"Put it down, Mr. Rainey."
Mort didn't even bother to turn around. It was taking every ounce of strength he had just to stand perfectly still, to disobey those casual orders. He tried to shut out the sound of the Mississippi drawl.
"Set it down, nice and easy . . ."
He couldn't listen. He had to ignore it. He had to be stronger than it. Strong enough to do this. It was now or never. There was no going back, no trying again, no three strikes, no last chance . . . he was going crazy . . .
"Too soon! I told you it was too soon!"
Once again, he didn't look up. It would have been like looking into a mirror, except this image had a mind of its own. One hand moved, slowly, shaking, towards the other hand, and what it held. The movement was so small that it was almost invisible, but it was there.
"You should have waited longer. You had the upper hand, and you showed it too early." There was a sigh. "So deal with it and do it already."
"You're not going to do anything except put that thing down and come over here."
A footstep, then another one, moving down the stairs, towards where he stood. He clenched his teeth together and willed his hand to move faster. He wasn't going to give up, not without a fight.
Movement, from the side of him to his back, arms outstretched.
"He's going to do this, and nothing can stop him."
"He's going to die, just like he was supposed to –"
"Yes, he is."
"- but his body will live."
"That's where you're wrong."
The footsteps paused.
"He's wearing the hat."
There was a moment of blissful silence, and the hand made more progress towards its destination.
One more footstep towards him, and one away from him.
"Stay away from him."
A harsh laugh.
"You and what army, Mr.?"
Sudden movement, sudden footsteps, sudden harsh, ragged breathing, sudden noises of people fighting wildly, sudden crashes and thuds, sudden silence.
Pain flooded him. He ignored it and held his concentration on his hand. When the pain spread to his chest, though, he slipped for a moment. He turned around, hands frozen in place.
It was a terrible vision of the future, if his hands did not meet. He saw himself, beaten, choked, bruises forming under the battered old bathrobe, slumped against the wall, fighting for breath with a bruising throat.
Wait a minute. Bathrobe? He wasn't wearing his bathrobe. He was wearing black. He was wearing the hat . . .
Footsteps pulled him back to the present, and he looked down. His hands were almost touching. He smiled. Sacrifice had not happened in vain.
Fingers touched cold metal. Footsteps froze.
"Drop it, Mr. Rainey."
Fingers slid down the metal, found the catch. The satisfying click echoed around the room. His bleeding vision grinned.
"You can do it, Mort."
A swift kick. The pain no longer affected him. He pulled both hands up.
"Put it down now. Don't you dare."
The Mississippi drawl had a hint of urgency in it. Footsteps resumed, quicker this time.
His hands passed his chest. Cold metal touched the skin under his jaw.
"You cut that out right now, you hear me?"
He smiled. He smiled at the drawl's panic, at the task he had completed, at the final victory achieved. He smiled at the devil he'd outwitted and the angle he'd had to sacrifice. He smiled as he who has finally found salvation.
His finger curled around the trigger.
Sudden noise, loud, echoing, reverberating, shaking the entire house.
Sudden silence. Perfect silence. There was no one there. Just a small heap of flesh and bones and black clothing in a pool of blood.
A hat, now red.
Cross the room. Up the stairs. Past the bathroom and the desk and the bed, to the old wooden chest of drawers. Open the bottom one. Look in the back corner, under mothballs and bags of old herbs still trying vainly to sweeten the bitter smell.
An old bathrobe, worn with holes.
The cold face was still smiling.