By lisa h
Jody was going to kill him, Dan thought. No, that would be too good for him. She’d leave him and take the kids. She’d end up in a council house and he’d end up… alone. He watched her sleep, her expression smooth, untroubled. As if feeling the pressure of his gaze, she rolled onto her side, away from him. One leg flopped on a pillow she’d tucked under the duvet, in her attempt to ease the weight of the pregnancy. Two more weeks until number three arrived, and she slept without worry, perhaps uncomfortable, but not awake with no answers to the growing pile of problems.
The next morning, Dan grabbed the post as it fell through the letterbox.
“It’s all junk, love,” he called out. “I’ll bin it on the way out.”
“Cheers, Dan,” Jody called back from the kitchen.
Harry and Lucy sat at the table, banging their spoons as they waited for breakfast.
“Bye daddy!” the pair chorused as he closed the door.
Dan opened his Volvo, and tossed the bills on the passenger seat. He let out a long sigh, felt as if he was deflating himself, after having to hold up such pretence in Jody’s presence. She’d wonder why he’d not left yet, he thought, and inserted the key.
At the end of their cul-de-sac, Dan parked. He tugged at his collar, but before he loosened the tie, he pulled slowly up, until the silk pressed into his windpipe. If he made the knot tight, really tight, how long until he lost consciousness? How long until death? He took the tie off, and threw it on top of the red letters.
“Where to?” he asked. He peered one way, and then the other. He spotted one of his neighbours, an elderly man, as he walked his elderly dog, to the right. “I’ll go left,” he said, and drove on.
Fifteen minutes later, Dan parked the car on one of the roads beside Prospect Park. He locked up, and wondered off up a path until he found an empty bench, a place to wait the day out. Inside his left pocket, he’d stashed a few slices of bread. Back when he had a job, and a normal existence, he took lunch in the café on the ground floor of his building. Now, he’d sneak part of the loaf into a sandwich bag. He picked off a small piece of crust, and tossed it near a couple of pigeons. Within seconds, two more flew in from wherever they’d been spying. Minutes later, he had a flock at his feet, all cooing and clamouring for food.
He balled up some of the soft dough found the centre of the slice, and tossed over a few more crumbs of crust. An entrepreneurial bird hopped up from the path in front, and pecked the bread ball from between his fingers. It jumped back to the ground, and ate the food keeping its black eyes on him.
“Keep it. I don’t care. Hell, everyone else is taking everything, why not you.”
“Problems?” a voice said.
Dan jumped, and put a hand to his chest. “Jesus, you started me. Thought I was alone.” He panted a couple of short breaths, and lowered his hand back to the bag of bread.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to frighten you.” The man stared down at the pigeons. “I heard what you said.”
Dan stared in surprise at the man. He could pass for late middle age, the type of man staring retirement in the eye. But from the look of the camel coat and shiny black brogues, the man was looking at a very comfortable retirement, indeed. Spectacles balanced on the end of the man’s nose, maybe they were for reading, as he peered over them at the birds milling around on the path.
“I’m Reginald Perkins. My friends call me Reggie.” He held out a hand.
Dan blinked, and before he could help himself, years of business introductions took over, and he grasped the man’s hand. Reggie’s grip was firm, assured.
“Dan Stains,” he said. But he wished the stranger would leave. Get up and disappear. He wanted to talk to the pigeons and nibble on bread.
“That’s an unfortunate name, my friend.”
Dan sat forward, and rested his arms on his knees. He held out one arm, and circled his hand over the heads of the birds. They followed the movement in perfect synchronisation.
“I suppose,” he finally answered. “My classmates had lots of fun with that when I was at school. By sixth form, the lads had given me the nickname Stainsey. That wasn’t so bad.” Dan kept his eyes on the pigeons. He didn’t normally make time for strangers, let alone open up to some curious bugger who just happened to ask the right question.
“Mind if I call you Dan? Or do you prefer Stainsey?”
Dan glanced at the stranger. “It’s been years since anyone used my nickname. That’d be fine.” A silence fell over the men. Dan took another pinch of crust from his bad, and rubbed it into crumbs on top of the pigeon’s heads. “Thanks,” he said, not understanding why he’d spoken at all.
