The Unlucky Man
In about three minutes time I’ll be dead. I’ve accepted the truth of the matter, somewhere between the shock and pain of the bullet making its explosive entry into my chest and the long, slow fall to the cold concrete, it became a fact in my mind that I’ve swallowed with fatalist equanimity. There’s no use in fighting it.
As I lie here, crimson blood spilling over the grimy white ground, all I can think is how inevitable this all seems. My whole life doesn’t so much flash before my eyes as my mind starts spinning cartwheels; jumping from event to event in a doomed attempt to try and make sense of what my body is feeling.
It circles in on something: a memory. I was stabbed once in a botched mugging and a moment of stupid, regrettable bravado. I remember the burning feeling as I lay on the ground, body cold with shock, hole in my shoulder burning and bloody. That was bad but this, my mind keeps telling me, this is so much worse.
So, as my body goes slowly numb and my ice-water blood circulates and pumps out, spreading away from the burning center of the entry wound, the wreck of my chest, all I can think about is how I got to here. Central Station on a cold autumn morning, the wind howling around an unseen world outside whilst I lie in the detritus of a thousand people’s morning commute.
Just a bang, a flash, and then red, consuming pain and I’m thrashing and gasping on the cold ground, foaming up my life blood, stained vermillion. Dying this time, actually dying. And I’m really not sure why.
My mind’s going now, I can’t concentrate right, but I see through screwed-up tear filled eyes someone coming up the escalator. He’s a small guy, messy looking and disheveled. He looks at me, through the panic and the chaos. He sees me and I know who he is – he’s the reason I am here. He doesn’t panic, though his face is painted milk white with shock and his eyes are wide and dumb with fear, he just melts back into the rush. I don’t blame him. I think he’s got a much better idea what’s going on here than I ever did, even as I fish belly on the dirty stones.
A shadow falls across me. A new figure, tall, in sunglasses is standing there. He kneels down. He speaks.
"What do you see?" he purrs and I hear it like through thick fog. His voice is gravel wrapped in velvet. Then he takes off the glasses and his eyes are impossible, like two concentric dark circles floating on a pale sea. They’re the cartoon outline of real eyes, drawn without the addition of retina or pupil color.
He takes something out of the pocket of my jacket and puts it between my teeth, forcing my jaws together. The acid chemical taste burns as it hits the back of my throat like an electric shock. My eyes lose what focus they had, the world spins away on a new axis… I'm no longer in the drafty grey station. I’m somewhere else entirely - somewhere far away. Too far away to ever come back from.
"What do you see?" It’s that voice again, twisting into this new reality, bubbling and howling into my mind. And in my mind’s eye I do see. I see the sky explode then crumble into a hundred, a thousand, a thousand thousand black crows that soar and plummet into a boiling blood red nothing.
"The sky is falling…" I manage to say, each word a gasp, a splutter, an effort. I don’t see it, but the guy with the eyes nods.
"And you’re already dead," he whispers.
He puts a gun to my chest and pulls the trigger.
Chapter One - The Day Before I Died
The sky through the windshield was a cold autumn grey, heavy with the promise of rain. I stared unthinking up at it as Alexander Corgen - Corg to his friends - drummed an irritable staccato rhythm on the steering wheel and glared grim icy blades at the stationary cars ahead of us, occasionally blessing those behind with the benefit of his scowl probably just for variation. We’d been stuck in traffic for over an hour, our hearse just one more growling, immobile machine.
We were on the way back from the yard and stuck behind some crash or other on a corner of run-down brown stone housing towers, all dirty rust colored bricks and equally brown actually rusted metal stairs. The wait didn’t really bother me all that much - we’d finished for the day as it was and were on the way back from the crem garage and another job well done, although I was starting to sweat a little in the uniform black suit. As for Corg, I think every wasted minute in this traffic jam was a wasted minute he could have been spending with a drink in his hand.
