"So, what happens now?" the sniper asked me.
"I guess you can go." I said, still keeping the axe firm in my hand - I'm not stupid.
"He didn't tell you to chop me up?" he tilted his head toward Jack who appeared to be waiting for me, "Smash me up some for trying to shoot him?"
"Not unless I had to." I said.
"Can I take my gear?" he asked, pointing to the canvass bag and his rifle, "It's how I make a living. I got three kids I take care of."
"Sure. Why not." I said, stepping back to give him clear passage to the door, "But you leave first." Before he gathered his things he stepped forward and extended his hand, "My name's Bob."
I shook his right hand with my left, keeping my grip tight on the axe - again; I'm not stupid.
"Max." I told him.
"You're alright, Max. I hope to see you around."
"I thought you had to move."
"People show up again eventually. Longtime's funny that way." he said, dropping the three shells between his fingers into his canvas bag then carefully lifted the Sharps, levering out the shell inside its chamber and lowered the hammer. He dropped that shell into his canvass bag as well, closed it and slung the strap over his shoulder and carried the Sharps in his other hand, the barrel pointed discretely at the floor. I followed him out of the room then down the stairs and out through the front doorway.
Bob headed off to the left as I walked across the street to Jack. Bob raised his rifle in a salute.
"Sorry Colonel." he called, "No hard feelings?"
"Not a one, Robert." Jack called back, "Send my love to the children."
"I will." Bob said and slipped around the corner.
"You know that guy." I said, thinking Jack was a screwball for being so cordial with a guy who'd been prepared to assassinate him.
"Yes. Robert is a freelance who contracts his services to the current bidder." Jack said, adjusting his clothing after getting a bit ruffled during the sword fight, "This is going to put him in Dutch with Peacock, but that's the nature of this game."
I wondered what sort of game involved snipers and sword fights.
"Now I believe I owe you a hearty meal." Jack said, "Shall we retire to my abode?"
I let him lead me down the debris scattered street.
"You won't need that." Jack said, looking down at the fire axe.
"I think I'll hang on to it for a while." I said.
"As you wish."
While we walked along I finally took some time to get familiar with my surroundings. The street was narrow - definitely not Commercial Drive or Broadway, and the buildings on either side were a mishmash of old and older. I looked up and saw that the sky was an expanse of red-tinted charcoal - like the worst case of smog I'd ever seen. The air itself was saturated with that annoying shade of red that comes from sunlight struggling its way through smoke. As I was looking up I saw an old wooden house tenuously perched on the flat roof of an old brick building like a strange mushroom.
"What the fuck is that all about?" I asked, motioning to the house squatting lopsided on top of the building that looked like a tenement from the 1920s.
"Ah, yes." Jack said, glancing up, "That happens occasionally; when a new building falls up, the one it's replacing rides up on top of it instead of collapsing."
"Where am I?" I asked, thinking maybe I did die and was now in some manifestation of hell. How can a building fall up under an old one?
"Let's save that conversation for after dinner over a glass of Sherry." Jack said.
"It's fortified wine from Spain."
"I'll try anything once."
As we walked the six blocks to his 'abode', I scanned the area in the dim light as sunset painted the world crimson before surrendering to the silky darkness of night. I could see people's faces observing us through windows that didn't have any glass, and a few walking furtively the way people do when they want to avoid other people. We passed one guy who was shambling down the centre of the street, one foot almost dragging, both hands flopping in front of him like socks on a clothesline. As we came abreast of him I saw his eyes were dull and one had a droopy eyelid. I also noticed that a good part of his skull was missing, an area about the size of a softball caved in behind his left ear.
"Jesus Christ." I muttered. Jack glanced at the caved-in-skull guy.
"Don't mind the gomers, they're harmless." he said.
Jack lived in a pub called 'The Horseless Coach', with old, greyed wooden boards nailed up over the front windows. He pulled a ring of old skeleton keys out of a pocket and unlocked the front door, the old brass lock clacking loudly as it levered back a substantial deadbolt. Jack put his keys away and drew the longest dagger I'd ever seen.
"Lock the door once we're inside." he told me as he slowly pulled the thick door open, "I'm going to check the perimeter to ensure no one has gotten in to do mischief."
