My first task was to follow the Fireman.
He took the same path each day, cutting through the park, then up Harrison Avenue with a sharp left toward the fire station. He smoked as he walked, which seemed appropriate — burning paper flying into the air behind him.
It was a challenge to blend into the dull landscape — or would have been, if the people here had paid attention to anything.
None of them noticed me trailing the Fireman. I had to be more careful of him, though. He had once been one of us, and his eyes were still sharp and observant.
My second task was the Sonnets.
I was the trove of Shakespeare; if I died or forgot, the sonnets died with me. I had memorized them all, one hundred fifty-four of them, playing on a loop in my brain to the rhythm of pavement steps.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate…
The Fireman stepped into a crosswalk, colored lights dancing above his head.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May/And summer’s lease hath all too short a date….
He reached the pavement on the other side, turning up Harrison Avenue.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines/And often is his gold complexion dimmed…
The Fireman turned right into an alleyway.
I stopped, my sneaker snagging the pavement. Never in the four hundred and fifty-three days I had followed him had the Fireman deviated from his route.
I hurried on, anxious that I would lose him; my raincoat had come undone and blew around me in the freezing wind.
I turned into the wet alleyway. It was empty save for a pair of trash cans and a pigeon.
I turned. The Fireman stood between the trash cans. His cigarette curled around his fingers.
“Beatty,” I said.
He flicked ash away. “I noticed you following me for the last year or so. I thought I would arrange a meeting. The movement is having you keep tabs on me, I suppose. Because I’m familiar with the mission?”
“More because you know its strength,” I said. “What was your task again — Keats?”
“Byron,” he murmured. “‘One shade the more, one ray the less/Had half impaired the nameless grace/Which waves in every raven tress/Or softly lightens…”
“So you remember.” I shook my head. “And yet you work for them, Beatty? With everything you learned?”
He grimaced as he flicked the cigarette to the pavement. “I remember their danger. I’ve learned, Matthias, that words need to be squashed. They need to be…burned.”
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines…
I saw the flamethrower in his left hand before he raised it. I dove aside, the jet of flame climbing the alley wall.
“I wouldn’t mind burning…oh, what was it?” Beatty smiled. “Shakespeare’s sonnets?”
He raised the flamethrower again.
Where two raging fires meet together, they do consume the thing that feeds their fury…
I ducked beneath the next jet, sparks flying into my hair. My shoes slapped the pavement in a frenzied recitation —
Bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible.
I thought for sure he would follow me, but when I looked back, I saw nothing but the gray city skyline. A trail of smoke threaded the horizon.