Theo remembers fighting Fire God.
In all fairness, Fire God was pretty drunk; kicking away the prostitutes at his feet and tugging on a stained bathrobe as he stumbled up from his makeshift throne of bamboo and twine.
“Fuck you, round-eyes,” he shrieked, adjusting the imported, ornate noh mask covering his face. “My power bigger than any Yank’s! Get your ass back to Saigon before it get burned.”
Theo had been in country for about four months; based in the capital as an MP. That night, PFC Kim and himself were investigating another report of black market goods in the Cholon district. While Theo took stock of the numerous crates marked “Explosive” lining the walls, Kim attempted to take the flailing, self proclaimed deity into custody.
“You on my list now, cowboy!” Fire God spat between gulps from the bottle of Wild Turkey he clutched. “I know Big Mao - one call from me and he blow up Washington. Boom!”
With that, Fire God chucked the bottle at Kim and kicked over the nearest crate, disgorging its contents. Theo drew his sidearm and raced over to join the fray as Fire God produced two (somehow) lit fireworks from the pile of recreational incendiary devices at his feet.
“Merry Christmas, assholes!” Fire God screamed, charging them; the roman candles spewing sparks and small bomblets of color.
But it’s April, Theo thought, pumping a round into Fire God’s leg and bowling the festive assailant over like a pin in a league game. Too late, Theo noticed the flaw in this plan as the fireworks spiraled out of Fire God’s hands, shooting their payload around the room and setting several crates ablaze.
Kim was on his feet, trying to pull Theo towards the door when one of the crates detonated in a blinding display of red, white, and blue. Confronted thusly by a numbing barrage of sight and sound, Theo somehow found the courage to scream and pass out.
Theo wakes with a start. A dull ringing still throbbing through his head. Realizing he’s awake, a head-splitting migraine descends to make sure he’s okay. The sky above is streaked with clouds given a dull orange hue by the waning sun. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just that he usually doesn’t view such things from this angle; that is, lying prostate on the ground, staring upwards.
With a groan, Theo props himself up, rubbing the space between his eyes. A moment passes while he tries to remember how he got here. He remembers driving home. Stopping at a light. Guys in masks with guns. Then a really creepy guy who-
Theo abruptly pats at his shirt, searching for gaping chest wounds. Nothing. His head feels bullet-less as well.
How the hell is he alive?
Looking around, he notices another detail: his car is gone. So are the gunmen. Also, the intersection, for that matter. Slowly, Theo rises from the pavement, trying to get his bearings.
He’s standing outside the entrance to a warehouse; its gate locked and the parking lot beyond mostly empty. Down the road, he can see commotion. It seems there’s a number of police vehicles and emergency crews forming a ring of flashing importance around the intersection-
Not only is the warehouse he’s outside of his place of employ, but this entrance drive is the very same one he pulled out of earlier. All told, he’s maybe five hundred yards from the traffic light where he just-… What? Died?
Unsteadily, Theo starts walking down the sidewalk towards the crime scene, not sure if he’ll see the police loading his corpse onto a stretcher or be mistaken for a zombie and shot or what.
He’s about halfway there when a familiar, beaten, primer-grey Ford pulls out from a side street and revs towards him. Theo tenses, looking for an escape route as the clunker backfires, accelerating across the two-lane road. Nearly on top of him, the car swerves abruptly; pulling up flush to the curb and missing him by about a foot.
The window rolls down.
Theo wonders if you can die twice.
The creepy guy from before (Evan? Egon?) leans out the passenger window and says “Need a lift?”
Theo stares at him.
“Oh, sorry about earlier.”
Theo glares at him. “Am I dead?” he asks.
Creepy Guy blinks, confused. “Uh, no.” he replies.
Theo punches him.
Creepy Guy’s head whacks against the window frame from the blow. “Whoa! Ow! Okay, okay!” he exclaims, trying to get out of the vehicle as Theo kicks at the door.
Theo backs up; his fists in a ready stance as the guy stumbles out of the car. “What the hell did you do to me?” he asks.
“I saved you. You’re welcome.”
“You shot me and I woke up a block away from where I was.”
“If I hadn’t, those Foot Clan rejects back there would have,” Creepy Guy interjects, rubbing his tenderized cranium. “In which case, you wouldn’t be standing here complaining.”
Theo digests this. Reluctantly, he lowers his fists. “You still didn’t answer my question,” he says.
“How did I even get over here?”
“I had a plan. You needed to be elsewhere for it to work.”
“That’s ‘why’, not ‘how’.”
“For me, the two are often the same.”
Theo scrutinizes him. “What are you?” he asks.
“I could ask the same of you.”