"No sword?" I asked, following him into the darkness within.
"Sabre." he corrected me, "They're the best blade when there's room to swing them, but for tight work a stiletto is the weapon of choice."
The gloom within wrapped around us, leaving me near blind, so I stuck close to the door after I'd locked it behind us. Jack knew the layout by heart so he made short work of checking the ground floor, then he bounded upstairs and I heard the floor creaking as he walked around up there. Satisfied, he skipped back down and walked around and lit a series of candle stubs that brought the place to life with a golden glow.
It was a British pub like all British pubs; heavy oak furniture and bar; long handles to pull pints; rows of unmatched steins; the obligatory dart board and framed paintings of royalty I didn't recognize, not to mention the large Union Jack nailed to the wall that looked like it had been through a war.
"Welcome to my home." Jack said with a theatric bow and a laugh, "My home is your home, so long as you behave." I set the axe down and leaned it against the wall as Jack took off his cloak and lifted his sabre's baldric off and hung both behind the bar on wooden pegs.
"Stout or lager?" he asked, taking down two of the steins.
"Lager." I said and took a seat at the bar. Jack opted for stout and pulled us each a pint. I sipped mine and was pleased it was a strong lager with a deep skunky aroma, and as soon as I tasted it I realized how thirsty I was and downed half of it in one long go. I sighed and sucked the foam out of my moustache.
"That hits the spot, thank you." I said as he took a healthy pull of his stout.
"Ah." he said with satisfaction, "Sabre play is thirsty work. And you're welcome."
"So, who's Peacock?" I asked.
"A fanatic." Jack said, "But a fanatic with an growing base of followers."
"What's his game?"
"Power, like all fanatical leaders with delusions of grandeur." Jack said, sitting down on the tall barkeeps' stool on the business side of the bar, "He claims to have visions of a better future, 'enlightenments' he calls them. He bandies about all the catch words men who lust for control of nations spout; 'destiny', 'fate', 'discipline', and 'a new order'."
"He's planning a coup?" I asked, taking another healthy pull of my lager.
"Something like that." he answered, "There is no central government here to overthrow though."
"Last I looked, we live in Canada." I said, "And it has Federal and Provincial governments."
"You're from Canada, Max." Jack said, giving me a cautious look, "You're not in Canada any longer."
"Then where am I?" I said, seeing his caution and raising him a suspicious squint.
"It has many names; the 'in-between', 'shadowland', 'neverland', 'pergatory', some even call it 'hell' or 'hades'. Most call it Betwixt."
The last threw me a bit, remembering the garlic stinking man on the Sky Train.
"Just before I got here I met a man who said he'd been to Betwixt." I said, "He said he died here."
"Ah. A malingerer." Jack said, sipping his stout, "Poor bastard had it wrong; he didn't die here - he came here when he died. The experience confuses some. They get things out of order."
"I have no fucking idea what you're talking about, Jack." I said and downed the last of my pint, setting it down on the bar. Jack rose and pulled me another lager and pushed it across the bar to me.
"I feel I should offer you something stronger." Jack said, "You might need it."
"Spill." I said.
"Tell me what you're going to tell me." I said.
"Ah." he said, settling himself back on his stool, "Tell me; what were you doing just before you found yourself here?"
"I was riding the Sky Train, trying to stay warm."
"It's ... never mind, it's a train."
"Were you in a fight?"
"Did the train come off the rails?"
"No. I was sick is all." I said, tired of the guessing game.
"Ah." he said, satisfied at last, "Very sick I imagine."
"Yeah. I was full of infection."
"And then you weren't."
"Yeah. When I got out of the train and stepped onto the platform, I ..."
"... felt wonderful." Jack interrupted, "No more pain. No more fear. Feeling light as a feather and more awake than you'd ever remembered."
"Something like that." I said, "So, quit dancing around; what is this place?"
"Betwixt is where dead things go." he said evenly.
"Get the fuck out of here." I growled and buried my nose in the stein to take a long drink to wet my suddenly dry mouth.
"You're dead, Max." Jack said and I heard the gentle compassion in his voice.
