Introducing Ms. Other

Mieczslaw was an old man, as old as they come; he had endured trials both deadly and those everyday; he had survived virtually everyone he had ever known, or at least known enough to care—much to his own disappointment. He had surmounted eighty summers, but he had not yet achieved ninety. The miserable live at length while the jubilant expire, you see. And one might have expected the years to pass quickly now—like the hours in a dream, as they say, is the unfortunate reality with the aged—but this wasn’t the case regarding this man just minutes from the tumulus, who in his increasingly long loneliness and bitter idleness experienced the passing of the day acutely as tumultuous agony, unable to fill his vacant hours with anything appreciable.

By his appearance, you could have called him “venerable,” if by the very same you meant “abounding in wrinkles.” The blue of his eyes had faded white, and his gnarled hands were speckled with unsightly spots of liver brown. Wild was what remained of his hair and sidereal bright, and his beard had gone for years unmaintained; his eyebrows also somehow had continued at length. He was a pitiable sight, most remarkable in an intensity of expression, a frantic joie de vive—the sometimes gift of a survivor—that had been lost to a blind desperation that tottered about on weakened knees.

Once he had lived in an idyllic little country home in an idyllic little country town, simple weather-worn masonry wreathed in greenest ivy. It was a pleasant sort of life—sometimes difficult—but fulfilling. Through the years, however, a city had emerged from a town. This of course was not a spontaneous process, though it was appreciably rapid, short decades of inexorable development that witnessed the brutalism of concrete and rebar blot out the creeping verdant and babbling blue of obliterated brooks. So it was one day he realized, peering through the stained window panes of his obsolete cottage, the paltry spoil of his laborious life, that he lived no longer within a country home, for no longer lived he in the country, pressed in mercilessly along all sides by a modernity that had left him behind.

Now the little paths that remained of his property, shaded beneath the ever-encroaching moss-laden canopy that had hosted his several children long now into their own adulthood, hosted only crinkled cans, discarded wrappers, even the occasional loose condom—the unthinking detritus, the glory of city life. The once vibrant, well-attended fern dream was now turned a hoary beige. He had tried once; in fact he had done everything he could to keep the sacred space of his family free of these indignities, but with the death of his wife, it no longer seemed to matter. Nothing seemed to matter, anymore, least of all himself. This was slowly and then brutally reinforced, as neither did his children pay him any mind, wheresoever they should be, which to him was increasingly a mystery. Drink was the only remedy for the length of the day as he would stare out with bleary eyes through the rain-drenched panes, trying to remember but praying to forget.

He had grown very old; his bones, though once vigorous with a proud manhood, no longer well supported his frame. Moving about was the sort of care that only the aged truly understand. The physical ailments of elder years were exacerbated with the further indignities of the city—something which to him in his youth were unimaginable. At this old, tottering Pole, a veteran of the war, one of the few survivors still breathing, did the horrid little offspring of the local riff-raff, the inbred spawn of ungrateful inbred spawn, hurl unending abuse and mocking laughter. His things were stolen. Several times had the brats attempted invasions of his home—once even successfully, the consequences of which abandoned him at death’s door from the vicious hands of social violence, saved only by the spirited intervention of a rare saint garbed in reflective yellow. His windows were shattered regularly with the hurled stones of urban idlers, who had grown all-the-more presumptuous with the fruits of their vicious wrongdoing. Life had passed him by in favor of a reality as paltry as it was loathsome. This old Pole was simply unwelcome in the city that had swallowed his little town, a lingering reminder of what had once been—nothing anymore than an unwelcome anachronism.

