“It really is good to see you,” Val told me, his sword drenched in blood, his face lit up by a smirk. Lusu sat there, looking more than a little confused.
I sat there too, mad as hell. Madder than I’d expected to be.
“You piece of shit,” I said, standing up and walking towards him. “You ruined this world, you know that? You killed a god. A god.” I grabbed him by his shoulders and shook him. “How could we fuck up so bad?”
He laughed. “Always the tortured poet, eh?”
Standing there, his muscles in my arms, I realized how little the vagaries of time had done to him. His hair was a bit snowy, his face a bit craggy. But he was still strong — as strong as he’d been forty years ago.
And there I was, feeling weak, like my body would give out on me the first chance it got.
“You said you’d never talk to me again.”
“After the things you wrote in your book, are you surprised?” he asked.
“What’s so different now?” I asked.
“It’s been decades,” he said. “A lot of things changed.”
I let go of his arms. For some reason, those words really made me think.
“A lot of things didn’t,” I said.
“I can see that,” he purred. “Get my friend a drink, would you?” he asked Lusu.
“Already offered and declined,” she said.
“I didn’t ask whether or not you already offered,” he said, not deigning to look at her. His eyes were focused on me. “You still a brandy drinker?”
“Yeah,” I said, “among other things.”
Lusu got up to make me a drink. I didn’t notice any emotion on her face as she walked into the kitchen.
“What brings you here, now?” he asked.
“Stellavia is dead,” I said.
“Damn,” Val said. “She’ll be missed.”
“Not by everyone,” I said. “She was murdered.”
“You know who did it?”
“No,” I said. “Do you?”
“I’m not sure I catch your meaning.”
“Did you kill Stellavia?”
“Looking for another bestseller?” he asked, voice drenched with condescension. “Has your literary career been anything other than trashing my name?”
“Last time I gave you a pseudonym,” I said. “Last time people didn’t know that Blake Reiner the hero was in fact Val Rador. But I swear to God, Val. If you killed her, I’ll tell them everything. I’ll tell everyone who fucked this world over.”
“I didn’t kill her.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I didn’t kill her,” he said, his pitch the same as before.
“Then why the fuck is there blood on your sword?”
“Slayed a dragon,” he said. “Government job. You can ask around, if you want. I didn’t kill her.”
I paused. Sounded like he was telling the truth, but I didn’t want to believe him. Still, the blood on the sword wasn’t Stellavia’s. It didn’t have that glimmer.
“I can’t ask around,” I said. “Nobody that high up would talk to me.”
“Sounds like your problem,” he said. “That’s what happens when you write all these books.”
Lusu came back from the kitchen. She handed me a drink. It tasted damn good.
“You sure she was murdered?” he asked.
“The massive hole in her flesh didn’t leave much doubt.”
Soon as I said that, things got quiet for a while. They got quiet for a good long while, and I wondered if any of this was worth it: digging up the past that I’d fought so hard to bury. Digging up a past that I never should have lived through in the first place.
“I want to tell you something,” he said.
“And you can’t tell anyone,” he said.
“Keep in mind, if you act like a journalist and publish this secret, I will be guilty of murder.”
“Again,” I said.
A spark of anger flashed across his face. Then, just as quickly, he regained his composure — a degree of sadness. I couldn’t tell whether it was actual or feigned.
“It’s about my son,” he said.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s–” he began. But he lost track of the thought. “I wasn’t a good father.”
Can’t say I was surprised to hear that.
“Val,” Lusu said. “Don’t–”
“It’s true,” he said, loudly. “I wasn’t a good father.”
The Angel of Death didn’t make a very good mother, either, but I wasn’t about to say that. I’d pushed my luck enough here already.
“Evan’s always been troubled,” Val said. “You know how he got his metal arm?”
“No,” I said.
“He wanted to meet his mother,” Val said. He put his finger on the bottom of his palm. Then he dragged it down across his vein.
“Cut his arm open?” I asked.
He nodded his head. “Nearly hacked it off himself.”
“Did she see him?”
“He thought he could get close to death,” Val said. “Didn’t actually want to kill himself. He didn’t die, so she didn’t come.”
“You’re saying he killed Stellavia to see his mother.”
“I don’t know,” Val said. “Maybe. It’s certainly worth a thought, wouldn’t you say?”
“I saw the Angel of Death take the soul away,” I said. “He wasn’t there.”
“She probably waited until he had to leave,” Val said. “She didn’t want to see him.”
“How do you know?”
“We talk, sometimes.”
I glanced over at Lusu. No emotion.
I came straight out and asked, “You’re not jealous?”
“Of what?” she said.
“Your husband’s talking to his ex, a supernatural creature that he had a kid with. And you’re okay with that?”
“Sure I am,” she said.
“Get out of my house,” Val said.
“Don’t let the gnat bother you, Val. He’s nobody. Blew away most of his cash on booze and drugs. Now he’s nothing,” she said.
“I thought you would’ve changed in forty years,” he said.
“Only got older,” I said.
Only got sadder, I thought.
“I’m used to you accusing me of murder,” he said. “At this point, it’s expected. But accusing me of cheating? Get out of my house.”
