building was built on a coffin.

 
 

San Francisco, The Financial District, 1999

 

Glenda groaned as she carried the box downstairs. The elevator only went to the main floor. From there she had to lug the box around the corner, through a heavy metal door, and down the concrete steps to a storage area under the building. At least the guard -- Jason was his name -- held the door open for her.

"Sorry, but I can't leave my post, ma'am. You understand," he said, tipping his cap.

Glenda felt his icy blue gaze trickle down her back, like chilly perspiration, as she stepped carefully down the stairs. For an instant she shuddered. Then she focused on the box, which threatened to slip from her tired fingers.

At the bottom of the stairs Glenda laid the carton down and surveyed the room. On three walls were small doors, each with a bar and padlock. It was down here, in the basement, that the residents of the building could store boxes of Christmas decorations, old books, clothes they were sure they would wear someday again when they lost that extra twenty-five pounds, puzzles and sewing patterns and . . . . It was a storage place for memories.

Having moved out of her parents' place, Glenda was having a difficult time finding room in her studio apartment on the sixth floor for all the memories, the things she had taken with her. On the other hand, she wasn't quite prepared to throw them away -- at least, quite yet. That would come later, perhaps, after she was well established at the brokerage firm where she worked a couple of blocks from the apartment building.

She unlocked the storage area and pushed the box in with her legs. It was a small room, perhaps six feet deep, three across, and eight feet high. Although not large, there would be plenty of cubic space for storage, especially if she stacked the boxes high. She bent over and shoved the box into the corner. Standing up, Glenda brushed her light brown hair away from her eyes. It was going to be a good workout, she thought; her forehead already felt damp.

As she turned to go, Glenda felt something graze her shoulder. Thinking it was a spider, she flinched and hurriedly brushed it away. She searched the ground, but nothing was there. However, she was too busy concentrating on the job at hand to notice such a trivial thing, so shrugging, she hurried back upstairs to bring another box down.

Through the next hour or so, Glenda brought down boxes, a lamp, two suitcases and sundry other items. She haphazardly laid them on the floor, then went back upstairs again to her apartment. When she got to the end she would stay down below and straighten them out. Setting the last box down, Glenda stopped at the door down to the basement and wiped her forehead.

Jason was standing there, shaking his head in amazement. "Man, you sure have worked hard."

Glenda grinned at the friendly doorman. "I still have to straighten out everything down there. I just tossed the boxes in."

"I sure don't envy you."

"Actually, me neither."

But when Glenda carried the last box down the steps, when she opened the door to her storeroom, she found all the boxes, the lamp and books of stamps and paperbacks and schoolbooks and winterwear, all the things she had carried downstairs -- she found it all neatly stacked against the three walls. Dumbfounded, she touched several of the boxes with her fingertips, as if she needed to touch them to confirm what her eyes were telling her. How was it possible?

Then she thought of the doorman. He was playing a trick on her!

She went running up the steps. "That was a good one, Jason."

He looked at her blankly.

"A great joke. Thanks for all your help."

"I'm afraid," he said stiffly, his frosty blue eyes playing over her face, "I don't know what you are talking about."

"You didn't stack up the boxes for me?"

He shook his head. "I told you I have to stay in the lobby all of the time."

"Then who--?"

Jason shrugged. "Beats me."

A chill clamminess slithered across her shoulder blades; Glenda crept downstairs to her storage unit. Hesitantly, she looked in, as if she half expected to see the cartons strewn and scattered about the floor. But the boxes were still stacked in neat and orderly rows. In wonder, Glenda looked around, uncertain what to make of it. At that moment, the lightest of breezes touched her temple, brushing her ginger brown hair back from her forehead. How could there be a breeze, she wondered, down here in the basement? It smelled of the bay. Maybe down the stairs -- yes, that was it.

Glenda lifted her hand to her hair, feeling coolness at her fingertips, the gentlest of caresses. Then she shook herself, and that seemed to break the spell. Shaking her head, Glenda locked the storage unit and slowly walked up the stairs to the main lobby and elevator.

 
 

Jason Murdock, the security guard, watched Glenda cross the lobby to the elevators that went up the six stories above.

He smiled pleasantly at her as she walked past and thought, "Bitch! Hotsy-totsy stock broker. Thinks she knows it all. Her nose in the air and her ass, too. Snooty."

He used to be rich too, he thought. Well, his great grandfather had been rich until he squandered it all at the faro tables, on whores, and whiskey. He'd stayed in luxurious hotel rooms, tipped lavishly, ate oysters and drank champagne at the finest restaurants. Then he'd married a transplanted Virginian belle, whose family had thought her new husband had money. Well, he had, for twelve months or so. He squandered it all, then he squandered his bride's dowry as well. But not before he had left her knocked up, as well as impoverished. Well, the sonovabitch at least had the grace to die when the money ran out.

