First Dawn

 

 Morgen Knight

            He hadn’t seen her running, but he saw her fall. It was his periphery that caught it.  Hemmingford was sitting behind the wheel of his parked car, watching the entrance of the Rlotic hotel. There was a bulky camera on the seat behind him. He had already gotten the photographs that he wanted, now he was waiting for the ones that would remove any wiggle room once the accusations began. Hand had went in the hotel with a busy woman that was not his wife. The two had had their arms around each other in more than a friendly way. And there had been a familiarity about the way the two had touched. A comfort only made by experience. He believed that those photos would say everything that had to be said, but pictures of the two exiting…that said it louder.

When she fell, it was from the rooftop of the building beside the hotel, into the alley between the two. Hemmingford hadn’t known that it was a woman when he saw the form drop. From this angle, he didn’t have a complete line of sight down the alley. His first thought was that someone had tossed a bag from the room above. Maybe it was simply trash, but that seemed like a strange way to discard it. He leaned close to the squared windshield, looking up. How far had it fallen? It couldn’t have been from too far up, unless the discarder didn’t care if it broke. Could be booze, he though. There were a number of speakeasies within five blocks of here. He didn’t see any police or federalists raiding the Rlotic, but he didn’t know what was going on inside, did he?

It was the men that made him get out of the car, grabbing his overcoat. Two of them got out of a car that pulled up to the alley; the car swung around the block then idled at the alley’s entrance. Hemmingford would have forgotten all about the alley and the dark shape if it wasn’t for that. He would have sat here, gotten Jimmy’s pictures for him, and went home–he did have to work tomorrow. But Hemmingford was naturally curious. In another time, he believed that he would have been an explorer. But in this life, all that continents were accounted for and the mountains all had footsteps tracked across them. That’s why he was a cop. A detective at the fifth. That’s why he didn’t mind moonlighting for Jimmy now and then, taking a case or two a month. It was his curiosity.  The jungles all had names, but people were still uncharted. Especially in times like these.

Hemmingford held a hand out as he jogged across the street, to the front of the hotel. Two sharply dressed bellhops stood inside the front doors. Hemmingford turned right, stepping off the U-drive up to the doors, onto the sidewalk. Out of his pocket he pulled a pack of Lucky cigarettes and matches. He lit the cigarette then waved the match out, dropping it as he approached the alley. The idling car that had stopped in front of the alley had two men in it. One was watching the alley, the other was watching the street–the front of the car was pulled out a little, white-walled tires turned out. The traffic passed by close, the bug headlights inches from the front of the car. A couple passing drivers hit their squeaking horns. He could hear Cab Calloway on their radio.

The man watching the alley switched to eyeing him as he approached.  Hemmingford blew out a plume of smoke, swiveling his head as he passed the alley. As soon as he saw the man, Hemmingford knew what he was going to do. Two men were down the alley, flanking a curled-up form. One of them had a pistol in his hand, the other had what looked like a short pool cue. Hemmingford could see the passenger of the car watching him. He looked forward, like he was walking on, took the cigarette from his mouth and flicked it ahead in a high arch. As the hot cherry tip sailed down to the pavement, struck the peppered in hot embers, Hemmingford pulled the pistol from the shoulder holster at his side. He was good with guns. He had been a young man in the War to End All Wars.

Barely aiming, he shot twice at the man with the gun. Both shots hit him, spinning him down to the ground. It was too dark to make out features, but he heard the man’s agony in his cry. The car door behind Hemmingford opened, but he was already spinning. His rock-fist smashed into the rising man’s jaw, knocking him back into the car. The window beside him exploded with the first shot from the second man in the alley. He’d pulled his pistol.

Hemmingford ducked, scrambling for the corner of the hotel to cover him. Two more bullets smashed into the car, trailing him like hammer blows. The driver spooked, swerved into the street, clipping a passing car. High-pitched horns screamed out. At the corner, he took a shot at the running man. The bullet missed, ricocheting off of the brick building with a spark and tiny crumble of mortar.

A crowd began to gather at the alley as Hemmingford ran down to the body. The pistol was in his hand, but his attention was at his feet. The woman–a woman? She was curled into a fetal position. Her short black hair was covering her face. There was blood on the concrete and her clothes. Is she what had fallen? He looked up, scanning the light and dark windows of the hotel rooms above him. There was no way to tell which window was hers. He couldn’t see any broken glass above or scattered around her. She was the only thing besides him and the man he’d shot in this alley.

