Word Count 1,625
A log crackled and spat in the hearth. Disintegrating in a shower of orange sparks as it fell through the grating to the pile of ashes beneath. The old man stirred. Waking from a jumble of dream images, chasing like phantoms through his mind.
It was nearly time now.
He reached inside his quilted dressing gown. Withdrawing the ancient Hunter. Running a wizened thumb over the face of the watch, as he peered short-sightedly at the numerals.
Ten minutes to midnight. Ten minutes left.
He smiled grimly. Re-pocketing the watch, as he sat up straighter in the leather armchair. The fire needed tending. Dying in the half-light, and stirring shadows on the walls. If he looked at them quickly, caught them out of the corner of his eye, he could pretend they were people he’d once loved. Hovering like ghosts on the fringes of his dreams, as real to him now, as they’d been when alive.
But they were gone. All gone. And he was left here alone.
It had happened in San Francisco. Back in the golden days of his youth. He and his brother, entrusted on business for their father. Two young men let loose in a city heaving and jostling with life and excitement. Teeming and bursting with temptation and adventure.
How young they’d been. How arrogant.
He sighed heavily. Breath wheezing and catching in his withered lungs. Age had been no friend to him. Nor life been – since that day . . .
They’d concluded their father’s business. Wiring to let him know. Determined to enjoy their last night in the vibrant city. Laughing at the warnings. Young and immortal in attitude and spirit, as they’d swaggered down to the Barbary Coast.
The Cowboy and the City Boy, neither inexperienced. One had survived a war, the other had fought battles since his childhood. Confident they could deal with any hand life dealt them, any card that turned. Just as long as they had each other.
They moved through the bars. The brilliant bustle. A hot-blooded, lusty affirmation of life, as they drank and gambled. Danced and flirted with the painted whores.
He couldn’t remember which of them had first suggested going into that damned place. Down a twisting, cobbled back alley, running up from one of the piers. Thronged with Chinamen and swinging lanterns. Dancing dragon’s heads, and the smell of joss. Almond-eyed girls in Cheongsam watching them obliquely as they lurched through the throng.
She was waiting by the doorway. Exotic, and beautiful as a sprig of cherry-blossom. A shining sheet of straight black hair, half veiling her face like a curtain. His brother was immediately smitten. Dragging him by the elbow as they entered the gambling den. Redolent with haze of opium. Air so thick, he could barely see a foot in front of his face.
He’d felt something then. A sense of fear or apprehension. A brooding menace, dancing round the edges of the night like a hungry demon. Wanting to go. Knowing in his heart, there was trouble there, as he looked uneasily round the smoky saloon at the sea of absorbed faces.
It was uncannily quiet compared to all the other places they’d been. No groups of rowdy, drunken louts. No sprawling bar brawls or honky-tonks. Just a remorseless clink-clink at the tables, a low drone of voices in the background. He watched the strange, melancholy faces of the gamblers, as they gazed intently at the boards. His brother laughing in the corner with the girl, lashes like fans on her cheeks.
His head was swimming. The potent fog of the drug beginning to affect him, as he fought to stay alert.
To this day, he couldn’t swear how it began. The tightening air of menace, as he realised they were the only non-Orientals in the place. The hostile glances directed at his brother, as he draped an arm around the girl. Fighting through the crowd to his side, walls heaving, head pounding, as he tried to steer him out towards the door . . .
The girl twisted, pulled away. A man in front of him, blocking his view. Steel flashing in the semi-darkness, his brother’s name on his lips . . .
Kneeling on the sawdust floor. Blood on his clothes, on his hands, as he tried to plug the wound and stop the bleeding. Begging his brother to hold on, watching the glaze in his eyes. Knowing it was futile, as his brother’s life spilled inexorably away. Soaking into the sawdust all around. Rocking him mutely against his chest, as he wept into the soft hair, beseeched the blue eyes not to close. Oblivious to the silence. The air of brooding jeopardy still about him.
The hand on his shoulder was cold and claw like. Skin the colour of faded parchment, fingers narrow with elongated nails. They clutched his shoulder convulsively, digging in so hard, it hurt.
