I don’t think any of us ever want to find out what sum of money we’d sell our souls for, but let me tell you, you’ll know it when you see it. Today, I discovered £50 million is my price.
I look around my pokey London flat and try to imagine what £50 million would look like. I don’t think it would even fit in here. My taps leak, my boiler is weaker than a kettle, and the continents of mould on my ceiling have recently merged into a Pangaea. That money isn’t just enough to fix my problems, it’s enough to run away from them completely. I could literally walk out my front door right now, and never have to come back. The only thing I’d need to take with me would be Hannah.
I pull off my shirt and trousers and just sit in the middle of my empty room. The building’s washing machine is broken and I can’t afford to use the launderette, so whenever I feel a sweat coming on I have to throw off my clothes. The slip of paper is still in my hand, I keep re-reading it, just to make sure I read it right. Yup, it still says £50 million. I turn it over to see a crude drawing of a goat, with three dotted lines drawn through it, splitting it into quarters. I curse Jacob’s name under my breath, imagining what would have happened if the postman had opened this envelope.
I had to sell my mirror, so now I use the window instead. I stare at my pale, gaunt face. Today is a bad face day. I still can’t tell if I’m handsome or hideous, my opinion on the matter changes daily. I used to think it was psychological, but now I’m sure that my face genuinely rearranges itself in the night just to mess with me. A car honks below and I look down to see a sleek black sedan.
No. No, I’m not selling. I clear my mind of mansions and jet skis and caviar and slap myself hard across the face. I’m not selling. I dab my armpits with stolen toilet paper (one sheet per armpit), put on my clothes and head over to Hannah’s place.
I pass a homeless man on the way to her flat, he looks up at me but doesn’t even bother asking for money. He can see I’m just as wretched as him. Even so, I still do my special dance of patting my pockets apologetically, whilst pretending I haven’t seen him.
If I did take the £50 million, which of course I won’t, I could give him a million today. I could change his life. That would prove I’m not just a sell-out. I promise myself that if I do take the money, I’ll come back and find this man.
A large bloke with a thick black beard is in the process of being handcuffed by a purple shirt. The purple shirt is hammering on the back of the bearded man’s head, causing him to spray out gobbets of spit. Suddenly, the bearded man twists loose and runs off down the street with the purple shirt in pursuit. They both move so quickly I barely see them go.
“You still don’t look well. Have you seen a doctor yet?” Hannah says as she lets me into her equally rotten apartment. Over the last few weeks, she has been probing me about why I look so ill. She is convinced that I’m dying and not telling her.
“I’m too busy to see a doctor.”
“Busy doing what?” She laughs, leading me to the corner of the apartment which smells the least like mould.
“I’ve been trying to learn how to photosynthesise. I’m serious. Imagine how much we’d save on food if we learned how to do that! I bet it feels amazing too.”
“Why don’t you try and third-quarter with a daffodil?” she replies. “Also, I was thinking earlier, how come nobody eats goat?”
“What?” I say quickly, panicked. She notices. I wonder for a moment if she knows about the arrangement between Jacob and I.
“You can’t buy goat anywhere. You can buy pig, cow, chicken, even horse, but we all just take it on honour that goats taste like shit. What if they’re actually delicious and the government is keeping them all for themselves?”
“If it’s anything like goat’s milk, then it’s probably rancid.”
“I disagree. I bet they spend less time focusing on making their milk good and more time making themselves good. You have to pick, don’t you, on whether you’re going to make something good or be something good. That’s why talented people are always assholes. Makes you think, doesn’t it?”
“Not really. Anyway, what are you in the mood for today?” I ask, sitting down in front of her electric keyboard. The chair wraps tightly around my bum, I’m the only person who ever sits in this seat. I have a more exclusive relationship with her chair than I do with her.
“‘Ode to Joy’?” she asks, and I nod.
