NYC Midnight Short Story Entry – The Burnt Man

Nicola Galliani reread the note instructing him where to go after he made it through L’Isola dell Lagrime. His orders were to meet Vanzetti in New York. The date of the revolution was set. If the people ever wanted to break the stranglehold that the crooks and hucksters of Wall Street maintained on them, he couldn’t fail. With a grim smile, he folded the paper into a small rectangle and tucked it inside the band of his hat. He slipped the hat onto his head and tilted it to hide the scarring. He needed to hurry if he wanted to make it to the ship. America waited.

Thomas Sullivan looked at the Norwegian woman in front of him. Her particulars were on a landing card pinned to her dress. He verified that the information on the manifest matched the card. After a minute inspection, he gave her a curt nod and moved on to the next immigrant. He repeated the process over a hundred times every day. It was a rare occasion for him to detain anyone. When the last person from the steamship passed his station, he tallied his marks and turned in his report to the head immigration inspector. Donning his hat, he left for home. First, he planned to stop at O’Malley’s for a pint to wash the stench of hundreds of unwashed bodies from his nostrils.

Two hours later, he climbed the stairs to the set of rooms he shared with his widowed sister, Irene. He could smell the warm, yeasty scent of his sister’s bread when he entered the flat. He hung his hat and coat on a nail by the door.

“Irene, the angels in heaven envy me,” Thomas said. He sat at the table and Irene put a bowl of stew in front of him. He grabbed a slice of the bread and dipped it into the stew.

“And why is that?” Irene asked. She blew a stray curl from her eyes.

“Because I’ve got a sister who bakes me the best bread in New York.”

“Did you kiss a piece of the Blarney Stone one of those young Irish girls brought with her?”

“This load was mostly Germans and Norwegians. Different faces and accents, but the same look of confused hope on the lot of them.” Thomas mopped up the last of the stew with his bread.

“I have news,” Irene announced. “The Granvilles invited a spiritualist to the house tomorrow evening. They’re hosting a séance.”

“A séance? Why talk to the dead? There’s enough problems with the living without inviting the dead into the mix.”

“Mr. Giles asked me to stay late and help the other girls clean up after the party. I’m going to see a spirit!” Irene said excitedly. “Maybe Daniel will send me a message if he knows I’m there. If you want to come listen, I’m sure Mrs. Hudson would let you stay in the kitchen. She’s still waiting for you to come calling on her daughter, Anne.”

Irene’s husband, Daniel, had died the previous year when he fell into machinery at the factory where he worked. They had only been married six months. Thomas worried his sister would never remarry despite her attractive face and excellent cooking skills. The last thing Irene needed was to think Daniel would come back to her as a spirit.

“I don’t believe in ghosts and such. It’s not natural. The dead go to heaven or hell. They don’t wait around for some grifter to help them speak,” Thomas said.

“Well, I’m excited,” Irene declared, “and I don’t care what you say, Thomas Sullivan. My Daniel will come. Just you wait and see!” She snatched his empty bowl from the table and stalked away.

Thomas sighed. He knew his sister. Once she had an idea in her head, nothing could shake it loose. Tired from his long day, he headed to bed.

The next evening, Thomas made his way to Banker’s Row and the Granvilles’ stately home. He knocked at the rear door by the kitchen. Mrs. Hudson’s exasperated face relaxed when she saw Thomas. “Thomas! Irene told me you might come by this evening. Anne’s in the dining room, but she’ll be done soon. Would you like a bit of supper while you wait?”

“Thank you, Mrs. Hudson. A bite to eat would be most welcome after today.” Thomas settled onto a wooden chair. “Irene said there was a séance this evening. Have they started?”

“So much foolishness. Folks with too much money and time on their hands and not enough sense. Madame Valentina, as she calls herself, is here. She’s waiting for her men to finish setting up the room.” Mrs. Hudson placed a plate with a generous slice of roast and vegetables in front of him.

“Irene believes Daniel is somehow going to speak to her tonight,” Thomas said. “I tried to tell her it’s all fakery, but she wouldn’t listen.”

