A Triptych Tale …

The Privee Theef

A Triptych Tale

 

“Name, please,” I said. I knew it already, but rules must be followed.

The man across the table blinked. “It’s probably in your file.”

“Even so. It’s just …” I smiled diplomatically. “Protocol.”

He squinted at me as though trying to untie a knot with his eyes. “Lucias. Geoffrey. … Had a lot of names over the years, but I suppose the one you’re looking for is Maury Truman.”

“Very good,” I said, pushing my sunglasses back up my nose. I remained silent, watching him fidget.

Maury blinked again, heavily. He brushed a few strands of silvering blond hair from his forehead and raised a hand. “Aren’t you supposed to ask me some questions now? You’re a cop, right?”

I half-smiled. “Not in the strictest sense. My purpose here is simply to ascertain the truth, as you see it.”

“You don’t say.” Maury scratched his greying goatee. He leaned back in his chair and straightened his plaid flannel button-up. “So what do you need to know?”

I cleared my throat. “You threatened the lives of over five hundred people on live television. Some explanation would be nice.”

“Like I keep telling everybody — I didn’t threaten ’em,” Maury said, straightening in his seat. “I just predicted their deaths. Big difference.”

“I’m not concerned with punishment, Mr. Truman. Only explanation. Considering the gravity of your action, I think it would be wise to start at the beginning.”

Maury cocked an eyebrow. “You sure about that? You want context, I’ll have to go back quite a ways. It’ll be a long story.”

“No matter,” I said, folding my hands in front of me. “I’ve never wanted for time.”

#

Lucias trod carefully around the rows of corpses lining the floor of the villa’s atrium. He’d covered them with whatever cloth he could find. If he didn’t see the faces, he could pretend they weren’t really …

He hummed loudly to himself, trying to drown out the noise of the flies. There were so many, and they had come so quickly. He should have fled already. Somewhere, anywhere. Up into the Cilician hills to swear allegiance to the pirates hiding there. Or to Tarsus, to seek another master.

But Lucias had never been to Tarsus, had never been a league from the villa. His paterfamilias had been a homebody, and so, by necessity, had his slaves. Lucias counted the corpses again. Twenty-three slaves and family in the villa, twenty-two bodies. Why had he survived?

"Some explanation would be nice.”

There was no point leaving them like this. They were just shells now, vessels for disease. He must burn them. He was about to turn into one of the villa’s storerooms to retrieve more oil when he caught a brush of movement out of the corner of his eye.

Quis es?” he asked. Who are you? A score of corpses lined the floor of the atrium, the only family he’d ever known — what else did he have to fear? But his hands still shook.

A figure stepped out from behind one of the columns of the peristyle. It was a Roman legionary, vested in red and gold armour. A pitted gladius sword hung in the soldier’s right hand, and his face was obscured by the shadow of his helmet.

Fur furtivus sum,” the man responded. I am the silent thief.

“Take what you want,” Lucias said. “I cannot stop you. My familia are all dead.”

“Yes, I know. I killed them.”

Lucias took a step back, casting his eyes about for some object with which to defend himself. “What do you mean? They died of a plague.”

“Yes,” the other man said, taking a few steps closer. “And I come with the plague. And the sword, and the fire, and the famine. I come at birth, and at old age.”

“You’re mad,” Lucias said. Retreating a few more steps between the columns, he found himself against the wall. Fumbling around, his fingers curled around the small statue of Hestia sequestered in its niche. Gripping it with one hand, he brandished it in front of him like a mace.

“Sometimes, that as well,” the man admitted. “But not today. Today you are safe.”

“Why was I spared, when everyone else died?” Lucias said, swallowing bitterly. “I want to know.”

“And I come with the plague. And the sword, and the fire, and the famine."

The legionary took one more step forward and stared silently at Lucias for a long moment. Lucias blinked back at him, his knuckles growing white as they clutched the statue.

“Ah well, it is not to be known. Another time, then,” the soldier said at last. He turned around, making to leave the building.

“Take me with you,” Lucias blurted. His eyes widened upon hearing what he’d said. But he continued, “I am a verna. A slave. I’ve known no other life than this, and now it is gone.”

The other man shook his head. “It is not your time. Flee the provinces, if you would keep your freedom. Seek out Roma — there are always opportunities there, for those willing to take them.”

Lucias cast his eyes to the corpses and began to respond, but by the time he’d turned back, the legionary had disappeared.

