The Midnight Bargain

On the top floor of one of the tallest buildings in New York City is a restaurant called Parva Mortes.  You haven’t heard of it.

Don’t feel bad about that, though.  Very few people in the world have.  It’s a place where only the wealthy can aspire to, and only those with power can obtain.  There are only five tables in the entirety of the restaurant, and they are arranged in such a way as to ensure total privacy.  The Parva Mortes is where those at the top of the food chain come to indulge themselves while deciding how everything you know will operate.

Presidents, prime ministers, and dictators are turned away at the door.  No one who has appeared in Forbes or Bloomberg is allowed to book a reservation.  The manager has turned down the Pope’s request to dine on more than one occasion.

I have my own table.

I’m not telling you this to brag about my wealth, or my status, or that I’ve acquired both of these things in such great amounts in such a way as to avoid the public’s gaze.  It’s quite the opposite, actually.  I’m telling you this so that you’ll understand just how serious I’m being when I say that the woman sitting at my table frightens me.

It seems absurd on the face of it.  Lydia is tall but thin.  Her blonde hair was cropped short the last time that I saw her, but she has allowed it to grow long.  She is wearing a black dress that is fashionable and exudes sexuality.  She is a strikingly beautiful woman.

That beauty hides her true nature and the true threat that she represents to anyone in her presence.

I start to walk towards the table before she sees that I’ve arrived.  I don’t want her to know that I’m hesitant.  She probably already knows that, but I don’t want to give any outward indication of my unease.  Every meeting with her is a veiled back-and-forth struggle.  Showing weakness at the onset would dictate how the entirety of this encounter would go, and it wouldn’t be in my favor.

She turns and smiles as I sit down in the chair across from hers.  I don’t return the smile, but I do nod politely.  She has taken the seat directly in front of the large floor-to-ceiling window, and her form is framed by the New York night skyline.

“Well well, Mr. Morwood,” she says, her voice smooth as silk.  “Has it really been a year already?”

“Indeed it has been,” I reply, keeping my own voice even and steady.  “Nice of you to choose this particular restaurant for us to meet at.”

“Nothing but the best for you, Trevor.”

“Especially since I’m the one paying for it?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.

She smiles again.  “In the interest of full disclosure, that did happen to cross my mind as I was selecting the location.  I see that you brought along your most recent purchase.”

I set the black box that I’m carrying down on the table next to me.  “It’s never far from me.”

We both fall silent as a waiter comes up to the table.  He stands some distance away from us until I nod at him.  The staff at Parva Mortes is the best of the best, and they will never approach unless they are invited to.

“Good evening, sir,” the waiter says with just the right mixture of pleasantness and respect.

“To you as well, Charles,” I tell him.  “How are your wife and daughter?”

“A handful, sir, just like always.”  He places his hands behind his back.  “Would you care to start with a bottle of wine to share with your lovely companion?”

“His lovely companion would certainly like that,” Lydia interjects sardonically.

I ignore her.  “Ask Maurice to open a bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc and have it brought to the table.  No need for a test or tasting, I trust his judgment.”

“Ah, this must be a special night beyond simply being New Year’s Eve,” Charles says with a nod.  “I’ll ask him to retrieve it from his private stores immediately.”

He heads towards the kitchen, but instead of going through the doors he turns right and goes down a side passage.  It leads to the wine cellar.  Somewhere inside of it is Maurice Laurent, the top sommelier in the world.

“I have to admit that I don’t know much about wine,” Lydia says.  “Did you order a good one?”

“It’d better be,” I answer.  “A single bottle of it has sold for over $300,000.”

“Oh, my, what a big spender.”

I shrug.  “This might be my last day alive.  If it is, I want to finish it out right.”

“I have to admit that’s a good philosophy to have.  Especially since you may very well be dead in less than thirty minutes.  Tell me, Trevor, are you feeling lucky tonight?”

“No more and no less than the previous times.”

“Hmm.  I would have thought that it would be harder for you this time around, with you being closer to what you want than you ever have been.  The fact that the pieces are finally falling into place doesn’t make you want to cling to life ever so tighter?”

“As I recall, the terms of our deal don’t include you becoming my personal therapist.”

“Ah, down to business, then.”  Lydia leans back in her chair and drapes one arm over the back of it.  “Let’s get the formalities out of the way so that we can get right down to the fun part.”

I know what’s coming.  It’s the same thing that’s happened every New Year’s Eve for the past four years.  I still listen intently just in case she has made any seemingly minor tweaks to the arrangement that she hopes I won’t catch.

“Trevor Milton Morwood,” she begins.  “Here is the deal that I’m offering you.  It is non-negotiable, and if you accept it the contract will be binding.  You will be given the opportunity to ask me any questions that you have until the stroke of midnight.  I will answer those questions truthfully and accurately without purposely withholding or attempting to conceal information.”

