Sebastian fussed over his collection of antique bottles. He arranged them on shelves that rose from floor to ceiling, in the room. The only illumination was from a hanging chandelier in the center. The bottles were comprised of various materials from all over the world and across human history. Unbroken clay pots from Mesopotamia hulked next to delicate stoppered jade vases. Ancient Roman glass sparkled, partnered with lidded bronze covered with writhing serpents and clusters of grapes. Dark, old medicine bottles; the labels missing or in scraps of brittle, yellowed paper, decorated one shelf.
There was little in the room to distract from Sebastian’s obsession. A pair of wingback leather chairs, each the color of burgundy, sat in the middle of the room, just below the chandelier. A small table with a decanter of brandy and two glasses separated the chairs. The only other object in the room was the rolling ladder that gave Sebastian access to the highest shelves. He was tall, but not tall enough to reach those bottles closest to the ceiling.
A knock from the front door stopped the gentle swish of the feather duster. Sebastian turned; his head moving slowly as if afraid any sudden motion might send the bottles crashing down. Who could it be at his time of night? Sebastian never conducted business in the evenings, and certainly never entertained unannounced visitors.
He laid the feather duster on a small table, exited his little gallery, and slipped the key into his evening jacket pocket after deliberately locking the door.
Years ago, he might have relied on servants to answer the door, but those days were long gone. He felt the weight of years on his shoulders.
The knock came again, this time louder, more insistent. Sebastian felt a tingle at the back of his neck. Really, who could be here at this time of night? He pulled on his nightcap and opened the door.
An immensely fat man pushed himself past Sebastian. The man was sweating, red-faced, hair slicked back in oily curls. His collar fought a battle against his thick neck, and a mustache as dark as bootblack brush drooped over his thick, greasy lips. With a ham sized fist, he slammed the door shut. With the other, he pulled a revolver from his topcoat. Though a full-sized gun, it looked like a toy in his massive hand.
“You’re the one they call, “the collector?” the man asked. His voice was oily, like his hair. He smelled of menthol.
Sebastian drew himself up, a tall and lanky man; easily a head taller than the visitor. He regarded him with cold eyes, looking at him in the face rather than focusing on the weapon. “What is the meaning of this?”
“You will answer my question, sir!”
Sebastian laughed, a bit of a bark, really. “You have excellent manners, for a burglar.”
“Are you, or are you not, the one referred to as “the collector?”
Sebastian cast a quick glance at the locked door to the room. “I have been known to collect a variety of items; mostly useless and uninteresting to anyone but myself. Where did you hear such a thing?”
“The Brotherhood of the Burning Rose.”
Sebastian sighed. “Drunken louts, the best of them. I suppose they also advised you to come to me in my home, at night, and armed? I do have a place of business and hours to do so.”
“My need is urgent,’ the man said, “I was afraid I’d be turned away.”
“I’ll be delighted to speak with you during daylight hours. Please put away that brutish weapon.”
“I will not. You will take me to the collection.”
The explosion from the gun was a clap of thunder in the small entryway; followed by the shattering of a glass vase. The acrid tang of gunpowder burned Sebastian’s nose. How he hated the sulfurous smell! The vase was a cheap reproduction, and not part of the permanent collection, but Sebastian found himself mourning its loss; the shattered glass so like the color of blood.
He reached into his pocket and produced the key.
“Follow me then, barbarian.”
The trip took no more than a dozen steps, but it felt like a journey. The outrage of having his home invaded crashed down on him. Sebastian put the key in the lock. He stood with his back to his guest. “What did those cretins at the Brotherhood tell you that I dealt in?”
“Open the door, sir!”
“I assure you, that what you seek is not here. Or it may be, but I guarantee it is not what you want. You would do well to retreat now.”
The man hit the muzzle against the base of Sebastian’s skull.
He turned the key, and the door opened. The man wheezed, shoving Sebastian into the room.
“It’s in these bottles? What do I do? Drink one?”
Sebastian narrowed his eyes. “Inadvisable.”
“They told me you dealt in life and death; that you kept the lives of others in these bottles.”
Sebastian sighed. “Idiots. Embellishers, every last one of them. Supposing what they said is true, what do you hope to achieve by attacking me and taking what I have so meticulously collected?”
“I’m not the healthiest of men,” the wheezing, sweating fat man said.
Sebastian’s mouth twitched. “Indeed?”
“My doctor says I’ll be dead soon, and there’s nothing he can do, but I’ve heard that you possess means to circumvent my fate. Here. In these bottles.”
All the pieces fell into place for Sebastian. He laughed so hard that tears welled up in his eyes. He couldn’t remember the last time he had wept.
“Stop laughing!” The gun went off.
Sebastian felt the force of the bullet slam into his shoulder, tearing flesh as it passed through him and into a bottle behind. He could tell from the timber of the shattering glass which vessel had been destroyed. The contents dripped from the shelf and pooled on the floor. He sat stunned, drained, and in a stupor while the fat man cast his eyes wildly around the room.
“Do I drink one? Will that give me more life?”
Sebastian shrugged with his undamaged shoulder. “I will not stop you. After all, you hold the gun.”
The enormous, dying man retrieved a bottle. It was Roman and gaudy, from the first century. At least the lout couldn’t break it by dropping it, but the contents inside were irreplaceable. He put his gun on the table and with an amazing display of grace and dexterity, removed the stopper. He tilted his head and poured the contents from the flask.
A long, gelatinous coil oozed. It shimmered like mercury but rolled like thick clouds of cigar smoke. The fat man gasped, startled, and the smoke darted forward, alive, intent, and drove itself into his mouth and nose. He clawed at his face, trying to grasp the invader, but his fingers merely passed through it. His color grew ashen. He fell to one knee, then the other, collapsing on the tiled floor.
Sebastian stood up. Such a mess! A priceless antique destroyed, a second vandalized, and a bullet in one of his walls. He could feel the flesh knitting back together in his shoulder, and even his evening jacket was repairing itself.
He peered at the fat man, now gray as rain-soaked gravel. He labored to speak. Would this boor never shut up?
“But…I shot you.”
Sebastian removed the nightcap. His horns, protruded just a little, from thick wavy hair. A hallmark of his calling, he was neither devil nor angel, but he did have a certain amount of agency; a role to play which he enjoyed.
Sebastian took his time retrieving and inspecting the Roman glass bottle; undamaged, but sadly empty.
“You believe in alchemy, eternal life, but not those necessary to administrate these miracles? Those idiots at Brotherhood of the Burning Rose have led you astray. I’m a collector of debts; measured not in years or in breaths, but in souls; tainted souls. This bottle has an interesting story. Did you know that the human body, under the right circumstances, can survive indefinitely without a soul? There are rituals that must be observed, but my point is, it’s very rare. Usually, once the soul is freed, the body ceases to function. Death might be immediate or might a take a few days.”
The man didn’t respond. His mouth was barely open, and chalk-colored foam frothed on his lips.
“Ah, yes. The body can deal with its own soul, even the loss of it, but it cannot tolerate a second soul moving in; quite an overload on the system. And if that soul were to be tainted, corrupted by sin…”
Sebastian held up the perfume bottle. He saw the fat man’s eyes struggling to focus on it. The spittle that collected in the corners of his mouth had turned pink.
“Judas Iscariot. I traded him for some rope.”