Harold Adams shivered like a wet puppy. He took a desperate look back at the only exit from Bugs’ penthouse. Two gorilla-sized men in cheap suits blocked the elevator doors. Most people who found themselves in Harold’s position usually ended up leaving the hotel in the back of a hearse.
Bugs leaned back in his leather chair. “So, you’re the guy who can see people die before it happens. Tell me, Mister Adams, how come you’re hangin’ out on the street with the rest o’ the bums? A lot of folks would pay good money ta know when they’re gonna die. I’d think a man with your abilities would be filthy rich by now.”
Harold pressed his knees together to stop them from quivering. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.
Bugs scratched a match on the bottom of his shoe and lit a cigar. “Relax. Nobody’s gonna hurt ya.” A cloud of smoke flew out of his mouth. “Just gimme an answer. How come ya ain’t rich?”
Harold swallowed hard and did his best to comfort himself that he had not foreseen his own death. Perhaps Bugs had not brought him here to kill him, at least not yet. “It’s not as easy being me as it looks. A couple nights ago I dreamed about a punk who was stabbed in the kidneys at a speakeasy. I felt the knife cut through every nerve. The night before that I dreamed about a woman who was thrown from a balcony. The fall broke her back and crushed her larynx. She choked to death on her own blood. The few seconds it took her to die seemed like hours to me. I experienced every moment of it.”
Bugs glanced at the bigger of the two goons. “Lenny, get the paper.” He turned back to Harold. “I don’t care about them other people. Can you dream about my death before it happens?”
Harold relaxed his knees. “It depends. The more violent the death the clearer I see it. Also, the better I know the person, the easier it is for me. In that case it does not have to be a violent death at all. Something as mundane as a heart attack in a guy’s sleep could be enough.”
Lenny handed Bugs the paper. His eyes scanned the text back and forth until they fixed on one spot.
“Well I’ll be. Says here a Mrs. Mabel Donohue bit the big one last night when her husband threw her off their apartment balcony. Could be the same one. What about the punk, Mister Adams?”
“Sometimes I have the dreams several nights in advance. He might not have died yet.”
“I guess I’ll just have ta check tomorrow’s paper then. Let me tell ya what I’m up to, Mister Adams. Things have been gettin’ real tough here lately with Johnny the Undertaker tryin’ to horn his way into everybody’s territory. He’s already whacked two o’ my best men. It just ain’t safe for a business man like me. You can be my good luck charm. What d’ ya think?”
Harold pondered a moment. Bugs was a hard guy to say no to. Those who did usually ended up in the river, floating face down. “Do I have a choice?”
“Not unless ya wanna feel a real knife in your kidneys. Lenny, take Mister Adams downstairs and get him cleaned up. He smells worse than you. And one more thing, Mister Adams. I take care o’ those who take care of me, and I also take care o’ those who don’t. Know what I’m sayin’?”
Lenny laid his massive hand on Harold’s shoulder. “Don’t ya try ta escape. I’d hate ta have ta rough ya up.”
Escape? Harold thought. He looked around the hotel suite. This was the best accommodation he could remember for a long time. He had a bath and a shave, and now a room with a radio and a real bed. They even brought up a nice pasta dinner. And to top it all off, lots of booze. It was Bugs’ own brew, not the best by any means, but it was free.
Night closed in over the city. A train whistle blew in the distance. The lights from the radio towers flashed red into the room. Soon, the visions would come. He shuddered, anticipating the horrible deaths he would experience tonight.
He grabbed the only thing that offered even an ounce of relief, a bottle of beer. Popping the top, he looked over at Lenny, who stood against the door with his arms folded. “Would you like one?”
“Nah. The boss don’t like his people drinkin’ when they’s s’posed ta be workin’.”
“Suit yourself. Are you going to be here all night?”
“There’s a man comin’ in a few minutes ta take over. Then I gets ta go home ta the wife and kids.”
“I had a family once.”
“My wife couldn’t take living with me any longer, so she took our daughter and left.”
”Look at me, Lenny. I’m a worthless drunk. I don’t blame them for going. I can’t stand myself either.”
