Part One - The Discovery
Maybe it was the strange chill that came over him that morning, or maybe it was the fact that he would be spending most of the day in the Vault... with Johnny. Whatever the reason, Jack Marshak felt a distinct sense of dread as he sat at the kitchen table, sipping his coffee as his stomach rumbled disapprovingly. These feelings were rare and usually mild, but today seemed different, as if there were a storm on the horizon of his mind, just beyond his perception. He grunted almist inaudibly at the thought of storms; the last time one had rolled through Chicago, Lewis had attempted to return to life by possessing Micki and trying to kill the transformed Ryan Dallion. They had been very lucky that night...
Most of them, anyway. Jack and Johnny's wounds were healing, nothing more than annoyances now... but Micki slept very little, the nightmares of what her body had done still fresh in her mind. She put up a brave face and tried to go on, but Jack could see that it would take her a very long time to recover, if ever she was able to. The rings he saw around her eyes were very dark, and her normally perfect hair was coming unraveled from the simple ponytail she had put it in; she held onto her cup of strong black coffee like as if it were her only hope of survival. They did not speak like they used to at breakfast, but Jack was unwilling to push things right now.
It might have made things even worse.
The door chimes rang and a few seconds later, Johnny's plodding footsteps could be heard coming up the stairs toward the kitchen, along with the crinkling sound of plastic sacks. Johnny, hair held high and flannel shirt in place, set his three bags down on the table and got a cup of coffee. After a few minutes, Micki excused herself and went into the bathroom for the third time that morning, giving Johnny the chance to turn to Jack and ask his usual question: "How is she today?"
And Jack replied with much the same answer he always did: "Oh, the same, I guess. I think it's going to be a very long time before she gets over what happened that night."
Johnny nodded once and sipped at his cup. "I got the rest of the stuff; nails, more wood, another hammer. We should have the Vault fixed up today or tomorrow."
"Good; then we can get Rashid over here to help me cast the new protection spells none too soon." Jack sipped at the strong brew that he seldom allowed himself to drink for fear of upsetting his ancient ulcer. "Then Lewis will have one hell of a time trying to get out again."
Micki opened the bathroom door, wiping at one corner of her mouth as she wordlessly walked into her bedroom and closed the doors. Johnny and Jack listlessly picked at their small breakfasts, waiting until Micki came back to the table before heading off downstairs, carrying the heavy paper sacks to where their contents would be put to use - down in the Vault. Johnny made several trips out to the truck he had borrowed from his cousin, hauling in loads of boards and plywood, nails and screws and varnish, all loaded on the rickety elevator and slowly lowered down to the basement, where Jack moved them near the Vault doors. Lewis' return had done a great deal of damage, as had Jack's and Johnny's efforts to escape; there were large cracks in the stone walls, and there was still a gaping space in the ceiling where Johnny had simply replaced the floorboards from the space above. Of course, the concrete slabs containing the protection spells had been repaired almost immediately and they had picked up the objects and placed them back onto the shelves, but neither man had summoned up the drive to actually stay in the Vault or Temple for any length of time to fix the other damage.
Micki stayed outside of the iron doors, handing Jack and Johnny tools or other items when they called for them. As he raised the hammer to drive another nail into the ceiling he was replacing, Johnny was momentarily bitter about the way things were turning out. It's not supposed to be this way, he thought as he dropped the hammer again. We're the good guys, we're doing what's right. It's not supposed to turn out like this.
But, as he had learned over his time at Curious Goods, what is supposed to happen is usually not what comes to pass.
Johnny raised the hammer again but momentarily lost his concentration; swinging forward, he missed the nail and momentum brought the hammer into contact with the stone surface of one of the arches that lined the sides of the Vault... where, instead of glancing off, it sank in nearly half an inch. Carefully, Johnny removed the tool and looked at the hole he had made, running his fingers experimentally over the space where solid stone should have been. "Jack?" he called out. "Could you come over here for a minute?"