“So what’s the problem? Money or women? Or both?” Reggie cackled at this, his laugh deep and slightly croaky, like he’d been a smoker for many years.
“Money,” Dan said. “How’d you guess?”
Reggie sat back, his legs wide, arms resting on the bench. “I find a man sat in a park first thing in the morning. He’s wearing a suit, but no tie. And he’s talking to pigeons.”
“There could have been a death in the family.”
“The expression’s wrong.” Reggie smirked. “I’d have seen the grief in your face, in your mannerisms. You just seem altogether disappointed.” Reggie crossed one leg over the other. “Lost your job then?”
“Last month. My better half – my wife – hasn’t a clue.” Dan turned his attention to the gold band on his left hand. He twisted the ring around his finger.
“No jobs about?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Dan said, and swivelled towards the other man. “I worked in the financial sector as a consultant. No one is hiring.”
“Everybody’s firing.” Reggie echoed.
Silence prevailed once more, as Dan crumbled bread onto the path, and Reggie tapped one foot on the ground.
“Maybe I can help out.”
Dan kept his expression steady as he turned towards the stranger. Here came the punch line, the pyramid scheme. Invest ten thousand with me for a month, and all your woes will be behind you. Sign over your house, and I’ll solve everything for you. Dan clenched his teeth, and waited.
“I came into some money a while back.”
Reggie unbuttoned his coat as he spoke. Whether to distract Dan, or attract attention to the slick suit he wore under the tan camel hair, Dan didn’t know.
“Wealth made me bored,” he continued. “I had no desire to work. And High Society…” He sneered. “Well that made me suicidal. So one night, after too much whiskey, I came up with a plan. Wrote it down on the back of a napkin, so I wouldn’t forget. I wanted to help others, but I didn’t want to just give my fortune away. Oh no. People should have to earn my money. So I thought up a little game.
Dan twisted on the bench, leaning in towards the older man. What if Reggie gave him enough to pay off his mortgage? Or so he never had to work again. His mind wondered to a sandy beach, the sun blazing down on his wife and children. He snapped back to the park bench on a chilly autumnal day. He did his best to smile invitingly at his new friend. Even a few thousand would help tie him over until he found work.
“What type of game, Reggie,” Dan asked.
“Follow me.” Reggie stood, buttoned his coat, and walked off down the path.
Reggie led Dan back through Prospect Park. A long black limousine waited at the side of the road. The older man strode up to the driver’s window, and rapped twice on the glass. The electric motor sounded a second later, and a young man with a chauffeur’s cap peered out.
“Sorry, sir. Didn’t notice you coming.” He opened his door, and jumped out.
“Don’t worry, Jimmy,” Reggie patted the lad on the shoulder of his simple black suit. “No harm, no foul.”
Dan’s new friend, and quite possibly saviour, waited as the lad opened the rear door, and stood to the side.
“You coming, Stainsey?” Reggie asked, and climbed inside.
Dan had never been in a limousine. He’d seen them on the television, with a wide-angle camera, and although far bigger than a normal back seat area, the width and roof height were the same. Dan ducked down, and sat opposite the older man.
“Where we going?” Dan asked.
“Oh, nowhere,” Reggie said, and pulled a gold sovereign from his pocket. “This is my lucky coin. Some have claimed it held luck for them, as well. You’re about to find out what the coin holds for you.”
Dan frowned and waited for his host to continue.
“I want to play a game with you.”
“What kind of game?” Dan asked. “And for what end?”
“For the best thing you can imagine.” Reggie leaned forward. “Your mortgage… poof, gone. Your bills… poof, gone. And your bank account filled with enough cash for a lifetime of excess.” The older man sat back, and unbuttoned his coat.
“You need to place a bet, Stainsey. On the coin.” Reggie flipped the sovereign up to within millimetres of the padded ceiling of the limo, and caught it neatly in one palm.
“I’ve nothing to bet with. I’m broke.”
Reggie leaned forward again. “I know.” He rubbed the coin between two fingers for a second. “There’s one thing you could bet.”
Dan glanced at the door beside him, wondering if he should leave now, before he found himself dragged into something he couldn’t get out of. “Um, what’s that?”
