The noise in his head forced Galen to cover his ears with his hands. He dropped to his knees—the slushy water from the sidewalk soaking through his pants.
Again there was a sudden flash followed by a clap of thunder rumbling inside his head. From the far echoes of his mind he could hear her screaming plaintive wails of terror as the knife carved into her flesh. The sound she made—a shrieking—when she fell to the dirt was almost animalistic, feral, as the young girl from his past died in the filthy streets of her Veracruz ghetto.
“Be still, you,” he hissed through gritted teeth just as he noticed he was down on all fours, like a dog, at the front door of the Gypsy's parlor. Looking up, Galen had no recollection of moving, let alone crawling, across the street to get there. The lock clicked before the door creaked open. Galen looked up to find the Gypsy standing before him, her body outlined by the light coming from her parlor—and from deep inside his mind, a little voice told him what he seemed to know all along: that his arrival here was an inevitability that he could not have changed if he had tried.
“I don't think this was my choice,” Galen responded.
“Understand that everything that follows is your destiny at work, and any attempt to fight it will only result in grave consequences.”
“Please,” Galen pleaded, but the crone only stood and stared. Finally, she spoke.
“Come in and warm your bones by the fire. I think I know why you’re here.”
He had been sitting by a small cast iron stove for nearly a half-hour when the Gypsy brought him a steaming mug to drink. “This will warm your bones for sure.”
Galen drank from the hot cup. What was inside was bitter, but he kept drinking because the warmth. Also, something in his mind told him he could not put the mug down even if he had wanted to.
“What do you know about your past?” asked the crone. The question alarmed Galen, raising the hairs on the back of his neck.
When he didn't answer she pressed him. “Where were you born?”
“I don't know,” came the response.
“Who were your parents?”
“I don't know.”
“What is the date of your birth?”
“I don’t know!” bellowed Galen.
“There is a curse over you,” she mewed, nodding her head. “One that is ancient. One that is unforgiving.” The Gypsy spat onto the floor. “You are an abomination!”
To Galen, all this crazy talk coming from the crone buzzed about his head like flies. “I'm a man,” he blurted out. “Not whatever you're trying to make me out to be.”
The crone's sickly laughter filled the air between them, which is when Galen smelled her breath’s rank disease. She now reminded him of a corpse, with her sallow skin wrapped loosely around her skull. It came as a sudden flash, but there he stood—in his mind's eye—over her dead body.
He blinked and his eyelids suddenly felt weighed down. With effort he opened them, but the drowsiness was overwhelming. He could feel his shoulders go slack as the energy drained from his body.
“Very good,” said the crone, grinning. She ran a bony finger down his cheek. “Very good.”
Galen’s eyes opened to the sight of a small white mouse crawling out of a hole gnawed in the baseboard. Its nose wrinkled and its tiny red eyes stared back at him, as if examining him as much as he was examining it.
“Hi,” Galen began to whisper before cutting himself off, startled when a shoe heel came down upon the white mouse, smashing it into the floor.
Daisy stood there nude, shoe in her hand. “Duh— duh— dirty cuh— cuh— critter,” Daisy muttered, she looked at the bottom of the shoe, now splattered with blood and bits of fur before tossing it aside.
She crawled back into the bed, pulling the covers over her back before straddling Galen’s naked frame.
“Let’s guh— guh— go again?” she whispered into his ear. Any thoughts Galen had about how he had gotten here were pushed away by her misshapen breasts brushing playfully against his chest. She began to grind her hips into his and Galen could feel his natural response come to life. But as he entered he looked up into the ugly visage of the old Gypsy crone, her skin wrapped loosely around her skull, baring her stained and crooked teeth at him.
“No!” he screamed.
His heart pulsing with fright, he roughly shoved her off and leapt from the bed. But when he looked back he only saw Daisy lying there, in her natural form, staring back at him curiously.
“I have to leave,” Galen told her, nervously gathering his pants from the floor.
“If yuh— you’re worried about m-m-money, yuh— you p— p— p— paid for all nuh— nuh— night,” she said.