I rest my fingers lightly on the keyboard, she clears her throat. We begin, and instantly the walls begin to shake. They groan and slowly expand outwards. The dead wallpaper rolls off, revealing polished mahogany beneath. The pieces of wallpaper on the floor fold themselves like origami to become a crowd of adoring paper men. I look up and watch the ceiling receding, then I wince as the lone hanging bulb explodes. The explosion of broken glass stops mid-air, like a huge snowflake frozen in time. Molten gold pours from a hole in the ceiling, it hits a piece of glass and then jumps, arcing through the air to reach the next piece of glass, and the next. As each piece of broken glass is connected, it lights up with a soft golden light. Once the molten gold river has run its course, I am looking up at a cavernous ceiling which adorns a massive chandelier. She continues to sing and her voice cracks a small, leftover glass of wine on the table. The wine flows all the way to the great entrance doors, barely visible at the end of the room, before it congeals, rots, and becomes a thick, fluffy red carpet. There is an excited rustle as the paper men clap and bow.
Her voice is like a brand new washing machine filled with honey; it is soft yet hard, consistent yet looping, clean yet dirty, sweet but not sticky. I wish there was a more beautiful metaphor I could use to describe her voice, but the truth is her voice is more than beautiful, it’s insane.
Even if I were completely arrogant (which I suppose I am) I could not credit this magic all to myself, and even if I were head over heels in love with Hannah (which I also suppose I am) I couldn’t credit it all to her either. When I play and she sings, the world joins in on the melody, even if it doesn’t want to. Even when the neighbours hammer on the thin walls for us to stop, their drumming still seems to always fit the music perfectly, even though I know they are doing everything in their power not to.
She stops, and I look at her. Her eyes are glistening and her jaw is locked to one side, in that position which inexplicably prevents your tear ducts from working.
“What’s wrong?” I ask. “Talk to me.”
“Okay. But you have to promise you won’t be angry with me.”
“I’m selling the keyboard tomorrow, Dan,” she says with a heavy sigh. “I should have said something, but I just didn’t know how.”
“But…why? We can sell something else if you need money for rent? We can…” I look around her apartment, desperate to find something, but it is only then that I realise how truly barren it is. Aside from a few dirty plates and a glass of wine, there is nothing else here except the furniture, which doesn’t belong to her.
“I’m going to see Jacob tonight,” she says, composing herself. “Not like that. It’s just dinner. I don’t even have enough money for dinner tonight. I won’t drink or anything, nothing’s going to happen.”
“Don’t,” I say quietly, but am at a loss to think of a persuading argument. “Just don’t. And don’t sell the keyboard. I’ll get us the money.”
“You can’t just keep saying that and not doing anything about it, Dan. I’m going to dinner with Jacob and there’s nothing you can—”
I suddenly turn and put my foot through her window. Broken glass tumbles down to the empty street below. I am far more shocked by this than she is, she barely even reacts, as if she knew this was coming. A cold breeze blows across both of our faces.
“You need to leave,” she says calmly.
“Don’t have dinner with him tonight. I’ll have money this evening, just don’t see him.”
“He would have never kicked my window in.”
“Because he wouldn’t have to! He’s never been pushed, he’s had everything handed to him his whole life, including you.”
“Being rich doesn’t automatically make him bad, the same way being poor doesn’t automatically make you good. Now leave. And stop telling me what I can and can’t do.”
I don’t perform any dances as I cross town to meet Jacob at the Baton Rouge. As I slowly cross into the nicer parts of the city, the number of homeless faces halves, but the number of lifeless faces triples. I notice two women in an alleyway at the fault line where the poor and rich districts meet. They are shaking hands and what is happening is obvious from their expressions. One of the women turns and walks away, while the other collapses onto the ground.