“Your soul,” Reggie said in a light tone suggesting this was obvious.
A stuttering laugh escaped Dan. “You know, it’s a nice offer, but I’m not sure it’s for me.”
Dan slid over towards the door. As he put his hand on the handle, the Reggie spoke.
“All your problems would be solved by the toss of a coin.”
Dan stared at the man opposite, who seemed to be part car salesman part philanthropist. He also had a decent dose of insanity, and was trying to give money away. A lot of money away. Dan released the handle, and slid back to the centre of the leather seat.
“The coin decides?”
“Indeed. Fifty-fifty chance of a fortune.”
Dan closed his eyes for a second, allowing the image of the beach to flutter past the inside of his eyelids. “And how do you take my soul if I lose?”
“I wouldn’t worry about that.” Reggie tossed the sovereign in the air again.
“I am. How do you propose to take my soul?”
Reggie fell silent, turning the gold piece between his fingers, like a magician or a trickster, flipping the coin over one finger, under the next, and over again. He inhaled slowly, as if deciding something. “Okay. You want to know.”
Reggie leaned across to the liqueur cabinet located between the opposing seats, and opened the base. He removed a small box. The trinket appeared to be carved intricately from gold. Diamonds studded the surface, accentuating a design that seemed almost Japanese.
“I was given this by someone many years ago. Made a deal not unlike the one you’re making now. Only I didn’t ask for money.”
Dan stared, mesmerised by the box. Light caught in the diamonds, and little yellow tics flashed about on the inside of the limousine.
“What did you ask for?” Dan asked in a whisper.
“Life. A very long life. He gave me unlimited wealth, and this box. He also gave me some rules. I couldn’t take life, I had to gamble for it. Give something worthwhile to the successful opponent.”
“And if I lose the bet?”
“I win your remaining years. Collect your soul with this.” Reggie held up the box, then returned the trinket to the small space beneath the liqueurs.
“How long have you been doing this?”
“A very long time. Centuries.” Reggie crossed his legs, and linked his hands over one knee. “You want to be rich? Beyond your dreams? Tell you wife you won the lottery, and you’ll never have to scrimp or save, or worry ever again.”
Dan glanced out the window as a young mum and her small son parked and made their way up to the play area of Prospect Park. This guy was obviously loony tunes. No one could take a soul, especially not with a gold box. But the man also seemed to have money, lots and lots of money. And all Dan had to do was toss a coin.
“What are the rules?” Dan asked.
Reggie smiled, and took the sovereign from his pocket. “Best of three, Stainsey. Here, have a look. Pick your side.”
The coin flew into the air as the older man flicked it over to Dan. On one side the picture of a king, the outline fuzzy and smooth, as if from many years of rubbing. The other side had a picture of a lion, the tail elongated, and curled around in front of the creature. The lion stared out of the coin, into Dan’s eyes.
“You’re certain you want to gamble? Open the door, Stainsey. You can still leave. And I will never bother you again.”
“No. I’ll play.”
Reggie pressed the button to the intercom. “You hear that, Jimmy?”
“Yes sir,” he replied, and tipped the front of his hat.
“Well, the bet is official.”
Dan laughed nervously. “What, no document to sign in blood?”
Reggie raised his eyebrows. “I’m not the devil.”
“Sorry.” The sovereign was heavy in Dan’s hand, and he had to resist the urge to press his fingernail into the metal and see how soft the gold was.
“Toss the coin in the air.”
Dan took a deep breath, decided he had nothing to lose, and threw the sovereign. The gold flashed through the air and landed in a spin on the carpeting. It flopped around a few times unable to beat gravity, and fell still.
“Tails. You agree?” Reggie said, as he leaned over. “Again.”
“Yes. You must throw the coin.”
“Um, okay.” Dan picked up the gold piece, and flipped it a couple of times in his hand. He closed his eyes and imagined the sovereign gliding through the air, and coming to a halt, tails up. Happy with the visualisation, he smiled at Reggie, and tossed the sovereign up. It grazed the car roof and fell straight down. No spinning this time.
“That would be one for me. Heads.” Reggie announced, and sat back.
