The alleyway was dark as ink and wound about itself in a maze of twists and turns. On either hand, towering brick monoliths held scores of sleepers who dreamed more peacefully than Liam had in the past twenty years. In the dark corners, he was certain that eyes watched him. Walking with more care than he had in all of his forty-eight winters, Liam gripped the trench spike that he always kept hidden in the pocket of his moleskin overcoat. It provided him with all the comfort of a best friend.
The alley abruptly came to a dead end after a sharp right angle. A door carved with strange symbols stood ominously in the plain brick wall. By rights, it would be the rear entrance to a building, but the wizard Santiago’s curio store had no front entrance; all of the wizard’s dealings were secretive and unfit for daylight. Knocking softly on the door, Liam glanced behind himself, just to be certain that no one was following. The door swung open, revealing Santiago. He was a short, mole-like man with a pinched nose and tiny eyes that were warped by thick spectacles.
“You are late,” said Santiago, his tan face a mass of deep wrinkles that were exaggerated by his squinting and frowning. “A man who is not punctual is barely a man. You kept me waiting, and have wasted my time, what precious little I have.”
“I’m sorry,” apologized Liam. His ears burned with embarrassment as he bowed his head remorsefully. “I didn’t expect the walk to be quite so long.”
“Life is too precious a thing to waste so frivolously. Nothing you say can give back what you have taken from me. There’s little use for apologies and pretty words when the reaper is rapping on the door.” said Santiago, clenching an ornate pipe between his teeth. The billows of smoke it expelled had an exotic, spicy, fruity aroma.
“I don’t wish to delay you any more than I have,” replied Liam resignedly. He took a step into the curio shop; it was a dusty place filled with useless antiquities and expensive baubles. In a corner, a huge mirror stood ominously; a camera mounted on a tripod stood before it, reflected crisply in the meticulously cleaned mirror.
“I have your letter of introduction here,” said Santiago, pulling a crumpled letter from the pocket of his short, velvet waist coat. “Your friend speaks very highly of you. A veteran of the War, an upstanding citizen, and all the things the Government could ask a man to be. Yet, you come to me. I am an Enemy of the State, you know.”
“I know that,” said Liam, his eyes shifting and examining the windowless walls. “They say you can foretell the future and divine a man’s fate. I need to know what mine is.”
Santiago waddled towards the camera, and invited Liam to stand before it.
“This camera is a rare thing, and an antique. It is the secret of my power.” Santiago’s eyes gleamed with passion as he patted the top of the camera as though it were an obedient dog. “When I photograph a subject standing in front of a mirror with the camera, upon the development of the film, you will see a faint reflection of the subject’s coming fate. However, it is a fickle device. Since the future is a malleable thing, the photograph may need interpretation. If a pregnant woman were the subject, it could show the child that the woman will bear, or maybe the death that awaits her offspring in eighty years.
“The more I know of you, the more accurate my interpretation can be. Also, if you can articulate your question a bit more,” said Santiago as he buffed the camera’s lens.
“There isn’t much to tell.” Liam stroked his trench spike with his thumb nervously. “I was a soldier in the War, like the letter said. I spent ten years in that place. It was unending slaughter and violence, like Valhalla, but without feasts and without immortality.” Liam began to sweat as he thought about the time he never spoke of.
“It was always damp and wet; on the best days the water was ankle deep in the trenches. On the worst, you could drown. Blood mixed freely with the water and mud, turning everything red and rust. At the least, I should have contracted immersion foot syndrome. Yet, as the days went by and the War went on, I remained free of illness.” Mopping his brow with his sleeve, Liam felt himself being drawn back into his memories.
“One day, I noticed that I didn’t recognize any of the faces of my comrades. My entire squad had died in the course of subsequent battles and had been slowly replaced. Soon, I wouldn’t recognize anyone in my battalion. I got cocky, thinking I was immortal. I lead a squad out of a trench and across No Man’s Land and took over one of the Enemy’s machine gun nests. When I returned, my C.O. told me that everyone in the squad was gunned down as soon as they went over the top of our trench. I took the nest alone after running 30 or 40 yards through heavy machine gun fire.”
