He was so neat he made Kimba feel like she was wearing odd socks.
“I could have really used one of those things,” he said, apropos nothing. Kimba looked up from her laptop and then down again, hoping he’d go away. The stranger was old but had a robustness about him. The accent was vaguely Mid-Western. She wanted to use the word ‘gentleman,’ but she didn’t really know why. He wore a freshly pressed gray suit so sharp you could slice lemons on it, and he had a gray mustache that looked like it was trimmed every morning.
She was sitting in a cosy nook in the Hotel bar at just gone noon when the man sat across from her. She was drinking her second light beer and hitting keys on her laptop aimlessly. If she hit them for long enough, then logic dictated she’d churn out a masterpiece. She was willing to give it a try.
Sooner or later, Kimba had to accept that she wasn’t good at this. Two years and she had about forty thousand words. Some of them were passable. Some of them not so much. Some of them were worse. But she’d sold them on a trilogy, and she wasn’t even close to the first draft of the first book. There had been an advance. The publisher took pains to remind her about it.
There was just so much of it. She wasn’t a details sort of writer. Sure, she’d researched for other books, but this was something else. There was a cast of thousands, a decade to span, multiple locations. Her agent had warned her against historical fiction.
“Why would you do this to me?” he’d said. “Why? What you’re producing is perfectly marketable and you want to do the Mexican Revolution? If you’re set on going historical, couldn’t you do the Founding Fathers? Or the Tudors? I could sell that.”
But she couldn’t kill it. And she knew how her ideas worked. Once it had taken root, she had to see it through to fruition. Whether the fruit was rotten and shriveled or gloriously juicy with crossover potential, she had to write it. Pancho Villa. Pancho fucking Villa. One late-night documentary had sent her down a rabbit hole which had spiraled into a five-page premise. And now she was in Chihuahua, chasing century-old ghosts and drinking her advance away. Researching.
“Typewriters. You don’t know how lucky you are,” the stranger continued. Kimba had already forgotten he was there.
“The barkeep said you were writing about Villa. Said I should introduce myself.”
Kimba’s eyes shot up to meet the stranger’s. She didn’t recall saying a thing to the barman, but she supposed it was possible. She’d been sat on a bar-stool, banging her head against her keyboard until two in the morning some nights.
“Um, I’m kinda in the middle of something here,” Kimba said.
“May I offer you my advice?”
“Why not? Everyone else does.”
The stranger gave a short, sharp laugh. “Agreed. It is low currency, particularly from a stranger. Perhaps you would like to hear a story instead?” The man asked.
“Please, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m trying to write something here.”
Kimba considered getting up and going back to her room. But someone, somewhere had given her manners and she was damned if she could shake them. She sighed. The stranger took it as a sign, though he chose to ignore its real implication. He started talking, and he didn’t stop, and before long, all Kimba could do was sit and listen.
“Say, how long have we been out here?” Ambrose asked.
“Forty days, give or take,” the man answered.
“And I suppose you think that’s funny, do you?”
“You tell me. You’re the expert.”
Ambrose glared down at him from the back of his horse, but the man just smiled beatifically and stared straight ahead. He wore a dark waistcoat and a wide-brimmed black hat that hid his eyes and his shock of blonde hair. Even out in the wilderness, he had remained immaculate. It made his beat-up and dusty old nag look like some kind of cruel joke. But he’d insisted Ambrose take the bigger horse. He had wanted him to be comfortable.
“You look foolish on that thing. Anyway, shouldn’t it be a great, white stallion?” Ambrose asked.
“You’re thinking of the other fella. Skinny chap. You’ll meet him soon enough. Everyone does.”
“Huh, so I suppose I’m not already dead, then? All of this isn’t the result of the lights in my head slowly winking out?”
“No. But admit it, that would have been a good one.”
Ambrose grimaced. He didn’t think so.
“Don’t be so affronted. That was one of mine, don’t you remember?” The man said. The nag rolled ungracefully from side to side and the man’s shoulders rolled with it, evening it out. Though all may have been motion beneath him, his head stayed perfectly still, wearing the same infuriating half-smile.
“Like hell it was,” Ambrose snapped. “The Dictionary, I won’t argue. But Owl Creek was mine.”
“Sure, sure. You and your cheap twist endings. Do you even remember when you first met me?”
“I seem to recall seeing you at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.”
“Naturally. Although we were not introduced until much later.”
Ambrose remembered Kennesaw indistinctly, though he very clearly recalled the sensation of having a musket-ball removed from below his left ear three months after the fighting had stopped.
“No. It was Kennesaw, I’m sure of it. I caught a musket-ball and then you showed up. They warned me about the damage to my brain. That’s all you are. You’re not really here. Never have been.”
“You did it all yourself, right?”
“Sure did. It was my writing. My ideas that got me here.”