#

“And so after your meeting with … Death? May I call him that?”

“As good a name as any,” Maury said.

“After your meeting with him, you traveled to Rome?”

“Yep. Took one of those proverbial roads, and then wham!” Maury slammed a fist on the table. “There I was, centre of the world. Technically I was an escaped slave, but my paterfamilias had never branded me, so who was to know?”

“That was lucky,” I said, straightening my sunglasses.

“Not so much. I squandered my newfound freedom by gambling away money I didn’t have in taverns I couldn’t afford.” Maury raised his hands palms up, as if saying What can you do? “Soon enough I was back in slavery, of the indentured kind. Wasn’t as common as you’d think back then, but they made an exception for me.”

“Continue.”

“Wasn’t all bad, though. I did get to meet Caesar.”

“Gaius Julius Caesar?” I asked. I imagine most people’s credulity would have been stretched past breaking by now, but mine has always been remarkably flexible.

“One and only,” Maury said, grinning for the first time. “Bought me for his family at an auction. Poor bastard took a shine to me. He paraded me around with him at every triumph. Had me whisper the secret in his ear. See, it was about that time that I discovered my … talent.” He pointed to his eyes with his right index finger. “It’s all in the eyes. They’re like the last page of a book. I look into someone’s eyes, and I can tell their deepest secret.”

“Which is?”

“That’s the rub. There’s only one real secret in life, but it’s different for everyone. I told Caesar his, and he loved me for it. Called me his ‘memento mori.’”

"I look into someone’s eyes, and I can tell their deepest secret.”

“Remember that you must die.”

“You know your Latin.”

“I know many things.”

“It didn’t help him in the end, though. Guess he never really believed me. Some years later, on the Ides of March, a few senators mistook him for a pincushion, and that was the end of that.”

“Barring the fact that some might call this story — forgive me — wildly preposterous, why would you make light of such violence?”

Maury shrugged. “Sometimes there’s nothing left to do. If you’ve seen as much as I have, things tend to lose their sting.” He sighed. “Anyway, I hightailed it out of Rome after that. Didn’t want to get caught in the backlash.”

I clasped and unclasped my hands. “And so what did you do, Mr. Truman, for the next two thousand-odd years?”

“This and that. Wrote a couple books. Did some painting. Fought in a number of wars, on a number of sides.”

“Anything of relevance to this inquiry?”

Maury laughed. “That’s for you to decide, I suppose, not me. But how much do you know about medieval England?”

#

Geoffrey straightened from his desk and stretched his arms. Above the cracking of his joints, he thought he heard a scuffling sound in the far corner of the room. Yawning, he grabbed the last lit candle from his desk to disperse the shadows.

“Who is there?” he asked.

“A privee theef,” a voice said from behind him. A stealthy thief.

Geoffrey turned around to see a tall looming figure, garbed entirely in black. It grasped a notched wooden staff in one hand, and its face was hidden by the shadows of its cowl.

Geoffrey narrowed his eyes and groaned. “I remember you. Was wondering if I’d see you again.”

“It has been too long.”

“Interesting ensemble,” Geoffrey said, casting a critical eye at the figure’s garb. “Last I remember, you were dressed like a Roman legionary.”

“And you, a slave. Times and cultures change.”

“Well,” Geoffrey said. “To each their own. Why are you here?”

“While attending to some nearby affairs, I became … curious as to how a man of your unnaturally old age has been faring.”

“Nearby affairs?” Geoffrey walked back to the desk and placed the candle on top of a stack of books. “What, another war? Famine? The Black Death wasn’t enough for you?”

“I bring death; I do not cause it.”

“Not much of a difference from where I’m standing. You know, I’ve tried warning people about you. I can sort of … read when their time is up.”

“Yes, I know. But it would be better if you did not.”

Geoffrey gave a nasty laugh. “Doesn’t matter, anyway. Most don’t listen, and the ones who do think I’m a witch.”

“I bring death; I do not cause it.”

“I can imagine the difficulty.”

“No, I’m not sure you can,” Geoffrey said. “You’re you. You come and take, and then disappear. But I’m just a regular man. Was a regular man.”

“Now you’re Geoffrey Chaucer, an author of no small repute in the court.”

“Aye, for what it’s worth.” Geoffrey motioned toward the desk with his failing candle. He relit two others with it before it guttered completely. “A little something I’ve been working on.”