Dan stared. Impossible. He’d visualised it. He grabbed the coin and examined it. One side heads, the other tails. No trickery, just bad luck.
“Last one,” Dan said and tried to laugh, but the sound came out dry and staccato.
“Good luck to you.”
Dan nodded, and tossed it up.
This time, he avoided hitting the underside of the roof. The coin arched through the air, and landed beside Reggie’s shoes, spinning. The other man widened the gap between his feet, watching the sovereign as the movement slowed, and finally the coin fell to one side.
“Sorry, Stainsey. You’re mine.” He leaned forward and took the box back out.
A surprising wave of cold fear filled Dan’s chest. He slid to the ground, to see the coin. “No, you’re wrong!” Dan suppresses a cry. On the floor, between the rich man’s feet, the king’s head mocked him.
“This is silly.” Dan backed up to the seat behind him. “You can’t take a soul with a box. It’s impossible!”
“I’m sorry, you made the deal.” Reggie held the box out, selected three diamonds, and pressed them each in turn. The top of the box clicked free. An eerie black light shone out from the small gap. “Don’t worry. I’m told it doesn’t hurt.”
“No. Wait!” Dan’s mind worked furiously. “Double or nothing!”
Reggie tapped the lid, and box resealed. “A gambling man? I’m listening.”
“One more game. If I win, I get the money. If I lose, you get my soul, and that of my unborn child.” He rubbed his hands together. The palms were damp, he wiped them on his trousers and pointed at the sovereign. “Another game?”
“If you lose, I get yours and your baby’s soul. If you win, you get the money, and I get her as regardless.”
Dan opened his mouth, ready to say no. But what choice did he have? He’d die, right now, in this stranger’s car. Or he’d lose the life of an unplanned child. One he never wanted. “Deal,” he said.
“Take the coin.” Reggie placed the box beside him.
Dan climbed down on his knees, and took the sovereign from between the older man’s feet. “The baby’s a girl?” he suddenly asked.
Somehow, knowing the sex of the baby made the situation real. Did he want to do this? Kill his unborn child? On the opposite side of the limo, Reggie waited. His expression seemed like that of a person in a win-win position. Smug. Self assured. Dan dried his palms again, and took hold of the coin. No choices left. He threw the gold piece in the air. For the fourth time, the sovereign flipped up towards the roof, and arched down to the flooring, spinning, reflecting light flecks all over the upholstery.
“Heads,” Reggie called out, his voice flat and unemotional.
Dan didn’t reply. He grabbed the coin, and held it to his lips. He whispered, “Please,” and tossed the sovereign high. The coin came to a rest on the carpet moments later. “Tails, it’s tails!” he shouted out.
“Deciding throw, Stainsey.”
Dan nodded, and picked up the coin for the last time. He held the gold piece between his hands, as if praying, and whispered, “Please.” He released the sovereign to the air and waited.
“Oh thank God!” He fell to his knees, a wide smile on his face. He’d live, was his first thought as Reggie took the box and placed it back in the storage compartment.
“Nice game,” Reggie said, and held out his hand to shake.
“Thank you,” Dan replied, gripping the other man’s hand hard. He wiped the back of the other hand across his forehead. “I was a little worried, there. For a moment.”
“Go to the bank, and ask for a statement,” Reggie said. He smiled, wide and open mouthed, teeth showing. “The money will be in your account by the time you get to the branch.”
“You need my details…” Dan took his wallet from the inside pocket of his jacket.
Reggie held up one hand. “It’s already taken care of.” Then, to Dan’s confused expression he said, “Don’t you think a person who can take souls would have many more tricks?”
“I guess?” Dan frowned. He’d been duped. The man was giving him no money. He’d been the entertainment to pass another day.
“Here’s my business card. In case you think I won’t pay up.” Reggie passed the card forward. “Enjoy the cash, Stainsey.”
“Thank you,” Dan said, and climbed out.
The sun hung low in the sky. Somehow, the hours had gone in the time he’d spent inside the limo. He closed the door, and almost instantly, his mobile rang.
He glanced at the caller id, and answered, “Jody?”
