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Catching up with Jack Steel

Catching up with Jack Steel

After Doug disposed of his victory prize, the atmosphere in the Smiling Goat grew friendlier. The rest were still a little skittish around Jack, especially after that last stunt he’d pulled, but Doug actually found that for himself, at least, the exact opposite was true. Of all the players at the table, it was Jack who had treated him like an equal instead of a kid. If he was honest, ‘kid’ was preferable when compared to ‘rock-star-god-king,’ but the point still stood.

They all had a drink or two and bullshitted a little about this and that, before Tommy looked at the clock. “Cindy and Niko should be back by now. I mean, they’ll be fine, Cowell’s with them, but I’d better go out and grab them before it gets too late.”

“I think we should all call it a night, anyway,” Flora stood. “I’ll close up the bar, so Kuro, you can head home if you want.”

“You sure?” he asked, already straightening the chairs.

She nodded, and after giving his wings a good shake, he grabbed his things and, with a begrudging farewell to the rest, headed out into the deepening dark.

“That’s your cue, buddy,” Flora then turned to Jack, who still hadn’t moved.

“Pleasure seeing you too, Flora.” He gave her one of his toothy grimace-smiles before shrugging and standing as well.

She sighed. “I’d get out of town soon if you know what’s good for ya.”

“Alas, my business this time is more than just a simple catch up, I’m afraid.”

Flora looked somewhat exasperated. “Just don’t let Malachi’s goons see you.”

“I’m appalled you would think so low of me.” Jack grabbed his coat and swept out the door, saluting lazily. “They’ll be dead before they can even blink.”

“That’s what I’m worried about,” Flora said, more to herself than anything. After seeming to shake herself, she turned to Doug, who was still hovering around awkwardly. As much as he didn’t want to be a bother, he knew that right on the other side of that door was a one-way ticket back to Bacchae Junction. “Hey, kid,” she said. “Do you need a place to stay? There’s rooms upstairs…”

“Nah, that’s alright,” he waved her off. “I’ve got a place.” A place so big it was impossible to miss.

“Okay,” she returned to her tidying, though she still sounded concerned. “Just… be careful on your way back, yeah? You never know who you’re going to run into around here.”

He promised her he would, and waved goodbye before following after the others. He really liked this place, and he liked Flora. He hoped he could come back the next time he managed to sneak away. After his evening here, Doug felt a hell of a lot better. The best he had felt in a pretty long time, in fact. It wouldn’t last, but it was certainly better than if it hadn’t happened at all.

As the door closed behind him, Doug was hit with the surprisingly crisp night air. It was going to be okay. He still had a long walk between him and the clock tower. But before he got anywhere with that endeavor, he heard a small click from the darkness, and a flame lit up the face of the man holding a cigarette between his teeth as he leaned against the brick wall of the bar.

“Loitering’s illegal, you know,” Doug said sagely, and Jack grinned.

“I haven’t been the type to give a rat’s ass about legality for a very long time.”

“It’s not Malachi’s hit squad you should be worried about, it’s Flora.”

“Well, then I guess I’d better start walking.” Jack took a long drag of the cigarette and pushed off the wall. He took a step or two before looking back over his shoulder. “You know, you should probably follow your own advice, mate.”

Doug wasn’t sure if that was an invitation or not, but he took it as one as Jack waited for him to catch up, and the two set off in no particular direction.

“You played a good game in there,” Jack said after flicking his cigarette butt aside. “I didn’t see it at first, but you sort of remind me of someone, the way you played, that is. It was that… look on your face, I think.”

“Is that why you decided to team up with me instead of Flora?” Doug chuckled. “Who is it?”

“I was a hangman, Doug,” Jack glanced over at him out of the corner of his eye, as if gauging his reaction. “There’s only one bloke that employed hangmen around here.”

That would be the guy who ordered the executions, of course, Doug thought with a suddenly sinking heart. “Bacchae,” he looked down at the street. “You worked for Bacchae.”