The older man had been talking quietly with Micki, but was standing at Johnny's side in a few moments. "What is it?"
"What do you think that is?" Johnny said, pointing at the hole. Jack leaned closer and touched it, carefully running his hands over the crumbling edges.
"Maybe... maybe a hidden compartment. Lewis hid over a dozen all over the store; just look at the Temple." Jack started probing around the edges of the stone, pressing anything that might hide some sort of switch... and after a few minutes, a triumphant "Aha!" echoed in the Vault along with the brief sound of stone moving against stone. A section of the arch (with the hole in it) slid downward into the column, exposing a small chamber that contained several file folders and a small black leatherbound book.
Johnny looked at the items, a dubious expression on his face. "More stuff for the archives?"
"Anything that can help us find out how some of these curses work is welcome, don't you agree?" Jack pulled the items out and walked to the open Vault doors, where Micki was holding a work light as she organized the materials she was in charge of in the dim basement. He opened the folders first, briefly glancing through their contents; more newspaper clippings relating to the objects, mostly regarding things Lewis had listed near the end of the manifest. "These should come in handy," he said as he turned his attention to the book.
And then the feeling of dread returned in full force, almost physically assaulting his stomach, causing his knees to buckle. After a few seconds the churning in his stomach stopped, and Johnny was helping him back to his own feet. "Jack? You okay?"
"I'm fine. I just... just lost my balance for a second." Jack looked back at the book and turned away from his friends. "I'm fine," he repeated.
"Good, because it's lunchtime and you promised to buy." Johnny turned the brick and the Vault doors slid closed. Micki and Johnny walked up the steps quickly, but Jack lingered for a moment, the book clutched tightly in his hand as memories came racing back to him. You can have it, Jack. You can have whatever you desire, the voice told him, and he had believed it. Oh, how he had wanted to believe...
And he had said no. Somehow, he had summoned up the courage to resist the temptation and walked away from his closest friend. Lewis Vendredi.
He opened the book and gazed at the handwritten notes within, each bearing a date. The silver pen was still marking a place near the end of the book and Jack involuntarily read the words:
I am going to hide this journal now. Maybe someday someone will find it and understand what happened and the mistakes I have made. Maybe they'll even understand, and find a way to do it right.
I am afraid something terrible may happen.
Below the faded passage was a new line of script, written in Micki's elegant hand, that made Jack's blood run cold. It read:
I know what's in your heart, Jack. You're more like me than you remember... old friend.
Part Two - An Empty Room
March 13, 1965 - March 12, 1975
"I'm looking for a partner, Jack."
The words barely enter my consciousness as I wolf down the meal in front of me, the hot slab of meat loaf still gently steaming as I cut into it again. I haven't had a good meal in almost a month, not since I left to tour the Midwest with several other acts. It didn't pay well at all, but my name was first on the marquee (well, part of my name - The Mad Marshak) and any publicity is good publicity in show business. The tour was rushed and not particularly successful, but I got paid the same money and I'm damn sure going to enjoy some of it. I sigh to myself as I lower the fork onto the plate again; Lewis Vendredi, his brown hair falling haphazardly over his forehead like when we were kids on the South Side, looks so earnest, so desperate for me to agree, that I seriously consider it. I know Lewis has an antique store, and I know it's faring poorly, but I haven't ever seriously considered his offers of partnership before this moment.
Lewis may be my oldest friend, but he's not any sort of businessman (neither am I, for that matter); that's one of the many reasons why I've never accepted the many offers he's extended to me to help him run the store. God help me, I'm tempted, though, especially after a tour like this last one, full of half-interested audiences and over-the-hill acts that remind me of how much I don't ever want to get old... and of exactly how close I'm getting. So I figure, what the hell... "Okay," I finally mumble through a bite of baked potato. "Tell me about it."