“You are a very lucky man,” Santiago said, breaking Liam‘s intense recollections.
“When I got home, I was convinced that it was more than luck. I was invulnerable on the battlefield. Where so many others left their lives in the mud, I had thrived. I felt that God had put me here for a reason, that He protected me in the War so that I could do something great for society. I tried getting into a career within the Government, but I lacked the talent for politics. I settled for a life selling and writing the news.” Liam felt relief after he told Santiago his story. He had never told anyone else about his feelings, much less about his time in the War.
“So you want to know the purpose of your life, and hope that I can divine it for you?” asked Santiago with a tone of certainty that propelled Liam in front of the camera.
“Should I pose a certain way?” asked Liam as he sheepishly stood before the cyclopean machine. The camera stared at him with emotionless objectivity. A shiver or excitement rippled through Liam’s flesh as he gazed into the unblinking eye of the machine that was about to reveal all of the secrets of his future. Santiago stood behind the camera and gazed through its viewfinder. Shaking his head, he left and returned with a lamp on a stand. The old man moved slowly, shining the lamp blindingly in Liam’s eyes.
“Look forward,” announced Santiago as he moved behind the camera again. Liam looked deep into the camera’s lens, and he felt a strange, tugging sensation. It was as though the camera was pulling part of himself into it. Suddenly, he felt as though all the breath was being taken from his lungs. Unable to inhale, Liam began to panic.
“Keep looking forward. It is almost over,” instructed Santiago. Darkness began to creep into the edges of Liam’s vision, then, suddenly, his lungs filled with air again. Gulping in breath after breath, Liam could feel each cell in his body happily accepting the oxygen.
“It will take a few moments for me to develop. Please sit and wait,” said Santiago professionally.
Alone in the shop, Liam found it difficult to subdue his excitement. He looked at rows of crystal trinkets and stacks of dusty milk glass, but nothing could hold his attention. He would finally find out what his destiny was.
When Santiago returned, he was holding a thin, iron plate. On it was an image of Liam. A bright light glistened off of the mirror behind him; in that light, tiny shadows seemed to form vague images. Liam squinted, trying to see what the images were.
“They are nothing to the untrained eye. Just lines and blobs.” Santiago pointed at the shadows. “These say that death is close to you. Your life will be cut short. The others here show that it will be a violent death.”
“When?!” demanded Liam, “Why? How?”
“Soon. Because it is your destiny. With an old knife,” answered Santiago without compassion or tact. “The knife will push through your ribs and puncture your lung. A second stab will catch an artery. You will die in a gurgling heap.”
“Will it be to save someone?” asked Liam hopefully.
“No.” Santiago replied.
“No? No?!” bellowed Liam, rage flowing through his blood like a virus. “You are telling me that I lived through that Hell for no reason greater than to be stabbed to death? That is a lie. Life doesn’t work that way. There is reason and order; if fate is real, then there is a purpose to everything, isn’t there? If fate is an illusion, then what you have done here is a lie. Either way, you are doing this again and you are doing it right.” Liam grasped the trench spike in his hand and strode in front of the camera. “Take the picture again, and do it correctly!” he demanded.
“No,” said Santiago. “It will be no different. Your death is too close.”
“What do you mean?” asked Liam, redness creeping up his neck. His muscles quivered with excitement, ready for action, ready to kill.
“You are past the point where your fate can be changed,” said Santiago.
Furious, Liam rushed at Santiago, pushing the camera over as he lunged forward. Santiago retreated swiftly, but Liam was faster. With the trench spike in his right hand, he caught Santiago by the lapel with his left hand. Santiago grinned manically at Liam. His knife flashed faster than a blink. Liam lurched over, blood pouring from his neck and chest.
“Now, if you were a more patient man, you could have lived a long and happy life. Instead, you have done nothing but waste my time and yours. Go to sleep, little soldier,” said Santiago, cleaning the thin, pointed blade of his knife on Liam’s clothes.