“I heard he was back in town,” Jack’s tone was still casual, but this time, Doug wasn’t imagining things. There was definitely something probing in his words. “Funny, I thought, how he didn’t swing around to see his old mate Jack. But I don’t suppose you would… know anything about that, would you?”

Doug stayed silent. It dawned on him that he was probably about to die, wasn’t he? He definitely would if he said the wrong thing, at least. And who the hell knew what that could be for Mr. Thirteen Twos.

Surprisingly, Jack started laughing, very quietly, under his breath. “You don’t have to say anything. I decided to stop by my old chum’s welcome back jamboree last night. I recognized you the instant I saw you at the pub. You’re a dead ringer for the man, but’cha can’t fool this nose.”

“Well, I uh, guess you caught me,” Doug could only sigh. “So are we goin’ quick and painless, or do you wanna make me bleed first?”

Jack stopped walking, an odd expression momentarily passing over his features. Then he shook himself and leaned forward against a metal rail looking out onto the edge of the city a ways off. “If I’m honest, I was considering both. But ultimately, I decided against it.”

“Oh, good to know,” Doug’s heart did one singular somersault before he got a hold of himself. Yet somehow he knew that Jack was—for once—telling the truth. He was not going to kill him. “But why change your mind?” he followed Jack’s lead, leaning back on that same bar. Even this far down, that damn clock tower loomed above everything, a dark blotch against the sky.

“Dice, of course,” Jack admitted. “It was entertaining. It was almost like playing with him again. Just for a moment, there at the end.”

Though Jack sounded as wistful as he could with the constant growl at the back of his throat, his words irritated Doug. “Great. I look like him, I act like him. Might as well actually be the motherfucker.”

“But you’re not.”

Those words caught Doug off guard. “Sorry, what?” he asked.

“You’re not him.” Jack shrugged. “You’re not Bacchae. Know how I can tell? You’re just a man. Bacchae was… something else entirely, I think. That’s why we got along so well. But that’s not anything to be ashamed of. You shouldn’t want to be anything else, believe me, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It might be better for you to stay just plain old Doug in the long run.”

There was a moment of silence as Doug savored those words. “You don’t know how much of a relief it is to finally hear someone say that.”

“Pressure getting to you, huh?” Jack asked. “Personally, I dunno how the hell the bloke handled it for all those years myself. Maybe that’s why he finally skipped town.”

“So he really did leave, just like that?”

Nodding, Jack absently rubbed some dirt off his cheek. At least, Doug hoped it was dirt. “Came right out of the blue. Said to me one day: ‘well, Jack, looks like I might have to disappear for a while, make sure the city doesn’t fall too much to shit while I’m gone,’ and I never heard from him again.” He sighed. “But, maybe it’s for the best that he never comes back.” Without warning, he turned to look at Doug and changed the subject. “You seem like a good lad. Who got you wrapped up in all this?”

Doug had no idea how to even begin describing her.

“It wasn’t that Kei woman, was it?”

Or maybe he wouldn’t have to. “You know Kei?” he responded instead.

“Who doesn’t?” Jack scoffed. “Only bit of pizzazz the new Tea Party’s ever had.”

Hold on a minute. That didn’t gel with what Doug thought he knew. “Wait,” he said. “That… that can’t be right. Kei… works for… Malachi?”

“For a time,” Jack clarified. “They… didn’t necessarily see eye to eye. Think she reminded him too much of our old crew. He sent her off on a ‘special assignment’ to find Bacchae, but it was really just a glorified exile. I doubt he ever expected her to actually come back. But, joke’s on him, I guess, since she really found you.”

“Great, so I’m even more of a fucking pawn than I thought. Good to know.” At least that explained how she had so many oddly specific connections in this town. Doug didn’t like the fact that she hadn’t told him any of this, but in her defense, she hadn’t been lying exactly. Maybe she had eventually planned to spill the beans. Ah, but who was he kidding? This was Kei.

A strange, rumbling displeasure emerged from the back of Jack’s throat. “That’s what the whole thing’s like now. All politics and such. Not like the old days. Back then if you didn’t like a motherfucker you could just hang ‘im an’ call the whole town to watch.”

“And that was your job, huh?” Doug found himself a little queasy at the thought. He could imagine Jack’s theatrical personality absolutely captivating to a blood-hungry crowd.

“Well, that wasn’t all I did, o’course,” Jack corrected. “I did all the… nasty, necessary things that no beloved monarch should be seen doing.”

So he wasn’t just a hangman. He was a torturer too, at the very least. State-sponsored murderer? “How do you even… get a job like that?” Doug was dumbfounded, yet at the same time so morbidly curious.

Jack had to think about that one for a minute. “Bacchae had a way of… converting problem children to his cause. I think because he was the biggest problem child there was. He understood us, understood me better than I understand myself sometimes, I think.

“Most people of my… disposition are born like this, ya know? Or they get a nasty bump on the head along the way. But I’m not like them. I dunno if you’ll believe me, but I’ve got a bloody teaching degree. I used to tutor kids.”

“Frankly, I don’t think children should be let anywhere near you.”

He laughed again. “You’d be right about that. ‘S why I left, I think. You see, something nasty wormed its way into my head. Something that left me with these:” he pushed his coat sleeve up, only to reveal row upon row of erratic scars that crisscrossed all up and down his arm.

“It was a wolf, you could say. And when if finally fucked off, it left… bits of itself behind. Right up here,” he pointed to his head. “Couldn’t stand the way my pupil kept looking at me. She was right to be scared, cuz every time I saw her I kept imagining cutting her fingers off one knuckle at a time.”

“Dude…” Doug muttered.

“What?” Jack tilted his head, as if genuinely confused by the reaction. “I’m thinking about how fun it would be to eat your eyeballs right now, but you don’t see me doing it, do you? Well, I guess you wouldn’t be ‘seeing’ it anyway,” his husky snickers sent shivers down Doug’s spine.

“But back then I had trouble keeping those… impulses in check. I didn’t want to hurt her. I wanted her to remember Jack Steel, her beloved tutor, not the thing inhabiting his corpse. So I left. Tore right through reality and just… disappeared.”

“Wait, you can do that?” Doug asked.

“You can’t,” Jack said. “But that wolf, the one that left itself behind, it could. It wasn’t normal, so I’m not either, anymore. How do you think I’ve hung around waiting the last fifty years? I’m not a bloody daemon.”

Maybe that was a bit of the reason why even the daemons were scared of him.

“But I’m rambling,” Jack admitted. “You want to hear about how I joined the Tea Party?”

Doug nodded.

“Good,” Jack grinned. “That’s a much more pleasant story anyway.”

~~ o ~~

At the time, Jack wasn’t in the best place. For a while he had just wandered between realities, avoiding people as much as he could, only occasionally ripping a large animal apart with his bare hands. But it didn’t help. It never did.

It made him want to start cutting open his arms again, just to see blood.

For so very long, that thing, the Volk, had filled his head with so many maddening atrocities. His mind was still filled with such madness. Except now it was worse. Because that wolf in his head, that voice that instructed him to kill, to rape, to destroy… now it was his own.

It was only a matter of time, really, before he gave into that voice. The sad part was that he’d been so frenzied by that sudden, euphoric release that he didn’t even remember what that kill had looked like. Jack had spent days afterwards wracking his brain desperately, trying to preserve something of that life he’d snuffed out. But it was no good. It was gone.

For a while, that had made the wolf quiet down. But only for a while. And so he continued to wander, trying to commit atrocities only when it became unbearable not too. Only when it got to a point when he might cross an extra line, do something far worse if he didn’t kill right now.

And somewhere along the way, Jack Steel ceased to be. He lost him to the blood and madness. And the saddest part was that he barely even missed him. Ada had given her life to save not a man, but a miserable fucking dog.

At some point, as most travelers did, he found his way to Discord, and he discovered something marvelous: daemons didn’t die when they were killed. Oh no, unless you bound them with cold-iron, they just fucked off to find another cocksucker to inhabit.

He could kill with reckless abandon, and the sheer trauma he inflicted was usually enough to satiate the wolf. Discord was large, with many dark corners and abandoned warehouses to hide in. And so, for a time, he settled down. Got to know the brothels in the area very well, for when the daemon-killing didn’t quite cut it, though they always charged him extra, a “mishandling fee” they called it, ridiculous.

But still, even in a city as lawless as Discord, he couldn’t stay anonymous forever. He began to hear whispers about his own exploits, and one of his victims returned to the city and squealed about him to the paper. Some clever-clogs reporter had seen the opportunity and took it. The next day, the entire city had heard of the deeds of “Laughing Jack.”

Of course, if they thought a little press was going to stop him they’d been sadly mistaken. They could send manhunts after him all they wanted, the challenge just made it more fun. Like a game that he always won.

And shut up, he’d only sent the one manifesto to the paper on a whim. Though he had maybe picked too much of a fight with the Tea Party specifically, for that was most likely how Bacchae had gotten involved.

It had been a particularly dark night, in one of the lowest alleys of the city, that they’d met for the first time. Jack was elbow deep down some poor fucker’s throat, chuckling to himself. Now that he thought about it, that was probably why they’d given him that stupid nickname in the first place. But then he heard something unexpected: someone cleared their throat, and very close by, at that.

He paused in the middle of his cavity search. That couldn’t have been right. For him to hear such a small noise, the source would have to be close enough that they could see exactly what he was doing. They should be running and screaming by now. Jack was just about to resume his work when he heard it again, louder and more pronounced this time. So he wormed his arm back up the daemon’s throat with a horribly moist noise and grabbed one of his knives.

He didn’t have to look long to find him. Despite the darkness of the streets, his white hair and curved horns almost seemed to glow. The man wiggled his fingers at Jack, a large, friendly smile spreading across his face, as if he was simply meeting a friend for a nice afternoon cup of tea.

“I’d walk away if I were you, mate,” Jack warned, bringing the blade of his knife up to eye level. “Just turn around nice and slow.”

“Sorry, can’t do that,” was the casual reply. “Not when I’ve just finally found what I’ve been out all night looking for.”

Jack straightened. Something about this bloke seemed… familiar, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. “Looking for me?” he asked. “What are you, a reporter? Detective, maybe?”

“Uh yeah, nope, and nope,” the strange man shook his head. “Just someone who can’t back down from a challenge.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, you see,” he pushed off of the brick wall he’d been leaning on and took a step into the alley. “When I wake up in the morning, have a nice shot of whiskey or something, I don’t know, open up the paper, and the first goddamn thing I see is I’ve been called, and I quote: a ‘Cuntsucking-fuckwhore,’ and that if I want one certain asshole terrorizing my city to fuck off, that I’d better personally do the honors, well, how could I not accept that invitation?”

Ah. Jack paused for a moment. He might have really done it to himself this time. If this man was who he thought he was, well, he’d heard stories of the people who’d ended up on his bad side. Though looking at him now, Jack couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. He’d been expecting a god, but here before him was just a sickly-looking stick-man with an overly dramatic silhouette.

He decided then that he wouldn’t back down unless this fucker could prove his own reputation. “So you’re Bacchae, then, huh?” he asked.

“That’s right,” was the only reply.

“Well, I’m waiting,” Jack grinned with a mouthful of teeth that were just a little too sharp. “See, I like it here. Great atmosphere for killing, props for that. Little slice of heaven you’ve got here. So if you want me gone, you’re going to have to make me.”

Bacchae didn’t so much as flinch as Jack pressed his knife against the taller man’s throat. He just sighed. “Okay,” he said simply, and before Jack could even so much as open his mouth, the street had given out from under him.