"Well, Jack, I know the place is in a bad spot, and that nobody around wants to buy any antiques, but I really think that we can make it work."
"Make it work? Between us, we have maybe six months' worth of business experience. I haven't had any kind of normal job since right after the war, and your experience comes down to a less than spectacular career as a door-to-door vacuum salesman. Why on earth did you open an antique store in the first place, Lewis?"
"I don't know, Jack. It just... seemed right." Lewis sips at his glass of water. "Besides, business is already picking up. In a few months the store will be in the black, and then all we'll have to do is sit back and let the money roll in." He licks his lips, and in that moment I know he's hiding something from me and trying to figure out some way to break the news gently.
I've known him far too long to let him get away with beating around the bush and I tell him so. A small grin turns up the corner of his mouth and he replies, "You always could see right through me. I've got a plan, Jack, and if it works out right we'll never have to worry about working or money ever again. It'll work, Jack... just hear me out."
And so I sit and listen as my best friend speaks of magic and using it to help his business, just as his father-in-law was doing. I sit and listen as my food grows cold right along with my soul. I know about magic, probably more than my friend does; from my earliest memories my mother has told me about the power that nature holds and that only those in tune with it can manipulate, and I have used a little true magic for most of my adult life (mostly in my act). But what Lewis describes is a corruption of those forces, twisting them into performing in a way they were never meant to. His words are tempting, though, very tempting... and I'm almost hungry enough to agree, at least for the short term.
I open my mouth to say "I need some time to think about it," but no words emerge as a fist of fear lands in the pit of my stomach. Without knowing exactly why, I stand up, throw enough money on the table to cover our meals and the tip, and walk straight out the front door over my friend's startled protests. The midday air is cool and clear (for once), but I feel no better once I am out of the restaurant and walking down the crowded streets of Chicago. My mind is in a whirl as I duck past Chinese apothecaries and corner stores; I let my feet carry me, trying to figure out why I'm running away from my friend.
No answers have come as I open the door to Rashid's small shop, almost hidden in a narrow alleyway with just a small sign to advertise its presence. Like most of the time, the tiny two-room shop is empty; Rashid's customers generally know exactly what they need and Rashid is very quick at mixing the various ingredients into healing potions if they are not so knowledgable. Standing behind a narrow counter covered with glass vials and bottles, Rashid looks more like a soda jerk than an herbalist, a white apron draped over his ever-immaculate white shirt and black vest, a red fez perched at an angle atop his head. He smiles and says, "Hello, my friend. It has been some time." Before I can answer, though, his expression changes from welcoming to concerned. "Are you all right?"
"I... I'm not sure. I just... could I get some water? Maybe sit down for a few minutes?" I manage, resting my weight on the counter, all my strength suddenly flown away. Rashid ushers me into the tiny back room, where he tells me to lay down on the cot he calls home. This tiny store is his life; he works here all day and sleeps in this storeroom, among all the roots and leaves and other items he uses in his potions. It took him some time to scrape the capital together (real estate prices are outrageous here), but he's made a comfortable living for the past few years. At least he's done better than I have lately; the Mad Marshak can't pull them in like he used to. When I first started in show business back in 1946, stage acts were still a major form of entertainment, and most agents would give their left hand for a magic act, even if it was barely passable; the people just ate them up and loved every minute of it. But then television came along and for the past ten years I've had my once-burgeoning career chipped away, leaving me with a lot of good memories and friends but not much else to show for it, certainly not money. I've made ends meet by procuring items for Lewis and working at various odd jobs, but it's just money; I want to do something I love. I should be bitter, but times change... and I've learned to take the good with the bad.
Rashid brings back a small china cup filled with steaming liquid and I drink deeply, the scent of cloves hanging in my nostrils as my belly is warmed. I thank him and then lay back down as sleep overtakes me; I've learned many times that one should always sleep if offered the chance.
I can always tell Rashid about what happened later... but I don't, not for many years.