On this particular late afternoon, as with every late afternoon, Mieszko remained rudely sprawled about on a tattered-pattern reclining chair, the empty bottle still held in hand, snoring loud as a lumber mill, loud enough to rouse the devil himself. As if with purpose, rain began to patter upon the window panes, gently at first, but increasing under the force of the deliberate storm, which had rolled in from the swelling and tempestuous North Sea, a terrible storm, broad enough to cover the whole sky and dark enough to blot out the sun, seething, roiling, alight with the crack of thunder. But all of this went unnoticed by him, embroiled in dreams—familiar dreams of familiar scenes from times now very long past. He remembered the glint in the eye of a dying man, just recently a boy. He remembered his fiery-haired wife’s gently mocking smile. He remembered stepping off that plane, for the last time, marveling at the stiffness of the field beneath his tired heels, aching with terrible guilt.

A knock rapped upon the door. Mieszko stirred slightly in his sleep but little else. The knock repeated itself, no more insistently, and again, he remained wreathed in his dreams. Now with some temper, the blows rained down upon his door, punctuated with the terrible blast of thunder, which hurled him sputtering from his chair, in a panic, straight to the floor, as his old bones groaned under the sudden gesticulation. Had his vision always been so blurry? And gods above, as if things couldn’t get any worse, how the storm knocked about within his skull, every thrashing of the lightning a pounding on the prison walls of the mind itself! Confusion was the order of the day, as he peered about blearily, half-expecting a grenade-wielding German to come reeling around the corner from the hall, shouting some variety of guttural moonspeak. “Where, what?” was all he could muster, as the knocking returned, whencesoever he couldn’t tell, much less tell why. Was the pounding merely the door, or was it the familiar fists of a frantic man, a prisoner, banging on the bars of his skull? He slowly rose, dressed in an old tomato-stained tee-shirt, blue cotton shorts, and tall tube socks of ancient manufacture. The knocking again repeated itself, but this assured him the knocking indeed came from without. “For Christ’s sake!” he roared towards the evening’s denizen behind the door. “Give me a fucking minute!” He put on some day-bleached slippers and a ragged, greasy house-coat and made for the door irritated at whomever should deign to bother his broken bones at this bloody hour.

The solid-wood door creaked open, exposing the interior to the wrathful blast of the storm and his eyes to a strange apparition. A woman, a vision straight out from his military retirement, stood shivering under the rain-soaked awning. An odd thing she was; bearing a fancy suitcase and swaddled altogether in pixie pink, she wore a woman’s coat with three quarter sleeves, a simple unpleated a-line skirt, and a little pill-box hat. Piercing green eyes shimmered out from beneath her long crimson hair, flowing down abundantly to terminate in only the gentlest of curls. It was obvious she wasn’t from around here. It was very obvious. And normally, the door would have slammed as quickly as it had opened, but there was something about this woman, something so nostalgic, a hint of a finer time, the time of his own vigor—the intoxicating aroma of what might have been incense, might have been cologne, but intoxicating altogether. His curiosity held the door open fast; out from sunken eyelids peered a pair of gray-swathed eyes, looking up and down closely.

A hand sprung about straight from her shoulder, her visage screwed up with a school-girl’s smile. “Nice to meet you, Sir! You may call me ‘Penny Other,’ door-to-door saleswoman and altogether fine lady!”

“What an oddity,” he thought; he hadn’t so much as even seen a such a traveling salesman or saleswoman in decades, not a vacuum cleaner or a knife grinder. Nevertheless, he was not a rude man, and met her palm with his, which she shook roughly, as if with unseen strength.

She continued, “Always great to meet a new customer!” She looked him up and down; she should have frowned, but her excitement only seemed to grow. “I, as you may already be able to tell, am a vendor of only the finest makeups and perfumes! May I come in and speak with the lady of the house?”

He frowned, so far silent, looking to find his words, while she patiently and enthusiastically awaited his response. His throat was hoarse, sore, and riddled with cobwebs, but fearing to appear rude, especially to a stranger, he slowly began with a thick accent, “I am sorry, Miss… Other–”

“Please, Sir, you can just call me ‘Penny.’”