“Anne tried to tell her the same thing,” Mrs. Hudson said. She pulled a pie from the cupboard and sliced a generous portion. She slid it onto his plate.

The door between the kitchen and hallway swung open. Anne and Irene rushed into the kitchen giggling. The dishes they carried threatened to topple to the ground. Thomas jumped up and relieved Anne of several plates.

“Thank you, Thomas.” Anne blushed. A plump blonde girl, Anne Hudson always had a smile on her face.

“You’re most welcome,” Thomas said and carried the plates to the sink. “Have the shenanigans started?”

“Thomas!” Irene scolded. “If you met Madame Valentina, you would be a believer, too. I can sense the spirits hovering around her.”

There was a rattle of pots and a loud harrumph from Mrs. Hudson. Thomas decided to keep his own counsel and not add his thoughts on the mysterious Madame Valentina. “I’ll wait here in the kitchen until you’re done for the night.”

Irene and Anne rushed out of the kitchen to finish their chores. Thomas sat back at the table. Mrs. Hudson poured them both a cup of coffee. She heaved a tired sigh as she settled her ample frame opposite of him. “Give her time. She’s young, and it’s only been a year since Daniel passed.”

Thomas sipped his coffee. He was opening his mouth to ask Mrs. Hudson if he could call on Anne when Irene burst into the kitchen.

“Thomas! Madame Valentina says she has a message for you! Come quick!”

“What in the world…” Thomas started to protest, but Irene had already darted back down the hall. Thomas quickly followed her down the hallway to the sitting room. A dark-haired woman with a lace shawl draped over her head sat at a round table. Anne and Irene were the only other people in the room.

“Come here, Thomas Sullivan,” the woman said in a heavy Italian accent. “I don’t have much time.”

Thomas stepped hesitantly towards her. “No disrespect, ma’am, but I don’t believe in spirits.”

“It doesn’t matter!” Madame Valentina rapped her hand down on the table. “What I have to tell you is urgent and a matter of life or death! Stop the burnt man. If you don’t, hundreds will die. Now go before they return!”

Thomas stumbled out of the room and rushed back to the kitchen. He shivered despite the warmth of the room.

The next day, Thomas yawned his way through his shift at Ellis Island. Irene and he hadn’t arrived home until close to midnight. Irene had chattered about the séance nonstop. Daniel hadn’t spoken to Irene, but she thought maybe he had sent the warning to Thomas.

“Do you know a burnt man?” Irene had asked.

“No, I don’t. Nor do I need to stop anyone based on a psychic’s warning. It’s all fakery. Madame Valentina was warming up for her upcoming performance,” Thomas had replied.

He struggled to focus on the man in front of him. Mr. Manning had warned all the inspectors of a credible threat.

“We’ve received word that a group of anarchists are making their way to America from Italy and Poland,” Mr. Manning warned the immigration inspectors earlier. “You check, then double check, every man’s credentials over the coming days and weeks. You are the first line of defense against these blasted revolutionaries.”

Thomas eyed the man in front of him. An immigrant from Greece, his information appeared to be in order. He nodded, and the man moved forward. He was the last passenger.

Thomas tallied up the day’s count and handed his sheet to his boss. “I’ll see you on Monday, Mr. Manning.”

When Thomas opened the door to his home, the familiar scents and sounds that usually greeted him were absent. He found Irene sitting at the table crying.

Alarmed, Thomas asked, “What’s wrong? What happened?”

“Madame Valentina is dead.” Irene sobbed. “Murdered last night after she left the Granvilles.”

Thomas was shocked. Madame Valentina had said she didn’t have much time. Did she have a vision that she was going to die? He shook his head. What a silly thought. She had probably meant that she had to hurry because it was time for the séance. Her murder was a coincidence.

“Who killed her?” Thomas asked his sister.

