Last week I shared Part I of this story. If you missed it, please start there! Here’s Part II…hope you like it!
Two Sides, Part II
By L.A. Smith
I tossed and turned, thinking through my options, but by morning my decision was made. I had to move fast, before the Jack could snare any more. It was up to me to stop him. Tariq wanted to help me, but he had no idea what he was up against. Taliban or no, the Jack was a bird of a different stripe. He would tear the innkeeper to pieces if he stood in his way.
It would have to be a fight. I would have to challenge him in a duel, and to the victor belonged the spoils.
I checked my computer first thing. I had sent out a couple of messages last night, to other Watchers, asking some questions, looking for some support. But when I tried to log into my mail, it didn’t work. Nor could I access the internet. Service was down.
We are in this ’til the end. Together. Jacks lied as easily as breathing, but something about those words wouldn’t let me go. Something bad is coming. I felt it too, deep in my bones.
My cell phone was dead, so I grabbed at the landline but it had no dial tone. I strode to the window and pulled aside my curtains, looking into the rain-lashed day.
It was blowing pretty hard, leaves and branches scattered on the streets. An orange light flashed down the road, and I craned my head to see.
Telephone company truck.
The storm had taken down our phone service, and had screwed up our Internet connection too, it seemed.
I had no doubt that if I tried to take my car and drive out of town, a road would be blocked, washed out by the rain, or my car wouldn’t start. Something would happen to prevent me from leaving.
I took a deep breath, letting the curtain fall.
Later that day, I stood by the door to the Lantern, composing myself. I had spent some time going around to the people I had already talked to, and some more that I hadn’t. Good ol’ Bob at the Thrift Store, he had done as I had asked, warned his friends against the Jack. He was pretty dismissive of the movie talk that had sprung up overnight, not being one to be dazzled by bright lights.
But just in case, I had used a little sparkle of my own, one that he could not help be dazzled by.
This was desperate times. If I lost the coming fight, the Jack would still be here, with no one to stop him. I’ve seen what happens to a town when a Jack wins. I didn’t want that to happen here.
So I warned as many as I could, reinforcing my words with a little sparkle, trying to turn back some of those the Jack had gathered under his wings. It worked pretty good, actually, and so I was feeling a little more confident as I stood by the door, getting ready for the end game.
He would be out of here by midnight, I resolved. I had cut his influence. Now I just had to best him in the fight that was coming. I clenched my fists, took a deep breath, and pushed the door open.
The Jack looked straight at me as soon as the door opened, his eyes springing to mine like he had been waiting for me. He looked sick, greyer than he had been yesterday, the lines on his face etched deeper. He nodded at me and hacked into his handkerchief.
I pushed through the crowd that flocked around him. ”I’ll meet you at the Trench in an hour,” I said. “I have something to show you.”
Something sparked in his eye, and a smile spread on his face.
My friends were looking at me with gaping mouths, and again I was reminded of chicks waiting for their next worm.
“Oh, aye,” he said, and even though the music was pounding, I could hear him as clearly as if we were the only two there. “In an hour.”
The Trench was an odd thing. It was a scar in the earth, an opening to unknown depths. About 400 feet long and no one knew exactly how deep. In some spots geologists had measured over 8,000 feet down, but their readings always went a little wonky, and so the jury was out on it.
Needless to say, you couldn’t just walk up to the thing, there was too much of a risk that someone could fall in. An enclosure ran around it, with a gate. A building stood nearby where you could buy tickets, along with a gift shop, and a walkway going over and around part of it which had a self-guided tour.
It may seem odd that I had asked the Jack to meet me there, as it was a popular spot with tourists and locals alike. But that wasn’t where I was. That Trench wasn’t the only one in town. There was another one, that only the locals knew about, about a mile from the big one. A smaller scar, about 30 foot long, but just as deep, as far as we knew. It was on private land, and not easily accessible.
Not a problem for me, though because that land had been my Gramma’s. It belonged to my cousin, now, but I didn’t stop in for a visit. This meeting was just for the Birdman and me.
I had no worries that he would go to the other Trench. He would know where to go, where I was. That’s just the way it was, between Jacks and Watchers.
