All The World's A Stage
by Rhonda Eudaly
Ezekiel Stone was tired, and more than tired. He was soul weary. Even though it could feasiblely be argued by some that he had no soul anymore, it didn't much matter. He was ready for it to all be over. Not life, he didn't want to die. He'd already done that, and it wasn't much fun. He was ready for the game to be done, to see the end of the impossible quest his current employer demanded, constantly, that he fulfill. And, if it weren't for the merest glimmer of hope he might one day be reunited with Rosalyn again, Zeke might take his gun and shoot out his own eyes. Being condemned to Hell for all eternity couldn't be much worse than coming this close to being human - a man, a husband - and not being able to do anything about it.
"This is what I love to see," a voice said next to him. "Abject misery in the midst of a seemingly perfect day. It does my heart good."
"What do you want?" Zeke demanded, not looking at the literal incarnation of Evil sitting next to him.
"I surmise, by the way you're rubbing your shoulder, that you were no longer wearing a name. Dare I ask? Have we finally seen the end of Ashe?"
"No. It was one of the others. A real peach."
"Ah, but now you're that one step closer to redemption. To gain your second chance at life. To being reunited with the little woman."
"You leave Roz out of this. She has no part in this."
"Ah, but she does, Mr. Stone," the Prince of Darkness replied. "You just don't see it yet.
"No. She doesn't, and don't try to suck her in."
"Hey, it's not me," the devil answered innocently. "I'm not the one with some unreasonable sentimental attachment to one of the living. It's so sweet, it's sickening. You really must move on, Mr. Stone. It's been fifteen years."
"Move on to what?" Zeke demanded.
"To what indeed, Mr. Stone," Lucifer mused. "I'll tell you what, I'm feeling generous today, I'll give you a hint. But just one."
"Oh? And what would that be?"
"When's the last time you've been to the theater, Mr. Stone? Let some culture into that dark pit of a soul?"
Before Zeke could answer, his tormentor was gone, but the sound of evil laughter echoed in his ears. He did wonder if the vague tip meant anything when a bus pulled up. The sign on the side advertised the new opera season. They were about to launch a new production in conjunction with the ballet company, Goethe's "Faust."
"Figures." The irony was not lost on Ezekiel Stone. He also knew he would have to go check it out. With a resigned sigh, he got up and boarded the bus.
Zeke hated the buses in LA. It took an hour and three transfers to get to the theater district. He tried not to think about it too much, though, especially after his last attempt at owning a car. The last time he'd complained, his employer had graciously sold him the car from Hell - literally. Stephen King's Christine had nothing on this car. A high speed chase which never made it past forty miles an hour, frightening noises, and hair raising clanks, Zeke did the only thing he could do. He shot out it's eyes - headlights - and sent it straight back to where it came from.
Zeke shook his head to clear his thoughts. Tangent like this would get him into serious trouble. Or worse. If the Prince of Lies was sending him to the theater, then there was probably a good reason - obscure, but good - for him to go there. He was let off across the street from the Opera and Ballet houses, both sharing a building in the cultural complex. He could see where the cars were parked, and a couple of lithe bodies were heading in through a door. Zeke followed.
The corridors within the theater complex were deserted. His footsteps rang hollowly as he passed. No one saw him to challenge him. He heard music and voices and then a loud crash and a scream. He hurried toward the sound. It was actually the theater. Zeke drew his gun and rushed blindly in.
"Police! Nobody move!" he cried out automatically. "What's going on here?"
Silence descended. Suddenly Zeke was aware of a deathly silence and eyes focused on one point - him. Something was wrong with this picture. Until a figure in the house seats began flying at. Zeke instinctively aimed his gun at the figure until he realized the angry creature probably wasn't one of the bats out of hell he was looking for, but an irrate director in a flowing outfit. He lowered the gun.
"What is the meaning of this?" The thin man in the billowing wrap screeched. "This is a closed rehearsal! How did you get in here?"
Zeke put his gun away. "I walked. I heard a disturbance. I wanted to make sure everything was all right."
"Now you've seen. Now you leave."
"I heard a scream. A woman's scream."