“Alright, Penny,” he continued with unusual emphasis, “I am sorry to have to tell you this, but I lost my wife many years ago. It’s just me living here in this little home.”

She cocked her head to the side, rather like a winged raptor developing a grasp of depth while a child-like frown played upon her features, and she forcefully took his right hand in both of hers, “Oh! Oh! I’m so sorry, Mr–?”

“Mieszko is fine.”

“Mieszko, hmm…” she pondered aloud, thumbing her chin thoughtfully, but she quickly returned to the matter at hand. “Well, allow me to apologize, Mr. Mieszko. I am so so very sorry. I am truly sorry. That’s so sad. I hate to dredge up sad memories.”

He tried to pause her. “It’s really alright, Miss.”

“Oh no no no!”

“Really, it’s fine. It’s all in the past,” he started, clumsily attempting to reassure the stranger with his unpracticed manners, all to no avail.

Flushed with embarrassment, she made a gesture to leave, but something stirred in his heart, and with an outstretched hand he halted her retreat. Was it loneliness? Was it his mother’s manners? Was it the unforeseen kindness of a stranger, or did she merely resemble his fire-haired mate now lingering at the foot of a moderate tombstone? Whatever it was, at length, he noticed that she was visibly shivering, and it was all too obvious that the downpour for some time yet would not relent. He sighed and gestured inwards, groaning with the shift in weight and posture.

“If it’s alright with you Miss, why don’t you come inside and wait out the rain?”

There wasn’t even a moment before a great smile played about her face, ear to ear, and she jumped at the opportunity, quickly pushing past him and depositing her muddy and soiled pointed heels just inside the doorway.

Stumbling, he led her to the living room, nothing but the aforementioned recliner, a sunken couch, and a coffee table supported on its broken leg by a set of electronics textbooks. One would say the room was rudimentary, even threadbare, but the space was genuinely far from bare. Empty liquor bottles were strewn about, crowding out the coffee table and lying idly beside all the sitting places. He gestured her take her place upon the couch while he returned to his familiar recliner.

“I hope you can excuse me about the mess,” he began, visibly nursing ribs recently besotted with the thrashing rage of indignant fists.

“Oh it’s fine! It’s fine!” she attempted to assure him, as she ran her roving eyes about all the mess and clutter, returning with a laugh, “Well, it’s pretty clear this house hasn’t seen a woman’s touch in some time. Don’t you have any children, a daughter perhaps?”

He shrugged. “Yes, I do have a daughter.”

There was a pause.

She replied with plaintive eyes, expectant to a truer conclusion.

Sighing he continued, “I’ve a pair of sons as well”

Contemplatively chewing a pen she had magically produced from an unseen vestibule, her eyes wandered, this time to the kitchen. “You wouldn’t happen to have something to drink?” she pleaded.

Unaware that most can’t tolerate spirits, he fumbled about through the empties looking for the right bottle, but laughing she wryly interrupted the search. “Oh no no, Sir, I never drink on the job. I meant tea, or some coffee, or even just a glass of water?”

Vaguely recalling a once monstrous pride, he realized his own thoughtless folly. Now quite visibly injured, in form inasmuch as his heart, he carefully limped his way towards the kitchen, consumed bottles clinking about his stumbling heels like a hollow xylophone. He took some ancient Earl-Gray from the cabinet, grumbling as he went, until some five minutes later he returned to a renewed living room, having been utterly vacated of all hint of cirrhosis.

He didn’t notice the absence of clatter as he returned to his living room uncluttered, depositing the desired leaf-flavored victuals upon a familiar coffee-table that was no longer bidden to rely upon the unread wisdom of circuits in a full one-thousand pages.

“Do you like it?”

Half-heartedly, he cast his gaze about the room, oblivious as if blind—and dumb besides.

“The local brats are always breaking my windows.”

“No no no, I meant the renewed state of the room.”

He stared at her intently, as if attempting to decipher a foreign script.

