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Five hundred bucks – The Thing in the Shadows –

“Five hundred bucks,” says Frankie, shoveling the hair out of his face, looking up at the red-headed man. “It’s only fair,” he says. He frowns. “I mean, we’re not gonna hurt her. Right?”

“He says it’s only fair,” says the red-headed man into a slim red phone. He’s standing in the apartment’s open doorway, dark against the soft grey light outside, leaning lightly on a long portfolio tube. “Did you catch that?”

“What?” says the man in the dark gold shirt. Lit by a single bulb he’s standing in a basement at the foot of a sagging flight of stairs. “What’s fair,” he says, half stooping, swinging his head back and forth, craning to tilt the antenna of his purple phone. “Reception’s fucking wretched down here.” Somewhere in the dark something large clip-clops back and forth, grunting. A woman in a black vinyl miniskirt sits at the top of the stairs. She’s eyeing the shadows nervously.

“Five hundred,” says the red-headed man. “He wants five hundred, Your Grace. Half a thousand.” Frankie biting his lip says, “You’re not gonna hurt her,” to the thin man perched on the arm of the couch. “Right?” The thin man’s looking at the handle of his Japanese sword. His feet are bare.

“Five hundred dollars,” says His Grace. He turns to look up at the woman in the black vinyl miniskirt. She shrugs. “This is the ex,” he says.

“Yes, Your Grace,” says the red-headed man.

“Fuck him,” says His Grace. From somewhere in the darkness a lugubrious voice says, “Sir.” His Grace lifts a hand, finger up, admonishing. “We don’t need him. Not five hundred dollars’ worth of him.”

“Sir,” says the red-headed man. He takes a step out onto the balcony. “I’m sorry, sir, I – ”

“Blast and rot, Gaveston, you know this. We could pull anybody off the street for this, anybody in the city, and you call me to ask if I want to pay out five hundred dollars for an ex-boyfriend. Stop bothering me with this shit.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” says Gaveston. He snaps his red phone shut and stands there a moment, one hand on the wrought-iron railing of the balcony, looking down at the little parking lot. A woman cuts across it, trailing cigarette smoke, a heavy white garbage bag held in one hand out away from her body.

“Well?” says Frankie. “What’s up?”

“We have the pleasure,” says Gaveston, tucking his phone into the pocket of his brown cardigan, “of refusing your offer.”

“What?” says Frankie. The thin man pushes off from the couch, headed for the door. He bats an empty Diet Coke bottle away across the carpet with the scabbarded tip of his sword.

“There will be no counter-offer,” says Gaveston, lifting his portfolio tube. “Do have a good afternoon.”

“But,” says Frankie, as they close the door behind them.

The steps down the outside of the yellow apartment building are quite narrow. They go down single-file, footsteps clanging. The thin man lifts his sword and rests it on his shoulder. “Vengeance,” he says, “should never be done on a budget.”

“The Duke has spoken, Orlando,” says Gaveston. He sighs. “And we cannot but obey.”

In the basement His Grace holds a finger uncertainly over his purple phone. “The middle button,” says the woman in the black miniskirt. “The one that says End.”

“Your Grace,” says the lugubrious voice from somewhere in the darkness. The clip-clopping has stopped. There’s a wheezing grunt, and then that voice says, “He has decided. He will hear your petition.”

His Grace turns there in the circle of harsh light under the bulb and facing the shadows squats in the dust. One hand on his knee he closes his eyes and bows his head. “Erymathos,” he says, his voice ragged. He clears his throat. “You do me unspeakable honor.” He looks up, into those shadows. “My offer is this: two days of safety, and dreamless sleep, and all the meat and cereal, wine and water your belly can hold. In return, come the Equinox, we’ll hunt you with a Gallowglas.” Looking down, he brushes something unseen from his knee. “You will taste the blood of knights,” he says, “and have a chance at oblivion.” His Grace looks up into the shadows again. “That is my offer.”

After a long moment – clip-clop, clip-clop. The shadows gather themselves into a thing that hulks just outside the light. A suggestion of an arc, old yellow in this light, glistening. A black wet eye shines above it. His Grace catches his breath. At the top of the stairs the woman in the black miniskirt covers her mouth with her hand. The thing in the shadows nods, that tooth, that eye ducking once and coming up again.

“It,” says that lugubrious voice, “is acceptable.”

His Grace sighs and looks away, rolling his eyes. “I can see that,” he snaps.

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