In the beginning, there was the nameless Beast, free to roam and plunder the wastes of the cosmos as it willed.
The Beast chased comets and scattered starry beads of constellations across the galaxies. It tore apart planets with its thousand claws, and watched them die with its thousand eyes. Wherever it passed, the suns burnt dimmer and the void grew ever colder.
Among the stars the gods waged war against that nameless horror and they won, putting an end to its reign. When the Beast fell, deep down under the surface of space and time, they built a gilded prison to contain it. And to watch over it, from the golden desert sands and copper rocks of planets marked by the passage of the abomination, they shaped a timeless guardian.
They entrusted to him one single task.
To keep the nameless Beast forever under lock and key.
1983. Somewhere in the USA.
Luke woke in an unfamiliar bedroom. The cold moonlight was just bright enough for him to get an idea of his surroundings. The bed was too large for one person. A folded nightgown rested on the other pillow. A massive wardrobe stood at the opposite wall. The few items on the bedside table were arranged carefully and neatly. His own pajamas felt fresh and new.
Luke sat up. He tried to calm his heartbeat. When it evened out, he got out of bed. Stepping lightly on the floorboards, he snuck out into the corridor. Without switching on the lights he inspected the other rooms through half-opened doors.
Luke stepped into the bathroom, and after a moment’s hesitation, dared to flick on the light switch.
An unfamiliar troubled face looked back at him from the mirror. The man was probably in his late twenties, rather good-looking and well-groomed. Luke brought a hand to his face. The stranger in the mirror did the same. He ran his fingers over the neatly trimmed beard. Putting so much work into one’s appearance was vanity, but it took effort nonetheless, and Luke could appreciate a job well-done. It was a shame the beard had to go.
Luke rifled through the shelves. Some of the items looked different, but the brands were still the same. He quickly packed the essentials into a towel. Then he gave the stranger in the mirror a guilty look and proceeded to shave off the beard. The less he looked like the man he’d woken as, the better. When he was done, Luke grabbed the bundle of supplies and left the bathroom, heading downstairs.
A short inspection assured him he was completely alone in the house. A consolation.
No longer afraid of being discovered, Luke headed into the kitchen. He switched on the light. A newspaper on the table grabbed his attention. He checked the date. August 20, 1983. Twenty years had passed. His knees grew weak, and Luke rested heavily in the chair closest to him.
He looked around. The items and the designs of the furniture did not look as wildly different as they did the last time he came back to life. Still, the world around him was changing at an alarming pace. It frightened him. But in truth it was the lesser of his worries. Forcing the mounting despair out, Luke prepared for action.
He checked the time on the large round wall clock. Two after midnight. He couldn’t waste the nighttime. He needed to pack and leave as quickly as possible, before the other inhabitants of the house returned.
Luke went through the contents of the kitchen drawers and collected the few items it made sense to take. A folding knife, a spoon, a fork, a water bottle, a can opener, a flashlight, batteries, scissors, matches, lots of matches. Luke added them to the bundle from the bathroom.
He scrutinized his collection. It was a start.
He headed for the fridge. But before he could open the fridge door, his eyes fell on a piece of paper attached to its surface with a magnet. It was a child’s crayon drawing of a family. Two children, a woman and a man who looked somewhat like he did now. The author of the drawing had left clarifications above each figure. Bobby, me, Mommy, and Daddy.
Luke froze, paralyzed, his hand hanging in mid-air. The guilt that accompanied each of his unwanted rebirths crystalized once more in this happy little crayon drawing. Luke stared at it, unable to move. Why did he have to orphan these children? Why couldn’t he have woken in the gutter, a useless old drunkard without relatives or friends? Or a convict in a prison cell, sentenced for life?
Hot tears ran down Luke’s cheeks, and for a while he could do nothing but stare at the idyllic image of a happy young family that he had ruined. If only he could give back the life he’d been thrust in, return it to the man in the picture, even if the price for it would be damnation eternal and the fires of Hell, he would do it. Better that than living this guilt-ridden nightmare, bringing death and misery wherever he went.
But there was no escape from this horrible cycle. The best he could do for this family, was to escape as promptly as possible.
Luke wiped his tears away with a pajama sleeve. Another image on the fridge caught his eye. A photo of the man whose life he stole holding an oversized check with lottery winnings. The number on the check was mind-boggling, but that wasn’t what caught Luke’s attention. It was the date — August 11, 1983 — barely over a week ago.
That must have been it. He took the lives of the lucky ones.
Luke tried to comfort himself with the thought that the recently won money could help this family deal with the loss of the husband and father. He had no idea what the man whose body he now occupied could have been like, but evidently he had been loved.
Luke tried to ignore the fridge door and instead got busy with what was behind it.
A quick search through the fridge and the shelves on the walls provided him with provisions for a week or two. A second tour around the house and garage yielded a large backpack, a sleeping bag, a set of clothes for cold and hot weather, two pairs of shoes and, most fortunately, a bicycle.
Luke packed everything he could into the backpack and onto the bike and left it all at the door outside.
Dressed in warm autumn clothes, Luke sat down at the kitchen table one last time. Smiling faces looked at him from a family photo he had brought from the living room. David Mance, the man whose life he had stolen, stared at him accusingly from his driver’s license. Guilt and resignation washed over Luke as he started writing.
He couldn’t explain to the Mances what had truly transpired. He could hardly make sense of it himself, even as it happened time and time again. But he knew their loving husband and father was gone forever.
Whatever it was that placed him in the bodies of other men each time he died, be it divine punishment or some evil will, left no traces of the body’s original mind. And no memories for Luke to work with other than his own — a shattered story of death and perpetual rebirth. He couldn’t share that with the Mances. All he could do was try to prevent them from searching for him. He had already stolen a member of their family. He hated the thought of causing them another loss. So he had to leave. And they had to let him go.
My beloved wife,
It is with great pain in my heart that I must say farewell to you and our darling children. I have committed rash and foolish acts, that will put us all in grave danger should I stay. Please, do not try to find me. Do not await my return. I am a peril to you all. So I depart forever.
