Waiting in Samarra
It was a quiet night. Just Rafe and his friends playing pool, and the old man perched on a stool at the bar. A sour smell clung to him, like he only had a couple of years left, but he wasn't so far gone Emma could refuse to pour him glass after glass of bourbon.
And even he was in a morose mood tonight, so she took a break. Sat at the end of the bar and tried to read Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse, but she couldn't concentrate on the words. There was something in the air, and it wasn't the old guy nursing his bourbon and smelling of rancid rotting liver.
Something's coming, she thought, scanning the bar uneasily. Rafe thought she was looking at him and nodded, flashed her a smile. She barely even noticed.
Nothing different, nothing weird, but even so, she knew. She'd left it too long.
Why had she stayed on in this shithole of a town?
The back of her neck prickled an instant before the door opened.
The guy who came in was dark-skinned, with a youthful face and ancient eyes that glittered in the light. His polished brogues and pinstriped suit probably cost more than she earned in six months, and his focused gaze roamed around the bar, checking every corner and shadow, before finally coming to rest on Emma.
She'd known something was coming; she just hadn't expected it to be him.
And as he made his slow leisurely way towards her, she knew why he'd come. He stank like garbage left out in the sun. Even his cologne couldn't mask it. He placed a hand on top of the bar, smiling at her. And because his eyes made her dizzy, she stared down at his impeccably manicured fingernails, at the gleaming onyx stone in his cuff link.
"Hello Emma." His voice was West Indies tempered with the cut-glass vowels of the British private school system.
"Hi Jackson," she said. "What can I get you?"
"Scotch. The good stuff. Neat."
"I remember how you take it," she said, and she saw the trace of a smile twitch his lips. Then it was gone. She took a breath, forcing back her nausea and poured him a glass of the best whisky they had. That wasn't saying much.
He knocked it back in one, and his lip curled. "I did say the good stuff."
"That's about as good as it gets 'round here," she said, and he snorted, slid his glass closer. She poured him another. "What are you doing here, Jackson?"
"I'm in trouble, kid." He swirled the amber liquid in the glass.
She shivered. "Vision?"
"Someone's after me, Emma, and I'm not the only one. We're all in danger."
"And by 'we' you mean...?"
"So you stopped by to warn me. That's sweet. Now fuck off."
He chuckled, quietly and without humour. "If I was just here to warn you, I would have picked up the phone. I respect your privacy, remember?" He set the whisky down and placed his hand flat on the pitted, stained wood of the bar, slid it towards her. She stared at it like it was a snake. "I came to see if I was right."
"Go to hell, Jackson." Her voice was low, weary. Across the room Rafe had stiffened, his eyes narrowed and fixed on Jackson. He didn't look scared, not exactly, but he could tell something was up. He might even be thinking about coming over, and the thought of that made her breath catch in her chest. She forced her expression into a neutral friendly smile. "What the hell good would it do? Not like you can stop it."
"You're forgetting who I am. I'm not as defeatist as you are, Emma. Nothing's set in stone."
"Death is," she said, then shrugged. "In my experience."
He opened his mouth to argue, then sighed. "I'm not saying you might not be right. But we were friends once, weren't we?"
"We weren't anything like friends." But there she went again, lying to herself. Jackson had offered her a safe haven after she'd run away from her bastard of an uncle. Even if it hadn't been entirely without strings. She couldn't trust him an inch, but that didn't mean she didn't like him. And she owed him. She wavered, and he leaned forward, eyes intent.
"You know I wouldn't ask unless I was desperate. Two minutes and I'll be gone from your life. You'll never see me again, I promise you. You want money? Give me your bank details, and I'll–"
Emma gave a bark of laughter. "I don't want your money." She sighed, and leaned forward. Every muscle in her body screamed against it, screamed to keep away from him. This close she could feel the promise of death clinging to him, the air thick and cloying. Her mouth flooded with saliva.