“They haven’t arrested anyone.” Irene sniffled. “The circumstances were strange. She left the Granvilles shortly after midnight. Mr. Giles said she was alive when she climbed into the carriage. By the time she arrived at her hotel, she was dead. Stabbed through the heart! The police questioned the driver. According to him, he never stopped between the Granvilles and the hotel. He had no blood on him, so the police believe him. This is awful.” She pressed a handkerchief to her mouth and tried to calm down.

Thomas gave his sister an awkward pat. Although the spiritualist’s death was shocking, the woman was a virtual stranger. “The police will figure it out. People like her often come into contact with rough characters.”

“She promised to try to channel Daniel for me. Now I’ll never have a chance to speak to him!” Irene wailed. She ran from kitchen and slammed her bedroom door shut behind her.

Thomas considered going after Irene but decided to let her be. The emotions of women baffled him at times. Clearly, dinner wouldn’t be appearing, so he put his hat back on and went in search of a corner pub and a cold pint.

On Monday, Thomas reported to work as usual. He and Irene had passed Sunday with nothing more said about the murder of Madame Valentina. They attended church a few blocks from their home and ate a cold supper before they retired to bed early.

The passengers disembarking today had left the port of Le Havre in Italy three weeks ago. All of the inspectors were alert to the possibility that one of these passengers could be planning an attack similar to the bombings throughout the city in the previous year. Ellis Island, or the Island of Tears as the immigrants called it, was the gateway, and Lady Liberty reigned as gatekeeper; however, it was the immigration inspectors who ensured those allowed through were worthy.

The majority of the passengers filing past Thomas were women and children. A few men had passed through his station earlier, but none of them had seemed suspicious. He gave the old woman in front of him a smile. Her daughter and son-in-law were already settled in Brooklyn. She was finally coming to join them and her new grandchild. He approved her entry, and she nodded her thanks. The next passenger stepped up to the station. He wore a gray cap pulled low.

“Take off your cap,” Thomas said in exasperation. Surely the translators had explained the inspection process to the man.

The man reached up and pulled off his hat. Thomas tried to hide his shock at the man’s appearance. Angry scars mottled the side of his face and twisted his mouth into a permanent grim smile.

“Fire. Burned my face,” the man said in broken English.

Thomas froze as Madame Valentina’s warning about the burnt man filled his thoughts. It had to be a coincidence. He scanned the manifest for the man’s name.

“Mi scusi. I pass?” The man gestured towards the gate.

“Um…no. Wait.” Thomas held up his hand to stop the man. He wondered if he was foolish to believe a scam artist’s warning about a burnt man. He could lose his job if he was wrong. Before he could decide, the man pushed past him and began to run.

“Stop him!” Thomas shouted. He ran after the fleeing man. The old Italian grandmother was still shuffling towards the exit. At his shout, she turned. Seeing the man running towards her, she screamed and dropped her small bag. The burnt man stumbled but quickly regained his footing. It was all Thomas needed. He leapt forward and tackled him.

Two weeks later, Thomas and Irene sat at their kitchen table. Irene listened as Thomas read the news article aloud.

“Immigration inspector, Thomas Sullivan, was instrumental in bringing Nicola Galliani to justice. A known revolutionary and avowed anarchist, Galliani refuses to speak; however, plans to bomb Wall Street were found hidden in his belongings. In a related story, Madame Valentina, spiritualist and psychic, was murdered by known associates of Galliani. The culprits worked for Mme. Valentina and used her travels throughout the city and into the many homes of our esteemed city leaders as cover for their work.” Thomas folded the paper and smiled at his sister. “The credit belongs to Madame Valentina. If not for her warning, I wouldn’t have stopped him. I have to wonder if she actually had a psychic vision or if she overheard her assistants planning an attack.”

“We’ll never know. You know what? I prefer to leave it that way,” Irene said. She stood up. “I’m off.”

“Where are you going?” Thomas asked. They usually spent their Sunday afternoons relaxing. If the weather was nice like today, they would walk to the park and feed the ducks.

“Mr. Giles asked if I would walk with him in the park today. I said yes.” Irene turned to grab her hat but not before Thomas saw the tinge of pink on her cheeks.

“I think that’s a fine idea,” Thomas said.


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