I love you dearly, and I pray Heaven to keep you all safe and bless you with a more deserving spouse and guardian to take my place.
Please, forgive and forget me.
I am with unabated affection your
Luke felt awful, signing the letter this way with the man’s own hand. But what could he do? He needed all the credibility he could muster. If the family thought the letter was fake, they would certainly try to find him. And then they would be in mortal danger.
Luke studied the letter for a while. It was far from perfect, the words were his, but at least the handwriting was David’s. Luke bent it in half and put it down on the kitchen table. He tucked the driver’s license back into the wallet and rested it on top of the paper just in case.
He took the bike and backpack and left.
The cruel distant stars were the only witnesses of how the man who was no longer David Mance left his home and rode into the night, heading for the state border.
* * *
Late spring, 1984. New Coalport, USA.
A whirr of an engine behind his back. White light in the puddles under his feet — headlights.
He did not look back, and he did not stop. Not until he was several blocks away and completely out of breath. Luke leaned heavily against a brick wall, panting. His heart was pounding in his ears, but there was no sound of pursuit. A false alarm.
A group of vagrants gaped at him from across the alley. They stood in a tight circle around a fire barrel. All faces were turned to him, their eyes wide open. He recognised a few of them. And they recognised him as well. One of their kind, but not their lot. Moments later most of them lost interest and went back to warming their hands over the fire. How he wanted to join them. But he couldn’t. For their sakes.
Luke pulled his jacket tightly around himself and wandered on. His sneakers were wet, but at least the running helped him get warm. It was going to be another long cold night.
He had made his new home in the backstreets of New Coalport. It was the big city at its worst: never sleeping, restless, at times violent and dangerous, with a crime-ridden underbelly and shining teeth and claws made of glass, steel and concrete. Lights flicked on in windows at all hours of night, like eyes of beasts in a forest at night, predatorily watching him. He did not like the place, not in the slightest. But his previous experiences as a vagabond had taught him that it was easier to survive in the big city. And staying alive was the only kind of stability he could afford.
As long as he was alone and aimless, he was no threat. And thankfully most people had very little interest in a vagrant. Unfortunately, not all of them.
Luke glimpsed the Citizen from a distance. The man was dressed too well to be homeless, his gait expressed confidence and purpose. As he marched through the side alley, he stared at Luke with a look of a man heading for an execution. Luke ran again.
“Stop! Damn you!”
Luke did not stop. They would have to shoot him or worse if they wanted him to cooperate. He wasn’t going to let criminals keep profiting from his curse. Or at least he wasn’t going to make it easy.
They ran for a minute. The man behind him was cussing and grunting. Luke had the impression he could maybe even lose him when several figures appeared ahead, shuffling through the backstreet with no particular purpose. Luke froze, terrified of coming close to them or of leading the criminal towards them.
“Fucking finally!” The thug caught up with Luke and slammed him into the wall, then took several hurried steps back. He was partially bent over and panting like a dog, his stubbled face red with effort and fury. “Don’t you fucking run away again, you hear me? Or I… I’ll shoot one of those useless fucks!” The man pointed a finger at the bewildered bums, causing the group to hurriedly scuttle back into the dark alley they’d just emerged from. “I’ll kill as many as it takes to make you cooperate.”
“No, please, I’ll do what you want!” Luke threw his hands up. He felt disoriented after hitting the wall, but he knew a slow response could make the Citizen think a demonstration was in order. “Please, don’t kill anyone!”
“Same to you. Fuck.” The thug spat aside, then straightened and looked at Luke with a frown. “Come with me, quick. We have a long trip to make, and I don’t want to be around you any-”
He did not finish as a loud creaking came from above and a section of a fire escape came crashing down. The man barely managed to jump out of its way. He grabbed Luke and pulled him after himself as he ran down the alley.
“Nuts, this is nuts. I am not dying because of you, you stupid accursed hobo!”
“Let me go, leave me alone, and it will stop!”
“No damn way.”
They ran a few dozen feet, then the criminal stopped to survey the wreckage behind them. He swore again and looked up to see if there were other hazards to look out for.
“If I do this job, I’ll be off the hook. If not, I’m dead. I can’t go back. So either your bullshit kills me or I get the job done.” The man turned to Luke with a grim expression.
Luke grimaced. “There is no need for this. Maybe you should instead use my curse to try to leave the city. That way you would be safer, and it would take less-”
“Maybe you should shut up,” the man barked, looking embittered. Then he waved for Luke to follow. “Come with me, but keep your distance until I gesture for you to come closer. And don’t even try to run. I meant what I said.”
Luke nodded and eagerly let the man walk ahead. He did not want any more fire escapes falling down on either of their heads. In all honesty, he wanted nothing to do with this man or the rest of the Citizens, but the gang that ran New Coalport’s underworld had somehow found out about what he could do, and they hadn’t left him alone since. He had considered fleeing the city, but most means of transportation involved being around other people which would cause more of what he was going through right now: someone was bound to have a goal in mind, and his curse would help them achieve it… if only they survived the ordeal. Which wasn’t usually the case. Or at least not with ordinary people. The Citizens had proved unusually resilient, Luke guessed it was to be expected from dangerous outlaws.
The man that led him through the back alleys was unfamiliar to him. Luke didn’t have high hopes for him. Most of the Citizens that had been sent to him were atoning for something that had drawn the wrath of their superiors. Those who survived never came again, except for a female duo that seemed to be an exception to the rule and turned up every once in a while. Somehow those two women always made it through, and they didn’t seem to be doing it as a punishment either. Luke did not know how to feel about that. Watching the criminals die was just as horrible as witnessing the death of any other person. But if some of the Citizens had not been as adept at surviving his curse, perhaps the gang would have left him alone.