Somewhere, someone sounded their horn in one long frustrated blast that put me in mind of migrating winter geese.
"Oh right," Corg muttered darkly, "Because that’s going to speed everything along right? Fucking idiot." Corg was one or the biggest guys I’d ever met, muscular and fat at the same time, a completely bald giant of a man squeezed into a dusty-shiny black suit and tie. He was also a part time criminal, a man of unpredictable humors and my closest friend. Sometimes, I knew, he ran guns and discount booze around the city for people he mysteriously referred to as "his associates", storing the merchandise between times in his treasure trove of a warehouse and making smuggle runs in the dead of night. Glancing at him now I knew that this current anger was more a way to pass the time than something borne of any real vitriolic feeling.
Idly he opened the glove box and rummaged around in it, a sure sign of boredom as Corg knew every inch of this car better than I knew my own apartment. He practically owned the hearse, treated it like his own, and refused to let anyone else at the parlor drive it. A vague smile came to me as I remembered how sour he had been when our boss - one Edwin Danvers - had auctioned off the old car and replaced it with a newer - near identical - model.
We were a small firm, working out of a quirky, slightly gothic stone fronted building wedged between an old-school barbers complete with red and white pole and a second-hand book store. Danvers always said that the original crumbling façade was good for business, that tradition was comforting in our line of work, whilst the new hearse was his concession towards modernizing. He was always split like that when it came to business, the old rubbing shoulders with the new as uneasy bedfellows. Still, Corg had quickly bonded with the replacement and found a place for it in his affections.
Up ahead a siren sounded briefly and the car ahead inched forward then stopped again. We waited in suspense for a moment, staring at the break lights until they went out, but it seemed that was it for now.
"Fuck sake," Corg pronounced solemnly. "Seriously, Jon, can you believe this shower?" I started slightly and realized I’d been daydreaming, halfway to dropping off.
"Shower?" I asked as innocently as possible whilst stifling a yawn. He didn’t buy it for a second but jerked his huge head in my direction then in the direction of the motionless traffic.
“The world Jon," he said seriously. "The God damned world."
I sighed, realizing that he was going to rant to kill time whether I liked it or not and that I might as well play ball.
"The world, eh?" I said. "Any reason in particular? You know, today?"
He broke his death-gaze concentration on the car ahead long enough to throw me a faux-horrified look of confusion. "Are you not seeing what I’m seeing?" he demanded, aghast, gesturing furiously at the stationary traffic. "It’s a simple matter of respect Jon, you know?"
"Right. Respect. Don’t make me spell it for you. Like the song? I mean, we could have a body in here yeah? These bastards could be holding up some poor soul’s last rites, their final passage, their end-of-fucking-days! No respect, you get me?" Corg sure loved to right the wrongs of the world.
I glanced back at the empty space behind our seats. "Corg man, hate to break it to you but we don’t got a body in here." In actual fact we’d spent the last half hour previous to getting stuck in this unmoving line of traffic getting coffee and it was Corg, who viewed it as more or less his company car, who had insisted we stop off on the way back with the hearse. He was about to protest but I overruled him, "And I know you said might, but if we did, we could have a trail of mourners a mile long behind us, and how much worse would this jam be then?" I leaned back in my seat whilst Corg brooded.
Silence. I stared at the sky some, feeling suddenly oppressed by the deepening heavy grey clouds. They felt expectant somehow, something gathering, in the long moment before the storm. For a second, I felt there was something very wrong happening in the world, something very wrong about those brewing purple bruises against the morning sky.
I need some sleep, I told myself, and briefly tried to estimate how many hours I’d gotten in the last few weeks: not enough that was for sure - every time my head hit the pillow it felt like there was a pressure building behind my eyes. Maybe the storm would sort it all out…
"Jon, you listening to me?" I caught as I zoned back in.
"Not really," I said, then shook my head a little sheepishly, "Sorry man, miles away." Corg grunted but I caught the flick of his eyes at me in the mirror, something akin to concern perhaps, but just for the briefest second.