Bending down, he holstered the pistol, then brushed the side of her face.  Looking at her unconscious face laying on the drab concrete, he swallowed. She was so beautiful that his chest hurt, but he couldn’t look away. Her skin was tanned. She had a pointy chin and poetic lips. Long dark lashes fringed her closed eyes. “Shit,” he said. At least she was breathing. He looked back at the crowd filling the end of the alley. The unmistakable wail of sirens was distant but growing. When he turned back, her eyes were open. They were a shade of green that he had never seen before, and his mind instinctively associated it with a subtle taste, like he had just bitten into a sweet apple.  She wasn’t from around here. There were plenty of young women in the city, now. Jobs pulled them here. Manufacturing was down, but there were still a few plants open. They were small town girls, mostly. Farm girls.

She turned her head at him. “Help me.”

“Don’t move. People are coming.”

“No. Please get me out of here. They’re coming.” A commotion behind them made Hemmingford turn. Men were pushing through the crowd. He caught a glimpse of a shotgun. “Now,” she said forcefully.

Hemmingford heard every reason that he shouldn’t, but his arms scooped her up.  She was light; her arm wrapped around his neck; her face nestled against his chest. They were in the middle of the alley. He ran for the other end, leaving the body of the man he’d shot behind. Whatever this was, he could feel the panic. His back was exposed. As the back street neared, he couldn’t believe that they would make it. And they didn’t.  Five feet from escape, shotguns opened up behind him. His mind tried to count the guns, but the sound was one slurry of thunder. His left shoulder was hit, spinning him a little on the axis of his right foot, and then he was hustling down the back street. There was a maze of alleys.

“Hide,” she whispered. “There are many of them.”

Hemmingford, a name passed down the family line, nodded. There were doors, boarded-up windows and trash. He could smell it as they passed behind a Hungarian restaurant. Three cats were rummaging through a stack of metal trashcans. He stopped at a green door with a board nailed across it. “Stand, if you can,” he said. He put her down, and she leaned against the building like she were intoxicated. With both hands, he pulled, putting his foot on the door. Yank, yank, nothing. “We–”

She reached over and lightly tugged on the board. It snapped in two.

“Okay,” Hemmingford said, tossing the broken pieces into the alley, then pulling open the door. She walked to him, leaning, and together they stepped into the dark. The door swung close behind them. He didn’t know where they were going. When they came across a staircase, they went up. Down a small hallway, they entered an old office.  There was an empty desk, a pin-up on the wall, and a window that looked out on the busy street out front. He stood by the window; she sat on the desk. “Who are they?  Gangsters? Did you steal from the mob?”

“Come here. You’re hurt.”

Hemmingford walked away from his view of the street. He looked at her, searching for injuries, but there were none. “What’s going on?” he asked, turning as she instructed him to with her hands. She pulled his overcoat off of him. There was blood on his clothes. A few shotgun pellets were sleeping in his shoulder.

“They are hunters. They wish to kill me,” she said. “Take off your shirt.”

He laid the holster on the desk beside him, but in easy reach. The shirt unbuttoned easily, but he moaned as he slipped the shirt off, his shoulder searing with every minute movement. “How bad is it?”

“Not bad,” she said, her breath hitting his back. It made him shiver. Her hands held his shoulders as her rough tongue ran over his wounds. Her mouth covered them as her hands encircled him, grabbing his chest, lightly scratching across his nipple, waking it.

“What are you?” Hemmingford asked, eyes closed.

She kissed the top of his shoulder, moving in front of him. His throat.  “Something different,” she said breathlessly, and then her lips were on his. Their mouths opened.

Hemmingford tasted something sweet in her mouth with a hint of metal. His tongue ran cautiously over her teeth, feeling the two sharp points. His heart beat hard and rapid. She matched its intensity. These details were small things, though. He was swept up in the way his flesh tingled where she touched him and how the endless depth of this kiss drew him into her. She unbuckled his belt, his pants, and dropped them.  Hemmingford’s hands pulled up her dress, her slip, and found her panties. They fell, and she stepped out of them for him and she pushed him onto the desk, climbing onto him.  When she guided him into her, her mouth pressed hard against him.