“Had to ask,” I said. “It’s a valid question.”
“Get the fuck out of my house.”
I did. Val followed me like a guard dog, looking me up and down. I walked into the vestibule and looked up at one of the tapestries hanging there. It featured a tall muscular man, sword arcing towards the Angel of Death.
An inscription under it read, “Blake Reiner fought the Angel of Death for three days and nights. They reached a draw, and she agreed to let him live.”
“Imagine if they knew the truth,” I said.
He opened the door and grabbed my arm, throwing me out. The door slammed just as my head slammed against the concrete. Getting up, I felt woozy. But that wasn’t anything new.
“Pictures don’t look anything like you,” I said.
I puked on his fake grass.
— — —
Had a couple hours to kill until the bar re-opened, so I drove to Beckett’s place. She was rich, though you wouldn’t know it. Lived in a decently-sized house that needed a few repairs. White paint was chipped, roof had a few tiles missing.
“Fiat Lux,” I said, snapping my fingers and lighting a cigarette. She hated to see people who didn’t have a vice within reach.
I knocked three times, then waited.
She opened the door. Looked as good as always, vibrant for a woman in her 80s. Her signature black pinstripe suit was splattered with neon green paint. A blunt dangled from her wrinkled fingers. She smiled and said, “Gimme a hug, you stupid bitch.”
I bent down to give her a hug.
“How are you today?” she asked, rolling her wheelchair out of the doorway and into the living room. I closed the door and followed.
“Interesting,” I said.
“Shit,” she said. “Last time you called a day ‘Interesting’ you were naked, drugged, and hanging by your ankle. Raving about that awful suicide business.”
“I went through a rough patch,” I said.
“Life’s a rough patch, kid. And if I didn’t teach you that, I didn’t teach you anything.”
I sat down on her sofa.
“What’ll you have?” she asked. “I’ve got coffee, mushrooms, LSD–”
“Mind if I take a toke?”
She took a drag off her blunt, breathing in deep. The tail-end of it lit up. She craned her neck towards the ceiling and let the smoke out, a thin column of smoke shooting for the sky.
“I’ll trade you,” she said. I handed her my cigarette, she handed me her blunt. We took our sweet time with the sins, then traded back.
“I painted a wild thing last night, George. Fuckin’ wild. You want to see it?”
“Sure.” I had plenty of time. A couple hours before the bar re-opened, and about twenty hours before I’d get chased out of town.
She wheeled her way into her workroom, then wheeled her way back to me. She held onto her painting. When she was closer, she held it out for me.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“Looks like my morning,” I said. The painting showed Stellavia bleeding on the altar.
“What the hell do you mean?” she asked, nearly scowling at me. “You never did handle your weed well, you stupid piece of–”
“She’s dead,” I said. A silence hung over the room. I didn’t know what to say.
“She–” Beckett began, but she didn’t finish the sentence. The silence hung for a little while longer.
“Murdered,” I said, “just like in your painting.”
“Well,” she said. “That sure as shit can’t be a coincidence.”
“What made you decide to paint that?”
“Came to me in a dream,” she said.
“Did you see who killed her, in the dream?”
“No,” she said. “Just saw Stellavia bleeding all over the altar.”
“That’s what made me want to paint it,” she said. “Fuck.” She broke into laughter. “It’s the end of the world. The fucking end. Isn’t that beautiful?”
“You don’t really buy that apoca–”
“When Stellavia dies, so does our universe,” she said. “That’s what The Hero told me.”
“Bullshit,” I said. “The world’s not ending. The world’s not– It’s not ending.”
“Don’t be so worried,” she said. “You always have to get so anxious about things. But isn’t there something beautiful about all this? The end of it all. The culmination of everything. This is what life’s been building up to over eons and eons.”
“I don’t give a shit what life’s been building up towards,” I said. “I’m not ready to die.”
“You better get ready,” she said. “This is the end. God, I can’t wait to tell Vicky.”
“She already knows,” I said. “Your daughter arrested me this morning.”
“What’d you do, act like your charming self?”
I put my head in-between my knees and muttered, “I’m not ready to die.”
— — —
Took a drive through the streets, killing time before the bar opened.
I’d gone to Beckett to get some help with this murder: to try and figure out who did it. But all I got was another suspect.
“End of the world,” I muttered to no one in particular. “I finally accept my life, and the whole fucking world decides to end.” Guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d seen a man kill a god. But even a god was small, compared to the whole damn universe.
I tried to focus less on the apocalypse and more on the murder. At that point I had four suspects.
There was Evan, the literal child of Death who wanted to see his mother for once in his life, who might have planned an apocalypse to facilitate just that.
There was Val Rador, ultimate hero and bloodthirsty champion, a paid killer who’d already killed creatures like these.
There was Lusu, who might’ve killed Stellavia out of jealousy for the way Val looked at other supernatural creatures.
And there was Beckett, my mentor, who was excited for the apocalypse and somehow predicted its catalyst ahead of time.
In the middle of it all was me, some old piece of shit who’d grown too fond of dangerous questions.