Galen ignored her. He slid into his pants and shirt and sat on the bed with his back to her, putting his boots on. With her duties obviously over, Daisy got up and put on a dirty and tattered silk robe.
He pulled his foot out of his second boot after feeling something hard inside. He upturned the boot, causing a small, nickel-plated, two-shot Derringer to fall to the floor. Daisy paid no mind, as she was too busy washing herself from a small bowl of water. Galen picked up the gun, securing the rosewood grip in his hand.
Another flash overtook him. Instantly, he was back to the previous night in the lair of the Gypsy crone. In the lamplight, her bony hand slid the very same Derringer to him across the table.
“Bring me that ebony box,” her voice intoned, her gaze piercing deep into his soul.
He was back in Daisy’s shabby room, holding the Derringer in his shaking hand.
It had been just before daybreak when he left, stepping out into the cold winter air. The streets were already busy and he dodged carts and horses to make his way from the bar as fast as he could. At first he was disoriented, unsure of which direction to turn. He stumbled across a curb into the arms of a fine-suited gentleman going the other way.
“Watch where you’re headed, fool,” said the gentleman brusquely as he passed.
Galen turned, trying to spot any familiar landmarks. The first time he had visited the bar he had been mere blocks from his boardinghouse; now he was completely lost. He crossed one street, then another. Finally he spotted a man loading dry goods into the back of a buckboard.
“Can you tell me the way to Washington Street?” asked Galen.
“Standing on it,” came the answer.
“Which direction is the Gypsy fortune teller?”
Looking at him like he was crazy, the man guffawed before returning into the store.
Galen looked around. He walked up one side of the street, then down the other.
The storefront with the window marked “Fortune” was nowhere to be found. He had only seen it at night—and while drunk at that—so his only landmark was that window with the wide and crooked letters.
Again he tramped up the street, looking carefully at every building he passed.
Perhaps the window was replaced, he reckoned to himself. As the snow began to lightly fall, he trudged up the length of Washington Street and back down to the waterfront with no luck.
It’s only there at night, he thought. And as unlikely as he realized this was, he was now certain it was the case.
Galen drifted down to the edge of the water and plopped himself onto a rock by the shoreline. He put his hands in the pockets of his duster and felt the Derringer. Pulling it out, he drew a long look at the small gun. Hefting it in his right hand, he arched back, ready to throw the Derringer into the river, but had to stop himself.
The inside of his head hurt—as if someone had torn a great rift in his mind. Galen violently rubbed his temples. Before him the river seemed to fade away; again he was back in the Gypsy’s parlor, repeating a scene buried in his memory.
“Where were you born?”
“I don't know.”
“Who were your parents?”
“I don't know.”
“What is the date of your birth?”
He rubbed his eyes, watching the candle-lit room disappeared as the river faded back into view. Finally, Galen stood from the rock. He faced the great roaring river, then tilted his head to the sky and bellowed, “Why do I not know?”
The world, it seemed, was spinning around him. He could see what felt like the passage of time whizzing past as he propelled forward through it. Inside his head, synapses fired a hundred times their normal rate and load, causing his conscious mind to buckle under an overwhelming flood of forgottens he was helpless to hold back.
And, as if landing with a thud, he was there—a dark place his mind hadn’t gone to in over a hundred years. His hand ran along the side of a tree. He could feel the rough surface of its bark against his touch though he dared not look beyond it.
“No,” he gasped. In one big whirl it all vanished—the darkness around him; the tree; the woods—and immediately he was back at the waterfront, freezing in the cold morning air.
You are an abomination. He heard the crone’s voice in his head.
When he sat back on the rock, Galen let his face fall into his hands as he wept.
He stood in the cold, watching the front of the bank for hours, waiting. In his pocket, he gripped the Derringer. He made up his mind.
At half past five, darkness began to fall as the sun set into the winter night. From this spot on the street, Galen watched the fiery ball descend below the horizon. Shortly thereafter, Dunburton locked up the bank for the evening and wobbled home, fully unaware of the man shadowing him.