His pain was gone. His hands gripped her lower back as she rocked on top of him.  Her mouth moved to his wounded shoulder, sucking on the wounds. He felt another set of pinches, and then heat undulated down his spine. Nothing in life had felt this way before.  Every nerve and fiber felt engaged. He pulled her hard body against his. Her breasts cushioned against his chest while they slid back and forth smoothly timed. Their mouths were pressed together as he felt it rushing on him. His hands squeezed her back; the muscles in his legs tightened. His back felt like it was burning while her motion became more vigorous. Her lips were on his shoulder when her own came, meeting his sudden breaths. The tone of her voice sank into his bones, lighting him from the inside out.

When his body stilled, every muscle relaxed at once. It was like every tension had been sucked away. He was as light as air. She was still moving on top of him. Slight little motions that made everything below tingle with a painful pleasure. She was smiling, he saw. The littlest dribble of his blood ran down her angled chin. Then her head collapsed onto his bare chest, her hot exhales running across the thin thatch of curled hair between his muscles.

“My name is Hemmingford Rose,” he said.

“I am Rossum,” she said. Her voice was silky. She made him sit up again while she inspected his wounds. “We can tend this later,” she said, grabbing his overcoat. She tore it into a few long ribbons and wrapped the wound a few times, tying it beneath his arm. “There is metal in you.”

“Thank you.” He moved his arm, testing it. The pain was bearable.

“You helped me. You don’t–” Rossum stood stiffly, her beautiful eyes wide.  “We have been found.”

Hemmingford moved to the window. There were two cars out front; six men climbed out. He lost them at the bottom of the window, but it was definitely this building they had entered. All of them had long coats on, hiding their guns. His pistol was in the holster on the floor, where it had fallen in the commotion. His eyes met her. “I’ll have some questions later.” After the unbuttoned shirt, he slipped the holster on, watching the door. “Stay here.” He went to the door, gun in hand. They were coming up the stairs, he could hear. At the end of the short hall, he leaned back against the wall he was facing.  “I’m a cop!” Hemmingford yelled. The movement stopped. “What are you after?”

A few whispers too faint to make out came down the hall like scurrying rat scratches, then: “The woman is a monster. Whatever she told you is a lie.”

“You boys go ahead and leave.”

“I’m a priest. We can’t leave until we put this evil down. Don’t you fear God, son?”

“Those shotguns come with scriptures engraved down the barrels?”

There was a pause. “God’s work can be dirty.”

At least the man made it sound regrettable, Hemmingford thought. There was more whispering, and he got the feeling that they were preparing to make a move.  “She’s a woman,” he called out.

“Don’t be fooled. There is more strength there than you think.”

He smirked, thinking about the ease she’d broken the board with. He should have brought those pieces in. That was probably how they had found them, he guessed.

“Has she bitten you?” another man called out. His voice was new.

“You can’t have her,” Hemmingford yelled.

“Then we have to take her,” the new man yelled.

Hemmingford spun, exposing himself marginally, and fired into the flashlights.  Two quick shots, and then he rolled back around the corner, and backed down the hall.  One man was screaming that he was bleeding. The priest said that Jake was dead. And then the end of the hall exploded in gunfire. The plaster wall crumbled, and the corner was shaved clean. He stood at the doorway down the hall, watching the moving lights.  Rossum was in the room, near the window. “There is more of them than you and me.  And I’m almost out of bullets,” he said. When the first face poked down the hall, Hemmingford shot. The bullet hit the wall, exploding plaster in a large puff. A second after, he stepped fully in the room, shutting the door; gunfire began tearing up the hallway. “Not much–”

Rossum busted the window. The glass fell to the sidewalk below. “Come,” she instructed.

“It’s kind of high, isn’t it?” he asked, already deciding that jumping was his only chance. She lifted him like a bride would be lifted and leaped out. Her landing was soft, and then his feet were hitting the ground. The sound of gunfire was muffled above. Cars passed them on the main street. He was impressed. “Take the car,” he said, running over to it. The men had come in two cars. She was in as he pulled his door open.

“Stop!”

Half out of the window, a man was aiming a tommy gun at him. “ Shit,” Hemmingford muttered. The car started. This was going to be close. He shot without aiming, drawing and driving at the same time.  His bullet struck a foot to the left of the window. It was enough to make the gunner duck his head, lending Hemmingford precious seconds. “Get down!” he screamed, slamming his foot down on the accelerator.  The car jerked forward, slamming his door, pulling onto the sidewalk. From above, automatic fire opened up. The roof popped the rapid impacts. The car jostled off the sidewalk, caroming off of a passing car. At the intersection, Hemmingford squealed left. “We’re good.”

