The caffeine delivery system wasn’t working as efficiently as normal. Here was the soothing hot water with its familiar taste warming the back of his mouth, but the morning fog wasn’t lifting. The jolt of go-get-them wasn’t jolting. It all just didn’t seem as urgent as before.
The events of the last 48 hours hardly seemed real. The visit by the mysterious stranger, the delivery of the unbelievable package, and the struggle for sanity – it all melted into one confusing ball that seemed beyond his reason to suss out.
He took another sip of the coffee, then buried his upper lip into the mug to pull in a full gulp. Come ON, brain, he commanded silently, make all this make sense. If the puzzle wasn’t solved by 10 o’clock this morning, the courier would go back without what they were demanding of him, and the game would be lost.
That was the problem, then: Mustn’t lose the game. As if lives were not at stake, the players all spoke of “the game.” The rules of the game. The need for sportsmanship. No, no, you can’t steal people’s lives THAT way – there are codes of conduct that must be followed. Fuck this game. He wanted to go back to sleep. A little rest, a little folding of the arms to catch his breath, and maybe this would all go away, no more worries, no more – pain.
That’s odd. Where was the pain coming from?
He’d been sleepier than he realized. Only now did he remember the fight of the night before, when he had fought to the death and – well, he’d fought to the death and lost.
This must be the afterlife.
“I didn’t think it’d be so comfortable,” he said. And it was, at that. Someone had left him a cup of coffee, the hound was at his feet, and outside the spring morning birds were providing a song for the ages.
“Everything is to your satisfaction, then, sir?” The valet had come up quietly from behind, even though this chair had been against a wall all of his life.
“Well, except for the being-dead part, yeah, I feel pretty satisfied,” he said.
“That part’s out of our control,” the valet said. He was an androgynous sort – could have been a she and come to think of it, maybe she was. The room and the air had a sexlessness to it, if such a thing could be said. There were no touches that would make the room masculine or feminine, except perhaps for the manly mug that held the coffee.
“Do I even need coffee anymore?”
“Need is such a tricky word,” said the valet. “If it brings you comfort, well then, yes, you need coffee now more than ever.”
“And where is this place? What time is it? What do I do with myself, being dead and all?”
“Ah,” said the valet. “Here is the moment when you realize there never was anything behind this concept you and the others have called ‘time.’ Time doesn’t pass, and 5 o’clock doesn’t exist. Everything just is. As to where you are and what you do with yourself, that’s all up to you.”
“Of course there’s time,” he said. “There was the time before I was here, and there will be the time after this conversation. Time passes. Things happen. We measure the before and the after.”
The valet looked on quietly and patiently.
“Will there be anything else, sir?”
“I’d like another cup of coffee, please –” and then he saw that his mug was full of hot, brown beverage. “Oh. I see.”
“This place does have its advantages,” the valet winked.