They walked for over twenty minutes. In that time the Citizen shot a stray dog that attacked him, intimidated his way out of an attempted mugging and narrowly dodged a speeding motorcyclist while crossing a street. All that with Luke trailing tens of feet behind him. When the man finally waved for him to approach, Luke was almost shaking with anxiety. Things were going to get so much worse any moment now.
“Come on, move it. We’re almost at the police station.”
Feeling the gravity of every step, Luke started to cautiously close the distance between them.
“I said move it, we don’t have all night!”
“What is your name?” Luke asked hesitantly.
“What does it matter?”
“I’d like to pray for you.”
“Ugh.” The man rolled his eyes, then seemed to reconsider. “Adam.”
“I know. Now move it, Luke.”
Luke crossed the last few steps to stand next to the doomed criminal. After their march through the back alleys the man no longer felt like a stranger, and Luke was comforted by the thought that he would at least have a name to keep in his prayers should the worst come to pass.
They didn’t make it far when the low hum of the half-sleeping city around them was drowned out by the wail of police sirens that rose, and then grew distant. Adam smirked.
“It’s our cue.”
They jogged out of the side street and onto Jubilee Avenue. Luke had previously lost track of where they were going, too focused on looking out for dangers, but now he knew, and that gave him no relief. Jubilee Avenue wasn’t going to be empty, not even this late at night… And yet it was. Luck, it appeared, favored them in this particular matter. Luke almost sighed with relief, but instead gasped as his companion grabbed him by the jacket and pulled him after himself, breaking into a sprint.
“No way, no freaking way,” the Citizen rasped in disbelief.
Luke saw a figure slink by the red brick wall of the police station then disappear into an alley. They were headed after the fugitive. But before they made it into the alley, Adam tripped over something, and both of them flew tumbling onto the concrete. Luke barely made sense of what happened when Adam dragged him back up and into the alley in another mad sprint.
“Olivier, stop where you are!” Adam yelled into the alley. “Don’t make this difficult or I’ll shoot your nuts off first and only then put you out of your misery.”
It was too dark in the alley to see clearly, but Luke thought he glimpsed their quarry hide behind a trash container further away. As his eyes got accustomed to the dark, Luke saw it was a dead end. The chase was done. Adam would do what he had to, his goal would be achieved, and the danger would be gone.
Adam pulled out the gun he’d used to shoot the dog before and aimed. “Get out of there, you slime. At least die like a man if you couldn’t live like one.”
“F-fuck you, Simmons! Fuck the Citizens!” The voice that came from the other side of the alley was trembling and soaked with venom. The man called Olivier did not leave his hiding spot, but he did not remain silent. “I won’t grow old in jail to cover your asses.”
“Your family woulda been provided for, and you woulda been released early, you dumbass.”
“My family can rot! You all can rot!” Olivier yelled. “I’m not going back to jail!”
Adam walked forward aiming the gun at where he suspected the other man was. He kept close to the wall not to let Olivier jump him. Luke stood at the mouth of the alley watching in horror, not only because a man was about to be killed, but because it was his curse, his power that had allowed Olivier to escape the police only to be slaughtered by one of his former comrades. Luke realized that this man was also a criminal, possibly a killer, and he did not sound pleasant either, but did two wrongs make a right? Was it somehow less terrible if Adam killed him just because he was also a crook? No, Luke hated the idea just the same. But what could he do?
Unconsciously Luke took a step forward, words forming and dying on the tip of his tongue. Was there something he could say, something to appeal to Adam? To prevent this murder from happening?
A muffled noise, like a pop, then a crack and an infernal roar. The wall Adam was walking by exploded into fragments of brick and a fiery cloud burst forth. It was like Hell itself became manifest and rushed into the alley. The force of the explosion shook the ground and knocked Luke off his feet. For a moment he stayed down on the ground, hardly able to make sense of what was happening, then he sat up and stared in horror at the gory mess on the wall now lit by the violently burning flame. That was all that was left of Adam.
Luke croaked, unable to form words. He caused this. He wanted to stop the murder. But at what cost? One life for another? No, he didn’t want that, he only wanted to talk. Tears began to stream out of Luke’s eyes. Was Olivier even alive? Did both of them die?
The previously quiet avenue outside was coming alive, windows were lighting up, voices could be heard from the police station. Luke scrambled to his feet and ran in the direction he and Adam had come from. He did not stop running until his lungs burned and his legs gave way. Then he collapsed onto the wet asphalt of another dark sidestreet and lay there alone and weeping.
In front of his eyes were fragments of skin and bone, flesh and fabric singed and squashed by the explosion that he had caused. One careless step, and a man was dead. Maybe two of them. He didn’t want this, he didn’t want any of this! Why did it have to be him? Luke wanted to die, but he knew that wouldn’t solve anything, sooner or later he would steal another life, maybe one that would put him into an even more calamitous situation. No, self-destruction was not an option. He had to keep living and try not to draw disasters on innocent bystanders at least. And to do that he had to be in good shape and not dying of a cold because he lay on the wet asphalt in a heap of self-pity mixed with self-loathing.
Luke got up and did his best to tidy himself. It was all hopeless. But he wasn’t going to give up. Giving up would be selfish and irresponsible. He would do his best, even if it would never be enough.
Luke sighed, hugged himself and plodded off into the night, feeling hollow and aimless, and praying quietly for the souls of a man called Adam Simmons and another he knew only as Olivier. Two more names added to the litany of deaths on his conscience.
Wyatt swore under his breath, as he continued walking in the rain. He couldn’t afford to wait it out, he was already late. The weather forecast had promised there would be sun all day and just a ‘refreshing drizzle’ in the evening — New Coalport was a city known for its great weather — but it was just Wyatt’s life to get caught in an unannounced downpour on a sunny day. The spread newspaper he had been holding above his head for the last couple of minutes, wasn’t helping much, but the thief chose to hold onto it for a while longer. The items stuffed into his shabby backpack weren’t really supposed to get wet if he was hoping to pawn them.