I hear pounding footsteps behind me and turn to see two purple shirts chasing a frail, elderly man. The old man swerves from the pavement and runs into the road, only to be hit by a slow-moving truck. The blow is light but it knocks him off balance. Before he can right himself he is punched to the ground and pummeled by the two purple shirts. One of the purple shirts turns and stares right at me and it is only then that I realise I have been watching them beat him for 5 minutes. I turn and quickly walk the rest of the way to the Baton Rouge.
“Daniel Reid, The Reedster, The R—”
“Can we not today, Jacob.”
“Just trying to lighten the mood, Daniel. You look so sad all the time, it makes me sad too, it really does. You need to smile more!”
Jacob puts on an expression of mock sadness, but he makes sure that it’s not too convincing. He places a huge, muscular hand on the small of my back and escorts me into the main hall of the restaurant. He tightens his grip and I feel my extruding spine and ribs grinding against one another. I hate having anyone touch my body, it reminds me of what shape I am, but I hate him doing it most of all. Everybody stares as we walk to the table at the back of the room. I am sure that he picked this table on purpose to make this walk as humiliating as possible.
They are not just judging me on my clothes, cleanliness, and manners. It’s not like the good old days. Ever since the discovery of third-quartering, the rich can judge you for everything. Everybody in this restaurant could easily be a model. All the men are mountains and the women are rivers, slimmer yet stronger. We seat ourselves, and I feel my face burning. I sit uncomfortably, raising my shoulders to keep my moist armpits away from my shirt.
“So. I’m so glad you’re finally seeing things my way. In fact, let’s not call it my way, let’s call it, our way, eh?” Jacob smiles. He smiles wide and curls his lips, which are halfway between plump and plastic. Those lips haunt me, they haunted me before they even belonged to him, back when they belonged to Samantha Harris, our friend at university. It makes me sick to think I kissed those lips, before they belonged to him.
“Let me see the money first, please,” I say quietly. He smiles, places his briefcase on the table and opens it. The £50 million is in there. As I look inside, I can suddenly see with complete clarity why so many have killed for money throughout history. The money in front of me is worth going insane over. For a crazy moment I play with the idea of grabbing it and running. But there would be no point. Jacob is twice the size of me and I’m sure he’s third-quartered with a sprinter at some point. He snaps the case shut and the spell is broken.
“You know, I’m sure she’ll still like you, if that’s what you’re worried about. If she only likes you ’cause you can play piano, then she’s not really the one for you, is she?”
“I’m not worried about that,” I reply curtly.
“Of course not. And even if you are, think what you could be! You could buy yourself some muscles, maybe smaller ears, you could be a painter, a poet, a pilot, aren’t all those things sexier than a scrawny little man who can press buttons on a keyboard? I think Hannah would agree. I know you’ve had your doubts about all this, but look at it this way: see that bouncer over there? If a fight breaks out in here, all he has to do to stop the fight is grab both guys by the collar. But if he were as weak as you are, the only way he’d be able to stop a fight would be to swing some punches, he wouldn’t be able to pull two people apart. The stronger you are, the more peaceful you can be, the richer you are, the more generous you can be. If we do this deal today, you’ll become a better person. Don’t you owe that to everyone, not just yourself? How could anybody say that’s a crime?”
“Do you know how I got into the piano in the first place?” I ask.
“No,” he replies suspiciously.
“My parents got me into it, which is weird because I don’t think either of my parents ever actually knew me. On my 7th birthday I went downstairs to find a grand piano in the lounge, even though I had never expressed any interest in the piano, ever. I had asked for a bike and a PlayStation. My parents had clearly sat down one day and decided I was going to be a pianist. I don’t know why. We were actually pretty well off when I was a kid, not as rich as you, obviously, but we had this big manor house out in the country. Although, it always felt a lot smaller than it actually was. My parents fought almost every day, and they managed to shout so loudly, there was nowhere in the house you could go without hearing them.”
