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“Oh, no,” I groaned.
“Whatsa matter,” said Buddy. “You know that nut?”
“I’m afraid so,” I said.
“Schnabel!” yelled Mr. Lucky, shaking his fist, forging, limping steadily closer.
“Why’s he yellin’ at ya, Arnold?”
I couldn’t very well tell Buddy that I had marooned Mr. Lucky two days in the past.
“He’s mad at me,” I said.
Mr. Lucky, attempting to charge I suppose, tripped on his dragging leg and fell forward, cursing like a sailor -- no, to say that does an injustice to the maritime profession now that I think about it. I had never heard anyone curse the way Mr. Lucky now curse as he struggled to get up, not even my old army drill sergeant when I would intractably start daydreaming during close-order drill and poke some other poor recruit in the face with the barrel of my rifle.
“Guy’s got a mouth on him,” said Buddy. “He a friend of yours?”
“No,” I said. “We only met tonight.”
He was back on his feet now, and he continued hobbling forward, cursing and calling my name, that steam or smoke still drifting up from his body and from his head, as if he had just been dipped in acid.
“What’s his *****ng problem?” asked Buddy.
This question was more than I could answer, then, now, or ever.
“It’s hard to explain, Buddy,” I said. “You should go home. I’ll deal with him. He’s just had too much to drink.”
“He looks like a ****in’ nut to me. And what’s that smoke or whatever it is comin’ off him?”
“Well, I don’t really know,” I said. “There must be some, uh, rational explanation.”
“You are doomed!” yelled Mr. Lucky, who was now about twenty feet away.
“What the ****,” said Buddy. “Now he’s scaring me.”
“So, really, you head on home,” I said.
“F*** that noise. This guy is a f**king lunatic.”
“No, stay out of it, Buddy,” I said.
“F*ck that. You’re my pal, Arnold.” That was news to me. “Anybody fucks with you they fuck with me.”
(Sorry, Mother, I just got tired of all those asterisks. Forgive me if you’re reading this.)
“Let me take care of him,” said Buddy, and, tossing away his cigar stub, he strode forward like a small human tank, and I’m afraid I let him do so, not out of cowardice but because I had been thinking about asterisks and ignoring the problem at hand.
Although I am by nature a peace-loving man the vicissitudes of my part-time avocation of bar-fly have put me in the presence of many fights and brawls, and I will state that the one thing every one of these altercations has had in common is their resistance to verbal description. What happened next was no exception.
Buddy and Mr. Lucky collided with much shouting and cursing on both their parts, Mr. Lucky performing gestures that seemed at least reminiscent of those judo moves I had seen in the movies, whereas Buddy simply plowed right in head-down like a pint-sized Marciano with the old piston-like one-two, one-two.
Despite my boxing experience in the army, I lack the killer instinct, and so I’ve never been a good man in a real fight. Nevertheless, I stepped forward. The multifarious double-beast that was Mr. Lucky and Buddy bashed into me, I fell over into the gutter, re-scraping my scraped knees. I got up again, and attempted to grab Mr. Lucky’s arm, but he threw me off with the strength of ten men and this time I staggered back into a wooden telephone pole, striking the back of my head against it, I saw a flash like a flash bulb popping in my face, I lost consciousness.
It seemed like only a second or two later, maybe it was, and someone was lifting me to my feet by my armpits and shoving me back again against the pole. It was Mr. Lucky.
“Thought you could fool me,” he said.
Ink-black blood oozed and bubbled from his nostrils and mouth. His breath smelled of feces, his eyes were black as tar, as empty as the night. The smoke or mist rose up from his shoulders, from out of his ears, from his bloodied nostrils and mouth.
Behind him Buddy’s body lay crumpled on the pavement.
I tried to pull away but Mr. Lucky grabbed the upper parts of my arms in his hands and pushed me back, harder, against the pole.
“You humans,” he said, “You’ll never learn.”
“Well, uh, maybe we could sign one of those contracts now,” I said.
