The Third Act

It was the eyes that did it.  Darbinyan could have shut the door in the man’s face but for the eyes.  When he had opened the door, he had been taken slightly aback by the man’s height, but it was a lean tallness and the apparent lightness took away intimidation.  The face was hard, too, craggy, weathered, the lips thin to the point of absence, but it was a benign hardness, the creases speaking of laughter and honest work in a pasture.  Then he had looked into those eyes.

Those eyes had not just gazed into the abyss until it had looked back.  They had kept on gazing until the abyss could stand no more.  And now they were gazing at Darbinyan.  He had to step aside, letting the man enter, when their owner had said in a mild voice, “May I come in?”

The man wore a dark trench coat, which he unbelted as he stepped over the threshold.  “I have a message of sorts,” he said, unbuttoning the coat, “but I wonder if we might not have some coffee first?”  He stood near the wall, a smile bending his lipless mouth and deepening the wrinkles about the eyes and freezing Darbinyan’s blood.  Darbinyan lead the way to the kitchen.

He filled the kettle at the sink.  He tried to not look at the knife block which stood between sink and microwave.  He realized he had failed when the man said, “Ah, I see you have some sense of what brings me here.”

The man was still in the doorway between kitchen and dining room.  It was a small kitchen, but Darbinyan was not ready to try his luck.  The kettle went on the stove.  The knives stayed in their slots.  He got out the coffee, two mugs, and the French press.

“Oh, good,” said the man, stepping toward the little chrome-legged breakfast table.  “I do like a man who does up coffee the right way.”  He stopped, one hand on the back of a chair, the table between him and Darbinyan.  He reached into his coat with the other hand, produced a big automatic pistol, and without the smile on his face changing in any way, he laid the gun on the table.  It clunked as the handle settled onto the Formica.  Darbinyan flinched.

Sitting on the shiny yellow gingham pattern of the table-top, the weapon looked like some kind of art installation.  Bright steel winked where the dark finish had worn through at high spots.  The pattern on the grip twinkled like a vast compound eye.

“So we know where we stand.”  The man pulled out the chair, arranged it perpendicular to the table, and sat.  His right elbow rested on the table’s edge, the hand flat on its surface.  Not, Darbinyan noted, near the gun, but close enough.

“My name is Ayres,” he said, still looking like a happy farmer.  He glanced toward the gun, and his smile expanded, adding amusement to friendliness.  “Say, you know that old playwright’s saw?”

Darbinyan shook his head.  There was a flash of disappointment on Ayres’s face, knocking down the amusement.  The smile remained.  “No?  Well, we’ll get back to that.  You know, I think, who sent me.  No names, mind!”  He laid his left index finger by his nose, and winked.

Darbinyan nodded.  He wanted to justify himself to Ayres, to explain as he had meant to explain to Fournier.  The money had not been in play, it was just sitting there.  The fix was in, and a payoff on a long-shot like that was too good not to borrow the funds.  How the fix had failed… well, that was beyond his powers, but he had spent the past three weeks, when not arranging the books to hide the missing cash, working out how he would make good.

He opened his mouth to start the explanation.  Ayres held up his hand.  “Yon kettle’s boiled.  Let’s have our coffee, then we’ll get down to business.”

Darbinyan turned to the stove.  He pictured Ayres quietly picking up the gun, lining it up on him.  In the small of the back?  In the knee?  He could not decide which he was more afraid of.  The enameled base of the kettle chattered against the element as he lifted it.

“Take care, now,” Ayres said, and Darbinyan tensed.  “There’s no burn like a scald, you don’t want to go slopping on yourself.”  He turned.  Ayres sat at his ease, legs crossed.  Neither his hand nor the pistol had moved.  Darbinyan realized he was holding his breath.

As he set to work making the coffee, Darbinyan contemplated dashing the hot water in Ayres’s face.  One screen of imagination showed the man reeling backwards, clutching his face, while Darbinyan snatched up the gun.  The tables were turned, and the underdog triumphant.

Another such screen presented Ayres calmly taking up the gun.  He drew a deliberate bead on Darbinyan even as the skin tightened on his head and one eye went milky.

That second scenario was surely impossible.  The first had no satisfactory ending.  Shooting a man as he lay in agony was beyond him.  Calling the police went a way he dared not travel.  Trying to untangle the options, he found the kettle empty, the lid on the press, and the moment gone, for good or ill.

Ayres, who had been watching the operation with an expression of mild interest, now looked Darbinyan in the face.  “Are you sure you don’t know the old saying?”

“I don’t think so.”  His tongue clicked from the dryness at the back of his throat.

“It’s along the lines of, ‘a gun,’” and he tapped the side of the weapon with one finger, making it rock, “’shown in the first act will always go off in the third.’  Isn’t that an alarming thing to consider?”

The dryness of Darbinyan’s mouth became complete.  His nod was badly co-ordinated.

“But we’re not in a play,” Ayres said, and lifted his right hand from the table to make a sweeping gesture.  “Four firm walls, and none to watch what happens here but you, me, and the good Lord.  So perhaps we don’t have inevitability to deal with.  Say, why not chuck that kettle in the sink?  You look quite tense.”

