Like a failing memory, it was the same old story again and again. Their tales all had a familiar air, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether mine would seem just as stale to them. I looked from face to face, and beneath the façade of fear there was only the musky smell of caricature and stereotype. “My name is Ray Delaney. I’m a private detective.”
“Well. All you’re missing is the fedora, friend,” came a reply from a perfectly proportioned face sheathed in the perfectly prefabricated mould of a literary Englishman. From several feet away, his cuticles were as carefully shaped as the rounded glasses which he was in the process of cleaning with an autogrammed handkerchief.
Like the victims of some addiction, they proceeded one and all to explain who they were. A San Francisco hooker with a sad-eyed stare of loneliness belying her social status. A writer with a transatlantic accent and a penchant for unbelievable similes. A Russian scientist with a neat moustache and a mysterious demeanour. As a multilingual child genius began to interpret for those who spoke strange and unfamiliar tongues, concrete scraped and figures dressed in dark swirling cloaks appeared surrounded by a brief halo of natural light. With the movement of one hand, all was dark. Then came the shouts, screams and scuffs of feet being unwillingly bound.
* * *
Whispers and protestations provided the soundtrack to darkness, rope burn and headache the special effects. As much as I struggled, I couldn’t shift the blindfold, leaving only a peripheral glow of what seemed to be natural light. But suddenly the light grew weaker to my left, and I could feel something – someone – passing by me. I could swear that there was a pause before they continued walking. A weary silence descended. Then came a voice. It spoke with a gravel-shaped growl.
“Stories have a tendency to begin,” it began. “Then they continue along a pre-set path, more often than not strewn with obstacles which an omniscient force has the gall to drop at regular intervals, and, after avoiding the noiseless fall of printed matter throughout its course, the same, or occasionally a new version of said, story comes to a natural sense of resolution. My friends. I wish to give you a long-awaited sense of resolution.”
I breathed out, not realising that I hadn’t done so during what I feared was only an introduction. Nothing but the afterglow of sunlight and the movement of this shrill piercing voice around us.
“You have been drawn to us, brought here for the final moment of our delectable tale. You have all had your role to play, and you have played it to the ovations of the most discerning audience. You have proven your worth time and again, safe in the knowledge that we would not let you stray from your lines, would not let you drift away from the script. And now – not without the help of my co-author here – you have come back to us for the next and final act of this little story. You shall leave here in unity to spread the words of Lichttrager, the fallen light-bearer who led us for so many years. You shall be his disciples.”
Whispers and protestations grew again, and I could feel the shrieks and twitches of my blindfolded companions as darkened figures moved around us. The voice continued, getting closer and closer, inch by inch, second by second.
“Yet time pushes on against us, anticipating both physical and cultural decay to such an extent that the modern has been twisted into an absurd caricature, a defiantly meaningless post-modern, leaving its descendants to bask in the globally warming glow of whatever is supposed to succeed the post-everything, no matter that defining one’s existence as ‘meaningless’ is a paradox as big as they come.”
A hand reached for my head, roughly taking hold of both knotted hair and knotted cloth, pulling at the latter with jagged tears until it came loose. I closed my eyes to allow them time to adapt to the sudden influx of light, but with the sucking of whisky-sodden phlegm, a teaspoonful of spit landed just below my left eyelid, startling them open. As the silhouette faded into existence, blood rushed to my temples, and I screamed at the face before me. “Nachtigall!” He stared right back with a deathly rictus grin. If I could have moved, his neck would’ve been broken in three places by now.
But just as suddenly he glanced to my left and began to back away, leaving me staring at him uncomprehendingly. I realised why. The shrill, somehow familiar voice had not been his. The voice belonged to the figure behind my shoulder.
“Friends. We will remake the world in our image. We will bring meaning to the masses. We shall give them resolution, you and I. A farewell to those stories which are overdue an ending. And the epilogue? The epilogue shall be ours.”
The voice was coming into my peripheral vision in waves of light and darkness, barely visible to the human eye. A dark reflection, clothed in black furls and folds. It moved, this feminine figure, with a grace rarely seen, and yet it was entrancing, like – like the book, I realised. The book that started all of this. No doubt Nachtigall had something to do with that. His ciphers and symbols. That son of a bitch.
I tore my gaze away from the cloak, moving my eyes slowly up and across the shallow curves of her frame. As she stopped directly in front of me, my eyes came to rest on her face. My heart stopped for what felt like a half hour, and my mouth drifted open and shut as synapses long-dormant began to criss-cross a web of deceit, connecting and reviving decades of traces which I’d chosen to ignore. I spoke, stuttering like a lost child. “Buh…how d…” Her features grew a familiar Mona Lisa smirk, completing this vision of a satanic Virgin Mary. I gulped once, and said just one word. “A…Angeline!?”