Rossum was scrunched down in her seat. She straightened up, looked up at the holes in the roof behind them, then looked back. The rear backseat was torn with holes, stuffing hung out. “We are not yet clear,” she said. To punctuate, machine gun fire burst through the rear window. The sound of metal smacking the back of the car made Hemmingford duck.

“Not good,” he said. Through the mirror, he saw the man hanging out of the window behind them. The second car was two lengths back. The mouth of the tommy gun opened, and Hemmingford’s mirror crumbled. The car wasn’t going to be able to take much more of this. He took the next turn, barely tapping the breaks. The street was full of cars. A long trail of lead slashed across the car that Hemmingford had been behind. The driver jerked, his blood spitting up onto the window. The trailing car turned behind Hemmingford. Rossum was turned around in her seat, hands on top, watching behind them with a petulant glare. “The man is reloading a round clip.”

Hemmingford sharply turned around the next two cars and bounced up onto the sidewalk to keep from hitting a third. Gun fire from the street followed them. The shops and people Hemmingford passed were hailed in a destructive like of lead. Windows burst. Bricks cracked. People ducked, screaming, or fell bloody as Hemmingford sped by. He swerved into the street at the first opening. The gunfire had covered the street.  People were hiding as he drove by. Heads poked out from behind cars and through shop windows. Vender’s carts stood unattended. “I don’t know how much farther we have to go. Another clip and this car might crumple on us.” There wasn’t much left of the back of the car as it was.

“Turn here. Head east,” Rossum said.

He took the turn. You could see that the panic hadn’t passed to this street. At once, people were visible. He turned where Rossum pointed again. Then again. Their trailers were behind them, bumping the car. Rossum had her torso out of the window, looking up at the night sky. When she pulled herself in, she grabbed the wheel.  Hemmingford hit the brakes as the car turned, fishtailing. Their trailers hit them, jostling the car, snapping the rear tire. The car was facing a deep alley. There were trashcans packed on either side. A steel fire escape was connected to the building at the back.

“Go,” she said sternly.

The car didn’t have much left in it, but it limped to the back of the alley. He went for his door, but she gabbed him by the shoulder. Her grip was iron, and he suspected that there was much more strength there than she was using. “What is it?” he asked. The other car was pulling behind them, victorious. Their headlights came brightly through the mottled rear.

“Wait.”

“They want to kill you. Me, now, too. And I’m out of bullets.” He looked behind them, cowering beside the torn seat back. “I could try something while you jump up the fire escape. I got a feeling that you can make it.”

Rossum smiled and it was the most frighteningly beautiful thing that he’d ever seen. “No need.”

They came from the sky, falling like rain falls, only nothing so natural, Hemmingford supposed. There were three of them, all men. They had on suits but no ties.  Long hair. One wore black gloves. The first fell onto the roof of the car behind them as the doors opened. The roof bubbled in. The men swung their ready guns up, and the other two dropped down behind the men.

“What…?”

“They are my family,” she said, as the men screamed. Gunfire soared wildly into the night sky while the men holding the guns had their throats torn out. Blood sprayed all over the men. The one still in the car behind them screamed, trapped, as they came in for him when he didn’t come out. It didn’t last a minute, but Hemmingford saw it all in slow-motion. When it was done, the gunmen were all bloody crumples, and the three blood-covered creatures stood looking his way.

“Okay,” he said, facing forward. He watched her walk around the front of the car, coming to his door. After two deep breaths, he stepped out. The men behind him were gone. Corpses laid still on the concrete. “Rossum,” he said, grabbing her with his left arm. His shoulder screamed.

She walked very close to him, closed her eyes, and inhaled while she moved her face up and over. Their lips brushed, her eyes opened. “It is near dawn. I must go. But I will find you, Hemmingford Rose. You saved me.” With a girlish laugh, she was gone.

He walked down the alley, the night streaming against the bare swath of chest, his unbuttoned shirt revealed, and carefully stepped around the dead men. He could hear sirens clearly from the surrounding streets. What he’d wanted to say was that they had saved each other. Was he more excited or scared by her promise to find him? He put a delicate hand on his throbbing shoulder. Cars passed by the end of the alley. To the east, still and hour down, dawn was coming.

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