Presently, Darbinyan was sitting across from Ayres, mirroring his posture, wondering in a disjointed way if he could throw himself down the back stairs when Ayres reached for the gun, a question shot through with the follow-up of what doing so might gain him.  Ayres had reached across to pick up a mug with his left hand.  He sat in apparent relaxation, looking not at Darbinyan but at his own reflection in the dark mirror of his drink.

“I used to like tea, when I was a boy,” he said.  “Now I’m all coffee.”

“Oh?”  Darbinyan found the idea of small talk tricky to grasp.

“Aye.  Bad associations, I suppose you’d say.  One tin mug too many squatting in someone else’s shit while serving Queen and country.  Still, it taught me a trade, I shouldn’t complain.”  He brought his face up from the mug, turned it toward Darbinyan.  “But I should be down to my business.  It’s not meant to be a social call.”

He drank off the mug all in one draft, indifferent to the heat of the coffee, and reached across himself again to set it on the table.  “I have a message, as I said.  No… no, I tell a lie.  I was asked to send a message.  Imprecise speech shows imprecise thought, as the old Colonel used to say.

“Now, Mr. Darbinyan, you know what brought me here.  I can see it plain on your face, so we’ll put that on one side.”  He frowned, as if working to remember something, then the smile returned.

“A funny thing.  I’m right off tea, as I told you, but I absolutely love my pistol.”  Ayres did not look at the weapon, but spoke straight to Darbinyan.  Those hard, bright eyes made a mockery of the face around them, which was that of a grandfather talking about his favourite daughter’s brightest child.

“How to reconcile that, I wonder?  I think it’s down to this:  tea is meant to bring comfort, but when its only half-warm and tastes of the bugs in the paddy-water it’s brewed from and your hands smell of a good friend’s guts, it stops working.  The pistol, in similar circumstances, keeps doing exactly what it’s supposed to.”  His expression hardened, the temperature of the eyes getting into the smile.  “Can you tell me what that is, Mr. Darbinyan?”

Darbinyan shook.  Coffee sloshed from the mug he had picked up but not been able to drink from.  It was no longer hot enough to harm.  “It… shoots?”

Ayres eyebrows shot upwards.  The terrible eyes all but disappeared into mirthful crinkles as he roared laughter, beating his knee with his left hand.

The right hand did not move from where it lay on the table.  Not the least bit.

“Hoo!  That is a very….” Ayres paused, groping for the right words.  “A very American way of seeing it, I suppose.  Yon NRA has spent its ad budget well.

“I’ll tell you, then, what this pistol is made for.”  He nodded, gesturing toward it with his chin, but his eyes stayed on Darbinyan.  “It is made to punch dirty great holes in the human frame.”

He sat quite still, watching Darbinyan, whose shakes began to grow again.  “Go on, take a sip.  Don’t let it all go to spoil on the floor.”  Darbinyan struggled to get any of the warm fluid past the constriction in his throat as Ayres stared at him.  “There.  That’s the ticket.  Now, where was I?

“You’re a funny country, if I can speak as a visitor.  Such strange notions about firearms, like they’re gods, devils and toys, all in one.  Perhaps there’s something about them, though, that fosters strange notions.

“By way of example: when I did my business for Her Majesty, it was an important rule that those dirty great holes we made in our fellow man be done humanely.  Isn’t that a corker?  No ‘inhumane’ ammunition, all good, legal, fully-jacketed NATO Standard ball, so it won’t do any lasting harm when it hits a sternum at about Mach one.  Now that I’m on my own, I’m a bit more of a realist.  Let me show you.”

Ayres took up the gun.  Darbinyan turned his head, squeezing his eyes shut, clutching at the mug so hard the handle cracked.  He forgot entirely about diving for the basement.

After a few seconds, when no shot came, he risked a look.  Ayres was pointing the gun at the ceiling, working the slide.  He caught the cartridge which came out, replaced the gun on the table, then very carefully set the shell on its base in the centre of the table, where it canted over a little on the seam in the veneer.

“Look at that little bastard, would you,” he said, admiration and disgust mingling in his voice.  Darbinyan leaned in, relaxing slightly.  The bullet was oddly complex, looking like a tiny Art Deco attempt to build an ashtray into the top of a garbage can, with six little dents around a central hole from which rose a spike.  “That wee fucker goes all big and sharp when it hits.  It’s like shooting someone with a steel apple.  Absolutely not allowed in combat as cruel and indecent.  I picked up a box of them in a store, just downtown.  I’m sure guns don’t kill people, like those chaps say, but shooting people with a gun full of those is a fine way to be killing them.

“Still and all, it makes my job easier.  Shots attract attention, but just one shot and folks only look up from breakfast and wonder what the funny noise was.”

Ayres then fell silent for a time, looking at Darbinyan.  Darbinyan found he had to look elsewhere, but the gun and the bullet made the table too troubling, and the hallway beyond Ayres was too mocking.  His eyes would not settle on anything.

