On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The hired man was called Eber, but he knew that his name was as unimportant as he himself was.
The relevant sliver of his existence was not his identity, but rather the silenced large-calibre pistol in his right hand, combined with his ability and willingness to use it on other human beings. That was fine and orderly. He didn’t much like it when others knew his name anyway.
Eber had received the same call he always did. It came at an unpredictable time on an unpredictable day, and the only predictable parts about it were that the timing was inconvenient, and that his acceptance of the given instructions was non-negotiable. That was fine too. He found that life was much simpler when you had fewer options to weigh up.
The city was new to him, and thus so was the building and the particular room, but each had the omnipresent faint traces of familiarity. The buildings were always disused, and tightly locked up to avoid the possibility of squatters or inadvertent witnesses. The rooms were always bare and grim, intimidating in their own way, and unfailingly cold. This one was no exception.
And then there were the unfortunate souls who Eber kept company until his employer arrived, including the man tied to the chair just a few metres away. The man who had long since stopped trying to convince Eber to release him, or to bring him water or a cigarette, or even just to please say one single goddamned word and stop looking at him like that.
These people didn’t have a single type. Sometimes they were men, and sometimes women. On very rare occasions, there would even be a teenager, which in Eber’s book counted as a child. Eber’s book didn’t discriminate, though; it merely categorised. A job was a job.
Sometimes they were angry at first. Sometimes they skipped right over anger and went straight to pleading. Sometimes the pleading was initially more like bargaining, but it always ended up as what Eber would call begging. And ultimately they all reached the silent stage — the accommodation phase — where they helplessly waited for fate to make its appearance.
The Magician was the embodiment of fate.
He was also the sole thing that these wretches had in common. Eber had always assumed that they had each wronged The Magician in some way, though occasionally it was difficult to imagine how — not that Eber ever spent much time trying. It wasn’t productive to empathise. Indeed, it could be profoundly counterproductive in his line of work; as counterproductive as a bullet through the base of a man’s skull. Or a woman’s.
It happened the same way that it always did. Eber had a sudden sense of heightened watchfulness that he would never be willing to call unease. It wasn’t precipitated by any noticeable external stimuli, but he would also never be willing to call it an extrasensory perception either. That was a foolish thought for foolish people. And Eber knew all too well what happened to foolish people. Still, he’d be lying if he denied that he felt the prickle of the fine hairs on the back of his neck suddenly standing on end.
Then there was the entirely inevitable sound of a door opening somewhere nearby. It varied from building to building, city to city, but it always produced the same effect on whatever unfortunate soul happened to be waiting for fate. The man in the chair gave a startled twitch, eyes glancing quickly towards Eber and then away again, his gaze coming to rest on the door opposite. Then the footsteps, approaching metronomically, heavy yet sharp and somehow neat, and at last, a pause.
The door swung silently open, and The Magician entered the room.
As usual, the man was dressed impeccably, and entirely in black. His shoes certainly cost more than most family cars, and his three-piece suit and topcoat were of the finest tailoring Eber had ever seen. He was tall — almost unusually so — but with neither lankiness nor overt muscularity. As a figure, he was effortlessly imposing, but the most unsettling thing about him was his eyes.
The Magician did not even glance at Eber, and instead focused his attention immediately and entirely on the man in the chair, who opened his mouth as if to protest.
“Please don’t insult both of us by pretending you don’t know why you’re here,” The Magician said, and to Eber’s entirely concealed amusement, the restrained man’s mouth slowly closed without having uttered a sound.
The Magician nodded, and then he stared into the other man’s eyes, unblinking, for several long moments. There was a hypnotic quality to his gaze; something slightly too shiny about his pupils, and Eber really didn’t care for it at all.
Abruptly, The Magician reached into an inner pocket of his long coat, and with a flourish he drew out something slim and reflective. The man in the chair flinched, only to realise a moment later that the object was just a small mobile phone. The Magician began to smoothly turn it over again and again in his hand, in a manner so long-practiced that it was almost eerie.
“When one has my power — my connections, my money, my associates — a mere phone is a magical artefact,” The Magician said thoughtfully. “It can alter reality to better suit my tastes. Which brings us to tonight’s matter at hand.”
The man in the chair tensed again, and Eber was genuinely surprised that there was no pleading at this point. No exhortation to reason, or an apology, or an appeal on the behalf of loved ones. There was nothing at all, in fact, and Eber risked a quick glance at the unfortunate man’s face. He immediately regretted the move when he saw the strange, glassy-eyed expression on the man’s face.
The Magician took a step closer now, and then reached down with one hand to just barely brush the sitting man’s cheek with his palm. It was an oddly intimate gesture, and it chilled Eber each time despite its familiarity.
“I respect a man who understands inevitability,” The Magician said, his voice softer now. “Thank you for embracing the dignity of silence, particularly on such a stressful occasion.”
There was an undercurrent of dark humour in his words, but The Magician didn’t smile. Instead, he nodded, as if the silent and pale-faced man in the chair had asked a question.
“Oh, the answer is very simple. Prosaic, even. I suspect you might readily work it out yourself under less trying circumstances, but permit me to tell you.”
The Magician straightened now; all crisp, dark fabric and blazing eyes, the very air held still as the room waited in thrall. He pursed his lips in the smallest, most arrogant grin that Eber had ever seen.
“I make people disappear,” he said.
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