“The bottles are gone,” she began meekly, “and the table’s got a new spring in its step besides.”

As if awakening from the hypnotic vapors of the fetid underworld, he was nearly taken with surging nocturnal terrors, “Where’s my bloody bottle?!”

She sighed, muttering black imprecations against the vain obsessions of the elderly. “I’ll get you another one. Don’t worry.”

This seemed to assuage his childish outrage, and he settled comfortably within his creaking recliner.

“Thanks.”

“Oh, no no no, don’t worry; it was nothing that a lady couldn’t handle, darling.”

“I used to call my daughter ‘darling’–my wife always ‘dear.’ Force of habit I learned from my own father.”

“Yes yes dear,” she answered dismissively, depositing herself neatly upon the newly cleaned couch, which seemed also somehow to sag less, howsoever she managed it.

He had something of a one-track mind. “So there was some mention of replacement spirits, a gift perhaps?”

“I’m shocked you didn’t already notice.” There was a bottle of expensive bourbon, resting against the armrest of his strangely reinforced recliner, bound with ribbon and bearing a red felt poppy.

“Did you just–”

“Come now. I’ll consider it an insult if you refuse.” She beamed him a girlish smile.

He examined the offered spirits, his pupils dilating with an unexpected enthusiasm. “I haven’t seen such as this in… years, at least. The expense alone must have been–

Her smile suddenly became sharp, intense, and her eyes narrowed. “Where I come from, Mieszko, it is customary for a guest to provide her host a gift. That goes doubly for an unexpected guest. Besides, there remain but few today that remember the sacred trust that guards the traveler from the storm in the hospitable folds of a friendly manor.”

“Don’t even get me started,” he started, “The shit I’ve had to put up with! What has society come to?! It’s—it’s—it’s—outrageous! Outrageous! A man can be beaten in the street, by a crowd, by his neighbors, and the police can do nothing, out of some outrageously misplaced kindness to the vicious riff-raff, the urban idlers, inane offspring of worthless peasants that infect what used to be my countryside! Inattentive, trashy parents raising worthless inbred brats who don’t know their own ass from a hole in the ground—running around beating the shit out of each other and beating the shit out of kinder folks as well. It’s outrageous! And it’s not just when the little bastards are drunk either, though powerfully and chronically inebriated many of them are, younger than ten years even! And I could care even less about their poor maladies, self-inflicted! Fuckin’ methamphetamines and oxycontin and even worse things! Oh and it’s never their fault, either the brats or the fuckin’ parents either! It’s always society! It’s always the rest of us, and in particular it’s those whose pay-stubs permit their disgusting lifestyle. Oh and the money! More more more; it’s never enough—worse than the creatures unmentionable! Oh it’s either poverty or society or the drugs or the whites or the men or the wealthy! And you won’t see a one of them with the dignity to not hold out his hand for another man’s sparing spoil! Shit, I’ve been accosted by kids wearing North Face jackets for a fiver or more! And then they’ve got the gall to get physical when you rightly tell them to shove off! People who think they’ve got it bad treat other people badly, who often have it worse than themselves, and inevitably, they come out in droves to support some mindless labor candidate whose only promise is to make it rain, more fuel for mind-twisting narcotics and brain-lesioning liquor.” He paused at this grimly and spat. “You wouldn’t believe what I’ve had to put up with. The local living trash have tried to break into my home on numerous occasions. Once successfully.” He seemed to tremble at the mention of this, as the ugly lines and embellishments of his unpleasant countenance revealed themselves the vestiges of nearly mortal violence. “I don’t even know—don’t even know how I’m alive. The doctor called it a miracle, but it’s a curse to me, to spend another blasted minute living the life of a hermit amidst all this gutter-trash. And I’ve gone to the police on numerous occasions, and the police questioned me on the stretcher, for all the good that was, but they always guffaw and stammer and protest loudly that they can do absolutely nothing. I swear to god, they never hold kids culpable for any of their shit-eating behavior anymore. No wonder they’re all fucking monsters; the head of a five year old with the body of an adult—no different from their parents.

