he moon’s bulbous face glared at the scurrying masses in the streets, those hurrying home and those waiting for them. Brash electric lights sneered upward, backhanded praise to the watchmen’s lantern above.

They shouted, we are now and can do without, we are here the month throughout.

I am eternal, I am primal, I speak to more than just the fear of the dark, came the answer.

Their battle rages on.

My battle with my sheets, however, is over. Too light to sleep. I step outside into my courtyard, silvery-blue light casts deep shadows that feel out of place at night.

The cool air on my skin like the touch of a youthful mistress whose name I’ve long since forgotten. Whispering in my ears the things she would do if only I would linger, shower her with more trinkets.

My cigarette burns a deep orange with every breath. A single red bead in the blue-black landscape. The shadows lean inward, rooted with their mirrored limbs in dank sod and musty pots.

A single deep red bead glows, I flick ash across the way toward the large central oak tree. Two more red beads of light blink and stare at me. Cool air turns to ice in my belly.

“You are not permitted entry Messenger,” I cast the words as if a spell of warding.

“Enter your home?” said the demon, it makes a sound like grinding stones.

Is it laughing?

“Your shrine to greed does not concern me,” the voice grated on primal nerves of flight.

“Your life, for now, is yours too keep. I am here to speak terms, ” it reeked of dry bones and dust.

Ash, not dust.

“I still have time.”

“But, our patience withers.”

“Soon, I will have something for you soon.”

“Not for me.”

“Yes.”

“Indeed. My … employer seeks what you promised, and holds your collateral until it is delivered.”

“Nothing’s changed about the terms.”

“Nor will they. But the phases of the moon do pass and the gears of the world grind upon the lives of men. Do not tarry, do not fail.”

“I won’t.”

A single bead of red flares and fades on cold damp paving.

Only one. Only one. Only oneOnly me.

My hands tremble and shake, my bowels untwist, and as the thumping pulse in my ears recede the present returns and I can move again. The bolted door and drawn curtains hide the pale moonlight and the final dawn it whispers of. As I dress, time’s passage beats a staccato against my rib cage. That beast of brimstone has murdered sleep.

I can’t sleep now, my time is running out.

Fresh stinking rain stings my eyes as I step out into the night, door slamming, coat drawn close.

I must keep searching.

Hours later the flickering green sign of an all-night bar catches my attention, the melancholy siren song within pulls me inside. The press of bodies inside mix warmth and odor in a heady mix.

Two men stumble out, arm in arm, slurring through a bawdy sailor’s song. A breath later another lean fellow follows them out. She doesn’t falter, doesn’t flinch, her eyes glide over the men and their shadow and she moves on.

Scanning across the crowd. She pauses on me for a moment, out of place and too refined. A half-smile and she continues searching, singing, and leading us all on.

Perhaps this one.

I purchase drinks for us both, expensive spirits I’m surprised to find. A thin slip of a girl, underaged for sure, delivers hers. A whisper and a gesture direct her gaze back towards me. I smile and raise my glass.

Simply a rich patron.

A full smile this time, a raised glass, but that smile does not reach her eyes. Still, they search for another. I look to the doors, nothing, no one yet. I settle in to listen and wait.

One by one empty wallets wander out, sneak thieves and pickpockets too, even the wicked need rest. More than once I feel for the cold metal baton in my jacket pocket, a crude but effective deterrent.

“Thank you,” she says at the end.

A handful of applause, mine a touch too loud a little too earnest.

A rich eager patron.

She sighs as I approach. Turning to the barkeep she demands her pay. Rumpled notes are slammed on the bar. The barkeep's meaty hand removes one note. A debt perhaps? She curses and turns away into my path.

“I can’t, I need to be anywhere else,” she said hands up.

“I heard you sing.”

“You don’t say.”

“I can help you.”

“Sure, you can.”

“My employer is very connected.”

She pushes past and out the door into the green flickering light. She looks back then lets the door close. Was that hope? I hurry after her.

“Him,” she says.

Him?

“The lady would like you to take a hike,” I feel the voice more than hear it, a deep chesty vibration. Iron hands grab my shoulders and lurch me into a shadow.

“I just wanted to talk.”

“Talk to me.”

“You don’t understand, I have an offer for her.”

“Sure thing Bub. Tell the girls two streets over.”

“It’s not that sort of offer.”

“Listen, last chance, find somewhere else to be.”

She stood in the shadows watching near the opening of the alley. I caught her eyes and she looked away. Turned away, like she couldn’t watch. Couldn’t watch what? The threat of violence solidifies and I turn in time to see —

I’m wet through.

I hurt all over and I cough and vomit up the filthy rain into the trash heap I’m lying in. When I climb out of the dumpster my whole body aches. The sky was now a lurid mottled pink, city lights and sunlight fighting with the heavy clouds.

The back door was locked and she, of course, was nowhere to be seen. I slump down to the ground, my headrests in my hands as one thought floods in alongside my tears.

Hours left. I have hours left at most.


First published in Microcosm