Someone knocked on the door. Another man, nearly as big as Lenny took his place. This man didn’t try to talk, he just stood there with a glum look on his face. Harold ignored him and continued to drink. As much as he dreaded it, he drifted to sleep.
He had been passed out drunk on the railroad tracks, waking just in time to see an enormous HHHHHHH locomotive barrel over him. It’s wheels sliced him into three parts. Then, he ended up going for a swim with concrete blocks chained to his ankles. His lungs filled with water. They burned for oxygen for what seemed like an eternity as the life went out of him.
Worst than that, though, he had been a schoolgirl bound and held in a dark room. Somewhere outside, a horn sounding like it belonged to a ship hooted. The door opened, nearly blinding her with light. She looked up at a man holding a butcher knife.
She whimpered and tugged at her bonds, but they didn’t give. The pervert chopped off a finger. Pain shot all the way up her arm. A scream tried to escape from her mouth, but a gag muffled it. He sliced off another finger, than another. At some point she mercifully passed into unconsciousness.
Harold awoke screaming. It took him several minutes to catch his breath. Morning’s first rays shot into the room. The sky shone orange over the waterfront. The cheerfulness of the new day did nothing to comfort him from the previous night.
His thoughts drifted back to the day his wife left with his daughter. He recalled the sadness as his little girl’s bright eyes turned away from him for the last time. Somewhere in the city the parents of that schoolgirl were about to experience a hurt one thousand times worse.
He trembled like a plucked guitar string, worse than any case of the shakes the booze could have given him. His head pounded like it had been split open. He rolled over and vomited last night’s beer into the trashcan.
The door burst open, and in stepped Bugs with a smile stretching the entire width of his face. “Hey, Mister Adams, guess what? Our man in the second precinct says they found a stiff last night with his kidneys sliced just as you said. It looks like ya really can tell who’s gonna die before it happens.”
Harold wiped his face on the pillow. “Yes, and you know there’s a certain little girl who’s going to be sliced up like a loaf of bread if they don’t find her real soon.”
“Yeah, but is there anything in your visions about me?”
“No, you’re going to live a little bit longer. What about that poor girl? There might still be time to find her if we move fast.”
“I read all about her in the paper. Her folks ain’t got no money. It’d just be a waste of time. Let’s just see if we can keep me alive. It’d help you stay alive too, if ya know what I mean.”
Bugs walked out. The goon looked at him. “Yer lucky da Boss was in a good mood. He’s been real edgy lately an’ don’t like it when people talk back ta him. Just a little pointer that might keep ya’ livin’ a little longer.”
Another pointless day passed. Harold thought of all those ordinary people out there, who only had to handle one death every now and then. Tonight, he knew he would experience many.
He looked forward to the one bright spot of the night. It was Lenny’s turn to guard him. He prepared for the night by drowning in as many beers as he could to anesthetize the upcoming pain.
Lenny watched him guzzle bottle after bottle. “Hey, Mister Adams, I don’t think ya should be drinkin’ all that beer. My mamma says alcohol ain’t no good for da liver.”
“You actually listen to your mother?”
“Yeah. Shouldn’t everybody?”
“Didn’t she tell you not to become a gangster?”
“Sure. But I got me a family and there ain’t no good jobs for an uneducated oaf like me. Bugs, he takes care o’ his people real well. He gave my wife a set o’ gold earrings for her birthday. He does all kind o’ good stuff like that.”
“Doesn’t it bother you where all that money comes from?”
“It used ta, but not no more. The way I got it figured, people was gittin’ whacked before I came along and they’ll be gittin’ whacked long after I’m gone. I might as well make a livin’ off it if I can. You’s doin’ the same thing, ain’t ya?”
Harold had to admit Lenny was right. He was now just as much a part of Bugs’ wretched machine as anyone else. It gave him one more reason to despise himself.
Night came as always. Harold turned on the radio and waited for it to warm up. The room filled with music, but it did nothing to calm his thoughts. Despite his wishes to the contrary, he went to sleep. Death agonies throughout the entire city forced themselves into his dreams again. One particular memory came across clear as morning dew.