That was as close as Jason Murdock had come to wealth, but it was close enough to embitter him, if he need any such encouragement. Like many who never earned it, Murdock felt that he deserved it. What "it" was, was nebulous in his mind, but it swirled vaguely around sex, drugs, and booze.

He watched Glenda as she strutted towards the elevator. Murdock's eyes glided lewdly over her body, the curve of her rump in the blue jeans, and he sneered inwardly. Well, if what he wanted wasn't offered, he knew how to take it. . . and whenever he felt like it.

 
 

Glenda did not exactly avoid going downstairs-- not exactly. But on the other hand she didn't relish going to the storeroom, either. She brushed off the incident with the boxes. Someone, she told herself, must have come down there when she was upstairs and, trying to be a good Samaritan, had straightened the mess up for her. That was the only rational explanation. The other odd things -- that soothing touch at her temple, the breeze from the bay -- all that could be accounted for by an open door somewhere or another, even if she couldn't identify it.

Still, there were other events she found unsettling. One time she needed to get a book from the basement. An odd sensation came over her. Could walls without shadows waver? she asked herself. She glanced at the wall to see . . . . what? . . . nothing really. But it reminded her of a filmy coat, perhaps, or heat waves, rising from the floor.

Then she reminded herself, how silly! It was nothing. At another time, she thought she saw a dark room. But was it a room? If so, why did it move with a sullen sway and an up and down motion then? And faintly she could hear a creaking sound. There it was -- again. And was that a foghorn she heard -- here in the basement? Absurd!

Glenda was busily going through a box when suddenly Jason appeared. She jumped about a foot off the ground.

"What -- what are you doing here?" she asked, her mouth dry as sand.

He was about to speak, when they heard a sound behind them, and turning, they saw a neighbor coming down the steps, a box in his hands.

"Mr. Hansen," he exclaimed with a smile, "let me help you with that," and he scampered away to the tenant.

With a slight shiver, Glenda grabbed the book she had been looking for and ran up the stairs.

Several weeks later Glenda's cousin Hedda asked her for some photostats for some genealogy research she was doing.

Glenda was bent over a box when she felt the cold shadow spill over her shoulders and onto the floor. She rose to turn, but as she did, a clammy hand clamped over her mouth. She heard the door slam shut. An arm grasped her tightly. She couldn't breathe.

"I've been waiting for you, baby," he whispered in her ear. "Now we can have some fun." She could feel his fetid breath tickle her ear and drift into her nostrils.

With his filthy hand he started to caress her breast, tearing the buttons from her blouse. She felt his wet lips biting her throat.

Struggle though she might, she was unable to break free.

Suddenly, Glenda felt herself torn from his grasp, and she was tossed against one of the piles of boxes in the corner. Stunned, bewildered, she lifted herself to her elbows.

Standing over her was Jason, the doorman.

He looked bewildered, too, but when he saw her lying against the boxes, an ugly sneer twisted his mouth, and he started towards her, his hands, like talons, outstretched.

Glenda doubled her hand into a fist. But before she could strike, in front of her Jason was lifted into the air. A look of amazement on his face, the doorman hung there, suspended. Then he was flung against the opposite wall. He hit it with a sickening splat. Jason staggered to his feet, groggily. His eyes were yellow, and blood streamed down the side of his head. He stalked towards Glenda, but he made only a couple of steps before he was lifted into the air again. This time he was lifted to the ceiling of the room and slammed down to the cement. His head hitting the cement echoed in the room. This time, before Jason struggled to his feet, he was lifted again, spun around, and tossed against the wall. Jason tried one last time to rise up. He was lifted into mid-air yet one final time. This time, with a crunching sound, his head spun around on his shoulders. Then with finality he was tossed in the corner, a mass of scarlet meat.

Gazing at the grotesquely bent body of the man, Glenda wondered why she didn't scream. Shouldn't she be hysterical? Shouldn't she be pulling out her hair mindlessly at the horror of what she had witnessed?

But something cradled her head and something lightly brushed her feverish brow, and she felt not fear . . . but shelter.

"At last," she heard, somewhere deep in the recesses of her brain, like a soft and sighing breeze, "at last I have been vindicated."

 
 
 
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Author Bio

Jesse F. Knight has published ghost stories in a number of publications, and he has many more scheduled for the future. His ghostly fiction has appeared, or will appear, in All Hallows, Enigmatic Tales, Lichgate, Roadworks, Yawning Vortex, Nocturne, and in the widely acclaimed anthology Midnight Never Comes.

Online, he has had stories in Dark Planet and Enigmatic Tales. His fiction has received Honorable Mention in the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. Besides his ghost stories, his short fiction appears in a variety of magazines both online and in print.

Mr. Knight lives in Vancouver, WA, from where he travels a great deal and writes a great deal.

 


 

 
 
 

Copyright © 1999 Jesse F. Knight. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the author.
 
This page last updated 11-22-99.

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