And in the meantime, the others, who had heard my challenge, would go to the other one, for no matter that the Jack would dissuade them, slip away unseen, his hold over them was such that they would follow. Some of them would figure it out, when they got there and we weren’t there, and head over to the right place. But by that time, it would all be over. One way or another. I would make sure of that.
So at the appointed time I was waiting, mentally assessing possible scenarios for the upcoming fight, looking over the landscape, rehearsing strategy.
This Trench was in a clearing in the woods in the back of the property, at the top of a small rise, a crack in the earth like a crack at the top of a loaf of bread. I was waiting at the bottom of the rise, and I saw the blue jacket coming a ways off, even though the day was waning and the shadows starting to lengthen.
The rain had stopped, but everything was drippy and soggy, and it was cold.
He approached, hacking and sputtering as he came, and I thought I saw him weave unsteadily on his feet.
I frowned. He couldn’t be drunk. The Jacks aren’t affected by alcohol. If they get drunk on anything, it was on the misery and chaos they caused in people’s lives.
He came to a halt in front of me, panting heavily, coughing wetly again.
“Sick, are you?”
He smiled, faintly. “Never mind that,” he said, waving my words away. “I’ll do just fine.”
“What’s this about?” I said, abruptly, curiosity besting my resolve to be quick. “You’re needling me into a fight you can’t win. That’s unlike your kind.”
He barked a laugh, which turned into a wheezing cough. He bent over, hacking and gasping, and as he did, he staggered. Even though I should have known better, I took a step forward, instinctively putting out a hand to steady him.
And he came at me, fast. He was already bent down, low, and he propelled himself forward, grasping my outstretched arm and using my momentum against me to pull me towards him.
His head rammed into my gut like a sledgehammer, and the wind was knocked out of me.
But my training held me in good stead. My reflexes were pretty fast, and I managed to slip away from his grappling hands, staggering a few steps away and giving myself a couple of seconds to get my lungs working again.
Even so, it could have gone bad for me except for the Jack’s weakened condition. The exertion had caused him to cough again, and he was bent over, wheezing just about as bad as me.
I recovered a split second before him. No more Mr. Nice Guy. I darted forward, and as he lifted his head to get his bearings my uppercut caught him squarely under the chin.
I had put everything I had in it, and it would have dropped most men. But this was a Jack, and even debilitated by whatever mystery sickness had gripped him, he was made of pretty strong stuff.
It rocked him, alright, but he managed to stay upright. I didn’t give him any time to recover. I was on him hard, got a couple more punches in before he got his hands up.
The next thing I knew I was staggering back, reeling from a powerful right hook. I felt my eye swelling and cursed my luck.
But it was the only sound blow he landed, as it turned out.
As fights go, it was pretty quick. The sickness that had laid him low had taken away most of his strength. But even so…it was odd. I felt like he was holding something back.
But, whatever. I would take any advantage I had. I soon knocked him down, and paused for a moment as I crouched over him, my fist cocked. I had him, and he knew it. I could see the acceptance in his eye, and my blood surged in triumph.
I lowered my fist. He would surrender to me, and leave, and that would be that.
But he grimaced. “Finish it, Watcher. Do it. Y’know ye want to.”
The thought had crossed my mind, I admit it. It was the reason I had chosen this spot. I could throw him down the Trench and no one would ever know. But that was going to be the last resort, if I couldn’t best him any other way.
I had beaten him fairly. I wouldn’t kill him now, in cold blood, so to speak. It wasn’t the way I worked.
He saw my hesitation. “I’ll come back, and collect them again. It’s too much fun to be had here, stealing them from right under yer nose. Ye ha’ no idea, what I’ve learned already. The secrets yer friends carry, it’s like to turn yer stomach, Watcher.”
“Enough,” I said, shoving myself upright. “I’ve won. Time for you to go.”
He clambered wearily to his feet, hacking once or twice. He wiped the spittle off of his chin, his beady eyes glittering with malevolence as he eyed me. “Not yet, Watcher. Yer not quite ready, me thinks.”
Ready? I didn’t have time to puzzle it out, because he came at me again, quicker than a snake striking.
It took me by surprise, so I was a split second too long in my sidestep away from him. He clipped me, spinning me around, and then he was on me, and it was different this time. This time he was giving me everything he had, nothing barred.
