"Shoot me." I demanded, baring my teeth in an expression of mocking. Intent on providing my imminent demise with musical accompaniment, the wind cut through the sky with a mournful howl, carrying the rain to pound against my office window. The gun was a mere foot from my head, shaking slightly as the hand clasping it trembled, though its owner - defiant as ever - betrayed no trace of emotion.
Passively, Austen glanced at the blade embedded in his left shoulder. His eyes, usually so shockingly alert, were beginning to glaze over. Blood loss. Would he remain conscious long enough to pull the trigger? I didn't doubt it. If Austen could be summarized in one word, it would be efficient; he always followed through. Almost always.
"Shoot me. Do it." I repeated my command, my voice unwavering. "Or must I pay you for that service also?"
There was a click as he cocked the gun, and I steeled myself for oblivion. No shot came. I searched Austen's face, seeking some giveaway emotion that would allow me to anticipate his next action. There was nothing; only coarse, sallow skin, decayed by the passing of time. It struck me then that I had no idea of his true age - I'd asked him once, and he'd replied with an expression so bold, so mischievous, that I knew at once he would not tell me truthfully. "Forty-three."
A second realisation hit me: if I died, then and there, I'd die without ever knowing. I reached for the knife. "How old are you?"
His eyes met mine, flickering, then widened suddenly with pain as I yanked the blade from his shoulder. The handle was sticky with blood, darker than I'd imagined it would be - darker than hers had been. The gun moved closer to my head as he leaned forward (point blank range, he couldn't miss) and I wanted to tell him to shoot me again, but he hadn't yet answered my question.
He smiled, full of that same mischief, two jagged rows of yellowing teeth standing to attention like soldiers. "Did you study mathematics in that private school of yours, Al?"
"Don't call me that." I narrowed my eyes, and he tossed his greying hair with amused arrogance. "Yes I did. Why?"
"Three and four," he continued to grin, "use Pythagoras' theorem to calculate the hypotenuse and multiply the result by seven." I rolled my eyes; he'd always enjoyed talking in riddles, giving cryptic answers to simple questions and attempting to confuse me. He often succeeded. If the gun had been in my hand, our positions reversed, I'd have shot him simply for the answer he gave.
The rain had all but stopped, now nothing more than a slight tapping, the previous parade of drummers dwindled to a single drum. Irrationally, I decided that I wanted him to shoot me before the sound stopped. If not now, I'd lose my resolve, and - heaven forbid - perhaps even begin to display fear. No, it was time.
"Shoot me." I was almost smiling now; three times in a few short minutes, I'd uttered a phrase that most people wouldn't dare to in their entire lives. "Shoot me or I'll stab you again, simple as that." But wasn't this backwards? Wasn't I supposed to be killing him?
The force of the bullet knocked me backwards as it tore into me, ripping through flesh and bone at incredible velocity. In the time it took me to register that he'd finally pulled the trigger, the room was already growing dim. My mouth was a door ajar, loose and gaping. My hands fell limp to the floor as a final thought meandered vaguely through my head: this was such an undignified way to die. I lost sight of Austen as dullness became blackness, and then there was nothing.
I opened my eyes to a blinding light, brighter than I'd ever seen. Brighter even than sunlight. As my vision adjusted to this new environment, I became aware that a figure was standing over me; a dull grey blur, motionless yet somehow beckoning to me, dragging me back to consciousness. "It's about time you woke up. How are you feeling?"
I mumbled incoherently for a few seconds, my vocal cords refusing to bend to my will. Then, abruptly, everything snapped into place: Austen, the figure above me; a gun - I'd been shot, died. So where was this? Hospital, my brain informed me dully, you're in hospital. Wonderful.
"How do I look?" I snapped, kicking the synthetic quilt that covered me with all the strength I could muster to reveal a large bandage wrapped around my torso. To my own eyes - which seemed to be in working order, despite slight blurring at the periphery - I looked like I'd been mummified. Except, of course, that I wasn't dead. How unexpected it was, waking up to so much light and a very self-satisfied underling who had absolutely no right to be standing there at that moment. He ought to be in prison. He'd shot me.
Austen's smirk was so wide it could have fallen off his face. "Not my type, but you'll do."
"Get out." My voice was slightly strained, but tone of authority with which I spoke did not fail me. "Get out or shoot me again, whichever you'd prefer." A cigarette was pressed to his lips as he hovered by my bedside, a particularly annoying fly that I had no energy to squash. There was a no-smoking sign on the wall to the left of my head, its message emblazoned in obnoxious red and serving only to emphasise the fact that the rule was being completely disregarded.