His ranting completed, he seemed to collapse inward, trying to catch his breath. To all of this, Penny listened with attentive and patient eyes that seemed to flash with his every crescendo. Those eyes, an underwater emerald conclave, glimmering, piercing, burning were not the sympathetic balm to soothe his woes, but in them lingered an intent altogether different, something kinder than mercy. She piped up while his chest visibly heaved, and spackles of blood began to pool upon his lips “I know, darling,” she started in a slow, sultry tone, “isn’t it outrageous?! Far be it from them to care. They don’t care about you as a man, or their neighbor, or as a wizened elder, and certainly not as the survivor—not a warrior—that bled on foreign soil that they could fritter their lives away.”

It appeared he was dying.

“You could say that there rests within this heart a very special place, an ancient affection, for all soldiers surviving and entombed.”

He was nearly floored, shivering with another terrible fit of coughing, as the blood began to trickle down his chin.

Her piercing gaze settled upon his own, as if looking through him, and she continued, “There aren’t many of you left, Poles from a time before the wall and the fall of the wall, an exile settled in concealment amidst what used to be boundless country. But now, no no no, the rest of the world has found you, folded you within their tawdry bullshit. But for all that, all that you’ve endured, the pride remains self-evident, the manner of your walk, the way you hold yourself.” Her eyes seemed to flash as she narrowed her gaze. She unexpectedly burst into song, a well rehearsed, nay expert voice rippling through the stale air:

“I see before me the gladiator lie

He leans upon his hand—his manly brow

Consents to death, but conquers agony,

And his drooped head sinks gradually low–

and through his side the last drops, ebbing slow

From the red gash, hall heavy, one by one.”

“Childe Harold?” he asked, gasping for breath.

This pleased her immensely, and she knew it instantly; “This is the one, this the very man himself,” she mused. Her eyes flashed with this, and she began anew, “You’re just the man I’ve been looking for, Mr. Mieszko.”

He could barely purse his lips, as his limbs began to quake with the onset of death.

“You’re just perfect.” A predatory grin flashed across her features, revealing impossibly-long, leonine fangs.

He struggled in his increasing sarcophagus, trying without success to raise himself to his feet, falling again and again backwards to no avail. Without thinking, he averted his gaze, pretending himself elsewhere, the idea of dying so badly, so madly, so radically unnerving. A thousand thoughts raced throughout the teeming hollows of his musty mind, but as to his escape he could conjure nothing. But he was soon interrupted as her hand came to rest suddenly upon his. The alarm became more than genuine and he strained as far into the sunken recliner as he could manage, away from the danger.

“Shh… shh… be still, Mieszko. Trust me dear, you can relax with me.” She took the bottle gently from his grasp and deftly removed the sealing wax with a single motion, redepositing it within those same digits. “You must learn to relax, dear. Come, have a drink. It will settle your nerves.”

She exuded a strange sort of comfort, perhaps a sort of yellow, almost sickly, but immanently warming. He took a sip, not bold or self-defacing, from the offered bottle—aided by her suddenly gentle hands. It tasted strange, very strange, like no spirits he had ever consumed before; and while it was peculiar, it was not altogether unpleasant, no not unpleasant at all, he mused, as he drank more, initially tentative as a sylvan doe, but then suddenly hungrily, voraciously, with predatory vigor. No no, not bad at all. Quickly he confided in himself that this was the finest liquor he had ever tasted or would ever taste; of this there was absolutely no doubt, as if aided with the divine impressions of the muses themselves. It was strange; it wasn’t sticky-sweet, but somehow it tasted sweet, or something much like sweet; he couldn’t put his finger on it. And while the liquor was most assuredly sharp, it was also somehow tender; it cut both ways, but somehow not inimically. She didn’t even need to counsel him to finish the bottle, as was certainly within his power, as the whole of it he consumed ravenously, and you would think with its completion there should have been a measure of sadness, the sort of sadness only an alcoholic knows, tasting the last few drops from the bottle, but he felt immeasurably content.

