It had been a relatively calm evening in the station until that moment. The day shift had drawn to a close, and the night shift had not yet begun, so I was alone on duty. If it were not for the portly, old figure of Nick the desk sergeant, I would have been the only soul in the station. Despite his plentiful figure and round, jolly features, he rarely offered good company and I found myself wishing that Scratch or Black Donald were about. Likely, roguish lads though they were, at least I could have played cards with them. Neither Nick or I were taken of a wife or father to what follows, which I cynically fancied was why we found ourselves called upon where other officers were not.
It was almost at that moment that the child made his appearance known to us, the door of the station slamming open and the door-bell swinging wildly to and fro with the force of it. A wiry lad in ragged short trousers and thin, threadbare shirt, he danced before Nick's desk as though possessed, his hands pumping against it, having to jump to be seen over the counter-top. His face was black with dirt and soot, and if he owned a cap to keep his lanky blond curls in order, it was forgotten somewhere in his haste.
“Please sir, I 'ave information!” The boy squealed, but Nick took only the most cursory glance at him beneath bushy eyebrows. Having no children himself, his irritation at being reminded of their existence was evident. Nevertheless, he took a statement from the stricken child while all kindness fell to my own person; It was all I could do to offer him a nip of brandy to keep out the evening chill. The questioning went on for some time, during which the boy continued to hop nervously. He eventually told us of an altercation at the Crossroads pub on Milton Terrace, after taking pains to tell us that he was only about to see his mother, who worked therein as a pot-washer. This drew the only smile I'd seen all day from Nick, a wry grimace at best. Many of the local children used this excuse to cover for their sly thievery, neglecting to add that they always left the pub with a stray watch or money-purse. Satisfied that we'd swallowed his sharp deception, we finally managed to glean some details, such as they seemed to be.
It appeared that one patron had been struck by another man over some meaningless matter with a cane-blow so wicked that it cracked his head. The boy wept as he relayed his tale to us both, and I offered him the rest of my flask to calm him, which he accepted gladly before continuing.
“'It 'appened so fast, sir, that I could 'ardly even make it out meself. The one man, well-dressed, 'e was, turned to the other and just... lashed at 'im. It were so vicious that 'e fell dead on the spot!” There was nothing overly strange about this. The Crossroads was well-known as the sort of place a man might lose his life to the sore loser of a dice-game, even if a policeman were two strides away. I would not have given it another thought, and let the child keep the rest of the flask as reward for his community, had he not continued.
“But 'e never run, sir! Did nuffin but turn and look at me as though I were the only child 'e'd ever seen, and 'e says: Go fetch a policeman. Just like that sir, I swear: Go fetch a policeman, 'e said! So I came as quick as I could 'ere, if you please, sir!”
The boy, willing to say nothing else, allowed himself to be guided to a bench by the desk-sergeant, to be tended to as softly as the limits of his slender patience would allow. I was little satisfied with my own lot, the sole Constable on duty due to a combination of the change in shifts and the breakout of a church fire on Georgia Avenue, but there was really was nothing for it but take up my truncheon and handcuffs and make my way to the Crossroads.
I arrived expecting chaos, but found instead the pub deserted. An uneasy calm settled over me as I crossed the threshold; not the calm of serenity but the ill-at-ease that follows a storm. All around me were upturned tables and smashed ale-pots, and beside them lay the patrons of the doomed establishment, their faces blind with terror and their bodies twisted and broken out of all natural shape as though tossed and buffeted about by the crude whims of a hurricane. Glassy eyes stared up at me all at once, and I must confess that duty was not foremost in my mind. I wanted to quit the place at once and a keen, roaring sickness in the pit of my stomach urged me expel myself on the spot in a way that I had not done since my time as a young soldier. I believe I would indeed have fled that terrible place had I not then cast my eyes on the only living soul in the room. I had not seen him on entering, but now that I had beheld the figure, it was incredible that I could not have seen him earlier. He stood as tall as I was, but his heft of frame was grotesque, belly bulging from the waistband of his immaculate evening dress and chins screaming to escape his collar. Perhaps it was the rising sickness, or the stark horror of my situation, but I fancied darkly that every terrified corpse was looking directly at him.
“The rapidity of the local constabulary is to be commended, Constable,” the figure spoke, after what seemed like a lifetime. His voice was cold and dark, with a slick quality to it. In my feverish state, I could liken it to no more than a great gaping expanse of tar, slowly drawing some unfortunate prehistoric beast into its swelling depths. “I regret that you had to witness such a spectacle, but there was really nothing for it.”
