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James stood at the entrance to the old horse hospital. It had stood proud in London for many years, before falling to poor maintenance and even poorer funds. That was when it had become a ‘market opportunity’. They had seen the scope for it to earn again and had started renting out the stables, one at a time, until the horse hospital had become a market. Each enclosure was now a stall, where once stood a stallion, now a ‘punter’, a ‘ragamuffin’, a ‘chancer’, a fool.
James looked at the sign above the door. It was tired. Tired like the sign had been there since it was a hospital, but clearly it had been weathered on purpose, something to pull in the tourists, those incapable of seeing the difference. He looked at the hope that seemed to be present in the moulds of the mares and mustangs - the new found finance in the brass statues. He shook his head - would have wept if he could.
Those were the days.
He felt betrayed by the term ‘stroll’, but stroll he did, through the market, the early morning bustle, the people pushing, those trying so hard to sell food at this hour - so close to the morning dew, so far from the ache of day.
James had no issue with those people, nor did he have any yearning to succumb to their wants. Both they, and he, had a purpose on this day. His just was more… important.
Crossing the courtyard, his hand running gently over the nose of an overblown statue of a colt, James stopped outside an open fronted store - another stable, surely - and watched those crossing the front of it. They looked innocent, unaware of the thing - no, greatness - that they passed, happy of course, in their oblivion. James could not, and would not, share in this… naivety. He waited for those that would to pass, shook his ancient thoughts from his head, and crossed over… into the store.
The music blared in only the way that music blares in a clothes shop. Over time, James had become accustomed to the changes in temperament - taste - that went with growth - age? -, and was not surprised in any way that this, this vessel, was the same. He looked over to the single person that inhabited the store. The Clerk.
He waved, sort of vaguely, “Hey.”
The Clerk looked left and then right - James was unsure if he were seeking out onlookers or perhaps signaling solitude - and then he in turn responded with the global mark of friendship. “Hey.” The Clerk beckoned him over.
James passed the combat style pants that hung on the hangers, the black shirts, and the gas-masks; So many memories. He glanced around the store, checking for the unwelcome, before extending his hand to the Clerk. He took it, they shook.
“It’s been a long time,” he said.
James could do nothing but agree, “Indeed my friend. But it is time.”
The Clerk looked at his watch, “It is?” he said, none the wiser, “Oh, I don’t know,” he turned and started back, towards the farthest walls of the store, “please, come with me.”
James followed. The Clerk was a short man, stubby perhaps, he was reminiscent of a Shakespearian foil - a comic - yet wise, somehow. “Hold on,” he said, slipping around a curtain, into a changing room.
James waited. He had no reason to hurry. He had no reason to hurry for the last few years so why would now be different?
The Clerk returned, poking his head out from the curtain. “So what is the, erm,” he thought about his words, “plan?”
“I’ve pushed time to the limit,” James said, “you have the clock, yes?”
The Clerk nodded. “It’s here. Do you want to see it?”
“I think that would be…” James paused, “required, don’t you?”
“Hm,” the Clerk shyly nodded, “yes, I suppose.” He pushed the curtain of the changing room back, “come on,” he said beckoning with his nose.
James considered his appearance mole-like as he followed him into the changing room.
“So,” the Clerk said, “had enough have you?”
“I have,” James replied, “I chose the path less travelled once, and now, shall we say that I am ready for pastures new.”
“No one knows what’s on the other side you know. It’s all guess work. Hazy at best,” he said sliding the top drawer of a chest open, “I’ve had this,” he tapped the top of the antique, “since it was made. Hand carved wood you know… they didn’t have machines like they do now… not back then.”
“So how long have you been here?” James asked.
The Clerk stopped and thought for a moment, “About four thousand years, I suppose. You?”
James looked at the floor. “Longer,” he replied. “So you’ve never thought about passing over yourself?”
The Clerk let out a rye snigger. “Many times,” he said, “but you know, I’ve become accustom to handing out the papers to others, letting them pass, sort of like an other worldly gatekeeper. Besides,” he finished sadly, “I’m afraid.”
“There will come a time,” James said soothingly.
“Not if this keeps up, I’ve been run off my feet. You’re the forth this century. It may not look like it, but there’s a lot of paperwork that goes with this.” The Clerk slid a clock from the drawer and placed it upon the chest. It had a small bronze plaque above the face that read ‘James Milton’. He then retrieved a pile of papers from the same drawer. “This is your original contract - as you can see is signed here,” he pointed to the cover of the contract, “here, and here, by you, and here and here, by him. Do you agree that this is your contract?” He passed it to James.
James took the contract - it had been his lifetime since he had seen it - and silently ran his finger over the ink mark of his own name - his own signature - and then that of the contract holder. “It hasn’t aged,” he pondered.
“Neither have you,” said the Clerk. “Is that your signature?” he asked.
James nodded and the Clerk took the contract back.
“According to the terms laid out in the contract between you, James Milton (or whatever name it is that you may go by in this life) and the estate of Lucifer,” he continued, “time has stopped for you - and under agreement - you alone, allowing you to live the life of an immortal until such time as you deem it unnecessary to live and wish to have your life terminated. At such time you will become the soul property of Lucifer, his appointed representative, or whomever so maybe accountable for the continuing prosperity of Hell. Do you understand?”
James nodded without word. He was tired of talking.
“In order to enact the final ordinance of the contract, James Milton, you are required to start the clock at which time your body will decay to the state that nature would have it.” The Clerk stepped away from the clock. “In your own time,” he said with a smile.
James stepped forward to the clock and looked at the hands, sitting only seconds from the strike of midnight - where they had been for centuries. He gripped the small key that protruded from the face between finger and thumb. He didn’t know what was on the other side - what he might find when (if) he passed over. But he’d sure as shit had enough of this life.
He turned the key.
The contract browned, crumbled, and then fell away from between the Clerk’s fingers as it aged a hundred lifetimes in the few seconds before the clock struck midnight, as did James, his body flaking away to nothing.
The Clerk smiled and returned the clock to the drawer. One day, he thought, but not yet…
… so much paperwork to do.