His brisk walk turned into something more of a trot, as the rain grew heavier. Wyatt looked up from under the paper and discovered that the sky was a nasty lead color, and that the front page article about a new hospital being founded by a renowned local entrepreneur was starting to drip ink all over his hands. His finger had smudged Hector Viteri’s perfect smile, turning the businessman’s face into a dark sinister blob. How could they print newspapers of that low quality? Wyatt was suddenly glad that he didn’t need to pay for it. It would have been more practical if he’d stolen an umbrella instead, but then again, those didn’t usually lie uncollected on people’s doorsteps. He wasn’t even sure if this qualified as theft.
A few streets further, he decided to take a short break and perched on the sill of a shop window. The drenched newspaper was clearly about to breathe its last, but before giving it a proper burial in the nearby trash can, Wyatt resolved to at least take a better look at what was left of its information value. His parents had always told him to make the most of what he had. Only a few pages were still readable and as irony would have it, one of them held the column on recent crime. Or mostly, the lack thereof. For a mob operation, the Citizens ran a surprisingly tight ship. Crime and backroom deals were happening in New Coalport all the time, but they were mostly small time crimes like his petty theft, and those were not interesting enough to write about.
There were very few murders in New Coalport and not many violent crimes in general and the rumor had it that it was not thanks to the local police. The very same rumor said that it was the mysterious boss of the Citizens, referred to only as ‘the Man’, who held his city safe — allegedly more so than the police NCPD ever could — ensuring that the crime did not get in the way of New Coalport’s prosperity. The law enforcement was on a constant quest to find him, but failed to do so for nearly twenty years. The city was divided in opinions on the matter. Some people wanted the Man behind bars, others thought it was better to let him continue what he was doing.
The thief didn’t have an opinion on the matter but he’d heard stories about how the place used to be once, before the Man took over, how people were afraid to leave homes after dark. While Wyatt was a fairly new addition to New Coalport himself — having moved here just five years ago — it was clear that much has changed for the better around here over the last two decades. He didn’t know how much of it was due to what exactly, but Hunter — his thieving mentor of sorts — had told him that when the Citizens took over the organized crime turned really organized, while regular haphazard crime just ceased to exist. Apparently the older thief had been here when it happened and things in the early days when the Citizens were establishing dominance were not as rosy as they were now, and bodies of criminals who failed to adjust turned up left and right. But that was over now, the streets were clean and the whole system seemed pretty clockwork. Even too clockwork for Wyatt’s liking. He wished he hadn’t become a cog in that machine. His failure at life had forced him to pick up thieving, and as he’d found out soon after, every thief in New Coalport had to work for the Citizens and pay dues to their leader.
Speaking of which, it was time to go and do just that. He still had a few days but it was better to be safe than sorry. If he didn’t pay up on time, he would get branded, which was something he really wanted to avoid. Wyatt sighed and crumpled the wet newspaper, getting even more ink on his hands.
* * *
“Oh, there you are at last. I thought you’d never… Jesus, Ocher, what happened? Have you strangled a chimney sweep with your bare hands on the way to me? Did he try to drown you first?” His fence, a tall, middle-aged woman in a pristine white shirt and an elegant sleeveless blazer arched a fine eyebrow at his miserable state.
Wyatt locked the door, just to be safe, and proceeded to zealously wipe his shoes on the inside doormat. When he heard the question, he ran a hand through the mess on his head in an awkward gesture, unwittingly making it even worse by wiping the ink from his hands into his wet sandy hair. “Hi… Uh, no, just got caught out in the rain, is all. Sorry you had to wait. I’ve brought some good stuff.”
He made his way across the pawn shop and began to unload the contents of his rucksack and pockets onto the counter.
She was still looking at him with slight disbelief. “Caught in the rain, huh? Is your roof leaking now, or what? I thought you were getting your car fixed.”
Wyatt sighed, “I was.”
“I… had to sell it instead. Long story. Anyway, will you take a look? I promise it’s not all junk. I didn’t bring any accidental keys or stuff like that this time.” He waved his hand at the stack of items. A couple of small but pretty purses, a couple of brand new college textbooks, a camera, a car radio and a slightly battered Walkman constituted the foundation of the pile. Piled on top of them were a few audio cassettes, a calculator, sunglasses, a few small fancy bottles of perfume, a swiss army knife and even a wrist-watch that could turn out to be silver. It was his haul from the entire month. Which he considered pretty damn good, given he was mostly thieving on the weekends, and he got a few wallets with some half-decent cash in them too. In fact one of them was leather and could even be worth something as well. He added it to the pile.
The woman shook her head at Wyatt, put on her glasses and began browsing the items.
“Have a seat, Ocher. I need to take a look at that tech and glitter, might take me a moment.”
She waved him towards a set of nice upholstered armchairs setup for the clients, but afraid to dirty the chairs in his present state, instead he sat down on a bench near the door. He waited in silence, idly shuffling his feet, watching her and the shelves lined with all sorts of goods.
Wyatt knew that most, or maybe even all of those, were legitimately pawned items. Everything he brought that his fence decided to keep, would be then passed on and shipped off to some other city, or perhaps to a different state. Most pawn shops around here were under too much scrutiny from the police for the Citizen-affiliated shop owners to risk selling the locally stolen goods. Those weren’t the mainstay of his fence’s business anyway. Probably a side hustle at best. Sometimes Wyatt had the impression that he was the only thief that ever came by here. That this lady fenced for him only out of pity and that she gave him half-decent prices for the very same reason. She seemed like a nice person for a pawn shop owner, and while his fellow thieves pawned their stuff in seedy places or through complicated multi-step deals that allegedly gave them better prices, Wyatt came here instead, because she made him feel welcome and normal. Well, as normal as a part-time thief trying to sell stolen items could feel.
“That radio, it wouldn’t happen to be the one from that car you’ve sold, is it?” the fence chatted him up, probably just to break the silence.
“No, of course not.” Wyatt faked a light-hearted chuckle. He pawned that one to her a year ago to pay the overdue rent, though he would have never admitted it was his car radio.