"Oh, you did, did you?" the director turned back to the stage. "Did you hear that, ladies and gentlemen? He heard a scream. He heard Erica's scream from outside the house. That's what I've been wanting from you all. Don't just play it to the back of the house. Play beyond it! Beyond the house, the theater! Beyond yourselves!"
His words caused a murmur among the cast on the stage. Zeke noticed a young woman looking slightly embarrassed. He figured that must be Erica. The director turned to Zeke, eyed him for a moment, then turned back.
"All right, boys and girls, take ten while I deal with this...this...interruption."
Zeke rolled his eyes. He'd been called many things by many people and things, but never an interruption. Unfortunately, he was going to have to deal with the pompous little man, and he was not happy.
"Our time is money. Mister Police Officer, why have you interrupted our rehearsal? We mount this show in two days. Our technical crew can't seem to work with our blocking, and now you. Why are you here?"
Zeke was momentarily stunned by the force of the little frowzy man projected. Zeke found himself searching the man's eyes for the tell tale signs of one of the 113. As far as he could tell, the director was just a very odd, yet otherwise normal, human being. Which continued to beg the question, why was Zeke sent here?
"Well? I'm waiting," the director prompted, dramatically tapping his foot.
"I...I...uh, I thought someone was in trouble..." Zeke answered hesitantly. "Who are you?"
The little man harrumphed. "I am an award winning director, sir, and this! This is my theater!"
"I meant your name. Do you have a name?"
"Detective Stone. Your name, please." Zeke was starting to lose serious patience with this little man.
"Thank you. Now that I know everything is all right, do you mind if I have a look around?"
"Why? I'd think your work here would be done."
"Mr. Kimrey, you didn't even know I was in the building until I was in here with my gun drawn. Do you want to take the risk I'm the only one?"
Zeke still had some charm left in him. "You, yourself, said you only have a couple of days left before the show. You really don't want to take the risk with your actors do you."
"Oh, all right, go ahead," Kimrey gave in, waving Zeke on. "Just stay out of the way, all right?"
And as suddenly as Zeke was the center of Kimrey's world, he was forgotten. Kimrey turned back to the stage with a billow of fabric and swept away. "Okay, boys and girls, let's go over the ballet sequence. Come on, let's go."
Zeke was amazed at the flurry activity as Kimrey's instructions were passed along of Hitler had been in fine arts, Zeke doubted he could've achieved such obedience. This was definitely a different world than the one Zeke knew.
The former police detective...well, technically, the LATE police detective...found his way back stage. Twice he had to move quickly to keep from being trampled by ballet dancers. Apparently Kimrey was mounting an ambitious production.
"Have I told you this is my favorite production to ever have been written?" an all too familiar voice asked from out of no where.
Zeke turned to see his employer coming from behind a thick set of curtains. He was dressed in the same tight t-shirt and leggings as the dancers, who were already on stage.
"Ah, but it is, Mr. Stone. Johnanne Faust was a fascinating individual. I just had to keep his memory alive. Thanks to Goethe and Christopher Marlowe, that end has been admirably achieved. Don't you think?"
"I'm not sure, I wasn't big in the theater scene."
"Ah, but I think you'll this production most enlightening. But you have to get into the spirit of things, Mr. Stone.
"Spirit of what things?"
With a truly wicked twinkle in his eyes, the real Mephistopheles waved a hand. Zeke was momentarily blinded by a sharp pulse of light. He blinked away the spots. Not all of them went away. That was because of the sequins reflecting and refracting the remaining light. Sequins? Suddenly, where he'd been wearing practice clothes, the Devil was now in a fully frilled and decorated pink tutu including tights and toe shoes. To make the ensemble complete, the outfit was accessorized by a feathered and sequined choker and head dress.
"See?" he asked. "Isn't this better? Doesn't it fill you with the ambience of the theater?
"It fills me with laughter," Zeke replied. "You look ridiculous."
"At least I have the legs to pull this off. You, on the other hand, look like a particularly over dressed chicken. An albino chicken, at that. How long has it been since your legs have seen the sun? Fifteen years?"