As Dunburton turned toward the waterfront, Galen saw his chance. Picking up his pace, he pushed close to the old man.
“Do as I say and you’ll live,” Galen told him, jamming the Derringer’s barrel into Dunburton’s ribs.
“Sir, what is the meaning of this?”
Galen thumbed back the hammer. It was the only answer he needed to give.
At his house, Dunburton’s hand shook as it reached for the front door.
“Be very careful,” Galen said in a low voice. “Because I will kill you if I have to.”
They entered the foyer and Galen put a finger to his lips. Matty was rattling around the kitchen loud enough for both of them to hear.
“Anyone else in the house?” Galen asked.
Dunburton shook his head. His pallor seemed apparent. Galen motioned for them to go directly to the study.
Inside, Galen closed the door behind them.
“Please, I beg of you,” Dunburton said in a shaky voice, “don’t do this.”
“Give me the key,” he told the banker, motioning to the banker’s pocket.
Dunburton’s fingers trembled as he fished it out and handed it over. Galen went directly to the side table and unlocked the drawer.
Inside was the box. Galen picked it up, mesmerized. Finally, he made out the design. The box’s black exterior was inlaid with intricately carved snakes.
Dunburton broke his silence. “Why did you bother giving me the box if you were planning on stealing it?”
Galen snapped out of his trance-like state, whipping the gun around and pointing it right at the banker’s stunned face.
“Be quiet or be dead,” Galen hissed.
Dunburton ignored him, staring past the barrel of the Derringer and into Galen’s eyes. “Sir, I knew I had seen you before—and how you managed to escape death that first time is beyond me. But trust me when I say that it will certainly come looking for you again.”
With the back of his hand, Galen smashed the banker in the face, sending the old man to the floor. Galen slipped the box into his pocket.
“You come after me or yell for help, and I will kill you. That, I promise you, is not a lie,” Galen said.
Before Galen could exit, Dunburton spoke.
“You didn’t plan on stealing that box until you saw it,” he said. “You didn’t even know what it was until yesterday. Perhaps you still don’t even know.”
Galen paused and looked back at the banker, momentarily making Dunburton think he was to be on the receiving end of a Derringer bullet.
And without a sound, Galen left the study and slipped quietly from the house.
“You have done well,” the crone told him as she let him into her parlor. Galen brushed past her and shook off the winter chill.
“You have it, no?”
Galen reached into his duster and withdrew the carved ebony box, placing it on her table. In the flickering lamplight of the parlor, the engraved snakes seemed to dance and slither in their own shadows. The Gypsy’s stare was transfixed on the fabulous object; her mouth pulled taut with delight under her wide eyes.
“I have waited for you for so long,” she said, opening the box.
Suddenly her expression changed. Her jaw was slack, her face crestfallen.
“What did you do with it?” she screeched, dropping the empty box to the floor. “Tell me!”
Galen stood stone-faced, unmoved by her threatening pleas.
“You don’t understand. You don’t understand its power!” she cried.
“I think I’ll manage,” Galen told her. “You used me. You played me like a fiddle.”
“It is your destiny to be used. Why do you think you were delivered to my door?”
Galen stepped back as if slapped.
“You are not from this world, Galen Altos. You do not belong here.”
Galen grabbed the crone by the shoulders and shook her like a rag doll. “How do you know my name?” he bellowed.
“I can see your past as clear as I see your true face,” the Gypsy said. “I even know that Galen Altos isn’t your true name.”
He shoved her backwards against the wall and turned toward the door, but as he took his first step to leave, the crone snatched a heavy pewter candlestick from the table, raising it high above her head with both hands. As she labored to stop the metal at the top of its arc and bring it down on the back of Galen’s head, he spun, Derringer in hand, and fired a single shot; the bullet shattered her teeth before, went into her open mouth, and exited though the carotid artery in her neck.
She fell to the floor, convulsing, her hands clutching at the wound pumping away her life’s blood.
“You search for that which you will never receive,” she hissed before dying.