It’s this time of year that fog descends on my city. Like clockwork, every year it envelops the streets for about a month, each evening wrapping around the street lamps and licking its tongue upon the window panes.
Years ago, when I was younger, I used to walk the streets at night with my friends. When the season of mists set in, they always saw it as a nuisance, obscuring their sight lines in their already slightly dazed state. I however, enjoyed walking the blanketed streets; I always thought the haze gave the city a beautiful aspect, its reaching towers and spires disappearing into the night air above us. It made the landscape feel ethereal, almost magical. So naturally, sometimes as the evenings wore on, I found myself walking the streets alone. But I could never really find it within myself to complain of loneliness - I enjoyed my nighttime walks.
It was during one of these walks that I first spotted the figure in the haze. It had the silhouette of a man, dressed in tails, carrying what looked to me like a trumpet horn. He was leaning against the far wall of a local pub, ‘The White Lion’. In my slightly inebriated state, I called out to him, “Hey pal, lost your way from the Masque ball?”
As I wandered closer to him, his shape merged back into the fog, so by the time I got to his end of the pub, he was long gone. I laughed to myself in slight embarrassment, and walked on. As I did, I heard someone whistling behind me; I turned around to see who it was, and to my surprise I saw the same figure walking away from me. Before I could even really react, he took his shape and his song and disappeared into the night. I even recognised the tune he was whistling: ‘Starless’ by King Crimson.
I couldn’t really figure out how he got past me without me noticing; the street was narrow enough that I could see from side to side, even without the fog; no-one had passed me. This continued to haunt me for a while, and I relayed it all to my friends a few days later. They all dismissed me, taking great care to explain in great detail how sometimes it’s easy to miss small details while drunk, like a side street or a man mostly in black. But I was convinced that the man had no way to pass me without me noticing. We moved onto other regions of conversation - our work lives, Danny’s woes on the stock market, Leo’s disastrous love life - but I brought up my encounter briefly a few more times that evening, at first amusing my companions and then boring them. As each of them headed home, they made sure to mockingly warn me not to let anyone too suspicious pass me on the street. Finally, I dropped my last drinking buddy, Charlie, on his doorstep. He had the decency not to make another stupid joke, but he did show a slight piece of concern for me just before turning in,
“Rob, do me a favour. Don’t go wandering tonight; just go home. OK?”
I dutifully agreed, thinking the advice sensible to be honest. I had no desire to get any more senselessly spooked. Charlie shut the door at last on our conversation, and I turned towards my own home. As I walked down the steps, a man chuckled softly on the far street corner - a man dressed in tails.
It was him, I was sure. I thought he was even carrying that same horn, although it was behind his back so I couldn’t be sure. I could even just about make out his face now: clean shaven, with jet black hair. I started toward him.
“Hey mate!” I called. He slowly turned round the street corner, out of my sight. I picked up my pace, not wanting to let him get away; I almost tripped on the pavement, but managed to keep my balance after a few seconds of wobbling, and almost sprinted round the corner. He was nowhere to be seen.
I decided not to mention this second encounter to my friends. I thought it would produce some undue worry in them, frankly. The fog was starting to lift by this time, and so my nighttime walks were scheduled to end. But still, I went out a few times on my own, hunting for the man in tails. I found nothing, and in a few months left it behind, and promptly forgot about it.
The next year, like clockwork, the fog returned. As usual, my friends and I drank, and wandered, and as usual I ended up wandering the beautiful streets on my own. One night, about halfway through the month of mist, I was on one of my wanders, well after midnight, when I heard something familiar behind me: a man whistling *Starless*. Immediately, everything from the previous year rushed back into my head, and I felt chills all over my body. I slowly turned, knowing the figure that awaited me before I saw it: the silhouette of the man with tails, and the trumpet horn. But this time he was coming towards me. I considered for a moment whether it was a good idea to run as fast as possible in the other direction, but I knew I could never live with the curiosity.
As he came out of the fog, I got my first proper look at him. I reckon he was in his 30s, medium build, and indeed he was wearing tails; he even had a white bow tie, with a slight red wine stain on it. I saw, though, that he wasn’t carrying a trumpet horn at all - it was a bottle of wine. I wondered how I could have made such a silly mistake.
“Good evening, my man,” he called out to me, evidently a bit gone on his wine, “It’s very late to be wandering such dimly lit streets, don’t you think?”
“I could say the same thing to you,” I wasn’t exactly sober, but the man slurring his words in front of me was much worse off than I was, and now I had adrenaline to offset the alcohol. Still, I was wary, I felt the drunkenness could just be an act.