“The piano changed things. From that day onward, the piano was my escape. As soon as I heard the warning signs – the slamming of a door, the stamping of feet, the breaking of a glass – I would run to the piano and begin playing. It didn’t stop them arguing, in fact it probably pissed them off more, but what could they do? They were the ones who’d decided I would be a pianist. My father ran a successful talent agency, and as far as he was concerned, I was just another one of his clients.”
“Shit,” mutters Jacob under his breath, understanding what was coming next. On March 19th 2028, when John Boorman discovered the Third Quarter of a Goat, talent agencies were the first to crumble.
“The discovery of third-quartering effectively destroyed the entire meaning of talent. His clients rang him up the next day, saying they couldn’t act, or dance, or sing any more. They’d all they’d sold their skills for a little bit of cash. My father’s business collapsed and our manor house, which felt like a hovel, was traded in for a hovel which felt like something there aren’t even words for. The piano got traded in for a small keyboard, our car was traded in for bicycles, and finally, my father traded all his earthly possessions and loved ones for a small patch of grass, roughly 8 feet long, 3 feet across, and 6 feet deep. In the note he left for us, he said he wanted me to play at his funeral. He—he left a list of songs he wanted me to play.”
I stop for a moment, clear my throat, drink some water, then continue.
“Since the moment they bought me the piano, neither me nor my parents had ever had a single discussion about it. They never asked me to play for them, they never asked me how it was going, they just paid the teacher to come round at the same time every week. But somehow, on that list, the final thing he had left me, he managed to list every single one of my favourite songs to play. Even I couldn’t have made that list. Somehow, throughout the years, even though the only time I played was when he was screaming his guts out in an argument, he’d still been listening to every song I ever played. And somehow, he’d been able to tell, just from the way I played, which ones I loved best.”
There is a silence for a few minutes as Jacob nods his head.
“You know, Dan, honestly, I think your dad would want you to do this today. He wouldn’t want you to live the way you’re living. He ran a talent agency, that’s a job devoted to making money from talent. This here today…I think he’d want this. Shall we do it?”
“Yes…no. I will but…I need an advance on the money,” I blurt. He studies me for a moment, suspicious. He looks deep into my eyes and I stare back at him, studying his features. Not a single piece of him is recognisable from the day I first met him 7 years ago. Since then he has chopped and changed his face, buying the perfect nose, eyes, cheeks, mouth until he looks like a Picasso with the features in the right place. His beauty has been bought and paid for and it makes me sick to admit that he looks perfect. His beauty is like an attractive cartoon character, looking at it makes you feel dirty, cheated, you feel that someone has played with your mind and tricked you into finding something beautiful that shouldn’t be.
The staring contest ends. Jacob leans back and laughs.
“So, what do you need this advance for? Planning on doing a runner?”
“No, of course not. I just need a million up front. All I want is to play the piano one last time, a grand piano. I’m going to go to Carnegie Hall and play there all night. After that, the skill is yours to keep.”
“How can I be sure you’re not going to disappear with the million?”
“You’re meeting Hannah for dinner tonight, aren’t you? Do you think I would ever go on the run without her?”
“Fine. Take a million, I don’t care. But understand that I know a lot of purple shirts, so if you try anything funny, I’m going to have to ask them to cave your head in. And that would really upset me to do that, so please play fair, eh?”
Jacob reaches into the suitcase, pulls out a wad of cash and slides it over. I say goodbye, and leave with a million pounds in my hand. He goes home to prepare for his date. I reach the end of the road, turn to check he’s not looking, and head in the opposite direction of Carnegie Hall.
I am sat in a strange hybrid of a run-down pub and a doctor’s surgery. The bar at the end of the room doubles as a reception. When I arrived they told me to wait, and gave me a complimentary beer with a few hairs in it. There are no tables, just chairs against the walls and a row of back-to-back seats in the center.
There are only three others in the bar-surgery with me. A bearded man in a heavy jacket, bleeding from a gash in his head, is sat opposite, breathing heavily. An even larger woman is sat in the corner, muttering to herself. Finally, a thin, pale man in a suit is sat a few seats down, not moving.