The thing was, being dead was exactly what I'd already suspected I was from the instant the pain and fever had vanished on that train station platform. There were no spontaneous recoveries from a double kidney infection that had turned a person's blood septic. Seriously, the poison surely had gotten into my brain by then, and maybe this was still my dying hallucination. But it sure as shit felt real. The lager was a good selling point for this not being a hallucination. I flashed on the image of my body laying face down on the Commercial and Broadway Sky Train station platform, the gasping crowd who'd just witnessed Max Brandt fully commit to his final face-plant.
I always thought it would be a bullet through the back of the head, or a caved-in skull during a scrap, or maybe shanked in the prison showers by a rival club. Max Brandt; done in by a stubborn kidney stone. How fucking spectacular.
"I'll leave you to allow that to settle in and go prepare us some dinner." Jack said and strode off through a doorway into what had to be the pub's kitchen, "Hopefully by then your appetite will be back."
So this was it? Everything I'd ever done or would do was over? I'd never ride another Harley, never crack another uncooperative skull, never get laid on a Saturday night by some stripper down at the Orange club. My sometimes had all turned into never agains. I'm sure there were people in the world rejoicing that I'd checked out of the beating heart club, but surely someone would miss me.
I'd never see my kid again. Sure, Holly had cinched that noose tight before Stephany's seventh birthday with all her restraining orders bought and paid for with lies and false accusations, but there was always the hope that when Steph turned sixteen or even eighteen, she'd be curious about her old man and come looking for me. Maybe she would still come looking and find my grave - if they gave me a grave, or Holly might let her have my ashes and Steph could scatter them wherever children put dead parents.
I sat and drank my lager and stared at the candle burning on the bar in front of me, wallowing in the depths of my pity party. Woe-is-me; poor Max, gone and soon to be forgotten, cast out of the world and into this shithole.
"Jack?" I called.
"Yes, Maxwell?" Jack leaned back to look through the doorway, stirring something on the stove that was sizzling.
"Half a tick." Jack said, "These bags of mystery are almost done, if I leave them now they'll burn."
I waited and Jack appeared with two plates of fried sausages, mashed potatoes, and peas. He carried the cutlery in the breast pocket of his vest.
"Bags of mystery?" I said, looking at the sausages.
"Bangers. One never knows what's in them." Jack chuckled as he pulled two cloth towels out from behind the bar and set us both up. Then placed a bowl of salt and a jar of a brown sauce between us, "One can only hope the ingredients walked on four feet before coming to the table."
"What's the brown sauce?" I asked.
"Brown Sauce." Jack chuckled as he slid his stool into place and sat, "You Yanks call it steak sauce."
"Ah, yes. Americans were the rebellious ones." Jack said, "Now, you wanted something?"
"Yeah." I said, motioning toward the candle, "It's getting longer."
When Jack had lit it, it was no more than a stub, but as I'd been staring at the flame it had grown to a good three inches high.
"Yes, they burn up instead of down." Jack said like it was the most normal thing in the world.
"What happens when they get full size?"
"They disappear." Jack said then flashed his fingers, "Poof."
"How is that possible?" I said, sitting up and trying a piece of sausage - it wasn't bad, even without the brown sauce.
"I'm not sure. Things work differently in Betwixt."
"So, everything is backwards?"
"No. Sideways more like." Jack looked thoughtful, "None of us really know the rules here. In fact there doesn't seem to be any rules. There's no electricity, but petrol tanks refill themselves. The plumbing seems to work, but when you flush a toilet the water just vanishes."
I squinted at the gaps in the boards over the windows and saw the dull red glow of sunset still lingering. "When does the sun set?" I asked.
"It doesn't." Jack said, "We're frozen in twilight, the dull crimson glow of the setting sun three hundred and sixty degrees around the horizon."
"Maybe this is hell." I said.
"I don't believe that. There are some splendid people here." Jack said, "Plus, it can be a land of high adventure."
"You can try anything your heart desires here. If you receive a mortal wound you don't die, yet if you become hopeless you become dust and a fading memory. Be careful of head wounds though, those can make you a gomer - alive but unaware."
"So those men you hacked up in your skirmish, they'll live?"
"Yes, and if they're smart they'll come back and retrieve their limbs and have them sewn back on."
"And they'll heal?" I said, setting down my fork because I couldn't feed myself and wrap my head around what he was saying at the same time.
"Not so much heal, but they can restore functionality." Jack said, "Listen, old chap, I'm not going to pretend to know what Betwixt really is. I only know I found myself here on the 19th of March, 1858, after a dust up at Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny."
"You've been here for over a hundred and fifty years?"
"Time means very little here." Jack said, appearing distracted, "It's the Longtime."
"Does everyone come here?" I asked, thinking I could look up a few old brothers, then remembering I'd sent a few other nasties on myself.
"No one is sure." Jack said, "Betwixt is a large place. Some say endless."
"What are you sure of?" I asked, a little frustrated with being fed mysteries. Jack lost his distraction and what replaced it was a sadness that radiated from him like heat from a fireplace.
"That it's all we have left." Jack said, "It's all we have."
And that right there killed the party.
Jack led me to a bedroom that I could use upstairs and showed me where the bathroom was, or as he put it 'the water closet'. He went downstairs and I could hear him washing the dishes, so I wandered down and found a tea towel and stood beside him in silence as he washed and I dried and put them away on the shelves above the counter top.
After we were done, Jack rinsed down the sink and I wiped down the counters, then he stood in the middle of the kitchen floor looking forlorn. There's nothing sadder than a man lost in his own home and I knew I'd led him to that dark place, and because I've always believed that if you broke something you had to fix it, I slapped him on the shoulder.
"You promised me a Sherry." I said, and when Jack turned to look at me I saw the pain in his eyes that all men recognize in each other.
"Right you are, Maxwell." Jack said, shaking it off and led the way out to the bar and we resumed our seats - him on the inside and me where a thousand customers had sat as they drank away their wasted days. Jack poured us each a Sherry into two tulip shaped glasses that I remembered were called copitas.
"To brothers in arms." Jack said.
"To brothers." I replied and we sipped and savoured the rich amber liquor. I decided I liked Sherry.
Jack fell silent once more and gazed into his glass, the refractions of candle light dancing in there painting pictures of his memories.
"What was her name?" I asked softly.
"Annabelle May." Jack spoke her name as though it were a sacred verse, "We were to be married that summer. We were going to live on my father's estate. Corbyn House in Oxfordshire. I was a man of means."
"To Annabelle May." I said and raised my glass.
"To Annabelle May." Jack repeated and touched my glass and we drank.
"And you, Maxwell?" Jack asked, a bittersweet smile curling his mouth, "Whom do you leave behind?"
"Stephany Jewel." I told him.
"To Stephany Jewel." he said.
"To Stephany." I replied and we drank, each to the girls we left behind, then Jack recharged our glasses.
"I looked for her for years." Jack said after some silent drinking, "I wandered Betwixt like a fool on an endless and pointless quest. I'm sure many thought me quite mad, asking after a girl named Annabelle May in the land of the dead. I wore out thirty-seven pairs of boots before I found myself here. I was only going to rest a few days and continue looking, but I met a man who was newly arrived and asked him the date and he said it was June of 1952. I knew my search was over then; Annabelle would have been a hundred and twelve years old. If she was meant to come here and I was meant to find her, it would already have happened."
"That's rough." I said.
"Yes." Jack sighed, "But in my travels I saw many curious things. These clouds for example that turn the air the colour of blood, they only exist over land, over where people are."
"How do you know?"
"I found the ocean, Maxwell." Jack said and I saw the twinkle in his eye, "I even took a sail with an old man I met there and he took me out to sea."
"Did you see the sun?" I asked, "The moon?"
"No. There is no sun nor moon, but there was blue sky." Jack said wistfully, "It was glorious. The purity of that colour was like a balm to my tired eyes." and I could see the memory of it as he stared into the flame of the candle beside us.
"I imagine one could wander this land forever, if you were a certain breed of man." Jack said.
"Or live in a pub and host lost newcomers if you were another." I said and lifted my glass toward him and smiled, "I'm glad I met you, Jack."
"I'm glad as well." he said, and as we drank the last of our Sherry, the candle reached its original length, guttered out, then dissolved into an effervescent dust that danced away on the air currents in the room and vanished like the sparks of a firework.
"Poof." I said.
"Yes." Jack said, "Poof."
Copyright © 2021 Aaron D McClelland
Penticton, British Columbia