Canterbury Tales,” the figure read.

“Beast of a work,” Geoffrey said. “Not sure I’ll ever finish it. But have a look here.” He pointed to a sheet of parchment paperweighted down. It was curling at the bottom, and speckled with ink stains. “This one’s about three men who set out to slay Death.”

“How morbid,” the figure said in a flat voice. “Do they succeed?”

“I think yes,” Geoffrey said, tilting his head to the side. “I’ve seen enough death in my life, thank you. Given a chance to end it, even in a story, I’ll take it. ‘The Pardoner’s Tale,’ I think I’ll call it.”

“It is I, then, who must beg your pardon. For I am not here to release you.”

Geoffrey puffed out his chest and sighed. “Didn’t figure you would be. But can you at least tell me why?”

“I cannot. Not even I know all things. Before I leave, however, I would offer you this warning, Geoffrey. It is not wise to meddle in my affairs, nor to influence others with your talent.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Geoffrey said. “And one of these days,” he jabbed a finger at the robed figure, “I’ll convince you to take me. Trick you if I have to. I’m getting tired of all … this.” He waved his hand about the room. “Everything.”

“It is not my choice to make, Geoffrey.”

Geoffrey snorted. “Well, get on with you, then. If you’re not going to do your work, then leave me to mine,” he said, stacking a few of the loose parchments together. By the time he’d turned around from the desk, the figure was gone.

#

“In ‘The Pardoner’s Tale,’ if I recall,” I said, clearing my throat, “Death ends up killing all three men.”

“Yep.”

“Why the change of heart?”

“Maybe I wanted to emphasize the inevitability of death? The futility of our Earthly struggles? Or maybe I was just in a bad mood. Everyone should be allowed to change their minds, and it had been a rough few years.”

“Indeed. And assuming you really are immortal, and that you have this ‘gift’ of deathly foresight, what makes you so special, do you think? Why you?” I took off my sunglasses and folded them on the table.

Maury narrowed his eyes and shrugged. “Why do you have black hair and I yellow? Some things don’t have answers. If it hadn’t been me, it’d have been someone else, and they’d be asking the same dumb question.”

"... what makes you so special, do you think? Why you?”

“True enough. Did you meet Death again?”

“Not for a long time. I saw him on battlefields and in hospitals, mostly; just a wisp of black out of the corner of my eye. I suppose he wasn’t much concerned with me, and I did lie low for a good while.”

“What brought you out of hiding, then?”

Maury grunted. “I’d fought in enough wars, seen enough death that I felt no need to rush it along anymore. But I figured I could be of some help as a medic. Maybe save some lives the good ol’ fashioned way, even if no one believed my talent.”

“I take it you spoke again, somewhere?”

“In a war hospital in Naples. The Allies had just taken it, and the fighting was fierce and bloody. We’d set up in a converted church …”

#

Lieutenant Maurice Truman stooped to rinse his hands in the marble font beside him. Red. So much red. He flicked his hands dry then gripped the rim of the font for support as the building shook around him. Flakes of plaster floated down from the ceiling. The mortars were getting closer.

Most of the hospital staff had taken leave for the night. It was just Truman now, and two nurses who were busying themselves at the far end of the sanctuary. In the flickering torchlight, he walked between the rows of patients, checking their wounds for fresh bleeding. Noticing the bandage on one of the soldiers’ arms had come unwound, Truman reached for a pair of scissors to re-dress it. He paused in mid-motion when he saw a flash of black at the edge of his vision.

“Who’s there?” he said, though he already knew.

“An old friend,” said the shadows.

The medic’s shoulders tensed as he turned around. “Just leave it at old,” he said, and squinted.

From the darkness between two columns stepped a soldier, his uniform discoloured and hanging in tatters.

“If we were friends, you wouldn’t keep taking everyone I care for,” Truman continued.

“Not everyone, I think.” A gas mask with tinted goggles clung to the figure’s face, though his voice was unmuffled when he spoke. He motioned to the cots and stretchers surrounding them. “You saved all these men from my grasp. Because of your interference, many have just lost legs when they should have lost lives.”

“Yes,” the medic said, a defiant smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He looked down at his bloodstained uniform, and the brutalized men and boys around him. Injured, but still breathing. “That’s right.”

“After all these years, you finally found others who would believe you. They changed their courses. Because of this, you are proud.”