He still remembered the douche of shock. The clenching of fear as he stared into those fathomless eyes. Eyes hard as agate, black as obsidian, in a face more ancient than he’d ever known. Eyes that had looked upon death before, that knew of it’s mysteries.
“Mister Lancer . . .” The voice was soft and accented. Like the rustle of dead autumn leaves. He wondered fearfully, how the man knew his name.
“Do you wish to save your brother’s life?”
“My brother’s dead.” The words were choked.
Silence and a soft chuckle. “Maybe, maybe not. Things are not always as they seem. How much would you be prepared to gamble?”
He ‘d looked up dazedly at the tables. “My brother’s dead, and you want me to gamble?”
The ancient face grew still. “Gambling is a way of life for us, Mister Lancer. It can also be a way of death. A sense of balance, a game of chance.”
His grip loosened, and he beckoned towards an empty table. “What would you stake for your brother’s life?”
He’d risen unsteadily. Shaking his head in disbelief. Compelled to follow the Old Man to the table, to leave his brother’s body on the floor. The air of menace had vanished along with the girl. But the fog was thicker, and somehow, the place had cleared of other gamblers.
“Anything . . .” He’d answered. “Anything at all.”
The Old Man smiled gently. Nodding sagaciously, as he reached for a pot of sticks. “Yarrow stalks, Mister Lancer. One is shorter than the others. There are four in the pot, so the odds are in your favour.”
“What must I do?”
“It is very simple. If you draw one of the long sticks, I give you your brother’s life, and your own.”
“And if I draw the short stick?”
The Chinaman bowed regretfully, watching with still, black eyes. “Then you lose the game.”
He remembered the sense of swirling sub reality. The fantastic air of disbelief and grief in his heart, in his soul. A detached part of him wondering why he was even playing along with this freakish, grotesque charade. Putting out his hand and reaching for the Yarrow stalks . . .
The Chinaman pulled them away. “There is first, the matter of a stake.”
“Take all my money . . .”
That dry, rustling laugh again. “I don’t want your money.”
The Old Man pushed a piece of paper across the table-top towards him. There was a single letter written on it in red ink. The letter ‘S’.
“I am a collector, Mister Lancer. A collector of souls.”
An aeon of silence. He had the sense of tumbling headlong into a black chasm. The air thick with danger, dark forces at work. There was a murmuring and whispering noise in the back of his skull, like a million humming bees. Nearer and nearer they came, the drone growing louder.
He stared into the ancient face again. Black eyes pulling him to the edge of the abyss. A deep swirl of evil, as he sank into darkness.
**** **** **** **** **** **** **** ****
The fire was dying now. The room took on a gloomy, cavernous aspect , as the shadows reclaimed the corners, and took on a life of their own.
It was all so long ago.
He’d paid the price, and staked his soul. Vaguely aware of drawing a long stalk from the pot, as the dim saloon had shimmered and faded before his eyes.
He’d woken in a San Francisco hospital. According to the Law Enforcement Officer who spoke to him, they’d been attacked on the Barbary coast. Nearly Shanghaied. Saved but for the grace of God. His brother was badly hurt, a knife wound in his gut. And after he recovered, he had no memory of the either the Chinese girl, or the gambling den.
When they gave him back his clothes, he felt a rustle of paper in the breast pocket. Taking it out with a cold sense of inevitability and fear. It was the stake he’d pledged to the Chinaman. A single letter ‘S’. Ever since that day, the black eyes had mocked him. Haunting his dreams, and stalking his waking hours.
He was still waiting to pay his stake. Time taunting him with a long, unhappy life. Watching those he loved die before him. Some before their own, fair share of time. He took a last look at the Hunter. A minute to midnight now. Closing his eyes, and settling back in the armchair as he waited for his nemesis. The piece of paper that had come in the mail this morning, ignored on the table beside him.
A sheet of yellowed parchment, inscribed with a single letter. Death’s letter ‘S’ . . .
Lisa Paris 2003
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