“Yeah, but I think you already know that.”
“What gives you that idea?”
“Interrupting gun-toting, masked lunatics in the middle of attempted manslaughter isn’t something you do on a lark. You knew why they were after me.”
Creepy Guy blinks. “Don’t you?”
“All I know is that a bad day at work was compounded by having somebody try to kill me.”
“Oh, wow… Um. Okay. You know how there’s the KKK, neo-Nazis, and other assholes like that?”
“Well, imagine a group that espoused the purity of the human race; except less about what religion or color you happen to be and more like how old you are.”
Theo stares at him. “There’s a group that shoots old people?”
“More like, unnaturally old people.”
Theo rubs his eyes again. “Right. Of course.”
“You have any family?”
“Obviously, not for a long time.”
“No, I mean like, any friends? Maybe a spouse?”
Theo sighs, feeling very old all of a sudden; he tells himself it’s just been a long day as he replies “No. Why?”
“Well, if they’ve marked you, then anyone you know is fair game; another target to get to you.”
“Marked.” Theo muses. “I’m marked.”
“They’ve marked me.”
“I’m fucking marked.”
“How did that happen?” Theo says, throwing up his hands. “It’s not like I know any crime lords. In fact, I don’t know anyone. I have a shitty little apartment where I watch TV when I’m not working at my worthless job watching glorified slaves perform manual labor. Just minding my own business, same as I’ve done the last nineteen-hundred years, not bothering anyone or making waves as I trundle blithely onwards through the decaying fabric of this civilization that now, apparently, is actively trying to murder me-”
Theo stops. Seeing Creepy Guy wincing, he realizes his voice has risen to unsafe levels. Reluctantly, he shuts up. They both look down the street to the crime scene. Several news vans have arrived; disgorging camera crews and finely coifed brunettes into the fray.
Creepy Guy sighs and reaches into the car, fumbling for something. He emerges with his duffel bag and the keys, tossing the latter to the confused dock manager.
“I should get going,” he says, shouldering the bag. “Be careful.”
“Wait,” says Theo. “I thought you were offering me a lift?”
“I am. Car’s yours. Either that, or you can claim ownership of the media centerpiece a block down.”
“Well, I’ll have to eventually. Besides which-… um… Evan- ”
“Well, Eben, I’d imagine it’ll draw considerable notice if these guys are already keeping tabs on me since I’ll be tooling around in the same ride some of their friends got killed in.”
“I never said I killed them,” Eben says, turning back to face Theo. “Besides, you’ll only need to use that clunker for a few days at most” - he points to the Ford - “It’ll take the cops that long before they run the plates on your car-turned-scrap. You won’t need it for any longer than that.”
“What about those masked guys?”
“You won’t need to worry about them after that, either.”
Eben doesn’t answer. Theo suddenly can’t tell if his eyes have always been that black or what. Regardless, there’s something in them that answers any further questions. Not a look or an emotion, but a palpable feeling; one of finality. Like the event horizon of a black hole. Inescapable. Encroaching.
Theo realizes that he’s not the one who should be afraid.
In a few days’ time, there won’t be anyone to be afraid of.
Eben smiles. The effect is more unsettling than anything else.
“Di te incolumem custodiant,” he says, before turning to leave.
“Uh, thanks… see ya…” Theo mutters, unable to remember the last time he heard a proper farewell his own tongue.
He watches Eben walk down the street, away from the growing crowd of light and noise a block away. The deepening shadows of the nearby warehouses seem to envelop him, his form disappearing amongst the gloom. Whether he seems to physically dissipate at the last second - his form actually merging with the darkness - is something Theo attributes to fatigue and the lack of a strong drink within the past few hours.
Theo walks over to his new ride, cautiously opens the door, and settles into the driver’s seat. He scrutinizes the interior. Sniffs once. Twice. There doesn’t appear to be any sign of a struggle. No blood, at least.
He’s about to start the engine when he spies something in the rearview mirror: a small length of black clinging to the back seat. Theo turns in his seat. In the fading twilight he can’t tell for sure if it’s torn fabric or a stain or what. He reaches towards it.
The black thing that’s neither fabric nor stain slithers quickly away from his grasp, sliding down the upholstery and into the recesses of the car seat with a bubbling rasp.
Theo sits frozen, arm outstretched.
I never said I killed them.
After several minutes spent staring at nothing, Theo slowly backs out of the car and gently closes the door. He pulls out his wallet. Contained within is the exact amount needed for a bottle of Jim Bean from the local gas station a few blocks west. He looks back at the chaos surrounding the intersection; his trashed car at its epicenter.
Theo’s thinking about how much longer he can last.
He turns west and starts walking.