“Yes.”

“But others will have to die in their stead,” the figure said, stepping toward one of the soldiers. A private who’d gotten half his left leg blown off by a grenade the day before. Thick drops of blood were still dripping into a basin beneath his cot. The figure traced a finger along the tourniquet on the soldier’s leg. The soldier moaned in his sleep but didn’t wake. “Others whose time has not yet come. They’ll die because of you.”

The figure traced a finger along the tourniquet on the soldier’s leg.

Realizing the scissors were still in his hand, Truman dropped them into a kidney dish on a nearby trolley; the dish wobbled on the edge. Another mortar shell shook the building, sending the dish clattering to the floor. Truman ignored it. “What do you mean?”

“There must always be a balance,” the figure said. “If these men don’t die, then others will. I warned you not to meddle. You ignored me. Such are the consequences.”

The medic stared at the figure, his eyes simmering with antipathy. He shook his head and breathed heavily. “No. I saved these men. If anyone else is put in danger instead, it’s on you.”

“Was I the one to put a grenade in this man’s foxhole?” the figure asked.

“I save people,” Truman said, almost in a whisper. “You want to take someone, take me.”

“I cannot,” the figure said, though his voice softened. “I, too, have no say in this matter. And would you go anyway, if I gave you the choice?”

Truman snorted and turned to the broken figure on the cot. “Not like this,” he said after a long moment. He didn’t see the figure disappear, nor did he care.

#

“Two days later, right after those boys were shipped back to England, we received a new batch of injured men. I’d never seen any of them before, but that wasn’t strange. Didn’t have time to read any of them. That night, a bomb destroyed the church. Blew it right to hell. Everyone in it died.”

“Except you, of course.”

“Only survivor,” Maury said. The swagger had drained from his face, however. “And that was the last time I saw him.”

“The last time you saw Death, you mean?”

“Until today, that is.”

“Ah,” I said, picking my sunglasses off the table. “When did you realize?”

Maury gave a cold smile. “It’s the eyes, remember? I can read a man’s death in his eyes.” He looked at me emphatically. “And I don’t see any in yours.”

I smiled. “Well done. Though something tells me you rather expected me. Those five hundred people you warned — it was to catch my attention. And I daresay it wasn’t just to socialize.”

“Well,” he said, some of the light returning to his expression. He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “In that case, you know what I want.”

I was silent for a moment. For longer than I had to be, I admit, but I wanted to see him sweat. Maury, the undying man.

“And if I told you ‘yes’ this time,” I said. “What would you say?”

Maury let the front legs of his chair hit the floor with a snap. His face paled and his eyes grew large. “I’d ask when, and how, and why has it taken so bloody long?”

I was silent for a moment. For longer than I had to be, I admit, but I wanted to see him sweat.

“The details would be of your choice, within limits. Sometime within the next month.” I put my sunglasses back on. “If you aren’t too busy.”

“That’s. Um. Yes.” Maury scratched his head. His various personas seemed to slough off him, and I was left staring at those same sad eyes, once again. The eyes of one who’d lost his family, who didn’t know where to turn, or what to do. I felt a stab of pity for him.

“Next Tuesday should — that is …” Maury said. He then cursed and laughed softly to himself. “I can’t believe this.” He shook his head. “I can’t do it.”

“Two thousand years, and you refuse my offer? I won’t make it again.”

“I can’t go yet. I’m too …”

“Busy?” I offered. Though I could think of a few words which were probably nearer the mark.

“Yeah,” he said, without meeting my gaze. “Busy.” The timbre of his voice reminded me of the last words he’d spoken to me in Naples: Not like this.

I rubbed my hands together. “Very well. It is done.”

I hadn’t expected him to accept my offer; perhaps I knew him better than he knew himself. His years had given him little enough reason to make peace with me. In any case, I was relieved. It would have been embarrassing for my bluff to have been called. And it was good for Maury to believe he’d decided on his own. Choice may be an illusion, but it’s an awfully pretty one.

Nathan Ehret lives and writes in Vancouver, B.C., where he follows a rigorous daily routine of procrastination. Somehow, though, his work has been known to appear in magazines like Electric Spec, Perihelion, and Pseudopod. A contracting editor by day, he suffers from debilitating allergic reactions if exposed to too many tpyos. Feel free to drop him a line on his (woefully neglected) Twitter: @NathanEhret.