“Oh, you would like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Well, sure,” I said. (And believe me, I was willing. Damnation seven years from now seemed a far better alternative than damnation in seven seconds.) “No hard feelings --”
“Perhaps not on your part.” He squeezed my arms tighter. Vice-like would not be inaccurate in describing his grip, cliché or not. “But do you know how I’ve spent the last half hour of your earthling time?”
“No,” I said, quite frankly.
“Crawling and scrabbling my way through the uncountable dimensions of time, through the lives and deaths of galaxies, through unending black holes, through exploding supernovas, through the chill silent endless reaches of universes not born and never to be born.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“But now I’m back, and I am taking you, Arnold, taking you down to the deepest and most foul burning pit of hell.”
“So we can’t make a bargain?”
“You’re joking, surely.”
“I could become one of your, uh, servants.”
“I could do better than Jack Scratch,” I said.
“You probably could at that.”
“And I do have an inside track with Josh.”
“You mean Je-”
“He likes to be called Josh down here. Just like you like to be called Mr. Lucky.”
“Simply Lucky will do.”
“Why don’t we try a seven-year contract,” I said. “Then we’ll see how it works out. Maybe you could give me an extension if --”
“Don’t try to trick me, Arnold.”
“I won’t. I just don’t want to be dragged to hell.”
“Not yet, you mean.”
“Right. Not yet. Do you have any of those contracts on you?”
“I suppose I might.”
“Go ahead, bring one out. I’ll sign it.”
Keeping one hand firmly on my chest he reached into his inside coat pocket and pulled out a scroll. It looked just like the other ones that he and Jack Scratch had tried to get me to sign. I suppose they all came from the same factory or workshop.
“All right. Seven years,” he said. “But I expect you to work for me.”
“Sure. But I get good luck during those seven years, don’t I?”
“You never give up, do you?”
“Well, I’m only human,” I said.
“This is our standard contract. You’ll get your seven years good luck, but only if you recruit me at least one victim a month during that time.”
“I can do that,” I said.
“You know," he said, “I think you can.”
Finally he took that hand of steel off my chest, and I was able to breathe a bit more freely.
He patted his pockets.
“Damn, I’ve lost my quill. Probably lost it when I was escaping the fire demons of Alpha Centauri.”
“Don’t ask,” he said. “Don’t even ask.”
“I have a pen,” I said.
“Get it out, then.”
I reached into my pocket and took out the fountain pen that Mr. Arbuthnot had given me.*
“You’ll need to draw some of your blood with that,” he said.
“Oh, sure,” I said, taking the cap off the pen. Its silvery nib sparkled in the streetlamp light.
“And no funny business.”
“No funny business,” I said, putting the cap back onto the shank of the pen.
He gave the scroll a flick, and it unfurled, revealing that now-familiar incomprehensible handwriting.
“Did you want to add that codicil about me bringing in one recruit a month?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about that. Just sign the damned thing.”
“Okay. Could you turn around?”
“I’m serious, Arnold, none of your tricks this time.”
“Of course not. Just turn around so I --”
“I will not turn around. Use the goddam telephone pole.”
“It’s awfully rough.”
“I don’t give a damn. Use it, before I change my mind.”
“Well, okay, give me the contract.”
He gave it to me. Again, it had that feel and even the dry warmth of an old person’s skin.
I turned and put the parchment against the coarse wood of the pole.
“Hurry it up,” said Mr. Lucky, over my shoulder. “Poke your wrist there and get some blood in the pen.”
“Right,” I said, but instead of poking my skin I quickly turned the paper around to its blank side and scrawled the words:
“Go to hell.”
“No, damn you!” howled Mr. Lucky as just as quickly I signed my name.
He was gone, leaving only a whiff of foul smoke, the faint stench of burning compost, of backed-up sewers, of death.
He wasn’t so smart.
I tossed the parchment up into the air, it burst into flame, and its ashes and its sparks drifted away on the soft ocean breeze.
* See Chapter 127.
(Continued here, because it’s not up to us.)
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