Main Menu (edit)
''She’s of the blood, of course, the Old Blood that forged the great races, who have been called so many other things down the years: Ifrit and Djinn, so many myths to explain what people don’t understand. Always comes down to blood, even among the Unawakened -- there are others who could have filled her shoes, but their paths diverged. They chose and stepped outside the equation, witches who create and sing and dream, some who even tell stories, which is the second most powerful magic a woman can make.
This one, though, she makes an unlikely heroine to say the least, and one without a clue what’s coming. And that’s good. I prefer them blinking, terrified, like a deer, or coyote, in headlights. You can take the man out of the demon, as they say...
But that’s neither here, nor there. I’ve been weaving these threads for a long time, longer than most people could fathom, although not always in this skin. This body’s almost worn out anyway and people are starting to talk. Normally that wouldn’t matter but we’re very close to reckoning now and I want the deck stacked in my favor. Only bet on a sure thing, as my father always used to say.
Why now? I could quote of a lot of cosmology and make it sound impressive and complicated. Instead I’ll give an honest answer: why not? Why not now? All the major players have weighed in. It’s time.''
Action: stage left.
The old man smiles then. His teeth shine, strong and unstained; they go into a dish to soak beside his bed on a nightly basis, porcelain, the sort of thing that humanity has perfected over long years: being false, boasting assets they don’t truly possess. Gladstone knows himself; he’s a gambler, and everything hangs on this last bet. There is no deed involved this time; the prize is something much greater, much more glorious.
The woman across from him shifts on the cracked orange vinyl bench, unsettled by his expression. She sees in his impossibly bright eyes that he knows what comes next. It was the whole point of his confession, after all. And she is not accustomed to seeing glee in anyone’s eyes, once they understand what awaits them.
“You’ll take me now,” he says softly, and it isn’t a question. His tone holds no fear. In fact, he is already signaling for the check with the slow lift of a palsied hand.
“You know who I am?” She’d wondered as he spoke so freely in her company. There had to be a reason. People didn’t usually greet her with a smile and wave her over; people didn’t usually see her coming.
But the Midway isn’t a usual sort of place, where petty gods and daemons try to shift the balance. Sometimes they attempt to bribe her, get her to weigh in on either side, but she can’t be bought, can’t be swayed. A job is a job. And she reports to a Higher Authority, although rumor has it that He’s been mad for eons. She doesn’t worry about that sort of thing either.
He nods. “Of course. I’ve been looking for you for years.”
Eileen brings their check, looking faintly disgruntled, and he drops a ten-dollar bill, too much for the time they’ve spent nursing coffee in the booth. But he won’t need currency where he’s going, and it’s going to make the pretty young waitress smile.
“Why did you tell me?” she asks.
It’s rare for her to express curiosity, but she can’t help it this time. He’s offered flickers and glimpses of things he really shouldn’t know, and she isn’t entirely sure what to do with him. But judgment isn’t her responsibility either. She’s more of a courier, making deliveries in a timely fashion, and his fate will most likely be delegated to a committee. Thankfully she isn’t affiliated with that end of things anymore.
“I didn’t tell you anything,” he answers, his smile widening. “I told you a story, or rather, a piece of one. Like the tip of an iceberg, there’s always more. And I never told you the truth of what I’ve learnt.” His look becomes subtly sardonic. “In fact, I’d die before doing that. Your arrival could have shifted the balance. Do you believe what I say? Should you? You’ve decided my time here is done, that I deserve punishment, and it’s me you came to collect, after all. I’m an old man; it’s well done. But if you’d chosen someone else, say, this story would have an entirely different ending. And there was some doubt, wasn’t there? It’s why you came personally, as you so rarely do these days.”
She manages not to start over that. How does he know? How does he know that there are Moments and Places where the threads have become hopelessly tangled and it’s impossible to see from a distance which soul ought to be Taken? He’s right; that’s why she’s here—to decide on today’s death, because one is Inevitable. She’ll have to justify the conclusion to her superiors, and she’s starting to wonder whether she made a bad call. But she has tenure, so it doesn’t matter too much. It’s not easy to find someone reliable for this position; it’s a rather grim dispensation, all told.
“Are you saying made it all up?” She’s amused, offering him a rare smile. “And you’re remarkably well versed about such things. What did you say your name was again?”
His expression remains fixed. “Everett Gladstone. Do you like anagrams, dear lady?”
To anyone else, she’s a well-kept woman of middle years, inexplicably garbed in a yellow rain slicker and matching galoshes. And she carries a walking stick that she doesn’t appear to need, but he sees the shadow of the scythe, behind her on the wall. “Not so much,” she answers. “I prefer not to work on word puzzles. I find it complicates things unnecessarily.”
“I suppose you would say that,” he murmurs. “Tell me, ma’am, do you read Faulkner at all? Or Fitzgerald?” When she shakes her head, he smiles. “I thought not. I thought not. No matter. Shall we?”
His bright blue eyes settle on the girl wiping tables nearby. So much hangs on her, too much, really, and she couldn’t be more oblivious if she tried. But he’s bought her some time. Perhaps it will be enough. Perhaps.
They depart with none of the fanfare that such occasions usually command. There will be no body to discover, ever. The man who called himself Everett Gladstone, among so many other names, has been remanded to a jury of his peers. He probably won’t enjoy it.
A few moments later, Leilani comes to bus their table, wipe it down, and she finds a crumpled napkin with the following words scrawled in blue ink: Advent reset; let go.
The heroine stares out the front windows with a puzzled frown, clue in hand. Sometime since the old man left, it has started to rain, the sky livid as a bruise. For some reason she finds herself remembering his first words as he waved the woman over, something that stuck in her mind like gum on the bottom of the tables here at the Midway -- and she’ll have to get to that next.
“What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning./The end is where we start from.”
Something stirs inside her like wings, like ancient things, and somewhere deep and deep, the roots of a very old tree tremble.