I recognise the bleeding man; he’s the man who managed to outrun the purple shirt this morning. He gives me a look telling me to never look at or think about him ever again. I oblige.
I am called in and I enter a bright, sterile room. A tall woman in scrubs is sat alone in the center, rubbing her flaky hands together, letting the shavings tumble to the floor.
“What can I help you with today, Mr Reid?”
“Well…I want to…um, go to someone’s house…um, but I haven’t been invited…if you know what I mean.”
“This isn’t confession, mate, you don’t need to be coy. You planning to break into someone’s house, yeah? You want to kill the owner or not?” She asks the questions passionlessly, like a doctor asking what kind of medication I would prefer.
“No, definitely not. I don’t want to kill anyone. It’s a big house, with security cameras, I’ll need to be able to get rid of the cameras and I’ll need to be able to climb up the walls too. And I’ll need to be able to pick a lock. And to steal a car.”
“Wow, big night planned. Okay, let’s have a think. Shooting, climbing, lock-picking and car theft third-quarters. I think we’ve got someone for each of those. That’ll come to 1.2 million crisp British pounds and we’ll throw in a free pistol.”
“I’ve only got £1 million on me…but I’ll have more tonight, I can come back and pay you the rest later.”
“Not happening, mate, does this place look like The Salvation Army?”
I chuckle under my breath.
“What’s that? You think I’m funny?”
“So you don’t think I’m funny?”
“What? Yes, I thought what you said was funny, yeah.”
“So you think I’m just some joker who’s paid to sit in this shithole and crack wise for a living do you? You think people bring their friends here on Friday nights with a beer for the hilarious comedy show?”
“I…I…don’t know how to respond.”
The woman stops scowling, hops out her chair and runs her dry hands through my hair.
“You look so serious, honey, just trying to lighten you up.”
“How much for your sense of humour?” I ask quietly. She gives me a look telling me not to push it.
“Anyway, you’re still short. Shooting, climbing, lock-picking, carjacking, one of them is gonna have to give.”
I think for a few moments. If I can’t shoot out the security cameras, scale the wall, or pick the lock, I can’t get in in the first place. I’ll have to leave the carjacking and find another way to escape. I tell the woman what I want, and she leaves for a few minutes, before returning with three men.
“Have you ever third-quartered before?” she asks me. I shake my head. She hands me a photograph of a segmented goat, similar to the one sent to me by Jacob. The third quarter from the front is highlighted. “These three men are going to offer their skills to you and you need to verbally accept. Then, you need to shake their hands, thinking only about the third quarter of a goat, they’ll do the same. Don’t think of anything else, not even a sky or a field in the background, and don’t imagine any sounds, like bleating or birds chirping. It HAS to be the third quarter and ONLY the third quarter. Understand? Also, I’m obliged to tell you that if in the future you ever decide to sell a skill, you can never have that skill again, unless you purchase it back off the person you sold it to.”
The first man steps forward and speaks.
“I offer you my ability to shoot.”
“I accept,” I reply, looking to the woman for confirmation. The man reaches out his hand and I shake it. I try to clear my mind and picture a goat in empty space. I mentally chop off the front half and back quarter, focusing on what’s left. The pink innards wobble at the line where I’ve mentally sliced off the front half. I wonder how John Boorman discovered this ‘cheat code’ in reality all those years ago and, for a moment, I suspect it is all a hoax. But then I feel something, a tingling in my mind and a tight seizing in my belly.
I am back out on the street again, one million pounds lighter, one silenced pistol heavier. My stomach feels twisted, with each handshake it became progressively worse. The lady told me it was normal, apparently third-quartering can be like a blood transfusion, for a while the body rejects the changes.