"Well, as I was saying," he continued after a beat, "What if we were on our way to get one?" he said with a triumphant glint in his eye.
"Jon G Hesker!" he thundered at me, using my full name like a parent might, an immediate censure. "A fucking body!"
Oh, I thought, guess I didn’t quite shoot this one down after all. "Then we’d be late," I said, "But we wouldn’t be the only ones." I grinned as I said it, but I could tell it wasn’t very convincing. The air seemed to have grown thick, heavier than it ought to be. I looked up at the clouds once more, hoping that they would break soon. If anything, they looked darker, more ominous than before.
I opened my mouth to say something about it to Corg, maybe ask if he was feeling it too, but was stopped short by a sudden noise from outside. For a second, I thought it was a welcome peel of thunder, but quickly realized it was too brief – a short, loud exclamation, like a car backfiring.
Or a gunshot.
"The hell was that?" Corg muttered. I didn’t answer, craning forward to look out the windshield as the first big heavy drops of rain fell and splashed across it.
We sat in silence for a moment, both, I think, listening though Corg could simply have been watching the fat drops spattering against the glass for all I know. At length I relaxed, leaned back.
"Nothing I guess -" but there was no mistaking the second report, a definite bang this time - too loud and too close, from above and to the left.
And then a body smashed from nowhere onto the hood of our car.
I saw it as if in slow motion. Saw the bonnet buckle as he hit it shoulder first, body bending at an unnatural angle, the crush of metal, the wet meat thump like the butcher's slab, the spurt of blood across the windshield that mixed with the raindrops to run pinkish rivulets down to the wipers.
"Fuck!" Corg roared, but I already had the door open and was halfway out of my seat. The pain in my head spiked with the movement, causing me to stumble along the edge of the car. For a moment I felt the pressure would force me to my knees, but then, like rising out of water, it passed and I straightened over the messed-up corpse on the hood. And realized it wasn’t a corpse after all.
"Christ," I heard Corg breathe, a sharp involuntary intake of breath. The guy on the black metal was still breathing, just about - shallow, wet, drowning breaths - though a hole in his chest was pumping frothy blood at a rate that spoke, beyond doubt, that it was too late to be of any help.
Suddenly his eyes snapped open. He was a young man - early twenties by my guess - but his eyes in that moment held an age that was impossible to guess at. He tried to speak but all that bubbled up was more gurgling spit and plasma.
He reached desperately out for me and, acting on automatic, I reached back and took his outstretched hand. To my surprise I felt him press something into it, his last gift to anyone on earth. As my fingers closed around this mysterious offering, his hand fell away and I saw that he was dead, his body steaming in the rain.
All this happened in less than a few seconds, the time it took me to blink a half dozen times, a handful of ragged, chest hammering heart beats. My mind was a mess of jangling, unchecked, panicking thoughts but one pushed past all the others crowding my brain and screamed for attention: where did this guy fall from?
My body stumbled across the answer before my brain caught up and I spun to stare up at the nearest fire escape.
A figure stood at its top, a jagged shape against the rain that was now falling free and heavy. It obscured his features, made him nothing more than a chilling impression, an insidious blemish against the sullen sky. But even from here, as he reached up and acknowledged my attention with a small and mocking half salute that left my innards chilled, I could tell there was something wrong with his eyes. Indistinct as they were, they were still far too bright, twin pools of mercury that locked onto my own gaze and sent a tremor down my spine that was nothing to do with the icy rain.
We stood like that for the briefest moment that seemed to last forever, my heartbeat loud in my ears, and then he slunk back into the shadows as sirens cut the air and when next I blinked, he was vanished from the world.
I turned back around, unconsciously slipping the contents of my hand - the legacy of a dead stranger - into the inner pocket of my suit jacket, and met Corg’s eye.
"I need a drink," he murmured, staring away from the mess on the car.