The man looked around at the wide-open prairie, the barren sky. He wasn’t disagreeing. Ambrose grimaced and stared straight ahead as the horses plodded on through the Chihuahua Desert, two days behind Villa’s army. The man didn’t say a word. He just waited. Ambrose stared off at the horizon, looking for the tell-tale haze of Pancho’s horses in the distance. After an hour of silence, they dismounted for water, food, and for Ambrose to void his bowels.
The man continued to wait, not saying a word, smiling his smile. Finally, Ambrose snapped.
“Oh, stop it. Leave me alone. Why are you tormenting me? I’m a small, small man.”
“It amuses me.”
“You’re not real. You have no power. All you do is talk and talk and talk.”
“Tsk,” the man said, shaking his head ruefully. “You of all people should know that words are all anyone really needs. The right phrase, the right sentence. Get all those words lined up in just the right order and you can bring down mountains. Or give a young man some strange ideas about his worth to the world. Go ask your sons if you don’t believe me.”
Ambrose’s eyes fixed on the man. He growled, turned, and charged with all the speed and might his seventy years had left him. The man laughed and at the precise moment Ambrose should have barreled into him, he simply vanished. A split-second later he reappeared ten feet to the left, standing on a rock.
“Tsk. I only teased out what was already there, Mr Bierce. Don’t you think you should carry some shame for that?”
Ambrose charged again, and again the man winked out with a laugh and reappeared behind Ambrose, who fell to the floor in a scrabble of dust, shingle, and desiccated sage brush.
“I blame the parents,” the man chuckled. “The drinking? Well, they surely got that from you. The tragic romanticism? That must have come from your wife. I absolve you of that one. Unlike your son, I can’t imagine you picking up a gun for love. You wouldn’t blow your own head off to end the heartbreak. Writing a stinging letter would be more your style.”
“They were just boys, and you took them from me.”
“Oh. Oh, I see. I exist when it’s convenient, is that so? You want the credit for the good, but I have to take it for the bad?”
“Leave me alone.”
“Not until the debt is settled, Mr Bierce.”
“Ha. Debt. What debt? It’s all a joke. It’s not real.”
“Signed documents don’t care whether you think they are real or not. They don’t care if you find them funny. The owner of this body thought it was all a big joke, too. He didn’t find it so funny when I had his friend put a knife in his eye.”
The man lifted the brim of his wide, black hat to reveal the shiny leather of an eye patch and the shadowed face beneath. The face was young, the skin was smooth. The eye-patch gave it a roguish handsomeness. And then Ambrose blinked, and the face was cracked, the skin sloughing away, the jawbone showing through, the one eye-socket empty and leering. The man tipped his hat back again.
“English fella. Long time ago. He was a writer too. The place is lousy with them.” The man pointed his finger down at the red earth beneath him. “Artists are fun, though.”
“Why don’t you do us all a favor and go after Hearst or Rockefeller or someone like that?”
“Go after? Go after? Oh my, and to think you needed me to write your jokes for you! Go after indeed. They come looking for me. Good grief. They’re so easy, they don’t even count. Like growing bramble. I don’t lift a finger, I just harvest. Money, power, what’s the challenge? No, artists and the clergy. They’re my favorite pastime.”
Ambrose got unsteadily to his feet and dusted himself off. His clothes were slowly shredding into rags. He’d lost most of his luggage when the army had moved off unexpectedly. And his typewriter…
“That’ll be long gone,” the man said. “Sold by now. You won’t be needing it again, anyway. Had any good ideas lately? Any little witticisms?”
Ambrose sneered at the man but didn’t answer.
“Thought not. Inspiration’s dried up, I’d say. Your muse isn’t cooperating. And I won’t, ever again. You’re seventy, Ambrose. Your boys are dead, your wife is gone and there’s a part of your brain where a musket-ball took up temporary residence and it just aches and aches and aches and doesn’t stop until you’re five drinks in. You’ve done incredible things. Your name will be remembered, that’s what you wanted, isn’t it? It won’t hurt a bit, I promise. There’s no lake of fire, no horde of imps with tridents. It isn’t at all what they sold you at church.”
“I’m agnostic,” Ambrose grunted.
“Is that so? Well… that’ll change,” the man muttered. “But seriously, my side gets a bad write-up.”
“One would have thought you were uniquely placed to do something about that.”
“Oh no, that would be against the rules. Very bad form. Now come, Mr Bierce. The debt must be collected, I really must insist.”
“But that was all a long time ago,” the stranger finished.
“Is it? I’ve always thought the ending could use some work. I—or rather the I that once inhabited this body—was a big one for the ending that hits you from left-field.”
Kimba frowned. “I’m sorry. I really must be getting on. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Me? Help me? Oh, I think we can come to a mutually beneficial agreement. You see, I rather fancy a change of outfit. I haven’t been a woman for a long, long, long time.”
T. K. Howell is a writer living on the banks of the Thames. When not writing, he manages ancient oak woodlands and tends to trees that are older than most countries. His writing is often inspired by mythology and folklore.