She smiled upon him with motherly affectation, pushing forth an outstretched hand, begging him take it up and join her. Without understanding, without any sense of what was going on around him, child-like almost, he took her hand without reservation, and coming to his feet he immediately understood, though there were not words to describe it. His heart had begun to throb, and new blood dashed as stampeding elephants throughout every capillary. From somewhere very far away, and altogether silent, but rampaging throughout the house, a waltz suddenly struck up, but he knew it had been there all along, and taking his hands in hers, he led her smiling about the once laughter-filled rooms and corridors, in a most spirited of the spirited three-beat dance, as they spun about each other, laughing maniacally to awake from stolid repose the wraiths of the slaughtered, laughing to rouse all the neighbors, cackling to send all sputtering in terror below their beds. It was the heart-beat of the universe, the pulse of what’s left when personality and identity have been shattered altogether, when one realizes that all that separates a man from a woman is the flesh between them.

So they went, no corner of the old house undisturbed, until they came finally to rest before the grand mirror, his late wife’s only vanity, astride the now-unused walk-in closet, still holding silent vigil to his wife’s now dusty, moth-bitten articles, which he had long had not the heart to dispose of. A different man altogether stared blankly back at him. “But no, that’s not quite it,” he thought, he knew; the man was altogether familiar, very familiar. His cheeks no longer cracked, his eyes no longer dark and sunken, his old muscles renewed, reinvigorated with the potency of excellent and manly youth. He paused instantly and frantic he drew up close to the mirror, thinking himself mad, and drew his fingers along what should have been the long familiar lines of his face, finding only supple, smooth flesh.

“Do my eyes deceive me? Have I gone mad? No, no, or would my other senses deceive me also? How in the world—?”

His gaze snapped back to Ms. Other as she addressed him sharply, “Do you find it displeasing, Mr. Mieszko? I mean, I confess to being a lady myself, sinful as that is.”

“But how? I mean, is this really my face? Are these limbs truly mine? Or have I run wild, and am I thrashing about in my dreams?”

“Consider it a gift and spurn it not,” she commanded pointedly. “Besides, you have more important things to concern yourself with.”

He gazed at her silent, quizzically, and finally her ungentle eyes flashed bright. “Remain here, and get used to yourself again, while I return shortly.” She left, to god knows where, but her voice remained as if she were still right by his side. “Did I ever tell you why I sell makeup? I mean, you must have wondered. Others may purchase such items purely out of vanity, fearing the loss of their once man-devastating charms, but that’s not truly what it’s about. Makeup, ultimately, is about respect, one’s esteem among one’s peer, one’s public image—a glimmering shard of glory: dignity. And dignity is a thing today in short supply. I mean, is this truly the world that little Jan died for? No no? I didn’t think so. Things are simply too good; people have had it too easy. Too little misery makes the heart grow contemptuous and self-consuming. It’s essential, you know, to suffer the natural agonies of life.”

She returned in a flash, his old military dress in hand, without missing a beat. “What fine apparel, if I do say so myself. Truly, the fashions of yesteryear put the contemporary to shame. I’m sure you remember this, captain.” She drew the articles up to the mirror, beside the still-stunned Pole. ‘My my, looks like a perfect fit. You certainly have taken good care of yourself. Not many could say that, certainly not these days.”

In another flash, the captain was suddenly outfitted in his ancient regalia, a fine specimen of a man. “See what I said, darling? A beautiful fit. Could not have been better. If only my sisters could be here to witness this; we’ve not seen such in… well… a very long time.. Now come, stride about the room and remember what it was like to be respected. Besides, I like a good show.”