Zeke looked at him strangely, until he felt a draft of cold air across his shoulders. He had a sinking feeling. "What have you done?"
With a snap of the fingers, a full length mirror appeared. Zeke reluctantly turned. Gone was everything he'd died in. IN its place was the same sequined studded, feather edged, tulle festooned tut the Prince of Lies wore. And as much as he hated to admit it, the Devil pulled off the look better than he did.
"What is this?
"Come on, Mr. Stone, you need a little culture in your life," Satan paused and cocked his head. "Oops, I forgot. You don't have a life any more, do you? Try to enjoy yourself, though, Mr. Stone. And let me know what you think of the guy they have playing me. I don't think he quite captures my style, my panache, my...my inherent embodiment of Evil."
"You would know," Zeke muttered. "If you don't like him, why don't you just get rid of him and play the part yourself?"
"Come now, Mr. Stone, where's the fun in that? Give the man a sporting chance. He's got rather large shoes to fill, besides I don't think I should do your job for you, do you?"
Suddenly Zeke was standing alone in the stage wings. The mirror was gone, also. Zeke hastily looked down. The tutu was also gone. He was backing in the clothes he died in. He shook his head, this job kept getting stranger and stranger.
"Excuse me, sir?" a timid sounding voice asked behind him.
Zeke turned to see the young woman he'd seen on the stage earlier. "Yes? Can I help you?"
"Did you really think I as in trouble earlier?"
He didn't why, but somehow the question seemed awfully important to her. "Yeah, I did. Why?"
She sighed mightily and looked apprehensive. "I don't think I was acting. I may be in some kind of trouble."
"You're Erica, right?" He waited for her nod. "Do you want to talk about it. Maybe over a cup of coffee?"
"Okay. I can't leave the building right now, but there's a break room. No one should be there."
Zeke gestured for the young woman to lead the way. She took the hint. A couple of minutes later they were sifting at a small table with coffee and muffins. Zeke watched her pick nervously at the muffin cap. He wasn't a cop for nothing. He could wait unitl she was ready to talk about it.
"I heard you tell Corbin you were a cop...police officer."
"Well, I did rather announce myself earlier," Zeke responded, sipping his coffee. "What seems to be wrong?"
"I think the devil is following me."
Zeke nearly choked on his coffee. "What?"
"I'm sorry. You get used to referring to people by their character names during rehearsals. Not the real Devil, I don't even know if he exists."
"Oh, he exists all right," Zeke muttered into his coffee cup.
"Nothing. Why don't you start from the beginning."
"I wish I knew where to start," Erica said.
"I've found the beginning is always best."
Erica nodded, pausing to gather her thoughts. "I guess it all started right after casting a few weeks ago. Our current Mephistopheles wasn't the original one."
"What happened to him?"
"A week into rehearsals he had an accident," she said, trying to remain unemotional. "He...he died."
"And this new guy took over?" Zeke prompted.
"A day or two later. It was a surprise, too. His understudy should've had the role, but then this guy suddenly showed up."
"Does this guy have a name?"
"Artemis Quinn. Has to be his real name. No one I know would choose that for a stage name," Erica said, then she shuddered.
"What? What is it?"
"There's something about him..." she said vaguely.
"Like what?" Zeke prompted.
"Like he's not acting. Like he really could be that evil. But surely that can't be. No one can as evil as the devil, can they?"
"You'd be surprised," Zeke answered. "But I'll check him out for you."
"Would you? I feel silly even for asking, since it's probably nothing, but this guy is creepy."
"Consider it done."
"Thank you," Erica said, quickly squeezing his hand.
A moment later, another young woman dressed similarly to Erica bounded in. "Hey! There you are! Corbin's bellowing for you. You better get on stage."
"Thanks, Christy," Erica said, quickly getting to her feet and threw away her styrofoam cup. She looked at Zeke. "The dressing rooms are to the left and down the stairs. I'll see you later."
Zeke waited until the two girls left. He even smiled slightly when he heard Christy mutter, "Hey, he's kinda cute. How'd you hook him so quick?"
"He's just a friend, okay."
"Then would you mind...? I like older men..."
