Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Gathering: Chapter 1 - Helping out an old friend


If you asked anyone about Hunter Maddocks, they would tell you that he was a good man. He worked hard for a good company and had made a success of his career. He was married to a beautiful and charming woman. He had three great kids - two strapping lads and a little girl who would clearly grow up to break hearts. He lived in a swell house and went away whenever he could to his vacation lodge by the lake. Hunter Maddocks was a good man and everything was going just fine with him.

That is what anyone you asked would tell you, unless you asked me or Bobby Lomax. We went a long way back with Hunter Maddocks, and we knew things about him that other people didn't. We knew he had had a rough time of it in the war. Sure, we all had. You've heard what that general said, about how all that talk of glory is moonshine, about how war is hell? We had seen that close up, seen things that no one should ever have to see. I don't know if Hunter saw worse things than we did, but he was never quite right when he came back home after it was all over. Sure, he could put on a brave face and smile to the world and work away at his job and work his way up through the company, picking up a great woman and some wonderful kids along the way, but part of him never left the war behind. And every so often he would find it all coming back to him and he would have to do something to wipe it all out of his mind.

Sometimes Hunter would head down to a seedy bar where no one knew him and pour cheap liquor into himself until he couldn't remember his name, let alone what it was that was upsetting him. That's what he used to do, but liquor wasn't enough for him anymore. That’s how bad it had got with Hunter Maddocks, the fellow everyone thought was such a good man - when it all got too much for him, he would head out into the city in search of dope. He was still together enough not to bring shame on his family, so he did not go to some crooked doctor spinning a yarn about a sore back that would merit a prescription that a drugstore clerk would supply before blabbing to and sundry. Instead Maddocks would make his way to those parts of town where a man like him can go unrecognised and there satisfy his craving.

So when my telephone rang late at night and a tearful woman's voice came on the line it set me down a road I had been on many times before.

"Mrs Maddocks?" I said. "Is this about Hunter?"

"Oh yes", she answered, "You know it is. He hasn't come home tonight. He was upset last night and seemed out of sorts this morning before heading out. It's happened again, hasn't it?"

"Don't worry, Mrs Maddocks. We'll get him home to you safe and sound".

"I don't know what I'd do without you and Bobby. But it's getting worse, isn't it? It's so soon since the last time".

It was true. Hunter's episodes were becoming more frequent. He needed to see a shrink or something, to try and sort himself out, but his fear of exposure meant that he kept saying that this time he would be able to deal with it himself. But then it would happen again. It was only a matter of time before he was exposed as the dope fiend he was. Or worse, that something terrible would happen to him in the bad part of town.

But I couldn't let his wife dwell on this. "Don't worry, Mrs Maddocks", I said, in my most reassuring voice. "We'll bring him home to you. And then we'll make sure he gets the help he needs. He'll come out of this, don't you worry".

"Oh God, I hope so".

I couldn't bear to bear to hear that good woman sound so anguished, so I brought the conversation to a close. Then I rang Bobby. He wasn't too pleased to get a call from me at that hour of the night, but he knew immediately what I was ringing about. I told him to get dressed and wait for me. Then I ran out and got a cab over to his place, where we picked him up and went on to the waterfront.

You know what it's like down there by the river? When business was better, it was a bustling spot, with boats loading and unloading at all hours of the day and night. Now it was the kind of place no sensible person would visit after dark. The waterfront was a nest of thieves, a cesspit of the worst kind of human trash. And it was the part of town that the foreign elements called home, mostly because their kind was not welcome in the more decent parts of town. This was where Maddocks could obtain the narcotic filth he was looking for. So it was that Bobby and I found ourselves pushing our way through a succession of degenerate dope houses in the hope of finding our friend before it was too late.

And we did find him, in a fetid den run by a grinning Chinaman, where the other denizens were particularly degenerate members of that oriental race. The owner of the establishment knew we were not looking for his sick fare ourselves, but he also could tell that we were not policemen and so posed no real threat to his business. So he smiled at us in a manner that made me want to punch him hard in the face and left us to look around without offering any impediment.

When we found Maddocks he was lying on a filthy mat, his eyes barely open, spittle dribbling from his mouth.

"Oh jeez", said Bobby, "he's in a bad way".

"Come on, let's get him out of here", I said, trying to project a confidence I did not feel. I pushed over to Maddocks, stepping over several prostrate and unconscious Chinese men. Bobby followed while the grinning Chinamen watched us and said nothing. I bent down to Maddocks and spoke to him in a quiet but firm tone.

"Maddocks. Hunter", I said. "It's me. Bobby's here too. We're going to take you home now, Hunter".

"Take me home?" he answered, stretching the words out so that it seemed like an eternity before he finished the short question.

"Come on Bobby", I said, grabbing one of Maddocks' arms. Bobby grabbed the other and we raised him up and then dragged him to the door. He did not protest, though we did disturb some of the other patrons who emitted low piteous moans. This seemed to amuse the grinning proprietor who moved out of our way as we went through the door, down a crooked flight of steps and out into the narrow alleyway that led to the entrance. We carried along and he continued to hang limp. But something seemed to give him the desire to talk, and we had to endure the pointless ramblings of our doped up friend, spoken excessively slowly and in a tone that made it hard to follow what he was saying.

"I made a friend, you know?" he said. We made no reply, but he continued. "He was like me, but he seemed very upset… had to take a lot of it to stop himself from thinking about it, he said. And how funny… you came for me, and his friends had already come for him. But I' m not sure if they were really his friends. He wasn't too happy to see them".

"Are you happy to see us, Hunter?" said Bobby, affecting a cheery tone that called to mind our days of youthful derring-do.

"I'm always happy to see you fellows", replied Maddocks. "You’re much nicer to me than my friend's friends were, you know? He wasn't too happy to see them, let me tell you".

I was not interested in his tales of how he was making friends with other dopers. The last thing I wanted to happen was for him to fall into some kind of acquaintance with those degenerates, as next thing they would be sure to start leeching off him and luring him further into a life of depravity.

"Stow it, Hunter", I snapped. "That doper is no good friend of yours and you should forget all about him. You've got to put that side of your life behind you, you understand? Look, here's a cab. We're bringing you home to your wife and kids who love you and need you".

We bundled him into the cab and told the driver where to take us. Maddocks said nothing more on the way home. Bobby and I said nothing either. What was there for us to say?

Next Chapter

[AUTHOR'S VOICE: I should add that I am a bit uncomfortable with the racist undercurrent in this excerpt. I was trying to replicate past mindsets and genre conventions, but I think perhaps that some things are better confined to the dustbin of history. I hope readers take it that the character is racist, not me, though I would probably be offended if I read this kind of thing written by someone else.]

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