In a strange sort of hypnotic state, he performed exactly as requested and recollected himself, somehow sat at the kitchen table opposite Ms. Other, who had now opened her expensive brief-case, as she fumbled about, with his view naturally obstructed by the upturned cover, within its contents. Her countenance a-flame and abundant, with a cruel grin she produced a revolver, but as if that wasn’t enough, she similarly produced a Thompson Submachine Gun, impossibly large for her moderate briefcase. Just like his service weapons, he wondered, as he instinctively grasped the weight of the items, and recognized the familiar markings. But they weren’t merely the same model; they were indeed his service weapons, somehow preserved in perfect condition against the corrupting depredations of time and rescued from the wanton cruelty of a steamroller. Without prodding, he immediately took up the familiar handgun, examining the cylinder, staring down the sights, and running his thumb along the hammer.

Now more officiously, Ms. Other recommenced her colloquium. “Now you know what to do, most assuredly? You can feel it in your bones; you’ve always known it. Give them a bit of misery, before their hearts eat themselves whole. I’m sure you already know whom. I’m sure you already know how.”

He had several stops to make, several errands to run, before he could call it a day, before he could again relax in his much-abused recliner and again observe the endless pall of precipitation battering the thick glass of his little country cottage robbed of its little country. “Captain,” he had taken to calling himself, to remember who he once was; in his field uniform, the drab of his fatigues, he marched into the corner pub.

A lot of people forget that the term “pub” which is used interchangeably with the word “bar,” in the US is actually short for public house, for a number of reasons actually. In the old days, the public house was the general meeting place for virtually all the male exponents of the village—some of the female constituents as well, depending upon their perception of feminine virtue. And this practice hasn’t gone out of fashion, even in the Britain of the 20th and 21st Centuries. At lunch and most definitely in the evening, you can well expect anyone who’s anyone, who doesn’t have enough self-respect to make something of himself, to have his ass firmly planted as if by divine proclamation upon the bar-stool complaining about the very same weather and the very same rugby or cricket dimly illustrated upon an ancient television illuminating the tobacco-stained hardwood of the antediluvian edifice.

Nothing but the ever-present cheering of the rugby match could be heard; the roar and guffawing of inbred trash had been rapidly silenced, as the blood-stained eyes of all came to rest upon the living anachronism standing—appraising—within the borders of the establishment’s only doorway, ever since the owner had boarded up the rear to reduce the incidence of early-morning robbery. The sub-machine gun was plain as day in his hands, and the revolver was situated nearby in a thigh-holster. He could recognize several of his assailants, those that had bruised, battered, and fractured his ribs; those that had broken his jaw and beaten his face beyond recognition; those that had dragged him from his home in self-righteous frenzy for the crime of defending himself and his homestead against teenage invaders who had the unmitigated gall to go home and label him a pedophile. It was a miracle he had survived. He recognized these people, but they didn’t recognize him; if they could catch the familiar lines of his powerful brow and realize them the same as the battered man in the tiny cottage, perhaps they would have leaped for the windows, whatever they could manage. But they were drunk and easy to deal with.

He leveled his weapon, which began to spit forth with the venomous lick of surging fire at four-hundred-and-fifty rounds per minute, forty-five caliber rounds. He felt the familiar kick of the weapon, its poorly mitigated recoil—it was not an elegant weapon—with bitter nostalgia, as round after round tore the occupied seats, nailed-down stools, and the hardwood table itself to warm, fluttering splinters. All was silent, save for the panicked and dazed screaming of the damned, for a few seconds as he ejected the spent magazine and loaded a fresh one. It sounded like songbirds. He then recommenced firing until there was naught but an audible click, until there was no more movement but the slick trickle, sputter, and surge of sanguine ooze from uncountable gaping holes in trembling flesh marked very shortly for death, as the final crypt-guardian garbed and invisible amidst a pall of shadow covered the eyes of all in endless night of no awaking.

