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across the Lot – what Needs must – Duty –

Across the empty parking lot a looming box of a store, the façade of it a great oblong thrust above the high flat roof, and stained across the front of it where a sign once hung, and now just holes punched in sheet metal where once were struts and electrical conduits. By the blankly dark front doors a sheet of plywood’s nailed to a frame of two-by-fours, and a plastic sheet tacked to the plywood, Future Home, say faded black letters, Columbia River Campus Advanced Disaster Management Simulator. A heavy chain is looped about the handles of the doors, and a padlock, bulky with a keysafe. She brushes a finger down the keypad set in the front of it, and it falls open with a clunk. She starts back, looks around, Leans in, twisting the lock free of the chain, and it clanking falls away.

Dust within, and darkness. Light scraped by scratched door-glass falls to thinly flop against a stack of drywall, a couple of buckets that say Sheet Rock All Purpose Joint Compound. Past that, across stained concrete, a shadowed mound of gutted cardboard boxes, glinting with shucked plastic clamshells. What might be a desk lamp’s shining beyond, somewhere behind a curling row of slender columns in all that enormous darkness, and the faintly tinny chirps of music playing to itself. “Hey, hello?” calls Jo. “Chazz?”

They’re filing cabinets, those columns, a dozen or so in a wide circle about the warm glow of that lamp, tall, five drawers each and each of them painted a dull institutional green, dented, scratched, rusted along the corners and edges. Some of those drawers hang open, crammed with manila folders stuffed with sheets of onionskin and glassine all protecting photographs, glossy photos stuck up, haphazardly tucked away, and more spilled on the dusty floor about, dozens of them, hundreds, and on the desk in the middle of the cabinets, stacks of photos piled atop folders and more folders stacked atop the piles, and a high thin voice singing over stinging strings and piano, William William William Rogers put it in its place, blood and tears from old Japan, and he leans forward to shut off the little radio, dressed all in black, his pink head gleaming.

“Devil,” says Jo.

“Why,” he says, “that makes of this the storied Inferno, where it’s said I rule, and do not serve.” Pushing back his chair, an echoing scrape, and shadows swoop as he stands, hands braced on the littered desk. “Huntsman. Welcome! But we cannot have you skulking in such a dismal Abaddon.” Looking up, he cries, “Yehi-or!”

And chunk, chunk, chunk, that big dark room lights up, great bulbs hung from the ceiling in bells switched on row by row, the glow from them strengthening, brightening, blooming a blue-white glare that swallows the warmth of the lamp. Jo steps out from between a couple of cabinets, red shirt bright, blacks dusty, the mane of the mask in her hand listless. “Vayehi-or,” says the Devil, smiling, but his smile folds away as she tosses a black leather glove to slap on the desk. “Dropped that,” she says.

“Most deliberately, as well you are aware,” he says. “Right!” He claps his hands together. “Where shall we have it. Here, on the desk?” He bends down to press hands and chest against the spill of photos, twisting his head to peer up at her, still there by the cabinets. “There’ll be no stain, nor sticky mess, I assure you. Just a bit of dust, easily swept away. But no?” Pushing himself back up. “You’d rather we were out in the open,” he says, stepping around the desk, a gesture toward the cabinets, and beyond, “where there’s room to swing! Of course. I might kneel, to afford the best blow?”

“What are you doing,” says Jo.

“I yet provide whatever assistance I might,” he says, and frowns. “You do know why you’re here?”

“You went and tried to pick a fight with somebody who doesn’t have the time,” says Jo.

“Even so!” says the Devil. “Where, then, do you mean we should have it? The neck’s traditional,” his hand at his turtlenecked throat, “though a blow from you to breast or belly should suffice, or even thigh.”

“We’re not,” says Jo, “that’s, not what’s gonna happen.”

“Isn’t it?” he says, theatrically quizzical. “Then all this way you’ve come, merely to return to me my glove?” He leans over to pluck it up from the desk, limply black. “I must say I am touched, that you would take such time from what is a doubtless busy schedule to see personally to the restitution of my wardrobe. But,” he shakes it, the fingers of it jiggling, “thus am I made whole; the matter need trouble you no longer, and nor must I.” Then, when she doesn’t turn or step away, “Unless?” A broadening of his smile. “Is there, perhaps, some other task to be discharged?”

“You,” says Jo, and a sigh. “You need to apologize.”