Some months afterward I think back on that day and wonder sincerely why I refused. There was nothing overtly wrong with Lewis' plans, nothing that could place either of us in danger had something gone awry, but something with tiny, dull teeth gnaws at the back of my mind as I sit across another table in another restaurant. This time, however, I am not with Lewis but with Grace, his wife of several years. I can see the dark rings around her eyes and know she has been sleeping poorly, even though she denies it... just as she denies that Lewis has forbade her to see me. Our meals arrive and we eat while exchanging small talk, but suddenly I lose my concentration as my eyes catch the white flash of a gauze bandage covering her left wrist. She notices my stare and her cheeks flare a bright crimson as she hides her arm beneath the table, carefully glancing around ensure nobody else has seen it.
"I think you should tell me what's going on, Grace," I say as I lay down my fork and look into her green eyes. Years ago, I had the chance to look into those eyes every morning for the rest of my life... but I had my choice of ladies, and Lewis was always so alone. I introduced them at a party one night, and they fell in love and were married soon after... and despite a nagging sense of misplaced jealousy, I have been happy for them, even after the falling out with my old friend. Until now.
After a time she says to me, "I think I'm in over my head."
"How so?" I reply, pushing my half-eaten meal away, my appetite suddenly gone. And she tells me what she's seen and heard in the store, the horrible smells that issue from the basement where Lewis has forbidden her to go, the strange people coming and going at all hours of the night. She tells me of the haggard man she lives with now, and of how she is afraid of letting him touch her, as if his corruption will somehow spread to her like a disease. She almost bursts into tears right there at the table, and I take her hand in a gesture of friendship, to let her know that I am there to support her. She smiles a little and we leave a few minutes later; I get her a taxi and pay for the trip back to the country house.
As I stand on the street corner watching the taxicab fade into the darkness, a strange cold dread grips me; in my mind I see Grace lying on a cobweb-shrouded canopy bed and I am standing over her, my hair gone gray... and I know that I will never see her again. And yet some part of me is relieved, even happy, that I refused to become his partner, even though I might have been able to prevent this if I had.
A month later Grace is lowered into the earth, the hardwood coffin too small to contain her life.
Years pass, and I do get older. It's not as bad as I had feared; there is a growing interest in the occult, and I've become something of a regional authority because of my extensive knowledge. I watch my son Peter grow into a fine young boy, watch as Sarah becomes more beautiful with each passing season, and I am sorry that we were unable to stay married; she's a good woman and I made a lot of mistakes during our brief marriage. I met her in 1959, when I was almost forty and she was still in her late twenties. Sarah was always more mature than I, I suppose, and I just couldn't settle down in one place without feeling like I was missing the world. She and Peter live in New York now, and I visit them often as I pass through; Peter is such a bright boy, full of energy, and we often talk for hours about the supernatural and its place in the modern world.
It is a winter afternoon in 1974; I am in Chicago once again, staying with Rashid for a few days, when I get the call from Sarah. Peter, our bright and wonderful child, has died just days after his tenth birthday. I fly to New York for the funeral, spend some time going through his few belongings... and then I get drunk. Violently drunk. I remember little of the next few months; I am told that I spent most of it sleeping in parks or in the drunk tank. After a while I manage to get off of the booze and scrape up enough cash to get a bus ticket back to my hometown... and, for some reason, I end up at Lewis' door, a man I haven't spoken to in nine years. He invites me in, and the shop seems to welcome me for the first time. He leads me upstairs to the small bed he keeps in a corner of the kitchen and I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow... but my dreams are restless, as if I have seen only a part of the bigger picture, as if there is something monumental happening all around me.
I dismiss the feelings and enter into an agreement the next morning with my former friend: I'll find him unique stock for his store if he provides me with enough money to stay on the road, enough to keep from rooting to one spot. I think that if I keep moving, I'll manage to outrun the pain that Peter's death has brought me. I pack light and travel the world for over a decade, occasionally drinking myself into a stupor when it gets to be too much, but the pain does fade with time. My father dies, as well as my mother, and I am saddened; I encounter old friends and make new ones, which is good.