She holds out her hand and a small gold coin appears in her palm.  This isn’t some sleight of hand parlor trick.  That would be beneath her.  It is instead the tiniest of tastes of what she is able to do.

“In return for answering your questions,” she continues, “I will flip this coin the moment that the ball touches down in Times Square.  At that point your time will be at an end, and the coin flip will determine your fate.  Heads, you walk out of here and continue on with your life as you see fit.  Tails, and both your life and soul are forfeit.  There will be no interference with the flip or the result from either myself or you.  Do you accept this deal and the conditions that have been presented?”

“Yes, I accept,” I reply immediately.

“Excellent.  The bargain is struck.”  She smiles.  “You’ve been lucky four times already, Trevor.  That can’t hold out forever.”

I allow myself the faintest of smiles at the edge of my lips.  “I only need my luck to hold out for one more flip.  This is the last time that I’ll be making this deal.”

“Oh, now that is interesting.  Well, go on.  What do you want to know?”

I tilt my head slightly.  “Tell me about the Underlayers.”

Lydia is silent for a moment.  Her expression has changed.  It is usually playful with a slight hint of malice.  Now it is unreadable.

“That’s what you want to know?” she asks in a voice just as guarded as her expression.

“Yes,” I confirm.  “Let me remind you that the terms of our deal require you to do so.”

She considers me for another minute before nodding once.

“In just a moment, I’m going to state a truth,” she begins.  “You are going to scoff at it, dismiss it as simple fiction and call me a liar.  You’ll do this internally instead of speaking those thoughts to me so that you continue to adhere to the usual social niceties, but the end result will be the same.  You will not believe me.

She leans forward.  “Most of you won’t, anyway.  There will be a small part of you that will question your own disbelief.  Something about what I tell you will ring true, and it will stick with you long after our conversation.  Somewhere deep down you will know that what I have said to you is the truth.  This is because you have subconsciously felt it for a long time now.  Maybe you’ve always felt it.  All that I’m doing is putting into words what your species has instinctively known all this time.”

“And what’s this great revelation of yours?” I prompt.

“This is a dying reality.”

I furrow my brow, but Lydia continues before I can say anything.

“This reality is a decaying carcass that hasn’t yet realized that its time has come and gone.  Tell me, Trevor, do you believe in God?”

“What…” I start to say.

“Not necessarily the Christian God, or the Muslim God, or any being that other religions base themselves around.  I’m asking if you believe in a higher power that has a hand in the shaping of everything around you.”

“I don’t know,” I answer honestly.

“There is a Creator.  I know this for a fact, as I am one of the few that has stood in the presence of the Creator and has seen the Creator’s work.  The Creator is not God.  The Creator is so far beyond the concept of God that it’s laughable.”

I stare at her silently.

“This is where the limits of human languages, as well as the limits of human understanding, come into play.  It’s awkward to speak of the Creator without being able to use pronouns.  The Creator is not a he, or a she, or a they.  The Creator is simply the Creator.  You’ll have to excuse the repetition involved in talking about the Creator, as I’m going for accuracy over grammatic fluidity.”

“I don’t understand what this has to do with my question.”

We’re interrupted as the waiter steps into view.  Once again, he remains still and out of hearing range until I beckon him over.  He walks over to the table and silently uncorks the wine bottle I had ordered before filling our glasses.  He knows exactly how full of a glass I prefer, and he stops at precisely the right moment.  He finishes his task and places the bottle within my reach.  With a courteous nod, he leaves once again.

“Think of reality as a painting,” Lydia says, absently running one finger around the rim of her glass.  “The painting is the result of the Creator’s brush strokes.  Every single drop of paint has been painstakingly chosen to take its exact place as part of the entirety of the piece.  Nothing exists outside of the Creator’s design.  Are you with me so far?”

I nod.

“When I say ‘reality’, I don’t just mean this universe.  The painting includes the vastness of the multiverse as well, not to mention offshoots and spaces that can’t be comprehended by anyone but the Creator.  For the sake of putting a name to it, let’s refer to this collective reality as a Work.  I’d say that fits nicely into the painting metaphor.  The Creator has ensured that there’s a place for everything and that everything is in its place.”

“This is sounding like the typical creation story that a number of different cultures have,” I point out.

Lydia raises an eyebrow.  “Well, here’s the part where things get interesting.  As I said, this Work is laid out exactly how the Creator intended.  The Work, however, is flawed.”

I blink.  “How is that possible?”

“It’s because nothing can ever be perfect.  That’s something that has vexed the Creator since the beginning.  The Creator believes that the Creator can achieve perfection, but it has yet to happen.  The Creator will believe that a Work has finally been perfected, but inevitably some particle making up a larger particle will be an imperceptible distance away from where it should be and the illusion of flawlessness shatters.”

“But how-”

“The Work will never be perfect because the Creator is imperfect.  That should scare the piss out of you.  It certainly frightens me.”