Zeke almost laughed. If Christy only knew what kind of older he was, she wouldn't be so eager. A moment later, he got up and headed for the dressing rooms. He wasn't challenged in the hallway, most were on stage.
After a couple of abortive attempts, he found Quinn's dressing room. Checking to make sure he wasn't being observed, Zeke slipped into the dressing room and started to look around.
"I ask you, does this look like the dressing room of someone qualified to play me?"
Zeke turned around. The bane of his existence sprawled across the sofa, this time dressed in a dancer's clingy practice clothes.
"Beats me. I haven't been here long enough to figure it out yet."
"And here I thought you were one of New York's finest. You really don't want to disappoint me. Do you, Mr. Stone?"
"Yeah, I've heard that song and dance before," Zeke said, continuing his search.
"Just remember, not only do I hold your future in my hands, but your wardrobe. I could've left you in that tutu, you know."
"Yeah, in some ways hell could be worse."
"You haven't even begun to scratch the surface, Mr. Stone. Remember that."
"Like you'd let me forget," Zeke muttered, but his audience was gone. He stopped at a news clipping in a frame. The photo was grainy and the paper yellowed with age, but Zeke thought he recognized one of the people in it. It was time to go.
Zeke passed Artemis Quinn on the stairwell. They nearly made eye contact, but it wasn't enough to see if there were any tell tales in his eyes. Besides, Zeke didn't want to be railroaded into making the wrong decision. It would be just like the Prince of Lies to put him on the wrong trail. He did seem to be pointing Zeke in a serious direction, a lot more directly than he'd be known to, which alerted Zeke's suspicious streak. Just to cover his bases, he'd check out more than just Quinn.
He met Erica at the top of the stairs. She looked at him hopefully. "Did you...?"
"It's a little early, yet, but I have some things to check out."
Erica's face fell. He couldn't believe how expressive an actress's face could be. "Oh, okay."
"Look, I'm doing the best I can," Zeke tried to explain lamely. "It takes time to build the case. But I promise, I'll come by tomorrow and tell you if I found anything out. Okay?"
Zeke beat a hasty retreat straight back home. Or at least as straight as the LA Metro transit system would take him. Maxine was on duty in the lobby when he came in. "Oh, hey, Zeke, where've you been all day?"
"Movie or stage?"
"They have matinees on Mondays?"
"It was a rehearsal."
"Hey, are you on that internet thing you're always talking about?"
"Sure. On lin is the only way to go. What do you need, Zeke?"
"Anything you can find on these people." Zeke handed her a piece of paper.
"You want the usual rundowns?" she asked, barely looking at the list.
"The usual?" Zeke asked, a bit surprised.
"Well, you've asked for a bunch of these now. We're kinda setting up a pattern here."
"Oh, right, yeah, give me the usual."
"You know, someday you're going to have to tell me the real reason we're doing this." She saw him about to say the same thing he'd said every time she'd brought up the subject. "No, I understand. It's just research. I'll get right on it. I'll have something for you in the morning. Okay?"
"You're awesome," he said, heading for the stairs.
"Tell me something I don't know, Stone!" she called after him.
The next morning, Zeke awoke abruptly. Granted, he'd been told he didn't need to sleep or eat, but they were things that actually made him actually feel human. Now that he was awake, he wondered why. There was no sign of his erstwhile employer, that's usually what brought him out of a sound sleep. Zeke looked around trying to remember...
Oh, right, it had been a dream. It had been a great dream. He could still see some of the images of Roz, but those images were fading fast. With a sigh, he got out of bed, dressed, and checked his wallet for his daily $36.27 and headed out.
"There you are, cowboy," Maxine greeted Zeke, as he passed through the lobby. She'd been waiting for him.
"What did you find out."
"I'll tell you over breakfast."
"Okay, come on."
Over an inexpensive, but hearty breakfast - complete with Maxine's usual comments on his choice of food - Zeke started to get the information he needed. Maxine pulled out a small pile of paper and started going through them.
"That director guy is just what he seems," she said. "He was born and raised in Baltimore. Came to New York after graduating from college. He's got an impressive resume. Starting with chorus roles, to leading man on Broadway, finally directing. The guy has four Tony Awards, and a bunch of others. He supports the usual causes for someone this established in the theater."
