“He was willing to ruin himself for whatever he was doing.” – Richard Kadrey, Butcher Bird

 

“What would you pay, to do the perfect thing?  Even better, what price wouldn’t you pay, to undo the wrong thing?”  His voice was a hissing, buzzing monotone through the tracheotomy hole in his throat.

“I don’t know about all that,” the barman said, pulling a pint and setting it neatly on a coaster, five seats down.  “It’d have to be something pretty important.”

“Ah, but what *is* important?  How do you know?” He tried to chuckle, finger on the metal opening, but it just came out like angry locusts carjacking a VW bus full of bewildered robots.  “There are philosophers who will go on and on about how everything is important, or nothing is.  They’re not willing to make value judgments, for fear of being wrong.  You strike me as the same kind of man, if you don’t mind my saying so.  Value judgments are a necessity of knowing the value of living, my man.  They may make you uncomfortable, worried that other people will think you’re wrong.  Well, when you’re paying the price, you can afford to tell the people judging your judgments to fuck right off.  This ‘everything’ or ‘nothing’ or ‘I don’t know’ will be taken off into the dark and pulled apart, pieces going everywhere, before they’re willing to make a choice.”  He took a careful sip of his whisky, and grimaced with pleasure at the burn of it.

“I think you may have had enough,” the barman said, trying to be the picture of polite nonconfrontation.  The man was obviously a ranter, and there’s nothing like a drunk ranter to drive off the other custom.

“That’s something I’ve heard quite a bit in my time, you know.  That I’ve had enough.  That I should stop.  But you see, there’s still so much of me left.”  He held up his left hand, missing the two last fingers.  “Three left on that one, and all of them strong and dextrous.  Worth quite a lot, to the right person, in the right moment.  All I have to do is find that person, that moment, and give them what they need.”  His lips peeled back in a fair imitation of a smile.

“But I see what you are after, and I will give it to you.  Your level of customer is quite safe for tonight, and all future nights, from my distressing you.  Have a lovely evening.”  He set a few bills down on the bar, whisky half finished, and walked toward the door.

“Hey mister,” called the man with the pint a few seats down, as he neared the exit.  “What’s your name?”

“I’m very sorry, son.  I don’t know anymore.  I made a bad bargain for it, once upon a time.”  Again, the fair attempt at a smile.

“What’d you get for it?”

“A kiss, my man.  A kiss.  From a Lady whose name no human mouth can pronounce.  And with her kiss, I got the ability to make choices that other people won’t.  Not a good bargain at all, but no good mourning it now.”  He turned the knob, and slipped out the door with a quiet click.

Outside, he circled the building, and stepped into the dark and incredibly rank alley behind it.  She was waiting for him there, of course.  She was always waiting for him, if he went looking.

“Regretting our deal already, child?”  Her voice was the wind blowing leaves down the street, steam hissing through worn and untended pipe joints.

“Since the second I made it, ma’am, and you know it well.”  He stuck a piece of tape over the hole in his throat, and lit a cigarette with a long slow drag that whistled and leaked out into the night.

“You may stop anytime you like.  I will give you back everything you’ve given away.  No interest, even, on the loan of the ability.  I have always been generous with you, and your ingratitude will not change that.”

“And have everyone else lose what I get?  No, thank you, ma’am.  I’ll keep on, just as I am.  You’ll pardon my impertinence if it sounds like I try instruct you, as it were, but I would take great pleasure in telling you what I’ve learned, and what I keep on learning.”  He blew a smoke stream up and into the air, away from her.

“By all means, child.  It was your education I had in mind when I made you the offer.”  Can steam sound smug?  Can a wind condescend?  This one did.

“You gave me the ability.  You didn’t give me the soul to make the choices with.  And nothing I give away has even a fraction as much value to me as it does to the people I give it to.  Who am I, to steal from them in such a way?  So you can keep asking, and I will keep saying no, on until the day when I have nothing left to say no with.  And I will be proud of every scar, even though it makes me a monster.”

“Stubborn, and proud, and short-sighted.  We will see.  I will come again, and we will see.”  The sound and sight of her drifted away, leaving him alone again.

 

Well and well, he thought.  Alone is not such a bad thing.  And I can still change things.  There are worse things to be than a ruin.

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