I did the best I could, knew that if I could hang on long enough this blaze of effort would wear him out. But it was too much. He was in close, punching, twisting, wrestling me, and I laid a few blows on him, but glancing ones, only.
He was strong, and quick, and had fought many more times than me, even with all my practice bouts. I held my own for a few moments, but soon I was on the ground, the Jack growling as he wrapped his hands around my throat and began to squeeze.
In panicked desperation I heaved up, ripping and tearing at his face.
And it worked. His grip around my throat slackened, for just a second, but it was the second I needed. I tore his hands away, and pushed him off me.
My momentum kept me going, and I had no thought now, for mercy. He had shown me none. He was scrabbling away, but I leapt on him, and our positions were reversed.
My hands around his throat, my guttural roar loud as I squeezed.
Everything fled from me except for the fight to survive. Rage filled me, mixed with disgust for this creature and his ilk; my strength renewed by the memory of the friends I had lost to the Jacks before and fear for the friends here already caught in his snare.
He was heaving under me, but he was getting weaker, I could feel it, and pressed harder, triumph surging.
“Stop this! Chris! STOP!”
The voice was loud in my ear, the shock of it like a cold dash of water in my face, and it loosened my grip.
It was Tariq, who shoved me off the Jack. I sprawled inelegantly beside the Birdman, who was heaving and hacking in great wheezing breaths. “Not this way, Chris, you must not!”
“What the hell–” I sputtered, scrambling up and pushing Tariq aside. It was his turn to go sprawling. I grabbed the Jack by the collar, hoisting him up, intending to smash his head against the hard ground.
He grabbed at my arm, a twisted grin blooming on his face. “Secrets,” he whispered, and choked and sputtered again, “I know them all—“
But I was foiled again by the barkeep, who leapt to his feet. “Christian!” he roared.
I tell you, I felt that, right in the heart of me, my name resonating there like the clanging of a bell, and I dropped the Jack out of my suddenly numb hands, falling to my knees beside him.
A memory opened up: my Gramma’s voice firm as she prayed for me. Lord, bless this boy, who bears your name and does your work, in his hour of trial and time of testing.
I was young, maybe 5 or 6, and we sat on the porch of her house, looking out towards this very spot, although the Trench itself was hidden by a line of trees. I was impatient, thinking only of the cookies she was baking for me, that smelled so good.
For a split second, I was there, seeing my Gramma, her white hair around her like a halo, wishing she would stop talking and get me a cookie.
Then I was back, the Jack howling and twisting, and Tariq, stern and resolute with his hand stretched towards me.
“What—“ I croaked, disoriented. None of this made sense.
“Look,” Tariq said, gesturing at the Jack.
His howls, though weaker now, still rent the air. He twisted and bucked, but he seemed to be unaware of me, his eyes rolling in his head. Something was terribly wrong with him.
Suddenly his eyes righted, focussed on mine again. “Do it, fool,” he rasped, his voice a low snarl. “I want you to do—” A fit overtook him again, and he went rigid, for a moment.
It would have been easy to finish him off. He was helpless, caught in the grip of whatever illness had overcome him.
But the blood lust had left me, and I felt nothing but pity and horror as I watched him shake and gnash his teeth, howl in one last unearthly screech, and then, in a great shudder, fall still.
He was dead.
We were both frozen there for a moment, the Jack and I, until Tariq squatted down on his heels beside us, and I tore my gaze away from the Jack. “How–?” My tongue stalled, tripped up against all the questions I had.
He regarded me solemnly, and I had to resist the urge to squirm under that measured gaze. “Christian,” he said, shaking his head. Again, I felt that chiming resonance within me as he said my name, muted this time. “You are a Watcher, but you do not see.”
Sudden fear seized me. Was he a Jack? I pushed the fear aside. It couldn’t be. They had one name, only. And Tariq wasn’t it.
But who is he? I wanted to interrogate him, to find out what was going on, to find out exactly how much he knew, and how he knew it. But the words died in my mouth in the face of his quiet regard. “I don’t understand,” I managed.
A faint smile crossed his face. “Ah. At last you show some wisdom.” He gestured at the Jack again, lying between us.”Look at him.”