And it turns out that Lewis and I are, indeed, a match made in Hell -
Part Three - Suspicions
Jack sat in an overstuffed chair in Rashid's small shop, still in that barely-used alleyway, and held the black book in his hands as he recounted the story to his friend. Rashid had placed the protection spells inside the Vault and Temple early that afternoon, but Jack had not been reassured; the two friends had spent the rest of the day in Rashid's store, trying to figure out why the journal made Jack so uneasy. The Egyptian man sat silently until Jack had finished, then offered his friend a cup of tea before speaking. "We all face temptation, my friend. Every day, we must find the strength to turn away from the easy path that we know in our hearts to be wrong."
"This is different, Rashid. I remember being tempted by his offer and then walking out, but it feels... different when I look back on it now. It feels false." Jack drank deeply of the herbal tea, but the warmth in his belly was no comfort. Rashid had opened the journal and was running his fingers over the last page, the last line that Micki had written.
"I can sense Lewis' taint on these words, more powerful than anywhere else in the book. And I can sense that, in his own mind, Lewis believed them to be the truth." He held the book at arm's length and examined it, slowly flipping through the pages, before a look of wonder came into his eyes. "Jack, these pages... they have been written over."
"What?" Jack leaned over Rashid's shoulder but saw no sign of anything being erased and rewritten, just the words of his enemy in ink black as night. "I don't see anything."
"Not physically erased and rewritten, but spiritually, as if some great change were made in the life of the one who wrote the pages. Both existences cry out for reality, but only one can actually be." Rashid leaned closer, squinting at phantom words, before looking back at his friend. "I cannot read them... but there may be a way to raise them from the paper and make then legible again." The two men rushed to make the potion that would do the job, and then they carefully applied it to every page, watching in first in fascination, then in horror, as the old words were obliterated and replaced with new phrases in the same hand.
Afterward, Jack walked out of the tiny shop, his face ashen, the journal shoved into a pocket as he turned through the blowing leaves back toward Curious Goods. He heard the gentle click as Rashid locked the door behind him, and Jack could not blame him; after what they had just read, he could not blame Rashid if he never wanted to see Jack again. As the daylight faded and the city glowed with artificial light, Jack found himself standing across the street from Curious Goods, unable to walk any closer, the book in his pocket a dead weight. What am I going to tell them? How can I explain this? he thought, tears forming at the corners of his eyes.
Tell them the truth, another part of his mind whispered. It's all you have left.
Micki and Johnny were huddled in front of the television set as Jack pushed open the door, the chimes barely audible against the wind outside. "Jack!" Micki called as she sprang to her feet; she looked happier than she had in a month, but Jack was in no mood to celebrate. "Where have you been? We tried Rashid's shop, but the line was busy -" Her words faded as she caught sight of Jack's face. He walked past them both and switched off the television, then sat behind the desk and shrugged off his overcoat. "Jack, what's wrong?"
"I... I have something to tell you both." He took a deep, shuddering breath before he spoke again. "I'm not who you thought I was; hell, I'm not who I thought I was."
"Jack, what are you taking about?" Johnny asked, setting down his can of beer and leaning on the desk.
"That book we found... Lewis' diary... he wrote me a message in it while he had possessed you, Micki. It said, I know what's in your heart, Jack. You're more like me than you remember... old friend. Those words scared me, right down to my soul, so Rashid and I spent the afternoon looking through the journal... and we found something." Jack looked down at the desk, the floor, his hands... anything to keep from looking his friends in the eye.
Micki's voice was tight with tension. "What was it?"
"It... was me." Jack looked back up to them, tears running freely down his cheeks. "It was me. Lewis was just a... just a convenience, a means to an end." Jack stood and turned away from them, his hands gripping the back of his chair so tightly that his fingernails sank deeply into the wood. "I did it all. I made it all happen."