To my shame, I had been stricken to stillness by the sight around me and the incongruous appearance of this mysterious gentleman, his monstrously-oversized form clad in delicate and pristine dinner attire. When the sense came to me to move, I took a few halting steps forward toward him, my dignity as an officer finally overwhelming my fear, and he made no effort to flee, instead holding up his massive forearms before him in surrender.
I wasted no time, whipping the handcuffs curtly from my belt as I advanced to apprehend him. Duty took precedence over passion, and the cold steel of the shackles was reassuring. I was not myself in that moment, but an officer of the law, and there was no room in me left for exhaustion of panic. He made no move to stop me, but gurgled with laughter as the bonds refused to close around his bulk. Try as I might, force as I might, they simply refused to latch around him, to which he responded with a thick, gurgling laugh. His belly ebbed and rolled like the shores of some long-forgotten coast.
“I suppose it is true, as the scholars say, 'Pede poena claudo'. But I suppose Seneca is also correct: 'Qui multum habet, plus cupit'.” Another mirthful rolling of that obscene girth.
“I am not a scholar, sir,” I responded, understanding little that he said, but with a primal caution for the manner in which he spoke. “But I will exercise my duty all the same.”
“It is a shame that it should come to such,” he continued, watching me with amusement, "I only came here to the Crossroads this evening to await an old friend whom I have not seen in a very long time. I have something of his that I am compelled to return.”
There was something sickening about him, unconnected to physical form, though that appalled me enough. I was close enough now to feel the hot stench of his breath, the memory of gin and cigar-fug that consumed his presence, and upon his face the telltale blister-pocks and patches of disease that screamed of an unworthy life unworthily lived, but the greater offence lay in matters unseen. I fancied I recognised in him the stripe that ran through all degenerates from the most modern corrupt politician to the most ancient profligate emperors. He seemed to notice this growing hatred somehow, and pulled away sharply from me with a speed I would not have countenanced in a man his size. As I raised my truncheon in reflex, he pressed himself against the blood-smeared back wall, and my attention was drawn for a moment, to the door of the establishment, which slammed closed, the latch pulling closed before my eyes.
“Η καλύτερη άμυνα είναι η επίθεση, as Erasmus would state it. But I assure you, I mean you no harm. Besides which, you are no doubt bound to await further of your colleagues, who will come momentarily, and in force. There is nothing left to do—” At which he hauled himself down, oozing his bloat down onto one of the larger chairs, “but to settle, and to abide by the last tale of a man who is sure to hang for the ills he has wrought.”
At that moment, and in my shame, I was beside myself with dread, and sought nothing but escape. The door did not yield to me, as though some unnatural force held it barred against my attempt. The lock would not budge to my fingers, stiffened as though by years of decay under the gore of the unfortunate patrons, and my fingers, slick with blood, worried at the latch. Even my own truncheon blows did not loosen it, nor splinter the wood which would normally have caved with such pressure. Looking down upon my trembling, bloodstained fingers, I had not felt so helpless since those long-forgotten days in Egypt, when as a boy soldier I wept in the sand while all others of my regiment bled their last upon it. Eventually, I would be quelled from my terror by no greater comfort than a lack of options. I half-crawled to the nearest of the barstools, crumpling into it as he watched with satisfaction.
“There's a good chap,” he rumbled, with a mock-comforting smile. Short, fat fingers worked to snip the end of a cigar, and as he lit it, I could almost see the shadow of other, far older features passing over his in the flame. “Just sit there and listen. There really is nothing for it.”
“It is with the keen eyes of an officer of the law that you look upon me now, and what you no doubt see is a man of great means gained through little effort.” The stranger began waving his cigar with the conciliatory air of a great American statesman, “but that could not be further from the truth. I am hardly of modest beginnings, but in my younger days, that is to say truly ab incunabulis, there was none more zealous and righteous than myself in executions of my father's will. I was one of many sons, and was the favoured child among them for some years until the outcome of some minor disagreement shoved aside my faithful service. Of course, among my brothers there were those who agreed with me, and as many more who would not transgress the old man, even though they knew that I was right. What once was a life of good and faithful service turned sharply—” His features twisted through the haze of smoke, and the teeth that bared for a fraction of a second caused the Constable to quake once more. The words that followed were spat rather than spoken; laced with loathing. He felt the abyss burbling out, oily tendrils feeling blindly in his direction. “—into no more than the crude setting of a penny operetta.”