"'Two minutes,'" she repeated, and laughed again without humour. "More like two days. The last time I touched someone by accident, the migraine knocked me out for five hours. I could hardly speak, Jackson. I vomited all over the street. They called a damn ambulance. If I hadn't recovered before they got there..." She trailed off, discomfited. His eyes had filled with concern and she hadn't been expecting that.
"Is it really that bad?"
She picked up his glass of whisky and brought it to her lips. She didn't drink, just inhaled, drawing in the warm smoky smell. "It's that bad."
"I didn't know. I'm sorry."Jackson looked like he was about to say something more, then he shook his head. "At least tell me how long do you think I've got?"
"Best guess?" Emma shrugged. "A day or two. Maybe more, but..."
"But more likely less?"
"How much do I owe you, Emma love?"
"For the whisky, nothing. On the house."
He hesitated, glancing at her. "If I'd known I wouldn't have come, Emma. Although I won't lie and say it wasn't good to see you. I'd say you're looking well, but..." His gaze flickered down her body, his eyes tightening with concern.
"You're not a liar?"
"Never to you."
As he turned to go, she drew in a sharp breath. "Jackson, wait." He stopped, turned back to look at her. "I can't do it here," she said, her voice low. "Girl's gotta work. But meet me afterwards. I'll do it tonight. It'll give me some time to sleep it off before my shift tomorrow."
He hesitated, his eyes on her. The thought of him stinking up her apartment with the smell of death turned her stomach, but she forced herself to meet his gaze. And still he looked like he was going to say no. "Emma..." He pressed his lips together. Something like shame flashed in his eyes. "Thank you."
"Do you want me to text you my address?"
The corner of his mouth quirked. "I already know where you live, Emma love." She went still, staring at him, and he shrugged. "I worry about you. So I keep track."
"I'm going to pretend that's not one of the creepiest things I've ever heard," she muttered,
He chuckled, then his composure slipped, as if he was thinking twice. "Are you sure? After what happened to your mother..."
"I owe you, remember," she said, with a tight smile. "Now get the hell out of here. I should be home about midnight."
"I’ll be waiting," he said. "And thank you."
"Don't thank me yet," she told him. "Not like it'll do you a damn bit of good. What I see, you know you won't be able to change it."
And he glanced back at her, the old arrogant Jackson creeping back into his face. "You should have more faith in me, Emma." He smoothed his elegant fingers over the wool of his jacket.
"And just a heads up that you might want to change your clothes," she said, pointing at him. "Because the chances are I'm going to puke my guts out all over you."
He gave an uneasy laugh, and then he was gone, vanishing back out into the night.
It was snowing again when she finally locked up the bar. Her thin woollen coat was scant protection against the cold. And even so, she felt too warm, her skin clammy and sweaty underneath her clothes. Her stomach still felt queasy, and she lit up a cigarette. She tasted acrid smoke and hot ashes in her mouth, and thought about the vodka waiting for her at home. Along with Jackson, God help her.
She wrapped an arm tight around her chest, scanning the quiet street. Something itched at the back of her neck. She shivered, started down the street, her steps quick and cautious. She wished she'd never called Jackson back, wished she'd kept her mouth shut and let him walk out of her life. The thought of him waiting for her at home, the stink that was going to hit her when she opened the door, made her falter. And as she passed the mouth of an alley, something shifted in the shadows. The stink of rotting garbage. The rustle of rats. Her legs weakened, and she placed her hand against the brickwork to steady herself. Breathed hard to stop herself from vomiting. She saw the bright flash of headlights as a car drove along Main Street. She slipped her hand into her pocket, closed her fingers around her keys. And as she turned the corner the stink of death slammed into her so hard she fell against the brickwork.
A shape sat slumped at the edge of a circle of light cast by a lamppost. The light shone on a dark-skinned face, the ragged bloody hollows of his eyes. And snow dusting the shoulders of his expensive suit.
Emma staggered backwards, and then she spun around, retching.
Oh Christ, Jackson, she thought, I'm so sorry.