"What about the other two?" Zeke persisted.
"I don't have much. The girl hasn't been in town long. She's done some bit spots and commericals. Originally from a small town outside of Dallas," Maxine told him around her morning coffee.
"What aobut the guy?"
"Artemus Quinn. Right. You sure you got the right name?"
"Positive. Why?" Zeke asked.
"Because the only Artemus Quinn I couild find any record of DIED in 1944."
"Serious as a heart attack, Stone," Maxine replied. "Just like your diet if you're not more careful."
"Doesn't that get old, Max?"
"Just making my point," she said with a wicked grin. She handed him some papers. "I have to get back to work. I tohught you'd want the hard copies."
"Thanks." Zeke lingered over his coffee once Max left, going slowly through the documents He paused to re-read a couple of passages. He finsihed his coffee and left the restaurant.
Erica was waiting for him at the stage door when he arrived. She shifted nervously from foot to foot nervously. She was visibly relieved to see him. "I'm glad you're here," she said, visibly relieved to see him. "I'm glad you're here."
Zeke was immediately concerned, something was very odd. "Something wrong?"
"Not really...wrong..." she said hesitantly. "But...but...Artemis is the only one else here so far...and, well...it's creepy. I decided to wait out here until someone else got here."
"Has he done anything? Anything at all?" he asked.
"No," Erica moaned miserably. "I feel like such an idiot. He hasn't said...or done...but he...he scares me. I can't...I'm thinking about leaving the show, but it's such an opportunity..."
Zeke looked down into her frightened face. "Erica, listen to me. Are you listening?"
"Yes," Erica said, almost in a whisper, dropping her eyes.
Zeke brought her face up, wanting her to see the sincerity of his words. "I'll take care of Artemis Quinn, okay? You don't have to be afraid of him, and you don't have to leave the show."
"Really. Stay out here, and I'll be back. Everything's going to be fine," Zeke assured her. "Trust me."
Zeke disappeared inside the theater, feeling for the reassuring lump of his gun in his waistband. The building was dark and empty and felt depressing. He could understand how someone jittery like Erica could find it creepy. Even Zeke kept looking behind him, though to him, he called it cop instinct and professionalism.
Artemis Quinn stood alone at center stage, spotlighted and dapper. Zeke watched him a moment as he went through one of Mephistopheles' more dramatic speeches. Zeke felt a thrill of recognition in the delivery and cadence, though not in power.
Zeke strode purposefully, but unhurriedly down the center aisle as the speech ended. He applauded politely, but the sound of a single person clapping was reminiscent of invited gunfire. Artemis froze in the spotlight, as if he felt the illusory bullets.
"Who's there?" Artemis' voice boomed.
"You know, he was right," Zeke called out. "You don't do him justice."
Artemis dropped into a defensive crouch. "What do you want?" he asked, peering out into the theater house. "You've come to send me back, haven't you?"
"It's my job."
Artemis was tracking the house and the timing. Then he sprang from the stage, over the orchestra pit, and into the front rows of the seats. He caught Zeke's arm, only off by a foot or two. The two men went down in the aisle.
After a short, grappling fight, in which Zeke saw the confirmation in Artemis' eyes. Zeke managed to have the actor to his feet. The man seemed to be actually trembling. Zeke really wanted some answers before sending him back to where he belonged. "Why are you here?" Zeke demanded, as he threw the actor into a seat and leaned on the back of the row in front of him. "Are you THAT stupid?"
"What are you talking about?" Artemis asked, trying to play dumb.
"Don't try that routine with me," Zeke snapped, tiredly. "You may have been an actor, but I was a cop. I can see through the dumb routine in a heartbeat."
Artemis' expression changed to boredom, and he got up and moved past Zeke and headed back to the stage. He went around and leapt lightly up onto the boards. Zeke followed slowly. "This is my life!" Artemis declared, flinging his arms wide. "This stage. THE stage."
"How'd you screw up?" Zeke asked.