Brief silence again. The fence seemed to grow thoughtful and looked at him with a serious expression. “You know, Ocher, I don’t mean to intrude but maybe this really isn’t a job for you. Maybe you should just tell your parents the truth, move back to your hometown, start over and get another job…”
Actually, scratch that previous thought about feeling welcome and normal. It was downright awkward coming here every month, and it was all his fault. While he still didn’t know the fence’s name, and she only knew his thief nickname, over the course of the last two years he made a mistake of recounting the approximate story of how he screwed up his life to her. Now she knew things not even his friends and parents knew, and tried to offer him life advice. He should have never whined to her, not even in a vague manner. Confiding in criminals was stupid and unprofessional. But he wasn’t a professional, in fact, very far from it. The way there are Sunday drivers, he was a Sunday thief.
“No, why, come on, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. I’ve got another job.” He did. It paid the minimum wage of $3.25 per hour before tax, while his rent alone was nearly three hundred. “And that car sale really really helped!” It didn’t. The car had been a wreck even back when his parents bought it for him some five years back, when he was moving out of his little hometown to study in New Coalport. “I’m going to be alright.” He shouldn’t even have to explain himself to her, she was his fence, not his therapist. But he created this situation and now he had to sleep in it. Wait, that was not how that saying went…
The woman looked up at him again, and he could clearly see that she wasn’t buying his answer. He suspected that she actually liked him, in some pitying kind of way. By now she knew he was neither particularly good at what he was doing, nor too happy to be doing it, and she probably didn’t want to see him end up behind bars. But knowing that someone gave a shit about him didn’t really make Wyatt feel better. It just made him feel like more of a failure.
The fence understood that her advice was unwanted, and she didn’t touch the subject again. She finished studying the perfume bottles, and asked about the stolen cash. He gave her the numbers, making sure to also report what he got from Craig for the IDs found in the wallets. Wyatt had no idea what the guy did with those, but Craig was always eager to buy them off of their whole little thief gang, and they were happy to sell them to him for some extra cash rather than dump them in some alley, even if the latter was the more decent thing to do. The fence added the numbers to her calculations, and presented him with a note that she was probably going to burn or shred soon after he left. As always, she explained what share of his haul would be passed on to the Citizens — fifteen percent. The gang had a firm grip on all the proceeds from crime in New Coalport, and even the small time thieves such as him had to play by the rules and pay their dues on time, for fear of losing way more than their source of income.
Wyatt took a long look at the scribbled summary and nodded. He had been hoping for more, but this was better than nothing. She left out some things as always. They must have been less valuable than he thought. Wyatt was already used to some of the stuff not being accepted. In the beginning that was most of the stuff he was bringing in, but he’d learnt what to keep and what to dump overtime. He normally didn’t take it personally when his fence rejected an item, but seeing she didn’t put the Walkman on the list, he couldn’t hold back a question.
“Why aren’t you taking this one? Is there something wrong with it?” These used to cost over a hundred bucks back in the day and he could really use that kind of money. Plus he had to sprint real hard while stealing the backpack he later found this Walkman in. It kind of hurt that she didn’t even touch it.
The woman looked at him with sympathy. “Oh, honey, this is a 1980 model, and I’m sorry but didn’t you hear the news? Sony is releasing a new generation portable player this fall. A revolutionary device. It’s going to play CDs. Compact discs, you know? I’m afraid this won’t sell anymore, especially considering its, well, rather worn-out state. But you know what, Ocher? I think you should keep it. And these cassettes too.” She moved them towards him. “You really look like you could use some music in your life.”
* * *
When Wyatt stepped out and down the often trodden stairs, it was already dark outside. Leaving the pawnbroker’s place behind, his backpack felt lighter but his heart not so much. The rain had ceased and as he walked back home down the wet streets, Wyatt took a deep breath, trying to find relief in the damp, almost-fresh smell of the evening air and the flood of city lights. Reflecting in the puddles, those lights followed him wherever he went like curious eyes. No, that was not a relaxing thought. He hoped nobody was actually following him from the pawn shop. He wanted to keep his life as far apart from his thug life as he could.
He dropped by the local grocery shop right before it closed to pick up some basic necessities now that he got some cash, and returned to his tiny apartment too late to do anything other than go to bed. It wasn’t that late but his mornings started awfully early. Still, he would have normally tried to write an entry in his journal, but recently there was simply nothing to write about, at least nothing that wouldn’t incriminate him, should the police or his parents, or anyone really, ever find that notebook. There was a message on his answering machine; Hamsi, his Indian friend from the geology faculty was inviting him over for her delicious homemade murgh makhani and, as he was quite sure even though she’d left it unspoken, for another round of her and her sister’s monthly attempts to convince him to pick up his studies and his attempts at a future career he’d flushed down the drain.
Unlike Hamsi, who had recently completed her university education with flying colors, he had dropped out of third year and continued to lie to his parents about everything ever since. In his lies, Wyatt was all they had ever wanted him to be. A successful graduate of the Bachelor geology degree, paying for his own Master studies and helping out his old parents, thanks to the successful job in the petroleum industry he’d landed right after graduation.
In reality, he was a nobody. A petty thief drowning in student debt he had to start paying off a few months after he dropped out of his university almost two years ago. Trying to keep up with his loan, his rent and expenses, and scrambling to find money to send to his old parents to help them cover growing medical bills, and substantiate the lie of his advancing career, was what made him turn to thieving. But even that extra income was barely enough, because he sucked at it as well. He sucked at everything he did and nothing in his life ever went as it should. He felt that failure lay somewhere at the very foundation of it, just waiting to happen over and over again.
As he rested his head down on the pillow, Wyatt thought that at least one thing he had told his parents was actually more or less true. He’d really landed a job in the petroleum industry. Just… not as a resource geologist.
He had to be up at five for the morning shift at the gas station.