The remainder of the night passed in the daze of divine ambrosia, singing and dancing far and wide as he went from home to guilty home to hurry to death those that had, in mighty displeasure, been absent his crimson song, until the rain-gutters were choked with still-warm ichor and a state of emergency had to be declared. Relative innocents even, begging for mercy, he slew these execution style—a single merciful bullet to the head—and then their homes to burn with any survivors locked within.

He couldn’t remember much of the evening beyond that, but he was eventually captured by the authorities, though not without casualties, unsurprising with a largely disarmed police force.

His trial was straightforward in most respects but one; he could not be who he said he was, but he could not have been anyone else either. There was no disputation of his guilt, but he remained more or less a “John Doe,” and something straight out of a fairy-tale concocted in the twisted mind of the asylum-bound.

It was at the time of his sentencing, in the rather crowded chambers the British pretend to be the appendages of law, that came the strange conclusion to this lurid tale. The killer, when asked whether or not he had anything to say for himself before the judge handed down his sentence, seemed to acknowledge with a nod in the affirmative, rising from his seat with the practiced air of an old-world aristocrat eager with noble callousness to wax poetic before the axeman. He had a grave expression, and his eyes met the gaze of the judge. He slowly whirled round, to address the agents of the court, the jurors, and the rows of the observers thickly seated with the news media. He took a deep, measured breath and began, “IT’S SHOW TIME!”

Before raw confusion could afflict the countenance of all present, the lights went instantly black; even the bars of sunlight scattering through the shades were dimmed and dull as if the great orb had been suddenly and completely consumed by the void of the sky itself, forever and ever to be as black as the great distance between midnight candles. Panic immediately set in; the agents of the court and the civilians all in general presumed, with good reason, that previously unforeseen confederates had come to spring their wayward son from the iron claws of lawful punishment; the shrill cries of women soared high and above the rest, ironically resembling the piercing announcement of a predatory bird in his hour of hunting.

But above this demoniac cacophony, barely audibly at first but with increasing decibels and vigor, was a circus march that eventually drowned out the futile calls of terror and woe with dry-your-eyes anticipation.

In the middle floor, a spot-light of no determinate source illuminated a young woman, fire-haired, whose emerald eyes swam in the unspeakable depths of her labyrinthine gaze. Dressed she was as a walking anachronism from another time, as if come as a door-to-door vendor of makeup and toiletries. “May I announce,” she began, as all eyes steadied upon her utterly bewitched, “the world-famous magician and mystifier, a man from a land far far to the east, a skirt-chaser and a heart-breaker, the fabulous Miezsckoslaw the Magnificent!”

Appearing from behind an impossible curtain, and illustrated in the whitest light of a second spot-light, the captain appeared, garbed nevertheless in his military fatigues and bearing a curved blade of cruel manufacture.

“And for the Magnficent’s first and final trick,” she continued unabated, “Miezsckoslaw shall gift this kangaroo court with an illusion that shall confuse and mystify for generations to come! The Magnificent shall make disappear the HEAD of the very noble presiding judge himself!”

The captain promptly disappeared into the very emptiness, as the spotlight migrated to the judge with stricken visage upon his chair, visibly gagged and bound upon its leather exterior, able to do no more than beckon rescue with his screaming, protesting eyes.

“On the count of three now! And a one!” The audience began to swoon with the bloodthirsty enthusiasm. “And a two!” People, hidden in the dark were falling forth from the their seats, fanning themselves as if afflicted with summer sickness. “And a three!” she screamed, cackling as she howled through the window into the darkened light of the stolen day-star. All was consumed again in darkness, and a narrow spotlight fixed upon the wooden sound of something misshapen rolling on the floor.

The news wasn’t slow for months. A manhunt ensued, but they never did catch the “Circus-Court Killer,” who was thereafter for years identified fleeing the scene of numerous robberies and murders driving a surplus army jeep with a flame-haired woman riding shotgun.