The thought of the being that had brought forth everything fucking up certainly wasn’t a comforting one.

“When the creator finds a flaw in a Work, the Creator does not simply fix it.  That would be the equivalent of plugging a small hole in a dam with your thumb while the entire structure is collapsing.  Instead, the Creator begins work on a new painting.”

“How many times has that happened?” I ask.

“There isn’t a number that could possibly begin to give you an answer to that.  In the end it doesn’t matter.  Here’s what does.  When the Creator creates a new Work, the Creator doesn’t use a new canvas.  It’s painted right on top of the previous one.  This has been done countless times in the past and will continue to be done countless times in the future.  Much like the original painting is merely covered up by a new one when an artist paints over it, the Works the Creator has deemed failures still exist.  They are left under the surface to slowly rot away.  These abandoned Works are what we call the Underlayers.”

It’s a lot to take in.  I’m silent for a long moment as I analyze what she’s told me.

“You said that this is a dying reality,” I say slowly.  “That would imply that this reality is an Underlayer.”

“Very good,” Lydia says approvingly.  “This Work has been deemed a failure by the Creator, and it has been buried under newer and equally-flawed Works.  As abandoned Works go, this is one of the more pleasant ones.  I know it doesn’t seem like that sometimes, but it is.  It’s much closer to the top than most other Underlayers.  That’s relatively speaking, of course.  There are still a whole lot of layers above us.”

“Nicer in what way?”

“You have to understand that some of these Underlayers have been rotting away since long before the creation of this one.  They’re nothing but darkness and nightmares now.  Very, very unpleasant, and that’s coming from me of all people.”

I look at her closely.  “Tell me, is it possible to travel between these layers?”

She returns my look.  “You already know that it is.  That’s why you purchased that.”

Lydia points at the box on the table.

“You also know that the Fatum Machina can only open doors to places on this layer,” she continues on.  “That means that you believe you’ve found a way around that limitation, a way for it to force open gates across the Underlayers.”

“We believe that we have,” I say, knowing that there’s no point in lying about it.

“We…,” she repeats.  “Ah, yes, your associate Mr. Gangly.  I’ll never understand why he uses that silly name.”

“From what I understand, it started with other people calling him that when they thought he wasn’t listening.  He kept it because he found it amusing.  Besides, his real name would bring a lot more attention if it got out.  We’re getting off-topic here.  I still have some time.”

She shrugs.  “True, although not much.  Just like you’re aware of the existence of the Underlayers, many of them are aware of our layer.  Some of them even attempt to come through the barrier separating layers, and a small number of those succeed.  I call those breaches Bleeds.  You know, like paint bleeding through a covering.”

I roll my eyes.  “Clever.  Tell me about the successes.”

“They’ve been small in nature so far.  Ancient shadows that turn children’s performers into killers to amuse themselves.  Monsters that lurk in the brief moment between awake and asleep.  An unknown force that drives people to take their own lives.  A constant whisper that convinces a woman to open the gateway to madness with the promise, the lie, of eternal life.  Those sorts of things.  Nothing on the scale of what you’re planning.”

“I want the locations of where these… Bleeds originally happened.”

“Your wish is my command,” she replies sarcastically.

I reach into my suit coat and remove a pen and small pad of paper.  I hand them to Lydia and watch as she opens the pad and begins to write down the information that I requested.  There are more than I expected.

“I put the more severe Bleeds at the top,” she tells me as she finishes and slides the pad back over to me.  “You’ll want to start with those if you’re going to attempt what I think you are.  And with that, my dear, your time is up.”

She’s right.  I can see the ball in Times Square lowering through the window behind her.  It strikes the bottom, and lights begin to flash all around it.  Another year gone, another year come.

I stand up and collect the box containing the Fatum Machina.  Reaching down to pick up my glass, I raise it to my lips and slowly sip at the wine.  The 1947 Cheval Blanc is considered one of the finest vintages ever produced, and it’s easy to see why.  It is thicker than I would have thought, but the flavors are bold and varied in ways that complement perfectly rather than distract from the overall presentation.  If this is to be my final drink, I can die assured that the last taste on my lips is the best.

I put down the glass and turn away from the table.  I have no interest in watching Lydia flip the coin.  What will be, will be.  I begin walking towards the hallway leading to the elevator.  From behind me I hear the sound of the coin spinning in the air just before it thumps onto the table.

I reach the elevator.  This is the fifth year in a row that the coin has come up my way.  I quickly do the math in my head.  There’s only about a three percent chance of that happening.

Some would call that luck.  Some might call it fate, or maybe divine providence.  I simply call it what was required.  I don’t take chances that I don’t have to.  I didn’t get to where I am by being reckless.  Each of these five gambles were necessary to get vital information.

The elevator doors open.  Now I have everything that I need, and it’s time to get to work.

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