By the time I make it to Jacob’s apartment it’s dark, but I manage to arrive without throwing up. It’s an old, red brick building that stands separate from the others in the empty street. The street is silent aside from the sickly buzz of lampposts. It’s a nice neighborhood but that doesn’t mean much anymore. You’re just as likely to get your head stamped in the poor and rich parts of town now, the only difference is who does the stamping. Surrounding Jacob’s building is a tall metal fence, topped with barbed wire. I pull my jacket tight, looking around for any bystanders. The street is empty aside from an elderly woman with a pink hat entering the house next door. She looks at me briefly, then closes the door.
Jacob’s building is five storeys high and I know he has the penthouse suite. I also know where the two security cameras on the outside of the building are. I pull the silenced pistol out of my pocket and holding it under my jacket, I aim and fire. My arm has aimed for me without even thinking and I feel a buzz of excitement.
I expected a silenced pistol to sound like a small chirp, but instead it booms like a bin being dragged off a kerb. I look around terrified, but the street is still empty. I look through the darkness and see the security camera spitting sparks. I fire again quickly and the second camera is down.
I scale up the tall fence, reaching the top in moments. My arm automatically reaches over the barbs and grips the other side. Before I know what is happening, I am doing a cartwheel over the fence, the barbed wire gliding inches away from my face. Then I am over the other side. I quickly run around the side of the building, squeezing tight between the red brick and the metal fence.
I enter the back garden and freeze. There is a man sat on a bench staring right at me. He drops his cigarette to the floor and stamps it out. My shooting arm twinges hungrily.
“Are you the guy who’s just moved in on floor two?” the man asks.
“Yep,” I say, pretending to burp. I hold my hand over my mouth to partially disguise myself. “Mark Bench…Mark Hench, sorry. Ironic, I know.”
I hold up a puny arm.
“Aaron Rind, I live on the first floor. I was wondering ab—”
Aaron continues to talk and I keep my hand on my face, nodding to everything he says. My shooting arm twinges again and an unfamiliar part of my brain politely informs me that if I shoot him in the mouth, the bullet will cut right through his brain stem, ensuring he won’t shout out when he dies.
I keep feigning belches, hoping he will go back inside. I am running out of time, Jacob will be back from his date with Hannah soon. I feel a queasy rumble in my stomach and this time I embrace it, vomiting on Aaron’s shoes.
“—quity release and—JESUS CHRIST!” Aaron shouts, before jumping backwards. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, I just need fresh air, sorry,” I mutter. Aaron grumbles and then runs inside to change his shoes. I turn, look up at the back wall of the building and begin the climb.
I grab the first windowsill, climb onto it, press myself against the glass, then leap up and grab the next. I look down and, unnervingly, I am not terrified. A window above me on the 3rd floor suddenly opens, streaming out golden light. I make a risky sideways jump and climb up the windows on the right hand side, which thankfully are all closed.
I finally make it onto Jacob’s balcony. It is completely dark. I look back where I have just climbed from and suddenly remember the vomit on the ground. Have I just left DNA at the scene of the crime? Does vomit have DNA in it? For a moment, I imagine a detective running my vomit under a microscope before exclaiming that the thief was a bowl of plain pasta and I smile. Stupid cops. Then I remember the purple shirts bludgeoning the old man this morning and my smile disappears.
I sidle over to the balcony doors and begin picking the lock.
When third-quartering was first discovered, there was a huge surge in crime, not least because millions suddenly found themselves without jobs. People also discovered that if you put a gun to someone’s head, you could force them to give you their talents – or you could force them to take your diseases, disabilities or even just features you didn’t like. This new crime wave gave birth to super-criminals, which are not as exciting as they sound. Rich criminals invested heavily in buying or stealing skills from people, like I’ve done today. To combat this, the police force had to do the same. A new unit of super-police was created, marked by their purple uniforms. As a result, the purple shirts are the smartest, strongest, fastest, and most brutal of all.