"What the hell do you mean, Jack?" Johnny whispered, although a scenario was playing itself out in his mind that explained things perfectly well. He didn't like it one bit.
"Believe, if thou wilt, that mountains change their place, but believe not that man changes his nature. Mohammed said that a very long time ago, and I've always believed it to be true." Jack whirled around on them both and shouted, "I mean that I did it all, Johnny! I was Lewis Vendredi's partner, I made the deal with the devil, and I caused all of this to happen!"
Part Four - To Reign in Hell
March 13, 1963 - March 12, 1975
"You always could see right through me. I've got a plan, Jack, and if it works out right we'll never have to worry about working or money ever again. It'll work, Jack... just hear me out."
And so I sit and listen as my best friend speaks of magic and using it to help his business, just as his father-in-law was doing. I sit and listen as my food grows cold right along with my soul. I know about magic, probably more than my friend does; from my earliest memories my mother has told me about the power that nature holds and that only those in tune with it can manipulate, and I have used a little true magic for most of my adult life (mostly in my act). His words are tempting, though, very tempting... and I'm almost hungry enough to agree, at least for the short term.
"I need some time to think about it," I say, and this time there is no fear in my stomach, no outrage at my friend. He thanks me and I finish eating, grateful for the meal, and we walk back to his tiny shop together. He chatters about how he's already managed to increase his business, but that the money won't be enough to stay on top of things for long. I've been inside the shop many times, but the place seems subtly different now, as if the energies that Lewis has called up to help him are embracing me as well. We sit and talk for hours about the business (but mostly about how we'll use magic to improve it), and his wife Grace arrives just before dinnertime... and just after I accept his offer. At first she seems delighted that I'm here, but when Lewis tells her that I'm his new partner her face changes somehow, as if a shadow has fallen over it.
Time passes, and the business is faring much better. The incantations that Lewis and I use are growing more complex, and with time I think we'll be able to accomplish so much more. Things are so clear to me now, clearer than they've been at any time I can remember. Growing up, the years I spent as a soldier and on the road as a magician... they were just distractions from my true potential, my true purpose. Have I been corrupted? Have I fallen prey to those forces whoch would destroy all who tamper with them? I refuse to think so; I have more magical skill than Lewis, more raw talent, more experience. That's why he asked me; he'd already made the first steps, but he knew I was the one with the real ability. Grace - beautiful, terrified Grace - fears both of us now because of what we do.
Perhaps an experiment is in order...
Grace is lying beside me, our bodies still slick with the sweat of our lovemaking. Lewis - the poor man - is still downstairs in the cellar, making preparations for the next steps we will take. He has no idea of what Grace and I have just done, have been doing for several months in fact. He's obsessed with this deal; he barely stops talking about it, even when we coax him into sitting down. Grace understands now what we're trying to do; I'm sure of that, even if she is still afraid. I know how to word the pact, I know how to make it foolproof. We can all live forever and never grow old.
Another year passes, and I was so very wrong about Grace. I thought she understood what Lewis and I were trying to accomplish, but as she is lowered into the ground I find myself crying uncontrollably for the first time in many years. I was the one who found her that day, lying in the bathtub, the water crimson with blood from her lascerated wrists. Lewis and I had been almost ready to make our pact, you see, and neither one of us had noticed how bad things were going with Grace. I almost want to just walk away from it all, pack up a bag and catch a train to anywhere and forget all about Grace and Lewis and Chicago... but I don't.
I just work that much harder to make our pact.
It is the summer of 1971, and Lewis and I are the leaders of a sizeable coven. Our power is growing by leaps and bounds, but we must be careful; oh, yes, very careful, for discovery would mean a great deal of inconvenience. It seems strange for a moment that I would ever be concerned with the acquisition of this much power... but the part of me that thinks this is from long ago, when an empty belly and tired feet were not foremost on my mind. Rashid - who I have not seen in almost four years - called me recently to ask how I was doing, as did Gareth Michaels, another magician of not inconsiderable power who I have known for some time.