"I killed a reviewer. I didn't mean to. It was New York, during the war. I gave the best performance of my life, and this reviewer raked me over the coals. I got fired. I got drunk. I confronted him. He was drunk, too. There was a fight, and he went out a ten story window. He missed the pool."
"And you were convicted and killed for it," Zeke finished.
"I was convicted of the murder. I was killed because an actor had little chance of surviving in prison. Especially when certain inmates were convinced the reason I was in prison rather than the army was because I was 'unfit' to serve."
"You mean gay."
"That IS the stereotype."
"Was it true?"
"Does it matter? I mean NOW? It's been almost sixty years."
"True," Zeke had to admit. "But why here? Sure you knew... What about the girl?"
"Girl? What girl?"
"Erica. She's convinced you're stalking her."
"Ah, yes. Sweet Erica. Such a pretty girl. Very talented. Reminds me of my sister. She died during the Depression," Artemis mused thoughtfully. "I guess I never mentioned it to her. She thinks...well, I was a superb character actor before, guess I still am. I"ve very good at getting into my roles. I'll have to apologize...I'm not going to have time for that, am I?"
"We'll see. Why'd you pick this role?" Zeke asked, still trying to keep all the tracks straight in his mind.
"What other role could I play after where I've been?" Artemis snorted. "I wasn't even part of the plot you know. Just in the wrong place at the wrng time. When I heard this part was up for grabs...well..."
"But what about the man who died?"
Artemis was puzzled a moment. "Is that what happened to him? They didn't tell me details...I heard about the production and came over to audition...now that you mention it..."
Zeke was now thoroughly lost. Nothing was making any sense anymore. He hated it when he started liking the people he had to send back to Hell. Especially this poor guy. He was going to get hell when he got back, and he said as much.
"Oh, I don't mind," Artemis said dreamily. "Though I do wish you could've waited just a few more days. I had a great schtick planned for opening night. "
"Aren't you through YET?" a new voice demanded with an evil snarl.
Zeke had a brief moment of deja vu, until he realized it wasn't his boss's voice. This one was female. Both men turned in surprise and astonishment. Erica stood in the theater, glaring, hands on her hips. Her eyes sparked with more than irritation.
"You?" they chorused.
Zeke's hand moved to his gun, but still not drawn. "But...?"
"You think I was foolish enough to keep my original identity?" Erica scoffed. "You think I WANT to go back? You're kidding, right?" Erica rolled her eyes and then looked between the two of them, and finally back to Zeke. "What've you been doing in here? Why haven't you sent him back? I gave you the perfect opportunity - alone in an empty theater. All you had to do was come in, pop him in the eyes, and be done with it. What do I find when I come in? You're standing here yammering away like old women. You send a man to do a simple job...but I guess they were right when they said, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself."
Suddenly both men were looking down the business end of a semi-automatic handgun. Zeke went on the defensive. He was only a beat behind her. They were in a showdown, and it was turning real ugly, real fast. Zeke mentally kicked himself for letting Erica play him like she had.
How could he be so blind? He had been so concerned about finding Artemis Quinn, he'd ignored the big, blinking neon sign pointing to Erica. "You're good," he finally admitted.
She barely acknowledged the praise. "I'm the best, and like some others, I learn from my mistakes."
Something wrenched in his mind. "Ashe?" It wouldn't be the first time she'd changed her form to fool him.
"That old has been?" she scoffed. "Please, no. I wouldn't make HER mistakes either."
Zeke was getting a headache, but he had to ask, "What were Ashe's mistakes?"
"She didn't kill you while she had the chance. I don't make that same mistake."
Zeke dove to the side as she fired her gun. He barely wasted a glance toward Artemis, but it was enough to know he'd dove the other direction. Somehow Zeke had keep her talking long enough to throw her off balance.
"So, how'd you figure it out?" he called out, staying down while trying to track her movements. He had to hope Artemis had the sense to hide and stay there until it was all over.
"I saw HIM with you. You have nice legs, Zeke. He should've left you in the tutu," Erica said snidely, coming around the corner and firing a shot.
Zeke scrambled out of the way, unable to get off a shot of his own. She really was good. "So why'd you turn over Artemis?"
