The knock at the door was insistent. Although he had waited with a sort of dull dread for this moment for years, it still surprised him that it was actually happening. The fist, finally, on the other side of the door.
Thug thug. /Pause. / Thug thug thug.
He swung his legs out of bed, slipped on his jeans, walked across the room, unlocked the door, made his way back to the edge of the bed. He waited, and before long the door opened, and there they were, two of them in the shadows. The one with the cigarette coughed dryly. Then he dropped the cigarette and twisted it out with the bottom of his shoe against the unvarnished wooden floor. They both stepped in. Didn’t even bother to size the place up. There was little light. There were no windows.
“Remember us, Noble?” the shorter, cigarette-less one asked. His voice was nasally, like Peter Lorre. He was very, very short. His eyes were set far apart.
“Maybe,” said Noble. He wasn’t sure if he was lying or not. Maybe he remembered them, and maybe he didn’t. If this was not the truth, it was not far from the truth.
“What he say?” asked the taller one, jutting his chin in the air Noble’s way, but without looking directly at him.
“He said: ‘maybe,’” said the short one, speaking towards the tall one’s ear. The tall one half-snorted a laugh, and took a few more steps toward Noble. Each man wore a long black coat, and the shorter one appeared to have some slight hunch to his back. The tall one’s face looked scarred or burned. Or both. Probably both.
“Be that as it may,” the tall one said, “there is someplace you’re needed, and it isn’t here.”
“I’m not needed anywhere but here,” answered Noble. “I refuse to come.”
“What he say?” asked the tall one.
“He said he wasn’t needed. He said: ‘I refuse to come,’” said the short one, loudly. His hunch seemed to Noble to expand and contract with his breathing.
Neither of them laughed this time. The tall one reached into his coat pocket, took out a red pack of cigarettes, tapped one out, put it between his lips. The hunchback lit it for him from a match produced from Noble knew not where. Outside a jet screamed over head, then the familiar sound of an explosion. The building shook slightly, then settled. They waited for the retort, covering their ears, except for the tall one. It came with a mighty boom, followed by the sound of crumbling walls and shattering glass and then the muted screams and soon after the wail of distant sirens.
Then silence. And then the clanking water pipes from the mis-used apartment above. And then finally, the tall one spoke.
“The agreement, Noble. You recall that, at least.”
“I recall it,” Noble said, “and it has no meaning. It’s void. It’s not enforceable. I have documents.”
“Documents?” said the short one. “Well we have counter-documents.”
“Yeah, these,” said the tall one, grinning, and pulled back his coat to reveal the weirdly shaped weapon that men like him carried.
The tall one looked to the hunchback and laughed, smoke coming out his nostrils like a mythological creature. Some black lagoonish-creature shaking off the muck of history.
“Why do you think we’re here?” he asked Noble.
“I don’t care.”
“Try again,” said the short one, stepping closer.
“To remind me of the agreement.”
“To compel, if need be. We are here to compel you.”
Noble didn’t answer.
Finally: “Are you not a man of your word, after all?” asked the tall one, his voice almost pleading, almost tender. For the first time he looked directly at Noble.
“I’m a man of theory,” replied Noble, meeting the tall one’s gaze.
The tall one turned to the hunchback: “A man of . . . what?”
“Theory. He said: ‘I am a man of theory.’”
The tall one considered this, finished his cigarette, let it fall to the floor, still trailing a tenuous thread of smoke.
“Good,” he finally said. “Good for you. And we are men of action.”
“I’m not interested in what you are men of,” Noble said. “You must know yourselves why you’ve been sent. And still you came.”
“Of course. That’s why we’re here, Noble. Because we were sent. You can’t be surprised at our presence, after what you have shown you are capable of?”
“I did not do those things to attract you.”
“And yet,” the tall one said, “here we are.” He paused. He glanced over at the hunchback. Then he said: “The poor fellow in the vice, we heard about that.”
It wasn’t a question, and yet Noble felt obligated to respond.
“And?” he asked.
“And we heard that you lacked . . . sentimentality. When it came to things like the vice.”
“I did what was required,” Noble said.
“But was it required, Noble?”
“A matter of perspective. At that moment, yes. My survival depended on it.”
The tall one cocked his head, as if in question. “What” he asked the hunchback, “was that last part? His ‘what’ depended on it?”
“He said his ‘survival’ depended on it,” said the hunchback loudly, shifting on his feet. Noble wondered if the hunched back was heavy, if it was a burden.
A sudden look of weariness came over the tall one’s face and he approached Noble, who was now standing.
“So: at last. Are you ready to come with us, as you agreed?”
“The agreement is not enforceable. I won’t come.”
With that, the men descended on Noble with some kind of fury, more swiftly than he could have imagined, scattering the remaining light into the far corners of the room, plunging the world into darkness. Outside, the primeval shriek of another plane, the world falling apart, but not fast enough to save him.