“Mr Stains?” A female voice, not his wife’s, replied.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“My name is Gloria, I’m a midwife at the Royal Berks. Your wife is here. She’s in labour.”
“Do you think I’d ‘kid’ about something like this?”
Dan quickened his pace back to his car. “How long’s she been there?”
“All morning, we’ve had a hard time getting through to you.”
“Sorry. I’ve been in a… meeting.” He suddenly remembered the strange car salesman-like Reggie. The memory of the man seemed faded. Hadn’t the man had a limo? Had he been inside? He shook his head, and ran up to his Volvo. “Is she okay?”
“Yes, but if you’re to be here for the birth, you need to hurry.”
“Thanks.” He slid the phone shut, hanging up on the midwife, and climbed into his car. The roads were clear. Soon, the school runs would begin. Who would pick up Harry and Lucy? Maybe Jody had arranged something. She was good like that.
Fifteen minutes later, Dan arrived at the maternity unit, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath.
“Mr Stains,” he said to the nurse behind the reception desk.
“She’s through here. I think you’re just in time.” The woman led him down the corridor, and left him at the door to one of the labour rooms.
Dan took a deep breath, and went in.
“Good thing you’re here, Mr Stains.”
Jody was kneeling on a plastic wrapped mattress. A round black lady knelt behind his wife, her hands between Jody’s legs.
“Hurry up and sit with her. Your baby is a couple of pushes away.” Gloria didn’t look up, but Jody turned her head, her expression almost infantile in its neediness.
She puffed through a contraction, grabbing his hand, and squeezing as she bore down.
“Where were you?” she asked as the contraction wore off.
“Um, in a meeting. Sorry. I had the phone off.” He sat on the bed, his legs to either side of Jody. She rested her head on his lap, pressing down on him as another contraction took hold.
“Push, Jody,” Gloria ordered.
An eternity passed before Jody slumped and waited for the next wave of pain.
“They called your work.”
“Oh, shit.” Dan ran his fingers through her hair, removing long strands from the sweat on her forehead. “I couldn’t tell you. Sorry.”
“I’m your wife!” she said. Then her face crumpled as another contraction took hold.
“Last one, Jody. Push!” the midwife said, her hands busy between his wife’s legs. Seconds later, there was a watery sound, and the baby was in Gloria’s arms. “Congratulations, you have a new daughter.”
Dan leaned down, and kissed his wife’s forehead, as her eyes drooped from the effort. “Well done, love. Well done.” Something niggled at the back of his brain, a memory he couldn’t quite catch. He looked over as the midwife clamped the umbilical chord.
“Would you like to make the cut, Mr Stains?” she asked, and offered a pair of scissors.
“Dan,” he said absentmindedly, and made the cut.
“Is something wrong?” Jody twisted to see the newborn. “She hasn’t cried. Why isn’t she crying?”
“Some baby’s don’t,” Gloria said, but Dan thought she looked worried as she examined the infant.
“Can I hold her?” Jody asked.
“Do you mind if your husband holds her first? We need to get the placenta, and clean you up a bit.”
Jody nodded, her eyes following the bundle of blankets with a small pink face peeking out. Dan rested the infant on one arm, and gazed down. Odd she didn’t cry, Dan thought. He pulled the silky edging away to see her properly, tears welling as he ran his hand gently over the peach fuzz on her head. The baby’s eyelids fluttered. For a second he did nothing. He froze, his gaze locked with that of his child. Then he screamed.
Gloria dropped the placenta on the tray beside her and rushed over to Dan. He held the baby bundle up and away, his head turned to the side.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she asked, and took the proffered child.
“Her eyes, her eyes,” he said. “Look at her eyes, there’s something wrong. Look into her eyes!” He grabbed at the sleeve on the midwife’s blue tunic dress as he pulled himself up to stare at the child one last time. Maybe he was wrong. The shadows were wrong – they tricked him. Gloria stood stock still, as if turned to stone, a grimace pulling at her lips until her teeth showed.
“What’s the problem?” Jody shouted from the ground where she remained in a kneeling position.
Dan stared at his infant. Her eyes were black. Not just the pupils, but also the irises and the whites. She blinked, her little face free from expression, her eyes dark and empty.