He took some moments to regain his composure, sore-blighted lips sucking at the cigar in reverie.
“That sorry era over, I was left with only the solace of my brothers; though a tawdry and complaining lot they turned out to be, they had become my whole world, and all that was left of my kin. I still, however, had other riches, and soon found myself in the company of men young and old who knew of my ill relation with father. As it turned out, the old one had many enemies, and there were those who would quite happily pay a literal king's ransom just to share my company for the evening. An enterprising fellow among the right persons might gain much renown, you know, and I have never been one to deny that. Over the years, I have traded quite well upon my name and talents. Oh, yes. Quite well, indeed.” He paused for a moment, ignoring the Constable to survey with pride the wreckage of the Crossroads. There was a tall, well-built red-head under the wreckage of the barstool that had caved in her ribs. She reminded him very much of a girl he had known in his distant past. Tall and fiery, her daughters had apparently been seized and enjoyed by the greedy invaders from across the seas. She had offered anything to get revenge, and he was happy to take it. His attention turned back to the hapless bobby, with his warmest smile; a leering grin that chilled the Constable to his very core.
“Soon enough, word had spread that the firstborn was able and willing to please where the father was not and, if you'll forgive me for discussing such tiresome matters, business boomed while the old man's dried up almost completely. From far and wide they sought my guidance, my counsel and favours, and in return I grew richer than the very best of them. I have a knack, you see. An old charm for discerning what people need, and the power to give them what they want the most. I do so hate to speak in self-praise—" He chuckled, giving rather the opposite impression, “—but I am the best at what I do. There are none better. However, I am well aware that I do go on, and you are not here to hear me pontificate on past glories, or to chew over long-established accomplishment. None of you are.” His gaze burned across the room from deep-set eyes beneath hooded lids, and the Constable was seized with the sudden understanding that the stranger was not speaking to him alone. He fancied again that he saw movement in the lifeless, twitches of the mouth in one, a sick cracking of the neck in another. He placed his hands on the arm of the chair, grasping tightly at the wood.
“It was twelve years ago that I met my friend, the man I sought here tonight. He fancied, in his own arrogant way, his predicament similar to mine. A grand fortune with no direction is no fortune at all, and for all his money and breeding, he was powerless in the world. He was raised in the company of lords, so naturally as he grew rebellious, his tastes dragged him to the lice-riddled beds of tarts and painted boys. No, not for him the Mēdèn ágan of Apollo. He had none of the natural barriers that might force a man respectable, he told me. As a second son, he was no heir. He quite rightfully scorned the skin-deep piety of the priesthood. There was clearly no room for him in the costumed service of the crown. Rather, cleverly-hidden opium dens with cleverly-hidden blood-spatters upon the cushions became his home, and the small, vicious cunts of small vicious whores became his family. It is a sad tale, indeed.” He laughed again, without restraint, ripples of humour threatening to burst the buttons of his dress shirt.
“Until one night, he chanced upon an accident. An accident waiting to happen, one might say. He was not a good customer, moving from whorehouse to whorehouse, brothel to brothel, sickening even the most callous of pimps with the wounds he would leave on their property. Until one day, he took a noose to the throat of a boy that dared defy him. Flog him, he would. String him up by the neck like a piece of game and cut his wrath into supple young flesh. The boy tried to flee, poor little fool, and my good friend struggled to subdue him, tugging hard at his leash until the whore ceased his clamour. He soon found himself with a broken-necked youth and a lot of explaining to do to a very irate brothel-master who'd had his fill. The pimp had screamed himself livid over the loss of his finest attraction, and an ugly brawl would have broken out, had my friend not shot a ragged hole through the chest of the red-faced flesh-merchant. A passing policeman heard the shot, and he too ended up with a disagreeably-large shot-wound to the throat. My friend, never one to count on in a crisis, hid the bodies as best he could under the bed, and locked the door, his fingers slick with blood as he worried at the latch. In his next few moments of agonised sanctuary, he sought me out. Of course, I had to answer. He was, after all, one of my dear friends.”
“And do you know? I almost pitied him.” The mysterious stranger jabbed out the last dying ruins of his cigar in the shards of an ale-glass before lighting another. To the Constable, who had fallen into an almost catatonic state of stillness, it almost seemed as though he produced no match to create the flame.