The man laughed annoyingly heartily, “True, true.” He brought the bottle up to his lips, and swigged it back, only to be met with disappointment, “Blast - nothing left,” he glanced to his right, “Shame this place isn’t still open.”
I glanced left, and saw we were standing by ‘The White Lion’, the same pub this had all started at the previous year. More chills went up my back.
“Still I suppose there will be more where that came from,” he stared idly at his bottle and began humming *Starless* again.
My head flooded with a million questions, some subtle, others blindingly obvious. Somehow one made it to the front,
“Do you often wander the streets alone?”
He looked back up at me, seemingly surprised I’d chosen to say anything else to him, “No, usually I’m with friends, but none of them could be with me tonight,” he seemed genuinely sorrowful they couldn’t make it, “which is a shame, because I was so hoping I could give someone this…”
With his free hand, he deftly reached into his pocket and produced a small envelope. As far as I could see, there was no writing upon it. He turned it in his hands once or twice, seemingly considering it deeply. Then he turned to me and held it out, “You know, I want you to have it.”
I stared at the envelope, a plethora of alarms going off in my brain. A wave of fear swept down my body, but somehow all I could do was let out a nervous chuckle. I’d heard enough stories about making deals with demons and such, so of course I asked,
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch. I just want you to take the envelope. No price tag whatsoever.”
“And if open it?”
“Ideally you would open the envelope, as in my experience envelopes are rarely designed to stay closed.”
“What happened if I don’t do what it tells me to do?”
“Then you will not do what it tells you to do. All it is is some of my own advice. Follow it if you want, or ignore it, let it burn in the fireplace, and get on with your life if that’s better for you. But it’s good advice, trust me.”
The last thing I felt for this man right now was trust, but again I was curious. In all the urban myths and monster stories I’d heard of this kind, lying to make you agree or take something wasn’t part of the pact. I could see there was one detail on the envelope - a wax seal. All the seals I’d ever seen before were red or gold or silver. This one was white. I couldn’t make out the symbol on it. I must have stared that envelope for a long minute, pondering all this. In the end, I simply couldn’t help myself - I took it.
“Good fellow,” the man weakly smiled at me, “I shall wish you a very good night.” With that, he walked around me and started heading back into the fog.
“Wait,” I called out, “I still have questions! Who are you?”
He turned briefly, and with that same weak, almost sad smile, he spoke, “I’m no great mystery.” With that I was left speechless, and he disappeared into the night.
I looked down at the envelope I was left with, investigating at the seal. Imprinted on the white wax was the symbol of a pair of scales. I am a Libra, so it is somewhat appropriate. It also immediately spoke to me of justice.
Getting home, I left the letter on the table for hours, staring at it, deciding what to do with it. I knew in the end I would end up opening it, my curiosity gave me no choice. But I lit a fire anyway, so I could seriously ponder my chance to burn the letter. By the time I decided to finally break the seal, the embers were beginning to lose their glow.
The letter was longer than I expected, about twice the length of usual office size. The carefully composed handwriting had titled the page ‘My wishes’, and below that there was a list of instructions. Mostly, they were financial decisions, investing in one company or betting against another. A few were personal: go to this bar, work on this friendship, ask this woman to dinner.
Danny had been suggesting we all start investing like he had, and while I’d been against it for a long time, he’d actually recently been starting to convince me. I had a look at the first three names on the list, telling me to invest right away: they were all complete trash, sinking like a rock. Yet as I continued to watch over the next few days they each turned in quick succession, climbing like a rocket. I continued to read the list and over time my doubts fell away, and as I started to put money to the letter’s claims I was rewarded, and I found myself regarding his suggestions as less and less ludicrous.
I followed the other advice as well. Some of it was unnecessary - I doubt I could have watched the way Hannah danced and not chased instantly after her whatever the letter had said. I bought a house, and a car for us both in accordance with the envelope I had received that night. I gifted some of the money to my old drinking buddies, wanting to spread my good fortune, and they were profusely grateful. Life was good.
But I had read to the end of the letter. There was an end to all of this, and while it seemed harmless enough, I had not lost all my doubts. I was not prepared to risk everything on the belief that this stranger wanted to leave me well off, and so I had decided that over the last year of the letter’s advice, I would slowly ease off my investments until by the end, I was gambling nothing on the final instructions. Quietly, I was quite pleased with my ideas.
A few months before I was planning to begin the phase out, I made a final big investment with the envelope. I personally didn’t like the company it was suggesting, but there had been moves I didn’t like early on in the list, and those stocks had sky-rocketed: it was a mistake then not to place big money on them moving. So I watched as it steadily climbed, nicely accruing value.
