A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Soon afterwards, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells him that in the marketplace, he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, who made a threatening gesture. Borrowing the merchant's horse, he flees at great speed to Samarra, a distance of about 75 miles (125 km), where he believes Death will not find him. The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death, and asks why she made the threatening gesture to his servant. She replies, "That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."
O'Hara describes it as a reference to "the inevitability of Julian English's death." The novel describes how, over the course of three days, Julian English destroys himself with a series of impulsive acts. O'Hara never gives any obvious cause or explanation for his behavior, which is apparently predestined by his character. Facts about Julian gradually emerge throughout the novel. He is about thirty years old. He is college-educated, owns a well-established Cadillac dealership. On successive days, he commits three impulsive acts, which are serious enough to damage his reputation, his business, and his relationship with his wife.