Luke watched the midnight blue sky. Not a single star was to be seen. He found that one feature comforting about the big city. The stars scared him. The moon, however, was welcome. It was a much needed guide in the unlit back alleys he inhabited.
The quiche in his hands was cold but still delicious. It was a good quarter of a large pie someone had abandoned on their plate on a terrace outside a restaurant. Luke felt very proud of this catch. Moreover there still was half of a sandwich in his pocket from another table on the same terrace. Luke bit into the quiche and chewed long and slow, savoring it. How someone could leave food, especially something so tasty, to be thrown away was beyond him. People wasted a lot of food these days.
Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost. Luke looked at the quiche he had salvaged. It wasn’t a sin to have taken it, he reasoned, it was unwanted, and he was a sojourner after all. A man without a home or destination, a stranger in a strange place and time, constantly on the run, living in fear.
But at least there was this quiche.
And the park around him felt almost peaceful. There was the occasional couple or a jogger on the trails, but the grass was still wet from the rain and thus universally unappealing — a perfect place for Luke to rest undisturbed. Luke closed his eyes and breathed in the smell of wet earth and vegetation. He tried to imagine he was back home on the farm, that all the horrors of his endless life never happened. He was almost able to let the smell and sensation of wet grass under his fingers transport him to those blissful days long gone, but the blare of a taxi horn outside the park shattered the budding image. Luke opened his eyes and sighed, watching the sleepless city lights between the trees. All good things had to come to an end.
Luke’s stomach lurched at the familiar voice, as he turned and saw two figures approaching along a trail. Today they were long-haired, blonde and elegantly dressed, but he recognized them anyway. Wilma and Betty, the only two Citizens who dragged him into danger time and time again and somehow always emerged unscathed. The women crossed the cut grass and stopped just a few feet in front of him — a risk very few consciously took. Wilma, the stockier and more sanguine of the two, smiled at him, while Betty’s face remained blank, her dead eyes vigilantly scanning their surroundings.
“Ey, there, Lucky Luke,” Wilma said. “Eat up and come along. We need your help dealing with the Dalton Brothers.”
Luke frowned. He had not heard that name before. Could those be some criminal rivals of the Citizens? The women laughed at his confusion, but they did not care to elaborate.
“Move it.” Betty nodded sideways.
Luke bowed his head and avoided meeting her gaze. “I won’t come.”
“We can make you.”
“And then it would be most unfortunate,” Wilma said, “if you caused some trouble on the way to the car, and we bumped into that big party right outside the park, a charity ball for blind orphans or somesuch. Lots of good people with a very intense sense of purpose, why I’m sure your presence would make the fundraiser a stellar success!”
“And a bloodbath,” Betty said.
Luke grimaced, almost shivering with self-loathing. “I’ll come.”
* * *
The sky was growing light in the East. Luke watched it anxiously from the backseat. His fingers played with the fabric of the unfamiliar jacket he now wore on top of his old one. It was a ladies jacket, but it was clean and almost new. The extra pair of trousers he got was too loose, but that hardly mattered while he was seated. For once he could not feel his own stench, just the strong unnatural aroma of the perfume one of the women had abundantly sprinkled on him before they let him into the car. That and the new clothes were solely for the benefit of their vehicle.
Luke’s stomach turned as he noticed two bright dots on the road ahead — oncoming traffic. The three of them had made it out of the city without much trouble, except one bursting fire hydrant and a falling streetlamp that Wilma skillfully avoided. There weren’t many cars in the streets in the dead of night. But this now could be where their luck changed. The lights ahead grew bigger, just like the falling star in the sky had done, all those years ago. Luke braced himself, shutting his eyes tight. He could still see the red glow through his eyelids.
Then, with a whoosh of night air, the car rushed past, and the road ahead was dark again.
“So how will you deliver Raph Olivier to us, Lucky? Will he fall out of the back of the paddy wagon, fly through the windshield and land in our laps?”
“Olivier? He is alive?” Luke sat up at attention.
“Oh yes, he is. He made it out of that blast unscathed, which cannot be said about Simmons. You did quite the number on that one, huh?”
“I cannot control this,” Luke said grimly.
Then he almost jumped up in his seat as with a loud honk a truck went off its course and drove into their lane, heading straight at them. Wilma slammed the brakes. Luke gripped the seat in front of himself not to face-plant into it. The truck passed them by a foot or so, driving off the road and into the field.
“Oh really?” Wilma laughed, then stepped on the gas again, driving on almost like nothing happened. “That was some convenient timing for something you claim you can’t control.”
Luke did not reply. He only frowned and moved further to the left behind the driver’s seat. He dreaded what lay ahead. Disasters were bad enough, but disasters caused while aiding violent criminals were even worse. He’d thought he had Olivier already on his conscience, but now he found out his guilt on that account was premature — he was only going to have Olivier on his conscience later tonight. Luke hated being a part of this. As if his curse wasn’t horrible enough, it was being used with malicious purpose by organized crime. But how could he stop them without causing more death and suffering? Even hiding from the Citizens a bit too eagerly could trigger this twisted luck of his, and then he could die, more people could die, was there even an end to this nightmare?
“There we are.” Wilma’s voice brought him back to reality. “Work your magic, Lucky.”
Luke tilted his head and glimpsed a large van ahead of them. This was it. This was where things would get much much worse. Luke shut his eyes tight and pressed his hands hard against his ears. The car sped up. Luke began humming softly.
“Hey, handsome!” Wilma called out to the driver of the van. “Handsome! Wanna race?”
An amused muffled response came from outside.
Four consecutive gun shots made Luke curl into a ball.
The car veered sharply to the right. Luke slammed into the door, fell to the seat, slid off of it and tried to huddle under it. Moments later the car came to a stop, and he heard the front door open. Luke whimpered, uttering apologies to God or anyone who would listen.
More shots were fired outside.
Luke lay in the car, praying for the souls that the vile women sent to Heaven, if there was such a place. Judging from his own experience, he couldn’t be sure anymore. But Hell was real. Hell was all around.