He indicated a small patch of gauze taped to his shoulder, and it was then I noticed he was wearing a hospital gown. "Sorry Al, you're stuck with me until this heals up properly."
I closed my eyes in defeat; if there was no way to dislodge him without using force, which I was in no condition to attempt, then I would simply refuse to acknowledge his presence. To calm myself, I began counting to ten in my head. One.. two.. three.. dimly I remembered his perplexing answer to my questioning of his age: a triangle, three and four. Years of schooling rushed back to me as naturally as blood pumped from my heart to my brain. It was Pythagoras: the square root of the sum of both opposite and adjacent squared. Sixteen plus nine - twenty five, the square root being five. Then multiplied by seven, that was thirty five. I smirked in triumph, forgetting my resolve to ignore him in favour of crowing, "I know your age!" My eyes remained closed; his reaction was unknown to me. "You really are younger than you look."
He chuckled dryly, ignoring my insult and tapping his foot on the linoleum floor. "Congratulations."
A weak hacking sound escaped my lips, quickly silenced as I realised just how badly laughing hurt. This brought my train of thought back to the issue at hand: "You. You shot me."
"Only a bit." I opened my eyes again to see him shrug the shoulder - his right one - that remained functional, the same defiance in his eyes as when he'd committed the act. How was it possible to be shot partially? I frowned, craning my neck to search for signs that the bullet hadn't quite fully entered me - a foolish thought, no doubt caused by what I assumed was a morphine drip attached to my left forearm - before I realised: the gun had been aimed at my head, which would invariably have meant certain death at that range, yet the wound was in my chest. He hadn't intended to kill me. Despite myself, I was almost disappointed. "Besides, you stabbed me."
"You killed Jezebel."
"Not my fault."
"Then you let her die." I sighed, sick of the conversation.
His expression, surprisingly, was one of regret. "There was nothing I could have done. It was a head wound, Al. She died as soon as it hit her." That was true enough, but it did not excuse the fact that I'd expressly told Austen to watch her as I left to collect on some money I was owed; it wasn't much - not nearly enough to compensate for the event that took place in my absence - but it was a debt nonetheless, and I was never a man that let that sort of thing lie. My only remaining memory of that evening is the instant I opened the door, the moment that the scent of blood slammed like a double-decker bus into my nostrils and I knew, simply knew, that something had gone wrong. There she was, spread-eagled delicately on the wooden floor with blood cascading from her head, mingled with what remained of her flaxen-blonde hair. My instinct then was to kill - to locate the cause of this and to eliminate it in the most convenient and painful way possible.
The incidents that followed were glorious; the details too horrific to commit to paper.
Austen, at that time, was the only human still alive and breathing that witnessed the death of my daughter, though that was not my original intention. He was supposed to die with the rest, despite the fact that he worked for me; despite the trust and regard I held for him. In light of her death, it was all irrelevant. His death was the purpose of our encounter that night; his death was the reason I lay now in a hospital bed with a gaping hole in my chest. Or was it my own death that led me out into the rain on that miserable night to meet him with the promise of a task, with both knife and gun concealed in my expensive black suit? I'd ordered him to pull the trigger, after all.
A tremor, beginning at the base of my spine and building like a Mexican wave towards my head ran through me. It threatened to explode into tears, but I choked that instinct back down. I'd never allowed myself to cry for Jezebel - or, indeed, for anything. Crying was a weakness afforded only to women and lesser men.
"Didn't I order you never to call me by that name?" My voice lowered in pitch slightly, made calmer by some nameless emotion. Perhaps it was, at last - after weeks of preoccupation with revenge, weeks of grief and hatred and desperation - a sort of peace. Or the drugs that were being pumped ceaselessly into my veins to dull the pain of the wound. It could have been that, too.
I yawned, instinctively casting my eyes across the room to check for potential threats, but there was only Austen, harmless now that the bullet meant for me had left the gun. I knew he would not risk harming me now - especially while I lay in a hospital bed. Besides, he hadn't killed me when he had the chance and would likely never attempt it again. I was safe, or as safe as I'd ever be. And I was alive. That was something.
"Go now. You ought to be lying down until you heal properly." This was not an act of compassion; I simply wished to be left alone. Soft footsteps indicated that he was complying with my request, then the door clicked shut and seemed to sigh with relief along with me.
Slowly, tiredness began to overcome me, as if creeping from the corners of my eyes. Then, abruptly, it dropped like the weight of the ocean onto my injured form, washing over me and further numbing the pain in my chest. My eyes closed of their own accord, and the static behind my eyes faded to blackness once more. Fatigued from the few short minutes I'd spent in conversation, I embraced sleep as a welcome friend.