They may become a problem.
I am kneeling in the Temple with Lewis at my side, and we are waiting for our Master to appear. He is coming to seal our Pact, and we will live forever. I am not frightened, but a part of my mind is troubled...
Things are becoming disjointed now, as if I am watching someone else's life through a thick fog, only seeing brief flashes of it through minute breaks in the darkness. It is as if I have no control in the life of Jack Marshak anymore, and am now just an observer with no voice. I see myself and Lewis standing in the Vault, that chamber we constructed to hold any unwanted demons until we could return them to Hell. We are building shelves and lining them with antiques, carefully choosing the curse that will be placed upon each by our Master. There is a cradle from the Titanic, and a Cupid statue, and the Coin of Ziacles (an important mystical relic), and so many more... We sell so many that it is hard to keep up, even with both of us keeping track. The Manifest is soon filled with our scrawls and the mark of the pact is burned into every page, an everpresent reminder of our place in the Master's scheme.
And then comes the only clear memory. I am called away to New York on urgent business (a very special doll awaits me there). After I procure it, for some reason I decide to pay Sarah and Peter a visit. That part of my life is over, I understand that, but I want to see my son once again. Peter has grown into a strong, healthy boy... but when he sees me, he shrinks in terror. I had known he was sensitive to the supernatural, but do I radiate my power that evidently?
One glance into a mirror tells me that it is so. My face is gaunt, almost white, and my eyes seem sunken into my skull. The once-proud eyes are nothing more than glittering dark beads set into a polished skull, with a little skin and thinning hair stretched tightly over it. I have not physically aged, but I seem a century older than I was just a few years ago... when I made the pact with Satan.
I break into tears and fall to the floor, the weight of what I've done collapsing onto my shoulders like the world onto Atlas' own. I understand now... I see things so clearly again, and I know that I was wrong to take this path. It is killing my soul, and it has already killed many others because I have allowed it to continue. I want to renounce the deal, refuse to continue, but then the Pact will break and Lucifer will have his way with me in Hell's embrace. I cannot break the pact outright... but I know it can be broken.
I return to the store with a plan and take the doll down to the Vault. Lewis is there, placing a curse on a glass transport beehive, and he looks surprised to see me. I smile and hand him the doll to inspect, its hinged jaw hanging open a little. He carefully inspects it for any flaws, taking his attention away from me... and I raise the crowbar over my head, bringing it down with enough force to rip through skin and splinter bone. Lewis looks up from the pool of blood on the stone floor and, for just a moment, a look of utter confusion passes through his eyes; then he is gone, and I am running out of time.
I walk to one of the shelves and pick up a tiny item, a quarter that was supposedly used by a member of Capone's family to make decisions - what direction to go, what deals to make... who to kill. Now it actually allows one to change decisions already made, and I can make it so that I never became Lewis' partner. I dip the coin in Lewis' blood as the Vault begins to tremble; the Master is coming, and I will soon be out of time. With a shaking hand I make my decision, flip the coin, see it glinting as the screams of Hell's Master rip into my ears... and I know that I've forgotten something.
And I know that I've gotten away.
And then I know nothing because I never existed -
Part Five - The Darkest Night
Jack was sitting on the edge of his bed when Micki walked downstairs, looking through one of his trunks at old photographs. He seemed so much younger then, smiling and laughing with a full head of hair... but now he seems so small, so unlike the man she had come to know. When he had told her and Johnny what he had discovered about his past, their initial reaction had been disbelief; You're not serious, you would never do that, was what Micki ahd said, but one look into Jack's eyes told her that he believed it had happened... and therefore, it must be true. He had just sat as Johnny's bewilderment had erupted into anger, as Johnny screamed at him for causing all this, at berating Johnny for being so stupid sometimes when he had made all this happen. Johnny had stormed out of the store after that, and Micki was unsure if he would ever return... but at this point, she was unsure of everything.