“No… Not you two! Please, I- I have a stash hidden away, saved up for retirement, I’ll tell you how to get to it, just, please, let me go!”
Luke heard Olivier’s voice outside. He smelled smoke. He stubbornly refused to sit up and look.
“Oh how sweet, Betty, look he’s trying to buy us! Pray tell, Olivier, how much is in that stash of yours? Our weekly cut? Two?” Wilma laughed. “Did you really think you could stick it to the Man and get away with it? Here, in New Coalport? You are so lucky that there’s always a second chance for those who repent. Oh wait, no, there is no such thing.” Then, in a grave, quiet voice she ordered. “Fry him, Betty.”
“What are you doing?!” Olivier yelled. “No, wait! I-”
The man never finished what he wanted to say, instead Luke heard only his garbled agonized screaming. It went on and on, seemingly forever. Luke lay shaking with his ears covered, trying to hum over the horrible noises. Even as the man finally fell silent, his wails still echoed in Luke’s mind.
Numbly, Luke took his hands off of his ears and stared into nothing. He heard one of the women open the trunk and take something out. A minute later something heavy was put in the trunk, shaking the car with Luke in it. A sickly burnt smell reached Luke’s nostrils, and he fought nausea and tried hard to think of anything but what must have happened outside. Where was he going to go once he was back in the city? How could he make the Citizens leave him be without hurting any more people? Would dying to steal another person’s life be the lesser evil in this situation? Or could they find him even then?! Was he trapped?!
“Lucky? Lucky Luke? Oh, there you are!” Wilma got back into the driver’s seat. “We’re dropping you off downtown. You look like you could use a drink. Betty, give him some change.”
“I- I don’t want your blood money!” Luke felt tears of anger replace those of horror and pain. “Just leave me alone!”
“That’s what we were going to do anyway. For now at least. But sure, if you don’t want your share, we’ll find a good use for it.” Wilma turned the key in the ignition, and the car started.
“I want to go for Greek,” Betty said.
Wilma laughed. “You want gyros? Now? Is that what the smell of burning flesh does for you? Very well. Greek it is. I wouldn’t have thought of that as a breakfast option, but after such an eventful night, heck, why not? Do you want to get Greek with us, Lucky?”
“I don’t want to have anything to do with you.” Luke climbed back into the seat and leaned his head against the window, staring outside as the car drove back onto the road. A part of him hoped another truck would come swerving their way and kill all three of them. He wasn’t sure if his death would cause more or less suffering in the world than his continued existence in this current body, but these two devilesses would not be missed.
As Luke was lost in self-destructive thoughts, the women continued chatting casually. Like they had not just killed several people and weren’t now transporting a charred dead body in the trunk of their car.
They went on about some brand of nail polish and about when someone called the Night Rider was going to return for another season. Wilma wondered if they were going to “catch the edge of night”. Luke could hardly follow the conversation, not that he wanted to, but it was hard to completely ignore the women. They talked loudly and with much zest, clearly in a stellar mood.
“But honestly Betty, I’m genuinely curious — why do you stick with Barney? I mean except for the Flintstones gag, what do you see in him? He’s not the sharpest tool in the box.”
“Yes. But his tool is notable.”
“Oh, hoho, Betty! Just how notable is it?”
“Notable enough. This thick.”
“Not only do you have no conscience, you also lack in shame! Don’t you feel sick at your own words and actions?!” Luke couldn’t stay silent anymore.
Wilma let out a snort of laughter. “Pf, what are you, a Catholic schoolgirl?”
“I am Amish.”
“Why aren’t you in Pennsylvania then?” Betty asked dispassionately.
Luke grew grim. “I should be. I should have been. But if people have to die by my curse, the fact it’s sinful Englishmen dying makes the guilt a little lighter to bear.”
“Woah, woah, somebody’s grouchy.” Wilma kept snickering. “But you know what? America is the country of immigrants. You think it’s the sinful Englishmen that you’re killing but it might be folks from Germany or wherever you Amish have come from. Ha! Anyway, I’m surprised murder doesn’t come easy to you. By accident or not, sounds like you offed quite a few people. Maybe more than me and Betty together. What’s your death count? You do keep track, right? You’re so damn righteous, I bet you do.”
“Spill it, Lucky.”
Luke said nothing. Of course he kept track, he remembered every single person in his prayers nightly. But he wasn’t going to entertain murderers. And he shouldn’t have allowed them to make him say such awful things — all lives were sacred, Englishmen or not. Luke felt ashamed and even guiltier than before.
He made a conscious effort to ignore the women for the rest of the trip back to the city. It wasn’t easy, their voices kept interfering with his prayers, and whenever that happened his mind veered into the forbidden but highly desirable mental image of all three of them crashing and dying. In his case, hopefully for good. But those were sinful thoughts, and to compensate for them Luke prayed all the harder.
Finally, the countryside behind the window was replaced with suburban rows of single family homes and then with dark tenements and shops. Only rooftop billboards and upper floors of buildings were bathed in the pale light of early morning, the sky was still very dark in the West.
“Hey, Lucky,” Wilma announced at an arbitrary downtown intersection, “it’s your stop, off you go!”
Luke did not need to be asked twice. He scrambled out of the car and hurried away, as Wilma and Betty drove off, laughing.
Wyatt walked down the staircase groggily. It was still dark outside, not at all a humane hour to set out to anywhere. It also served as a bitter reminder that he could have afforded an extra half an hour of sleep and left closer to sunrise if he still had his car. But oh well, such was life. There were others who had it worse. And at least car insurance and gas expenses weren’t going to be a problem now.
When he opened the door to the street, he saw a familiar, skinny silhouette huddled on the front steps of the apartment building. The man sprang to his feet when he saw him.
“Ocher!” The scrawny man spread out his arms, blocking Wyatt’s path. “I’m so glad to see you! You’re finally out, it’s early, I know, but I’ve been waiting for a while… Say, can you do me a favor?”