Then I watched as it suddenly dropped.
As it plummeted into the ground.
As I realised that if you were going to place a trap for someone in amongst a list of good intentions, of course you wouldn’t place it at the end where he would be expecting it.
I sold it all as fast as I could, but inevitably it was too late. The debt was enormous - I was ruined. I had been played for a complete fool; the scales on that seal had tipped against me. Somehow I was mostly calm in my defeat, my only concern was how I would tell Hannah the awful news.
And then I got the call. Hannah had been in an accident. The car which I’d bought her as a gift the year before - as per the letter’s advice - had a fault with the break line. Her condition was critical, and I needed to come at once to see her.
She died before I could make it to the hospital.
Even today, I could tell you everything about her: the way she spun on the dance floor like a leaf in the wind; the way she scowled at me when I decried her terrible jokes; the simplicity and complexity of her smile. I could tell you all of that and more, but it wouldn’t matter - it doesn’t change how this story ends. All that matters is I was drowned in grief; and like clockwork, the clear blue sky were swallowed by murky grey, and so my grief was swallowed by my rage.
Each night I wandered the streets, alternately drunk and sober, shouting for him - to come out, to face me, to finish me. I wanted to kill him, and I wanted him to kill me. I wanted justice. I knew that many of the decisions on his letter I would have made anyway, but the disastrous ones were his. This tragedy was his fault, and he needed to pay.
But as always he was absent from those streets, and all my rage and shouting just became that of the city madman, and so the month wore on. On one of the final nights of the fog, I found myself sober outside ‘The White Lion’, as I often did at that time, and I realised that I had never actually been inside before. So I decided to turn my sober evening into a drunk one, and bought myself a series of pints inside the small, quiet pub.
They had just called last orders when the party of loud-mouthed snobs barged in, singing *Jerusalem* of all things. I kept my nose down in my pint, allowing my rage to simmer.
“This one’s on me boys! After all - it is my pay day.”
I knew that voice. I swiveled round, and there he was. He hadn’t aged a day since the last time I saw him, same suit, holding his bottle of wine aloft, surrounded by his friends in similar fashion. For a moment I just sat there in utter shock, not believing the image in front of me. Behind them was a TV screen showing the forecasts of the day, and briefly there was a discussion of the stock I had invested in, and its sudden decline.
“Alex, isn’t that the horse you bet against?” One of his friends said, gesturing up at the graph on the screen above him.
“Yes, I suppose it is,” replied the man I had met so many years ago outside this building.
He had bet against me. He had profited off all my suffering. Somewhere in my head, I had expected some justice all this while, but actually all he was here for was profit. My head continued to reel.
“Right, my fellows, all this talk gives us less time to drink! Let me get the next round.” Having said that, he walked toward the bar. Toward me. Suddenly everything became very red.
I smashed my glass against the bar, and before anyone could register what was happening, I was shoving it over and over into his neck, his stupid bow tie, to shut his stupid voice up. Somewhere, very dimly, part of my brain recognised the King Crimson song on the radio.
In a few seconds his friends were on me, restraining me, but somehow in my rage I managed to floor them one by one, just for a moment to free myself. I turned to find where the villain had gone, and saw he was dragging himself out into the night through the pub door. I couldn’t let him escape again, back into the fog.
I ran after him, into the street, and I almost tripped over him. He had collapsed outside the door. I flipped him over, and looked into his eyes - they were empty. His shirt was stained with blood. He was no supernatural demon, just a young boy who had been in a terrible accident.
I waited patiently on the pavement, staring down at him, as they came to get me. Later, I was told I was muttering one thing over and over while his friends waited for the police to arrive: “No great mystery.”
Charlie and my other friends rang me on that first night in custody. They told me they were each grateful for all the good fortune I had sent their way over the last few years, and they’d chipped together to get me the best lawyer they could. They also made it clear that this favour was final - after the crime I committed, none of them would want me to re-enter their lives again.
I’m still amazed at the job that lawyer did - I couldn’t explain to you the convoluted network of loopholes and technicalities he used in that courtroom. In the end, I was only sentenced to a handful of years. But all time in prison is slow time, and I felt every second of it.
Nowadays I manage to get by, making enough to live from day to day, but my life is gone. I observe the fog roll in and roll out from year to year, but I don’t walk the streets anymore. I sit alone in my room, and watch the world from my window.
I spend a lot of time thinking, considering the cycle. The mists that come like clockwork each year, and the man that they brought with them. I sometimes hear him whistling *Starless* in the streets, but I never see him. I wonder how much the mists are connected to *our* cycle, and one question always come back to haunt me.
Who began this circle of revenge? Him or me?