Jack looked up when he saw her standing on the stairs, red hair messily spilling over her shoulders and onto her silk robe. "Hi," she said, making no move to conceal the vodka bottle she held in her right hand.
Jack did not answer; he just looked back down at the pictures in his hand. Micki sat down beside him and held out the bottle, and he took it without a word and drank deeply. After a few minutes he handed it back to her and said, "I thought that I had seen the worst of myself after Peter died."
"What do you mean?"
"After I found out, I thought I was in Hell. I lost my son... then I lost my job... my home... I was sleeping in cardboard boxes and under bridges all across New England for almost six months after that, and my only companion was a bottle. Didn't matter what it was - whiskey, vodka, anything to get me through another night. Then I managed to pull myself together and come back to Chicago, where I started finding stock for Lewis." He laughed, a short, unpleasant sound. "A match made in Hell after all. I still can't get away, Micki; the devil won't let me go, even though I've broken the pact. And he's taken so much more..."
"Jack... you made your decision because of your son and your wife. You made it because love let you see the truth."
"Truth," Jack spit disgustedly. "The truth is that I made a deal with the devil, and if I'd had any sense at all in the first place I never would have done so. I remember what happened now at the very end, I remember what it felt like to kill Lewis... and it was very satisfying. I enjoyed it, Micki, because of the mess he had gotten me into. I relished that moment. But when I flipped the coin and changed my decision twenty-five years ago, I knew that there was something that I'd overlooked."
Jack stood up, grabbed the bottle and took another drink, walking slowly away from Micki into the shadows of the basement. "I remember what that was now," he said, his voice hollow. "The quarter needed two lives to function. One to get you back to change the decision... and one to cement that new reality in place. The user chose the first one, but the devil... the second was his. It would be someone close to the user, and that death could come at any time, from any cause... but it was the user who set those events in motion." He looked down at his hands, trying to force the words from his throat. "It was me," he whispered. "I killed my son."
"I killed him with my arrogance and my stupidity. Killing Lewis gave me the power to change that decision, and the devil took Peter as the rest of his payment. And I caused it to happen." He whirled on Micki, anger rising in his throat. "I killed him, and I'll kill you and Johnny as well! At least when you took Ryan to sacrifice him you had no say in the matter; Lewis possessed you. But me? I gave myself to the devil willingly... and then wiped it all away by killing Peter! I can't trust myself; how can I let you trust me?" Jack felt his knees crumple and slid toward the floor, bracing himself against the wall with one hand as Micki ran up to steady him. "Ryan was right. It's not the objects that are cursed; we are. Get away, Micki. Get away from here before I kill you, too."
"I know the risks, and I won't - I can't - leave. Not until this is over."
Jack looked into Micki's eyes. "Do you? Do you really know? I thought I did... but I had no idea." He wrapped his arms around Micki and held her tightly, as if that act could somehow hold back the darkness held within his soul. "I had no idea."
And with darkness surrounding darkness, the two friends held each other, alone against the night and whatever evils it held.
Epilogue - All Fall Down
The man leans back, contentedly flipping through the pages of a journal as a smile works its merry way across his face. His face is unique but not remarkable: an average mouth, slightly turned up at the corners; an average head of black hair, somewhat longish and mussed by the breeze as he sits on the park bench. But his eyes are what set him apart from the average person one might encounter anywhere in his or her daily life. These eyes are cold, steely orbs of determination, eyes so empty that if they were to turn their gaze upon you, you would understand just how little you mattered in the overall scheme of things. As he reads the last words and draws a silver pen from his pocket to add to them, he utters a single sentence:
"And then there was one."
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This page was created on May 3, 2000.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.