The man's shelter was a tent pitched in the shape of a cone, with an opening at the top to let out smoke. It had gone the no-color that all things seemed to do when exposed to the elements for long enough. It flapped wildly in the freshening wind.
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The little man ducked inside and began preparing a tiny fire on the ashes of the previous one. Christopher watched him, saying nothing as the light leaked out of the world. Finally, when he was nothing but a shape in the deeper gloom, the man lit the fire and stoked it with a small bellows. A reddish light grew within the confines of the tent. The little man sat back, satisfied, and began to roll a cigarette. He finished, put it to his lips, and then looked up to catch Christopher's expression. For the first time, he grinned. "Would you like one?"
"Yes. Yes, thank you," Christopher said. It had been days since his last. He accepted the finished rollup from the man and lit it with one of his dwindling supply of matches. The tobacco was dark and strong, an eastern specialty he had been encountering more and more on his journeys. He looked up to see the man draw another packet from his supplies. He pulled it open, spilled a quantity of powdery material onto his hand, and then tossed the powder onto the fire.
It was consumed immediately in bright flame, producing a billow of smoke that filled the tent. Christopher drew back, coughing and fanning it away from his face. It smelled musty and vaguely acrid, like a laboratory chemical left in a basement for many years.
His head began to swim.
"Excuse me," Christopher said. "But what did you say your name was?"
"Christopher Downing," the man said.
"No...no, I mean-" He shook his head, as if to clear it. "What is your name, sir?"
"Christopher Downing," the little man said again. "A traveler from London. I came to this place in search of the Camp of the Ancients, and there I met a man named Christopher Downing-"
The tent seemed much larger now. The walls were pulling back, the little man receding from him into the distance. He made an effort to get to his feet and found that he had got no further than putting his hands flat on the ground.
"He said he was a traveler from London," the man went on. "Who had come here in search of the Camp of the Ancients, and met a man who said his name was Christopher Downing, a traveler from London, who had come..."
The man's voice faded into darkness, taking Christopher with it.
Ella and Damien sat in one of the booths in the Red Lion, drinking coffee beneath the dim glow of the overhead lamp. The old restaurant was dark and cluttered, the other diners little more than dim shapes accompanying the background murmur of their talk. The light from above made Damien look slightly diabolical, an effect Ella found she rather liked.
"Okay," she said. "I get the whole Parkour thing, and gymnastics, and all that. But is it all for something, or just for fun? I mean, what do you want to be when you grow up? James Bond?"
"Hell no. He was a womanizing fuckhead."
"Fair enough. Um. Jason Bourne, then."
"No, not really." Damien considered. "I mean, not that I'm really keen on growing up anyway, whatever that means. But for a career? I don't know. I think I'd like to be a kind of explorer's guide. Not like a tour guide, but like someone for the serious adventurers. Just small groups at a time, no more than three or four. Let's say you and your wife and your friend-"
"Somebody's wife. Let's say you want to do some kind of high-impact climbing expedition or camp rough in the jungle for a couple nights. I'd be the guy you called to lead you through it, make sure you don't die, stuff like that."
"Exactly, yeah. And it wouldn't have to be just out in the wilderness, either. I could do city expeditions, too."
"You lost me."
Damien picked up a french fry and swirled it through a pool of ketchup. "Let's say you want to go to Istanbul for a week. If you've ever been to a foreign city- I mean, a really foreign city- you know what it feels like. You're bewildered. Lots of people will just follow the prescribed tour, and then stay in their hotel the rest of the time. It's intimidating. So let's say you and your friend or two want to see the real Istanbul. I can take you through the city, show you all the interesting places that aren't on the tours, take you out to the best bars, even score you the best hash." He grinned. "Off the record, of course."
"I don't know." Ella sipped her coffee. "Sounds hard to subsidize."
"I'm counting on being one of the only people doing it."
"Still, the insurance and everything..."
Damien shrugged. "You can't let the legal bullshit get you down. Otherwise you'll never do anything fun."
"That's probably true."
"What about you? What do you want to do eventually?"
Ella shrugged. "I really don't know. I'm not sure. The more time goes on, the less I can see myself really using my degree, you know? Plus, things have...gotten more complicated lately. I'm not really sure what I believe in, anymore."
"Are we talking values system or, like, believing in God?"
"I'm not sure if it's either of them. It's more like I'm not sure the world works the way I used to think it did. Does that make any sense?"
"Sure. I know the feeling."
"I doubt it," Ella said. "But thank you."
Damien grinned again. "You don't have to believe me. Anyway, I was thinking. You like music?"
"What kind of question is that? 'Do you like music'."
"Okay, okay. Fine, you like rock music?"
"Sure, some of it. Why?"
"Persistent Bitch is in town next week. I was wondering if you wanted to go."
"Who is in town?"
"Persistent Bitch. They're a band. They're from Estabrook, actually. Their second album just made it big, so they're doing a tour."
"I've got to know. What does a band called Persistent Bitch name their albums?"
"Well, the first one was called Poison Pills and Soda Pop. It was a little more girlpunky, I guess. It was all right. The second one, the big one, is called Six Plain Black Shirts (Naked on Sundays)."
Ella burst out laughing. "Okay, that's pretty good. When is it? The concert, I mean."
"The 17th. Want to go?"
"Is this like a date you're asking me on here?"
"Don't know." Damien smiled again. "Want it to be?"
"Hmm." It was her turn to grin. "I reserve judgement. Let's just call it a thing for now, okay?"
"Yep." Damien finished his coffee. "I've got a friend who knows the band, can get us a couple free tickets. You've got my cell number?"
"Yes I do. You have mine?"
"Yep. I'll give you a call when it gets closer to time, make sure we're still on." He got up, plucked their tab off the table, and smiled. His teeth were very white in the darkness. "I'm going to go have a walk. Burn off some of this diner food. See you later, okay?"
Another flash of those white teeth, a wave, and he was gone.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.