The command in his voice was such that my head snapped down without hesitation. The Birdman was perfectly still, absolutely dead. My eyes roved over him, but I saw nothing that jumped out at me.
I looked back at Tariq. “What killed him?”
“His time was over. Is that not so, for all men?”
“But he was sick, or something. I’ve never seen a Jack—“ I broke off.
“Look at him,” he said, again.
Prodded by a sudden impulse, I reached towards the body, rolling it towards me. The head lolled limply, his hair caught in a sudden gust, lifting off his face.
Shock went through me like a bolt of lightning, and I dropped him as if burned, scrabbling to my feet. There, behind his right ear, was a small birthmark, in the shape of a star.
A mark identical to my own.
Tariq rose to his feet smoothly. “Now you see.”
And suddenly, I did. I had always wondered where the Jacks came from, who I was, what this strange dance we were engaged in meant. With a slow shudder of horror I saw the truth. “He knew he was dying,” I whispered, and Tariq nodded. “And he wanted to somehow change me—“
Tariq shook his head, sharply. “Don’t be foolish. He was only prodding you down the path you were eager to go.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t want to be a Jack—“ But then my mouth snapped shut as memories of my day rushed back. I had gone around to my friends, to people I loved, and had used my influence on them, sparkling at them to quiet any questions they had about why I was so insistent on them staying away from the Jack. I had seen their acquiescence, felt it, smugly satisfied in my success. They had been wrapped around my little finger, snared just as securely as a Jack snared his victims.
And then what? I had come out here to run the Jack out of town, or I had tried to tell myself that, but in the face of Tariq’s unwavering gaze I had to admit to myself that really, I had come here to kill him. To take my revenge, to toss him in the Trench—
I staggered, a wave of dizziness washing over me. “I would be like him.” I gasped, backing away in horror.
“Yes,” he said, quietly, and that word pressed in on me so hard I almost fell to my knees again.
“And if I had done it, if I had killed him…” I couldn’t finish.
”You would have risen from his death, tossed his body back to the depths, and had taken his place as a Jack, your name erased, your legacy turned to his purpose. And you would have done it eagerly.”
I could see it as he spoke; see me finishing the deed, see me striding away from here, whistling, not a care in the world, my corruption following me like a dark shadow.
And but for Tariq, I would have done it. “Why are you here?”
Something flashed through his eyes, a burnished flame, and then he smiled, and shrugged. “You asked for my help, remember?” His eyes caught mine, his gaze serene, and the breath caught in my throat.
I had a million other questions, but I couldn’t get them out as he turned, walking away rapidly.
The clouds were beginning to part, the death of the Jack bringing the usual summer sun back. Tariq had almost reached the trees when a sudden spear of sunlight stabbed the ground in front of him, and he walked through it and into the trees.
Or maybe he disappeared into that light. It was hard to tell, from where I was standing.
I looked down at the Jack, at one of my own, who had nearly succeeded in capturing me in the same darkness that had enveloped him, and shook my head.
With some effort, I dragged him to the top of the rise, and panting, rolled him into the black rift at the top.
I listened for a long time, but I did not hear anything from the depths.
Finally I stood, wearily, and made my way down the rise, heading for the trees. I was halfway there when my friends appeared. George, and Jim, and luckless Ed.
They approached me, worry on their faces, and congregated around.
“Holy cow, Chris, what happened to you?” Jim said, whistling as he looked at my eye, the bruises on my face. “Where’s that guy?”
I shrugged. “Gone.” I grinned then, feeling light as a feather. “We had a little disagreement.”
George frowned. “You chased him off?” He let out a breath, and I could almost see the Jack’s spell dropping off him. “Ya know, he was a bit creepy. I bet he wasn’t going to make a movie after all. I heard he was a con man. You likely did us a favour.”
He clapped my shoulder, the rest crowding close, eager to tell me what they really thought of him.
Just like chicks around their mama, looking for a worm.
I grimaced. “Come on, fellas, Never mind. Look, I’m tired. Been a rough day. Let’s go to the Lantern, shoot some pool. Waddya say?”
They grinned, and nodded, and I hadn’t used any sparkle on them at all.
Want more original fiction? Here’s the links to my other stories up on the blog: