“They say he’s an alchemist,” Frederick drawled from behind his worn playing cards. He clutched them in both hands, elbows propped atop the table. Cigar smoke plumed over his greased mustache, mingling with the dry air.
The tell-tale smell of tobacco filled the small shack and the smoke became a diaphanous haze that seeped through the cracks in the walls. Frederick’s bowler hat cocked to one side, carefully positioned to signal nonchalance. His foot tapped against the dirt floor in a steady rhythm.
“They say Jerusalem-in-the-south is going to be finished next year,” Bob quipped. He was seated to Frederick’s left, and slurred as he spoke. Dark stains marred the front of his shirt, still barely visible against the road dust. A bottle of rancid smelling liquor sat next to him. “They say a lot of things.”
He belched, as if to punctuate the sentiment.
The third man remained silent, his cards face down on the table. This one neither smoke, nor drank, but stared at the wall across the room with eyes that were vacant. A vein pulsed at his temple, the only movement he made.
“Well, I don’t know about all that,” Frederick said, flicking a tongue over cracked lips, “but Susie May…you know, the scrapper’s daughter? She was just tellin’ me-”
“Susie the Floozy?” Bob interrupted, with a grin. He was about to say more when Frederick folded his cards into one hand and brought his free palm down against the table’s surface with a bang.
Bob flinched. The table wobbled, and the rusty nails holding it together protested audibly.
The silent man did not react.
“You shut up about that right now. I’m not foolin’,” Frederick warned, pointing a finger, and Bob sighed in response.
The three men sat, unspeaking. No cards were played. A moth bounced off of a glowing lantern suspended from the ceiling in a maddened, ignorant dance with death. The collisions made soft pattering noises.
“Anyway,” Frederick continued, breaking the hush. “She told me he showed up to town last week, face all wrapped up like some kinda leper, asking around at gold. Obsessed with finding a goldsmith, Susie said.”
“I heard he was seven feet tall and carried a big stick,” Bob offered, his eyes twinkling.
“You’re a gossip, Bob Randall, if I ever knew one,” Frederick replied. Bob scowled, and then his face broke into a wide grin, revealing numerous gold teeth set beside rotting, natural ones. The two of them burst suddenly into uproarious laughter.
“Are you two going to play your hands or not?” Frederick asked around the cigar locked between his teeth, wiping a tear away from one eye with a finger. Bob opened his mouth to reply, when the third man spoke up. Bob froze.
“I heard he is the last of an undying line,” The third man said, his voice barely above a whisper. “Haunted by the years as they have passed, his loved ones and children aged and spoiled before his eyes.”
His two companions gaped.
“He talks?” Bob mouthed wordlessly to Frederick, who crinkled his face and shrugged.
The third man continued, “I heard he can shoot a butterfly off a dandelion at fifty yards. That he has no need for sleep. I’ve heard that he can walk for a week without stopping, that he sacrificed his soul so his body would march on long after it should be in the ground.”
“There’s more,” he intoned, his voice now downright conspiratorial. “If you say his true name three times before a mirror, he’ll find you. He spits on money, only takes payment in gold. That’s why they call him the alchemist.”
He mimicked firing a pistol with one hand, “Because he can turn lead into the stuff.”
“Is that right?” asked a voice.
Now they turned in shock to peer at the open door. A stranger stood outside, with features obscured in deep pools of shadow. The nameless man stood, his chair toppling behind him, eyes wide and mouth open, cut off by the flash and boom of the stranger’s hidden firearm. He tumbled backwards, a corpse before he hit the floor.
The doorway filled with black smoke, as the stranger walked through the fumes into the shack.
Frederick dropped the cards, his eyes cast downward. He held his hands up, fingers splayed, elbows fixed to the table. When he spoke, his voice wavered. “I d-don’t know what business you had with the f-fellow on the ground, but it doesn’t concern me none. I don’t know that m-man from Adam.”
The stranger did not respond.
Frederick shot a look at Bob, but was unable to catch his attention, transfixed as he was by the corpse and the gently growing pool around his middle.
The stranger walked a few steps forward and stopped. Frederick swallowed, or tried to, his mouth had gone conspicuously dry. Frederick cleared his throat and looked up at the murderer.
“Eyes down,” The stranger said, “You’ll thank me later if you do as I say.”
His voice was tinny and edged, as though filtered through a rusty can. The words slithered through strips of cloth wound loosely around his head, hiding his face. The two seated men did as they were told, and heard the heavy clomping of boots as the stranger walked towards the corpse. Frederick could tell that the stranger was rifling through the dead man’s possessions, and shot a peek despite his fear.
Frederick witnessed the stranger pull from the corpse’s coat a foot-long metallic cylinder, bearing deep and intricate carvings. The lantern hanging above shone over the cylinder’s surface, casting a yellow sheen. It was unmistakably gold.
The stranger turned suddenly, eyes aflame with electronic fire. Twin viridian orbs hung in the gloom. Frederick yelped and squeezed his eyes shut, prayers upon his lips. He waited for retribution.
Instead the stranger turned and walked out of the shack, into the desert.
There was work to be done.