“Apologize!” cries the Devil. “For leaving this behind?” He lets it fall, plap to the photo-strewn floor. “Or rather more, perhaps, the insult done the King, the honor of the Queen – but what are airy words that might suffice to heal such grievous harm?”

“Just, say you’re sorry,” says Jo, and a wave of the mask in her hand. “No need to make a big deal out of it.” The mane of it, lazily a-sway. “Tell me, we’re done, I’m gone, it’s all good.”

“Is it? Really? All of it?” He leans back, against the desk. “But what of it if I don’t?” His smile fades. “For there’s the rub of the green, you see: I won’t.”

“Apologize,” says Jo. “Say you’re wrong, Chazz. Because you’re wrong.”

Looking down, his pink hands clasped before him, “Mine office,” he says, “was restored to me, when off the yoke was struck from about this very neck – by none but our very King.” Looking up, to her. “We would do well, Huntsman, to address each other thus, and what we’d be about.”

“Well,” says Jo. “Okay. Devil. But I’m not going to kill you.”

“A truth, in point of fact. You must destroy me, rather. I’ve been dead; death didn’t still my tongue.”

She lifts her hand, the mask in it, fingertips glimpsed through the eye-holes, thumb curled between two crudely chiseled teeth. Then tosses it aside, the mane of it trailing a dark comet falling to hit the floor, an echoing clack, a puff of dust. “I’m not,” she says, “that’s, not gonna happen.”

Blinking, he looks up from the crumple of mane to her hand that threw it. She’s turned away, to flip idly through the folders and photos in an opened drawer. “Perhaps,” says the Devil, “his majesty was, unclear, in his remit?” And then, “This matter must be settled!” he cries. “Without my contrition, only my silence will suffice!”

“Or mine,” says Jo. She’s tugged a photo free, sepia-tinted, creased, a group of men in sweaters and padded breeches posed about the landing of some great staircase, mustaches and center-parts, a bowler hat, and the one in the center holds a football, white letters painted over its seams, PFCC. “It is supposed to be a duel, right? Trial by combat?” Peeling translucent tissue from another photo, yellowed, two women in aproned dresses on a sidewalk before a storefront, the hand-painted sign above the door that says Eat. “Not an execution. So I might lose.”

Hoarsely, hushed, the Devil says, “Unthinkable.”

“What,” says Jo, “that you might be right?” Tucking the photos back in their folders. “What are you trying to do, here,” she says, turning about. The circle of filing cabinets about them. “What the hell is all this?”

“Huntsman,” he says, “forgive me,” his voice returning, “I’ve not followed your career with the avidity that it perhaps deserves, but: I can’t possibly be your first?”

“You aren’t,” says Jo, flatly.

“Then you must know, the quarry is most dangerous when cornered in its den. Yet,” he’s headed back behind the desk, stiff black wingtips placed among the scattered photos with exaggerated care, “in you walk, daisy-fresh, cucumber-cool, you spurn my last request, demand of me my reasons, why – my garters, stars, and coronets!” He stops there, the desk between them again. “I almost begin to think you hope, against all hope, to talk me out of that which I needs must, now I’ve taken the wheel.”

“If I haven’t got a hope,” says Jo, “you might as well humor me. I mean, we can spare a few minutes?”

A single bark of a laugh from the Devil, and he turns to open a drawer in one of the cabinets behind him. “If the minutes be but few,” he says, flipping through the folders within, “I’d better show, not tell. I am often accused of verbal imprudence,” and he tugs a folder free, “of slathering a dozen over what’s best said with one,” laying it open on the desk, “but I ask you: what use parsimony, when something so simple as this is worth a thousand of them, or more?”

She reaches over to take the photo he holds out to her. Three women, all in black, walk down a meander of paving stones set in a scrap of yard, the first the youngest, black dress shortly tight, eyes hidden behind black sunglasses, long dark hair beneath a broad flat hat, the next in a black suit, flared trousers and a smartly tailored jacket, a bit of veil about the brim of her black slouch, and finally the eldest, white hair done up under a trim black pillbox, and a nondescriptly sensible black dress. Jo turns it over. On the back a worn black-letter stamp says Oregonian, and under that in red ink a date, 4/6/73. A strip of typescript peeling loose from ancient blotches of paste, a caption: L to R Duenna Perry, d. – Mrs. Richard Perry (Arabelle) – Isobella Perry / Richard Perry funeral (departing). She looks up to see him, smiling, arms folded, pink hands tucked away. “What is this,” says Jo.

“This,” says the Devil, a gesture about, “is aptly enough termed a morgue, though the singular designation is, perhaps, misleading: these were painstakingly secured from the archives of two dozen newspapers, or more – ”

“Why this one.” She holds it up. “Is it that she’s, I mean, it’s a recurring thing?” She drops it to the desk between them, the folder laid open on the desk, the other photos within, three women in rich pastels about a banquette table, three women in sepia’d, antique blacks, three women, three women. “I kinda got that already.”

“One of our great mysteries,” says the Devil, “and already you kind of get it.”

“What does it have to do with you stepping to the King,” says Jo.

“The King?” says the Devil. “Huntsman – have you spoken with the Queen?”

“What,” she says, “today?”

“Since morning broke.”

“I haven’t had the, I had to go and, and, I don’t, have to,” she says. “You’re wrong. Flat-out.”

“You’ve spoken with the Gammer, though.”

“She, they, told me where to find you.”

“Of course. But tell me: have you spoken with the Bride?”

Jo’s scowling, now. “I think I’ve maybe said two words to her, since she got here – ”

“I do not mean the charming lepidopterist from Detroit,” says the Devil. “I mean, and here I speak quite plainly: the Bride.” And then, as she looks away from him, down to the photos on the desk, he says, “Are you starting, now, to rather kind of get it?”

“Well,” says Jo, “that’s, that,” and a rip of velcro, one hand worrying at the cycling glove about the other, “that’s not, what you said this morning, which, that she wants to stop the King. She doesn’t. That’s what you’ve got to walk back.”

“Then prove it!” He pounds the desk. “With your blade! Upon this body! Let there be no doubt!”

“Not gonna happen,” says Jo.

“Hunts end in death, Huntsman! Or do you think to set aside your duties as lightly as you do your badge?”

“Apologize,” says Jo.

“No!” roars the Devil.

A deep breath, and she shakes her head. “Okay,” says Jo, “all right, then I guess we’re at an impasse,” and the Devil leaps.

He leaps, pushing up over the desk in a tidy tumble, hanging there an instant impossibly arms spread wide and legs drawn up, and then his shoulder dips a dancer’s roll to sweep a shining black shoe round and out a kick that doesn’t landing crouched hands slap the floor for balance head a-tilt, ducked aside, drawn back from the tip of the blade she’s pointing at his throat.

“There it is,” he says. And then, a careful swallow, “Such clarity, pressed into the moment by the enormity of what’s to come.”

She lifts her sword away, long, straight, harsh light chasing down the edges of it, swirling the basket that guards her fingers lightly gripped about the wire-wrapped hilt. “You startled me,” she says. “That’s all.”

“That’s all?” he says, drawing back as he stands. “That’s all? You pulled steel from the very air. What might you produce if you were, let’s say, alarmed?”

Jo closes her eyes, her sword leaned up and back against a shoulder. “All right,” she says, and opens them. “Thank you,” she says, “Devil, for your apology. The King will be pleased.” And with a shrug she turns and walks away, out between a couple of cabinets. The Devil stands quite still a moment, then, with a shiver, starts forward, “Huntsman!” he cries, heading after.

She’s marching away across the enormous, empty, bright-lit room. “Huntsman!” he cries again. “You cannot do this!”

“Watch me!” she calls back.

“It is a lie!”

“So?” She stops, turns back, “Whatever it is you’re trying to prove, Chazz, nobody gives a damn!” Dropping her arms, her sword held loosely at her side. “Everybody’s, embarrassed – they’re gonna jump all over the slightest chance to get back to business as usual. And one way, or another, I’m gonna give ’em one.” Jabbing a finger at him, across the emptiness. “That is my fucking duty,” she says.

He rushes at her, but stops as she steps back, free hand held up. “I will call you out,” he snarls. “Before court and Queen I will name you a liar. As you love her – as you love her, Huntsman! Think! How it will crush her, to see you as you are!”

And she tips back her head, a shudder of laughter boiling up to a whoop. “You!” she cries. “You don’t know a goddamn thing! About me, about her, about any of this! Not a goddamn thing!” Walking away, turning about again, pointing her sword back at him, “Just say you’re fucking sorry. We’re done.”

“As you love her,” he says, and his brow knits, his eyes blaze, “half so much as I do, strike. Me. Down!”

“No!” she bellows back. Lowering her sword. “You apologize,” she says, “or I go out there,” sword swung back, pointing to those bright front doors, “and tell them all you did. There’s two ways this goes down – that’s it.”

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Paris 1919,” written by John Cale, copyright holder unknown.

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