Wyatt looked around wildly. “Hunter… you’re not supposed to be here… like… ever.” He looked up as well for good measure, to make sure no neighbour was watching them from above.
The man’s arms fell to hang limply at his sides like he was a wilting plant. “I uh, I know, but I needed to talk to you.”
Wyatt grabbed one of those arms and dragged Hunter off the stairs with him. The neighbourhood was quiet and still mostly asleep, but he didn’t feel comfortable risking being seen with a guy who not only was a thief, but actually looked like one, especially in those sunglasses before sunrise. “You could have just called.” He didn’t want any of his gang calling his home number but it still beat them showing up on his doorstep.
”I would’ve, but I’ve pawned my phone. Can I borrow fifty green from you? I promise I’ll return it next week. Please?” Hunter pleaded.
“I’m sorry, Hunter, but it’s really not the best time.” Technically, it never was. “You know I’m just as broke as you, maybe even more.” Ocher started walking. He had to get going if he hoped to reach his work on time. He wasn’t even surprised by any of this. It wasn’t the first time his mentor was trying to borrow money and it wasn’t going to be the last. To the rest of their little gang, the older thief was mostly known as Two Bits, precisely because he hardly ever had cash on him unless he had just picked it off of somebody else.
When Wyatt first met Hunter those two years back, Hunter’s financial woes defied his understanding for a while. Despite his scruffy appearance and miserable demeanor, Two Bits was the most skilled thief out of the four of them. All the best tricks they knew, they had learned from him. He never got caught, his hauls were always impressive, and he could lockpick and pickpocket more efficiently than the rest of them combined. So where did all that money disappear to? Why were things Hunter actually needed to have in his apartment constantly being pawned?
All that had puzzled Ocher two years ago. But now he knew. Hunter… had a problem. Or well, a whole array of those. If he had to name the main one, he’d probably go for the poker addiction. But that was just one of his fellow thief’s many vices. Lotteries, races, all sorts of wild bets and games of chance made Hunter lose all self-control and common sense. And ever since he’d actually won the jackpot some years back, Hunter’s faith in his luck had reached absurd proportions and had never come down since. Any attempts to convince him he should stop throwing his money away were met with pitiful unrelenting optimism. Two Bits was sure he would win big again. In the meantime he only lost and he lost big. His uncommon skill at thieving was the only reason he still managed to stay afloat. But sometimes even that turned out not to be enough, and Hunter would try to get a little help from the people he considered to be his friends. Like Ocher now.
Hunter followed him along the sidewalk. “But… but I’m almost late with paying my dues.”
“I’m really sorry but I’m almost late with paying my rent, plus you know that I have my student loans, and I’ve gotta send some money back home too. You don’t even pay the rent, Hunter… just your condo fees. Seriously, you make so much more money than any of us. Just stop, you know, gambling it all away and you’re set.”
“I will, I promise, but I really need fifty bucks now, please, Ocher…”
The thing was, hardly a day went by without Hunter promising to quit gambling. But he never went through with it. On top of his unwavering faith in his upcoming change of luck, some cruel person had once convinced him that he had a great poker face, and after that no amount of lost money could ever make Two Bits believe otherwise.
Wyatt kept walking.
“Ocher?” Hunter whined. “Please?”
“No, man, I’m sorry. I need my fifty bucks, and I know you can get yours easily off of someone who would mourn its loss way less. You’ve got a whole day before he comes, right? I’m sure you can make it.” He pitied Hunter, but one had to be decisive with him, or the older thief would start being over-reliant on others instead of trying to fend for himself. Sometimes Ocher still couldn’t believe that this man had been classified as a master thief by the Citizens.
“Alright, I get it.” Hunter sighed. “But since you’re out so early, could you at least give me a ride downtown?” He glanced wistfully at the parking lot where Wyatt kept his car.
Ocher’s shoulders sagged, and he told Hunter why he couldn’t do that. The parallel his mind began to draw between his sold car and Hunter’s constantly pawned belongings was alarming.
Wyatt’s workplace was exactly opposite to where Hunter wanted to go but their bus stops were in the same direction. And so they walked there, like the two losers they were. Or well, no, actually it was just Hunter who was a loser. Ocher liked the man a lot and appreciated him being his thieving teacher, but he also quietly considered him to be a cautionary tale of what his own life could become if he didn’t do something to change his ways.
At thirty-two, Hunter had no job, no girlfriend, no education and no future except for the life of crime ahead of him. Wyatt’s situation was entirely different. He was a whole decade and a half younger. He had perspectives. He wasn’t a gambling addict and he still could achieve-
“By the way, how’s your going back to university going?”
Wyatt’s self-esteem instantly deflated. “Uh, can we please not talk about it…”
“Sure.” Hunter lifted his hands in an appeasing gesture. “It just seems like something you should do at some point, with the loans and all.”
“Trust me, I know…”
Hunter was right. The master thief had never attended college, but it also meant he’d never dropped out of it and at least he didn’t have to pay off his student debt now, with literally nothing to show for it. And it’s not like Wyatt had a girlfriend either. Or a proper job. And unlike him, Hunter actually won that huge prize in the lottery once. Suddenly Wyatt wasn’t so sure anymore which one of them was the bigger loser. Had he already managed to become more hopeless than Hunter? Was he more hopeless than Hunter all along…?
“Alright, that’s me here. See you tomorrow at my place?” Hunter stopped at his dark lonely bus stop.
Ocher nodded, “Uhm. And Hunter…”
“Sorry that I can’t spare the money. If I knew you couldn’t get it, I’d give it to you. But I know you can. So please go and pickpocket those fifty bucks from someone today. And don’t gamble it away. Pay your dues on time.”
“Yeah, sure. I don’t wanna die.”
Ocher nodded one last time and crossed the street to his own dark lonely bus stop. They looked at each other from opposite sides of the street for the next ten minutes or so, like two idiot losers, until Hunter’s bus finally came, and Ocher was the sole loser left in the dark.