He managed to cling onto the edge of a brick at the last second, and looking down, his breath caught in his throat as a great, black pit stretched out beneath him. Ahh, so the rumors of the passages hidden under the city, the place where Bacchae sent you if death was too good for you, he guessed they must be true after all. He hadn’t believed it before, but how could he not when he was seconds from falling into it? Not that he would survive the fall. Jack was immortal, but not invulnerable.

Above him, Bacchae looked mildly amused as he watched him struggle. “You know,” he yawned. “I could just… step on your fingers right now, and that’d be it for ya.”

“What do you want, a bloody apology?”

“No, not at all.” Surprisingly, Bacchae reached a hand down to him, but Jack hesitated to take it. It was his eyes, he thought. They were too deep a green to be natural, and there was too much going on in them at once that Jack couldn’t tell whether he was elated or furious. One thing was for sure, looking at him now, that feeling of deja vu only intensified.

“Well, are you gonna take my hand, or are you just gonna keep staring lovingly into my eyes?” he asked, and the moment was broken. Jack grasped his hand, and with a bit of effort, managed to clamber upwards.

Yet just before he gained solid footing, his shoe just balancing on the edge of the bricks, a smile broke out on Bacchae’s face, and he let go.

Imagine Jack’s surprise when instead of falling down into a black abyss filled with who knew what, he fell on his ass back down on the pavement. He jumped up and away, but when he looked back, he was stunned to discover the street whole and unblemished, as if the hole had never been there in the first place. Bacchae proved to be no help, as his expression remained too intense to actually parse what he was really thinking.

Frankly, he found, he didn’t really care. He was suddenly filled with the intense desire to get away. “Alright,” he grunted, still catching his breath. “Guess I’ll fuck off then.”

“Hold on,” Bacchae stepped in front of him, though Jack was unsure if he’d actually seen him move. “You didn’t think I’d really come out here just to get rid’a ya?”

“Um, yes? What other reason is there?”

“Because I think we can be friends,” for some reason, the grin on Bacchae’s face sent shivers down Jack’s spine. “See, the thing is, as fucking… nasty as it is, you’re really good at what you do, I can tell. And sometimes, when you’re in charge of a whole goddamn reality, you have to do some fucking nasty things. But you see, I don’t really have the stomach for it.” He said that too lightly to be telling the truth. “So I always try to have a guy who does, a hangman, I guess is the formal title.”

“You really love to hear yourself talk, huh?” Jack interrupted. “Were you planning on getting to the point anytime soon?”

“Until recently I had a guy,” he continued as if Jack hadn’t said anything at all. “But as it turns out he doesn’t listen to directions very well. So you can see how that puts me in a bit of a pickle. I need someone to hang my hangman.”

“And lemme guess, you want me to do it?”

“Well, it’s either that, or the next time I see you, I’m going to enjoy stepping on your fingers.”

“So, if I have all this right,” Jack tilted his head. “You need someone to do all the nasty business that you can’t be seen doing, and you thought the best man for the job is the same bloke who’s been terrorizing your city for the last month?”

“Well yeah, kills two birds with one stone, doesn’t it? You get to kill people, or otherwise maim them in whatever slow, gruesome way your little heart desires, and I get someone to kill the people I don’t want to.”

Jack just laughed, long and hard. Yet the entire time, Bacchae’s expression didn’t change, like he already know exactly what he was going to say.

“So do you want a fucking resume or something?”

“Nah, nothin’ like that,” Bacchae shook his head. “Just a handshake, and the job is yours.”

Jack paused however, as Bacchae held out his left hand.

“I always shake with my left,” he explained when he saw Jack’s confusion. “Means I’m not actually held to anything I agree to.”

“Then why would anyone ever shake with you?”

“Cuz if they don’t, well, that’s where you come in, isn’t it?”

This man, god, whatever he was, was not to be trusted, that much was clear. But there was something about him, something that made you want to see where the hell he was going with all of this. So Jack smiled, and despite the inherent lunacy of it all, grasped his left hand with his own.

“So now that that’s all settled, I’ve just got one question for you,” Bacchae’s grin matched his own. “Why do I get the feeling we’ve met somewhere before?”

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