“Actually,” Ayres said, “as much as I like my Browning, and as long as I’ve had it, I have to say that all things being equal, I’d prefer to not use it on any given day.  Are you a reading man?”

Darbinyan’s gaze stuck at the non sequitur, lodging at a corner of the hallway’s door-frame before sliding back to Ayres.  The hardness of the eyes had leaked down to make his lipless grin a thing of menace.

“Not really.”

“Hm.  It’s a worthwhile pursuit.  Myself, I like mysteries.  I suppose they give me a professional insight now and again.  There’s a recurrent theme in them, which definitely has bearing, a lesson I’ve gleaned from my reading.  Murders… well, they cascade, you might say.  One murder leads to another, and with each one the police get more determined to track their villain.  They also get more clues pointing to their quarry.

“That’s why, if I can avoid it, I won’t use the gun.  Take our current situation:  if I kill you right now, I have to start thinking about who might have seen me come in here.  Like that sweet little girl who went past on her bike, just before you opened the door.  And maybe she told mum about the big old scary man she saw over here.  Maybe mum told someone, so I have to ask her some very uncomfortable questions before I can leave.”

Ayres paused, still looking at Darbinyan with the same expression, a friendly veneer over unspeakable intentions.  Then, he looked aside, clapped his left hand to his forehead and let out a sigh.  “So much work, and my heart wouldn’t be in it at all.  Work’s always harder when you’re not anxious to be about it.”

He looked back to Darbinyan, and the coldness had been drawn back into his eyes.  He looked almost kindly.  “Are you worried, lad?”

Darbinyan nodded.  His tongue was not just dry, but paralyzed.

“Aye.  Well, that’s part of my job done, then.”  Ayres reached over, picked up the bullet, held it near his face and regarded it.  “That’s why I showed you this fucking little thing.  Nasty.  But if I shot you in the arm, it’s not necessarily fatal.  Extremely painful, and I don’t think you’d have much future as a pianist, as the saying goes, but you might well survive it.  So cheer up.”

The bullet disappeared into a jacket pocket.  “Funny old country, this.  Can’t stop thinking about it.  All the arguments about whether the gun’s to blame.  This old Browning has been with me for… well, a long time.  We’ve been to many a rodeo, as they say.  If someone else gets that pistol and tries to shoot me with it, you know what it will do?”

The pause spun out.  Darbinyan couldn’t take his eyes from the gun now.  The end of the barrel, shinier than the steel showing through the worn finish, glittered like a ring in a fairy tale, a hypnotic item of terrible power.

“It will shoot,” Ayres said eventually.  “If the man who has it knows how to point it, it will put one of those bastard bullets in me.  The gun doesn’t care.”

Another pause.  Darbinyan’s mental cinema began again, presenting him as the inverse of an action hero, springing into motion only to get pistol-whipped by the faster and more experienced Ayres.  It showed him on the floor, clutching a broken jaw in one hand, the other held out, beseeching, until Ayres emptied the gun into his legs.  Six shots?  Ten?  Twenty?  Darbinyan had no idea.

The fantasy began to take on a taste of precognition.  Ayres’s apparent abstraction as he sat there was taunting Darbinyan to try for the weapon.  He thought he could feel his own hand moving towards the thing.

Ayres stood suddenly, sending a galvanic spasm down Darbinyan’s spine.  “Sorry,” he said.  “I’m getting old, I guess.  Go off on maunders.”

He reached for the pistol, without glancing toward it as he looked into Darbinyan’s eyes.  There was no hesitation in his hand as it found the grip, the weapon almost moving to meet him.

“Have I delivered the message, Mr. Darbinyan?”

Darbinyan nodded.

“That’s good.  Oh, look.  Isn’t that sloppy?”  He turned the weapon, the muzzle passing directly before Darbinyan’s eyes on the way to pointing at the floor.  “I’d do myself an injury, stepping out with the safety off.”  He did something with his thumb.  As far as Darbinyan could tell, there was no change in the gun.

“Two observations, Mr. Darbinyan,” Ayres said, the weapon still pointing to the side, his thumb still on the safety.  “First, I wonder if you’ve thought to have a realtor look this house over?  Could be a real packet to be had on a sale.

“Second….”  Darbinyan watched all the good humour drop from the man’s face.  The relentless eyes spread their influence, the whole person across from him becoming an avatar of cosmic indifference.  Darbinyan would have blubbered if only he could have drawn the breath to put behind it.

“I spoke earlier of inevitability.  Of dramatic conventions.  You get a choice, Mr. Darbinyan, if this is the end of our little play or only an intermission.  I’ve been told to wait three weeks.  Use this time poorly, and there is no running away that will not end with you in a room with me and my pistol.”  The weapon rose beside his face as he adopted the posture of a firing squad commander.

“Use the time well, and we defy dramatic convention.  This becomes the end of our little play, and this,” he shook the gun a little, then slipped it inside his coat, “never goes off.”

He nodded, and some vague hint of humanity came back into his features.  “Cheers.  I’ll see myself out.”

“The Third Act” ©2015 Dirck de Lint.  This story has also appeared in Issue 7 of Trigger Warning: Short Fiction with Pictures.

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