I checked my watch. It was time for the bar to open.
— — —
Evan glared at me as I walked in. He was ready, this time. There was no surprising him.
“Fuck you,” he said.
“Didn’t even let me say anything,” I replied.
“Don’t need to,” he said. “Don’t care. You’re writing an article, and probably another damned book. The more you talk to me, the more likely it is I’m going to be involved in it.”
“Just looking for the truth about who killed Stellavia,” I said. “So long as it wasn’t you, you should be fine.”
“Truth,” he spat. “Were you looking for the truth when you wrote Godkiller?”
“Why all the lies, then?” he asked.
“No lies,” I said, lying. “Left out some truths to hide your father’s identity, but there weren’t any lies.”
“You’re worse than your mentor,” he said.
“Beckett’s written some great books.”
“You don’t believe in all her alien shit, do you?”
“No,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean the theory isn’t interesting.”
He sighed, rubbing his eyes. “What do you want? What’s the quickest way I can get you out of here?”
“What are your thoughts on the apocalypse?”
“Not a fan,” he said.
“Even if it’d bring you closer to your mother? With an apocalypse out there, there’s no way you’d miss her. She’d finally take you. Heck, if you started it–”
“I didn’t start an apocalypse to see my mother,” he said. “If she cares so little to see me, I’m not going to fight so hard to find her.”
“Would you kill the world out of spite?”
“No,” he said. “How ‘bout you ask me a question that doesn’t confirm my suspicions that you’re just a stupid asshole?”
That sounded like a tall order, so I asked the question I’d been asking myself: “Who do you think killed Stellavia?”
“Honestly?” Evan said.
“Wouldn’t ask if I wanted a lie,” I said.
“I think you did it.”
“Me?” I asked. “What makes you think–”
“Don’t be an ass,” Evan said. “You’re the one who found the body, and you’re the one who’s at the worst place in his life.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I know how you got the arm,” I said.
Evan stood there, not saying anything. His eyes narrowed ever so slightly.
“Who talked?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter–”
“It does matter,” he said. “Who told you?”
“I could have figured it out.”
“Thing is, you didn’t figure it out. Someone told you.”
“Not many people know,” he said. Then, insight hit him like a train. “You talked to Val.” I didn’t respond, so he said it again, “You talked to Val.”
There was hurt in his eyes — something that made me feel bad for him. I told him the truth. “I talked to Val.”
“He told you everything?”
“Not everything,” I said. “Told me about your arm, but he didn’t tell me everything.”
Evan was holding back tears, but I tried not to notice. His metal arm hung there, limp.
“I’ve never seen you use your right arm,” I asked. “What are the wires and pistons for? Isn’t it supposed to work?”
“It’s supposed to,” he said. “It does, but it hurts.”
“Can I see?” I asked.
“Fuck you,” he said.
“I’m trying to figure something out,” I said. “Can you show me how your arm works?”
He looked like a caged animal, vicious but broken. Talking about the arm must’ve thrown him off.
A small whirring sound could be heard in the darkness. I watched, as Evan’s arm began to move. He raised his shoulder up in the air, the shoulder seeming to struggle with the weight. Evan groaned but persisted. His arm reached about my height, his middle finger less than an inch from my throat.
He closed his hand finger by finger, curling it into a fist. It shined in the light of the bar. The whole process took a minute, maybe two.
“It hurts?” I asked.
“It reminds me,” he said, “of what I’ve lost.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I know it doesn’t matter, but I’m sorry.”
“It does matter. Just doesn’t matter enough.” He paused, as if he wanted to give me time to think about that. Then he asked, “You think I killed her?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think you killed her. But I know who did.”
— — —
The Sun was setting as I walked up the sidewalk, passing the fake green grass, gun drawn. The second the dragon knocker saw me, I pointed my gun at it. It sat there, frozen. I’d never seen stone look so afraid. I walked up to the door and slipped my gun into its maw. The place still smelled like puke.
“Make a sound, and I’ll shoot,” I said. My shadow covering it, I noticed my pinky glimmer in the darkness. An orange fluorescent light turned on, flickering.
It made a sound, so I fired.
Ears ringing, I took a deep breath. I raised my foot and slammed it, hitting right underneath the doorknob. The door cracked, swinging open. I ran in.
“Where the fuck are you?” I yelled, looking at the long winding staircase, the tapestries of Val Rador, the large hanging chandelier. There were three directions I could go: into the living room, up the staircase, or through the unmarked door on my left.
I checked the unmarked door first. Locked.
I shot off the lock and pushed it open. It was a weapons closet. Val had it all: swords, a mace, a crossbow. Handguns, shotguns, a rocket launcher. And, of course, a sword that glimmered. There were two empty spaces where weapons should’ve been.
“You know,” she whispered. I turned around and saw Lusu. My gun was aimed at her heart. The white swirls on her skin swirled quicker and quicker. She looked like a human hurricane, a hurricane of pigment swirling around, trapped, unsure what to do. She looked capable of anything in that moment, and I made sure to take notice of those eyes, those pale grey eyes of her that looked like they’d finally found emotion, finally found tears.