Snare drum, the gentle beating in the humid musk that echoes through the whole of the hall, as the minutes trickle away into the mist, and the gentlemen sip their Gibsons. The inimitable praetorian, the recently deposed Jack Temple, downs a different libation as the music hums around him. His neatest of bourbons, ever at hand, follows the tapping of his fingers on the glass.
Alcohol never agreed with him, but it tended to win the argument more times than not. He raised it, draining the thing, and promptly signalled for another. Such persuasive skills it had. Why, it could argue a man to lose his job, his marriage, and raise his fists against the slightest opponent. It was the abusive lover, the loving mother, and the naughty teacher asking for more. As the fresh glass met his lips, it kissed back with burning passion. It whispered sweet everythings in his ear.
The companion, Margot, looked leerily at Temple from across the table, aware of the ménage à trois. Her twitching fingers went absently to pull and curl at her golden locks, itching for distraction. This was not the place she wanted to be in, surrounded by vagrants, Negroes, and down-and-outs. However it was, Jack had what she needed. The manila dossier lay between them, unblemished by the sweaty air of the place.
"My flat rate," intoned Jack, his rheumy eyes coming to bear at least. "My flat rate, plus bonus."
"It will be wired tonight, Mr. Temple."
"I'm certain." He rubbed at his eyes, at the bags beneath them. "Your husband--"
"My husband will be getting better than he gave, Mr. Temple."
"I'm the messenger, not the judge, not the jury--"
"Nor the officer. Not anymore. You're a Mercenary, Mr. Temple. Your flat rate, 'Plus Bonus'? You're a few drops short of an absolute vulture. I wouldn't deny your skill, or your talents, but nor would I deny your weakness." Margot's eyes fell on Temple's emptied glass.
"And what would you have me do, fiddle while you burn Rome to the ground?"
Margot's hand dragged the dossier over to her side of the table. "I'm not a barbarian, Mr. Temple. I'm the last of this city's Old Guard."
Jack snorted derisively, rising from the table. "It wasn't the barbarians that sacked Rome, Mrs. Cromwell. It was the Legionnaires expatriots who led them over the city walls."
Margot, engrossed in the photographs, called to him as he left for door, "Fits you to a tee." Her eyes widened on the last picture, "Et tu, Brute?"
Jack gathered his coat, tipping the bartender as he did so. Always with the melodrama. He donned his hat, and stepped out into the rain.
Margot watched as his figure disappeared, and signalled for a glass of crème de menthe. She smiled ruefully into it, her eyes lean and hungry. None heard her whisper as the trumpet picked up, "Then fall, Caesar."
Jack Temple stopped at the corner of Hyde and Terrace, leaning tiredly against the street lamp. A flickering light danced around the shop corners, flashing across the windows. He lit a cigarette, and breathed in deeply. Smoke curled outwards, an ephemeral dragon rising into the grey night. Temple's eyes drifted, as if dreaming, surveying the surroundings. Rome burning? Hah, the city had caught on fire ages ago, and nobody had ever put it out. Let Margot have her petty victories.
"Pardon, you wouldn't 'appen to have a light, would you?" The voice came from a sharply-dressed man in a rain-spattered tan coat. He had appeared suddenly, perhaps hidden by the downpour. The down-turned visor of his fedora obfuscated his features.
Jack produced his lighter for the cigarette that perched out of the man's thin lips. As the wheel spun against the flint, sparks flashed out a face that was all at once pale, hawkish, and sharply defined.
"Merci," said the foreigner, his thin lips curling by the light of the embers. A distinctive Turkish aroma enveloped the two men. "Et aussi, au revoir."
The shot did not ring out, dampened as it was by the elements, and Jack felt a sudden heat spread across his chest, down his stomach. He looked down in disbelief at the rushing crimson that ate at his shirt. His legs buckled beneath him, and he fell to the pavement, water rushing over him. The smell of cordite and tobacco filled his last breaths, the smoke suffocating and cloying. Cheek to the pavement, Jack's eyes came softly to a close, seeing nothing but rain, ash, and the rising plumes of char.