"One less soul to worry about," she said with a verbal shrug. "Isn't that what Ashe was doing as a cop? The less of them the more power for the few of us coming out on top. And once HIS little, goody two shoes lap dog is gone, there's nothing to stand in my way."
"What a pathetic, over the top speech," Artemis said scornfully. "If that's the best you can do, you'll never make it out of the chorus and minor roles, much less aspire to the power you think you can hold."
Erica whirled with a cry of pure rage, firing her gun wildly. A couple of the bullets caught Artemis and flung him backward on the stage. He was down but not out, and it was a distraction Zeke could use. He launched himself at her, knocking her to the floor and flinging the gun into the seats. He held her down, both panting with the exertion.
"Why?" he demanded one more time.
"Because I loved HIM. When I was alive I worshiped HIM, and when I died, HE only had eyes for Ashe. I'm proving to HIM that I'm every bit the demon she was."
"Let me tell you something," Zeke snarled. "You are nothing compared to Ashe." With that he put two bullets square into her eyes.
With a soul shattering scream, Erica was sent back where she belonged. Zeke watched and felt nothing. No relief, no regret. His job was lessened by one more. Though he couldn't avoid the wince of pain as the mark of her name burned off his left bicep. When he opened his eyes again, Artemis was staring at him in concern. Through his teeth, Zeke hissed at him, "Opening night."
Zeke watched the performance from the stage wings. It was a brilliant production. He felt his employer appear beside him, but chose to ignore him until he spoke.
"I still don't think he does me justice," the Prince of Darkness finally said.
"He does you more justice than you deserve," Zeke responded.
"Ouch. Pain. You wound me, sir. Now tell me, Mr. Stone, why is Artemis Quinn still on that stage?"
"We made a deal."
"Oh, really? And what kind of deal could you possibly make that would supercede our arrangement?"
"He wanted to play you, just once. I thought he deserved the chance."
"You THOUGHT? Mr. Stone, I don't pay you to think. I pay you to send my escaped children back home."
"Well, you could've mentioned there was more than one here," Zeke complained. "This isn't like those two lovers. Erica wasn't about to sacrifice herself."
"No, she wasn't. Erica was a master of deception. Now she is where she can think about her mistakes and continue to learn from them as she lives them over and over again for a few millennia. Then maybe she'll have some perspective. You know, there was a time where she showed some real promise, but even in Hell, there are limits."
Zeke didn't respond, nor did he pay his employer any more attention while the performance continued. He could tell by the reactions of the cast and audience, the aura of power that surrounded Artemis Quinn and the depth of evil in his performance and even a few slight of hand tricks, that he was pulling off the performance of a lifetime. He knew Artemis could never fully capture the essence of the real thing standing next to him, but for the living, he could've been the Devil himself.
Artemis was heady with the applause when the curtain fell for the last time. He capered like a school boy, high on the thrill, when he joined Zeke in the wings. He sobered instantly, when he saw who was with him. The Prince of Darkness merely regarded the man coldly a moment.
"An...adequate...performance, Mr. Quinn. See you don't do it again. I'll see you shortly." Then he was gone.
Artemis swallowed a moment, then took a deep breath and turned to Zeke. "I'm ready, Mr. Stone."
"Let's do this somewhere private," Zeke told him.
They ended up in Artemis' personal quarters. He arranged himself artistically in a chair, and looked up at Stone. "Do it."
Zeke very rarely hesitated to do his job. Most of the people he sent back, deserved to go. But this time was different, harder, for him, Artemis didn't seem to deserve to be in Hell any more than Zeke did.
"Please, Mr. Stone, quickly," Artemis said patiently. "You have to - or you won't be free of him. One of us should be."
Zeke nodded then pulled the trigger twice. Artemis was shortly nothing more than a memory, even his name gone from Zeke's shoulder, and somehow it made him feel even more empty than ever. Though he did feel better, after reading the news of his brilliant performance and subsequent disappearance, that he'd been able to give the man his last wish. Perhaps Shakespeare had been right when he said, "All the world's a stage, and all the people mere players..."