He saw Bugs and three other men walk out of a restaurant, toward their cars. Just as their drivers were opening the doors to let them in, another group of cars squealed by. Men clung to the running boards, firing tommy guns. Harold felt a swarm of .45 slugs penetrate the chests of all four.
As soon as the first light of morning came through his window, he told the goon on duty to get a message to Bugs.
A few minutes later, the Boss stuck his big, grinning face in the room. “I understand you have something for me?”
“You aren’t by chance going to a restaurant anytime soon, are you?”
The smile left his face. “As a matter o’ fact, I got a business meeting at Antonio’s tonight with Tony Legano and a couple o’ his lieutenants. Why?”
“I wouldn’t go if I were you. Not unless you want to end up with a body full of lead.”
The smile returned, this time running from ear to ear. “Really? I guess I’ll have ta take a rain check then. Never could stand Tony. I can’t wait ta see what happens ta the clown.”
Lenny came in at mid-day and Harold told him what happened that morning. “You gonna be in with the boss after this. That is if yer tellin’ the truth. If nothin’ happens, I wouldn’t wanna be in yer shoes though. They might just end up in concrete.”
Harold’s stomach tightened at the notion he might be wrong. Then he thought, what’s the use of worrying about it? The worst thing that would happen is Bugs would rub him out and at least it would be an end to his miserable existence. He would consider death a relief.
A couple hours after sundown, Bugs burst into his room again. “Guess what? You were right. They plugged Tony like a pincushion. If I’d been there, I’d o’ been a goner too.” He laughed and danced into the air. He fell when he landed.
Bugs stood and dusted his suit off. “Listen, all you mugs. This guy saved my life tonight, take good care o’ him, hear? Harold, I’ll get you anything you want. Booze, broads, cigars, you just name it.”
“How about if you spare some men to find that missing girl? There may still be time.”
Bugs grabbed Harold by the collar. “Don’t be a knucklehead, Adams. I don’t care about all them other folks. You’re here ta save my life.”
He shoved Harold on the floor and stormed out of the room. Lenny bent over to help him up. “You’re lucky he needs you t’ stay alive, Mister Adams. Otherwise I think he’d o’ shot ya on the spot.”
Harold went to bed that night, drunk as usual. Later, he awoke, but not screaming like so many other dreams. He remembered seeing a river of blood in his sleep. He lay awake trying to figure out what it could mean. Finally, the answer came to him. He rolled over and fell into the most restful sleep of his entire life.
Lenny came in at daybreak. “Ya look really rested this morning. What happened? Nobody died last night?”
“I had a dream about a river of blood. I think it meant my blood. It’s been nice knowing you.”
Lenny’s mouth dropped open. “Don’t say that, Mister Adams. A man in Bugs’ business deals in rivers of blood every day. There’s so many things it might mean.”
“I need to talk to Bugs.”
“Gosh, you think that’s wise? You seen how he acted with ya last night. The other day, he shot at Mel. It’s a good thing his hands ain’t been the most steady lately, or I think Mel’d be pushin’ up daisies right now.”
“Just get me up there.”
“Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”
Lenny took him up the elevator, the longest ride of what Harold figured to be the remainder of his life. His thoughts turned to Lenny.
“You know, you need to get out of this business while you still can. If you don’t, you’ll end up dead like so many of Bugs’ other men.”
“Was I in one o’ your dreams last night?”
“No. I don’t need my ability to see that, though. I’m just saying if you keep doing what you’re doing, your number will come up too some day.”
“You sound real serious there, Harold. You know somethin’ I don’t?”
“Just take good care of your wife and kids. You’re a lucky man to have them. One more thing, I think you’re going to need to find a new job soon.”
The elevator dinged. The door opened. Two goons cast Harold a cold look.
“I need to see Bugs.”
“An’ why would that be?” one asked.
“I know how he’s going to die.”
The thug raised an eyebrow and stepped aside. Harold walked through without knocking.
Bugs sat at his desk, chomping on a cigar. “What the hell are ya doin’ here, Mister Adams?”
“I’ve figured out how you’re going to die.”