“Indeed, when he told me of all that had transpired, being as brutally honest as only the truly guilty can, I knew it was my duty to help him. He told me of his wasted youth, his squandered adolescence and his derelict adulthood. He told me that the fates had conspired against him to furnish him with all the very best that life had to offer, only to make his fall all the more entertaining. You know, I was almost reminded of my father. So, I did what I do best, and I began to negotiate. I offered him another cast of the dice. Another chance at the Great Game. I told him that I could take his place, make it all vanish and place him in another identity altogether, far from the tiny, squalid orgies and far from the momentary bliss of a heaven delivered directly to the vein. He begged me then, fell to his knees, clutched at my calves in supplication. Anything, he cried. Anything I wanted. When I told him I wanted nothing, that he was my friend already, why, he could have flooded the Earth with his tears, I believe. Still, if only he had known, as many do not, the maxims of Syrus: Beneficium accipere libertatem est vendere.”
“It was with a heavy heart that I informed him that his reprieve would be but temporary, and came with certain limitations. He would hardly find himself charmed. I owed him no more service than this. There would be no marriage, I told him. Simply a legal nicety. And in twelve years I would come to him in his own form, where he would resume his life and his persona, free from the impending threat of a hangman's drop. Wherever he was then, I would be. He cried out again, praising me as a guardian and offering his fortune if I should make good on my word, which I once again declined, my hand upon his shoulder. It would, after all, be a simple matter. These situations are not uncommon in my line of work, and there are many who find themselves similarly burdened. I am quite capable of plying my trade anywhere, from quaint little crossroads like this to the bedside of plague-stricken Borneo and the incensed palaces of Oriental kings. For one such as me, it would be a simple matter to transport him. And I had in mind just the man.” The Stranger grinned, like a great fat parasite, gorged on blood. The Constable began to tremor, his eyes widening as comprehension began to dawn, shifting the treacle-thick fog from his mind.
“A young lad in the Queen's own service, soon to be a great friend of mine. Alone and afraid, in a spot of bother, somewhere in the sands of Egypt.”
At the moment, the Constable pulled stiffly from his seat, and a crescendo of noise erupted from just behind the door, the hammering upon the wood and the hue and cry that could only have signaled the arrival of the Police's night shift. The Constable's eyes streamed with tears as memories broke against his mind, engulfing him. He remembered at once the boy who had scrambled to loose himself from his own choking grip over a decade ago. The pistol shot as it rang out, his own pistol-shot, exploding in blood. The whirling, tumbling sensation of vertigo that he felt as he woke from his bargain on the baking sands of his Egyptian battleground. He looked down finally to see himself in the corpulent form of the man he had come here to arrest. Returned to the body he had so long ago traded away.
A crash of whistles, and the door finally caved, another policeman armed with pistol and truncheon surging in through the splintered wood. The Constable let out a quick and sudden cry of terror, pointing at the Stranger's figure, no longer quite so strange as he tried in vain to haul his vast expanse bodily from the chair. He remembered everything now, everything that he had done, but try as he might, he could not lift himself. One of the policemen, a Sergeant named Johnny, levelled his pistol at him, and he could only raise his feeble, meat-clad arms in response. He could not hear what the Constable said to him over the pounding of his heart, but he saw the look of hatred in the Sergeant's eyes as he surveyed the room, taking in the macabre display. Once more he tried to raise, this time managing to shamble the heft of his frame forward a few steps. The Constable shouted once more, and the quick crack of pistol-fire brought his now-bloated body crashing down among the debris, blood staining the front of his dress-shirt.
Unable to move, he could only watch as the stranger, clad in his own borrowed guise, shook his head, aghast, rounding on the Sergeant.
“No!” He cried, in feigned distress. “Don't you know who that is?” The Sergeant, now cooled from the folly of his passions, knelt and turned him over with no small amount of struggle. As the truth dawned on him, his features sagged. The Constable was behind him now, a hand on his shoulder. The Sergeant knew who he was. The powerful son of a powerful man. The assembled dead might have been evidence to any other family, but with the help of solicitors and control of high-court barristers, the rich could easily discount the circumstance of a few dead wastrels. He looked up into the Constable's eyes, wordlessly, and in his anguish, he fancied that he saw something else.
“You're a dear friend, Sergeant,” said the Constable, in a tone that reminded him of nothing more than the hopeless dark of an ancient ocean. “I think I might be able to help.”