Lightning split the night and thunder filled the heavens, and rain roared down on the abandoned office building that filled the block on 33 North Fenward St.
Once this building was filled with the hustle and bustle of life as the domain of the SofterSoles shoe company corporate office, where designers designed and advertisers advertised, with entire floors devoted to the production of better, faster, cheaper, more profitable shoes… but SoftenSoles had eventually lost the game. The spark of imagination in their product faded, and the offices were filled with nothing more than the dull melancholy of countless workers who cared only for the paycheck every other Friday. And in time, they too faded away, the office abandoned, a broken structure of cold concrete and shattered windows filled with the memory of failure and despair.
A perfect place for the meeting of these three women, and the dark deeds they planned to discuss upon this dark and stormy night.
They met on the thirty-third floor, three cubicle rows away from the broken windows on the east side of the building, shattered glass covered in a wet plastic tarp that snapped back and forth in the wind like an eel wriggling loose from a barbed net. They stood around a metal trashcan, wrestled away from the tramps who bedded down in the office’s basement below, and dragged up these many stories to be assembled in the proper place at the proper time, despite the weight and pain of the metal. They kicked away the trash around their feet, scattered papers weighted down under rusted supplies scattered from a fallen office cabinet. Useless notes, forgotten memos, faded hopes and dreams – every now and then a gust of wind would make its way through the sealed window, and snag a sheet of paper loose from the trash to be dragged out into the tempest. The choicest bits of garbage the three claimed for themselves, snatching them up and hurling them into the metal can where they began to smolder and alight upon the dying coals within.
“The pawn is set upon his path,” whispered the first of three, a frail girl-child in a tattered leather outfit, with black lipstick and hair that was seven shades of pink, and a dozen piercings visible upon her face, bright silver metal flashing as she spoke. And then, when the other two paid her no heed, she pouted and spoke again, her voice rising into nearly a scream so as to be heard over the heavy cascade of rain. “The pawn is set upon his path!” shrieked the first of three.
“Oh, aye, and let two succeed where one might fail,” cackled the second of the three, in a heavy bellow that overcame the sound of the raging skies. A large woman with skin like burnt coal, a heavy sweatshirt covering a prominent bosom – a sweatshirt rich with the old stains of food and the mess of small children. Thick woolen mittens covered her hands, which she held out over the embers of the slowly blossoming fire.
“Indeed,” spoke the third of three, a wizened stick of a woman with wispy white hair and pale and leathery skin spotted with the marks of age. She bore no wrinkles despite her age, her skin stretched tight across her bony frame, and she wore a suit to match – business clothes, smooth beige slacks, all firmly pressed and cleaned. With her age and outfit, the cold wet of the storm should have struck her most of all – yet she showed it not, speaking with a calm and chill authority that, in its soft menace, easily pierced the weather’s wail. She spoke again, with words clear and cold as diamonds, “Once slain, twice broken, thrice born. We have made our two-fold man. Let him succeed where all else has failed. Let the shattered pieces of the puzzle box be assembled once again.”
The second spoke, in a rumbling voice, “Two broken lives stuffed into a shallow mold. How many lives of men can one man live, and not yet pay the price?”
“A foolish question, sister,” squeaked the smallest of the trio. “How many lives of men can live the life of one man? There’s your question, and your answer, and no petty coinage spent.”
The two stared fiercely at each other, a set of pale green eyes lined in black eyeliner matching the gaze of pale green eyes set deeply within dark folds of flesh, both brimming with dark thoughts and anger. All other aspects of the trio were different in every way… save their eyes, each the color of a misty, emerald fog drifting upon the marsh just before the break of dawn. No human eyes were these, though it was not the shape of them that gave their guise away – it was the depth of those pale orbs, a hundred lifetimes of spite hidden just below the surface, tucked out of sight like so much dirt beneath a heavy rug.
“Enough,” spoke the third, and the others dropped their gazes down upon the floor, before turning back to the focus of their task. “We have not come for barbs or petty thoughts, nor shallow lies nor shallow graves. One turning yet remains – for this earth, for the puzzle box, for the change between what once was and what yet might be. Our power grows less with every passing day, and this chance shall not show itself again – so show me what you have to offer, sisters! Show me you yet recall the truth of your long-forgotten names.”
The waif pulled something out of a bright pink purse, and held aloft a broken needle, foul and crusted with dried blood. “Snake’s poison that stole the mind and tongue of a dreaming child.” She cast the needle into the trashcan, and the burning embers were roused into momentary flame.
The heavy-set woman reached deep into the pockets of her heavy clothes, and then held aloft a blackened teddy bear, charred and burnt, beady plastic eyes melted across its face. “Beast’s fur that lured a loveless child back into the burning flames.” She cast the bear into the fire, and the flames leapt higher yet.
The white-haired woman opened a smooth brown briefcase, and then took from it and held aloft a sheef of papers, crisp red ink firmly scribed across them. “Ape’s blood that cast a starving family out into the street.” Into the metal can went the papers, and now the fire began to roar, sparks flickering up into the night.
A woolen blanket, filthy with decay. “Sheep’s skin, that spread disease over the homeless couple that huddled beneath it.” And the flames grew louder.
A cannister of baby food, faded wrapper dull and grey. “Dog’s heart, cheap and strong, that claimed a hundred children in their cribs.” And the flames grew brighter.
A heavy stamp, still dripping fresh with ink the color of new blood. “Lizard’s hand, that denied a thousand families the medicine they were due.” And the flames grew and grew and grew.
One thing after another went into the fire, the three women digging into their purse and pockets and briefcase, drawing out children’s toys and rotten meat, court warnings and cases of matches, broken wires and ragged sweaters and blood-stained keys, hurling them into the fire in a frenzy of motion, screaming out words so fast that even they could no longer hear what they were saying, as the flames roared higher and higher, the rusted metal of the trash can now boiling and steaming from the heat-
-from the streets outside, the fire could be seen, shining like a star from the window of the office building, a brilliant red light that defied the storm and the darkness and the cold, and would have been a wondrous sight if a single soul had stood upon those streets to see-
-and in one voice the three did speak, chanted words in a shrill black voice: “Let there be an end to shame and sorrow! Let die the cold reason of the High Folk, and let fall the bright passion of the Low Folk! Let one age be replaced with yet another – let the Puzzle Box be found and wound, and the clock begin its ticking! Let the world end thrice in death and twice in tears and once in the birth-pains of an ending! The pawn is set, the path is made, the time is chosen – so we proclaim!”
And if there was any other chanting given, it was lost to the sudden roar of the fire as it broke loose from its container, running rampant across the shattered floor of the office and the metal bindings of the building’s supports. Neither the onslaught of rain or the empty halls of concrete gave it pause as it burned brighter through the night… and when the fire sputtered out in the moments just before the dawn, the building was a black and gutted shell of its former self, lacking even the trappings of the workers who had once called it home. An accident, the authorities concluded. A tragedy, they said, noting the dozen homeless souls who the fire had cornered into the basement and swiftly stolen the life from.
They found no bodies on the thirty-third floor – only a strange, steaming pile of metal slag that once was a humble receptacle of waste. They paid it no thought, just as they paid the incident as a whole, for the world was filled with many stranger things of far more importance to those in power.
An accident and a tragedy, they called it. And sadly, both those things were true.