“Well, tell me!”
“No. First, I want you to find that missing girl before it’s too late.”
The gangster stood and slapped his desk with both hands. “What do you mean you want me? I give the orders around here.” His breath grew heavy and rapid. It seemed to Harold the man would explode from his rage.
“I meant what I said. Your men can use methods to find her that the police can’t. You make sure she comes home safe and sound and I tell you how you’re going to die. I think it’s a fair bargain.”
Bugs drew his gun. He leveled it at Harold’s forehead. “Tell me or I’m gonna drill ya right now!”
Harold’s heart leapt up into his throat. He smelled his own perspiration. He swallowed. “Think for a minute. If you kill me, how will you ever find out how you’re supposed to die?”
Bugs stood frozen. The gun trembled in his hand. He lowered it and turned toward his goons. “Find her! I don’t care how many men you gotta take. Just get this man ta tell me when I’m gonna die!”
“One more thing. I think I heard a ship horn in one of my dreams. I suggest you concentrate on the waterfront district.”
Harold went back to his room, his knees still shaking. He opened the window. Cool air blew into his face and evaporated the sweat that had accumulated all over it. He sat and took a few deep breaths. His muscles relaxed.
Lenny showed up to begin his shift. “I heard what happened between you and the Boss. You tryin’ ta get yourself killed?”
“It was a chance I had to take. Besides, I’m going to die anyway. I didn’t have much to lose.”
“I don’t get it. If ya know when yer gonna die, why don’t ya just not be there when it’s supposed ta happen? People tell me I’m as dumb as a rock, an’ even I can figure that out.”
“It’s not that simple. When I first realized I had the gift, I thought I could do a lot of good for people. Then, the knowledge started driving me crazy. Look what I am now.
“I can’t get this kidnapped schoolgirl out of my head. She reminds me so much of my own daughter. I have one chance to do something good for someone before I die and I’m going to take it.”
Harold lay down to sleep again that night. He kicked the covers off, turning over every few minutes. The dreams forced themselves into his head, but for once they did not dominate his mind. Instead, he found his thoughts focusing on just one person – that poor girl.
One of Bugs’s men brought him breakfast, but he didn’t eat it. His head throbbed as the morning dragged on. Finally, his door burst open. Bugs rushed in, with two goons close behind. He had a newspaper in his hand.
“All right, Adams, we found the girl.” He slapped the paper into Harold’s hands. “Look at the front page.”
He read the headline. KIDNAPPED GIRL FOUND ALIVE. A huge photograph on the front page showed the child in her overjoyed mother’s arms. Harold smiled for the first time he could remember.
“Okay, Adams, you got your way. Now tell me how I’m gonna die.”
Harold cleared his throat. “I had a dream the night before about a river of blood. I didn’t know until yesterday exactly what that meant.”
“So what does that mean?”
“Tell me, Bugs, how have you been feeling lately? More agitated? Have you had trouble holding things maybe?”
Bugs’ eyes shot wide open. “What the hell is that all about?”
“It has to do with my blood all right, but also your blood. You have syphilis. Advanced. Face it, Bugs, you’re going to die soon.”
Bugs pulled out his pistol. “Damn you, Adams, you were supposed ta stop all this!”
“I can’t. You probably contracted the disease before you even met me. Besides, I can’t save you from your own decrepit lifestyle. It’s too late.”
Bugs unloaded his gun into Harold. He fell to the floor and rolled onto his side. As the final darkness closed in, he saw was his own blood flowing out of him like a river.
As a teenager, I spent many hours reading Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein and aspired to become the next Isaac Asimov. I graduated from Missouri State University and started my career as a science teacher but am now employed in the information systems field.
My work has appeared in Timid Pirate Publishing’s Benevolent Apocalypse Anthology and The Fifth Dimension. I also have stories under contract with Stupefying Stories and Cosmic Vegetable’s Anthology of Humorous Science Fiction.
I have been married for eighteen years to a registered nurse but most of all a compassionate wife and mother. Together we are raising two brilliant and (mostly) well-behaved teenage children. When not working, doing family things or writing I like to build military models or play with model trains.