The balcony lock clicks and I’m in. I stand for a few moments in darkness, before closing the curtains and turning on the light. I put on gloves and begin delicately scouring the room. After I have looked everywhere I can think, panic sets in. Time is running out, and the suitcase is nowhere. I tear a chest of drawers apart, no longer caring about the noise. I rip it apart before throwing the pieces in the corner of the lounge.
I do this with every single piece of his furniture, ripping them to shreds, more and more viciously each time, then throwing the remnants in the corner. Eventually his entire flat is bare, aside from the rubbish dump corner. I suppress a scream, and then slam my fist against the wall.
I’ve wasted a million pounds on nothing. Jacob will know this was me. I look at the pile in the corner for a desperate moment and wonder if I have enough time to repair it all. I scream, this time not suppressing it, and scrabble around on the floor, desperate to find a loose panel, something, anything—
A floorboard clicks, I shift it and the briefcase is there. I pull it out, check the money, smile, think of Hannah, then look up and see Jacob stood in the doorway. Then he does the worst thing he could do. He just looks at me and laughs. He is not even afraid that I have broken in.
My arm twinges, I feel my finger press something and suddenly a spurt of blood flies out the back of Jacob’s head. His perfect face is still smiling, despite the hole in his forehead, and it stays that way as he falls forwards into the room.
There is silence and the smell of gun smoke. The bullet flew so fast it felt like he was dead before I even pulled the trigger. I hadn’t meant to pull the trigger. I grab the briefcase and run out into the corridor, down the stairs and out of the building. I open the metal gate and I am free. I turn to see the woman in the pink hat behind me. I look down at the gun in my hand, and the blood on my jacket.
A dark part of my mind informs me that it’s better to shoot this woman in the chest. Less chance of missing than a headshot and it’s surely enough to kill a woman of her age. I advance towards her, tears bubbling from my eyes. She doesn’t move. With each step, my arm stays straight, pointed directly at her heart. I’m deadly aware that there’s a part of my brain that knows how to kill people and that I have paid for it in full.
I press the gun against her chest and she shivers. I’m sobbing now and I retch before I press my finger against the trigger. I press my thumb into the back of the stock and the gun spins around on my index finger.
“T-take it. Please…get it out of my hand,” I say through sobs. She takes the gun and suddenly I realise it’s all over. All she has to do is point the gun at me and keep me here until the purple shirts come. But she doesn’t. She lets me go. I don’t know why. I run off into the night with no plan of escape, no way to steal a car, with sirens wailing in the distance. The briefcase pummels my thigh as I run.
“I’ll give you £5 million for the car right now,” I say desperately to a bearded man with a bandage around his head. He steps out of the vehicle and I shakily hold out the £5 million. I suddenly realise this is the third time I have seen this man today. He looks down at the briefcase in my hand, and I see his mind ticking. I genuinely see in his eyes that he is about to lunge at me as two purple shirts come around the corner. The man with the bandage sees them, takes the £5 million and walks away.
“Everything okay here?” one of the purple shirts says to me as they pass. He looks at me, sat in my car, my briefcase on the seat next to me.
“Perfect, thank you officer,” I reply sweetly.
I drive directly to Hannah’s. I try not to think about the fact that I have killed a man. A human being. Not a particularly nice one, but a human nonetheless. I honestly didn’t mean to. I had meant to raise the gun and point it at him, to put my finger on the trigger menacingly. I only wanted to wipe that stupid smile off his face. Just for once. But even when I killed him I could not stop him smiling at me.
I don’t know why the gun fired. It’s like I was gently pushing a door open, only I didn’t know my own strength and ended up slamming it. It felt like my mind was so lubricated, it took far less resistance to kill someone than I expected. I am not blaming my arm, it is not like those old horror stories where someone gets transplanted a murderer’s arm or something like that. I still pulled the trigger. I started doing something that I thought would be easy to stop. I trusted my conscience would step in at the point where it got too far. But it didn’t.
It-wasn’t-my-fault-he-shouldn’t-have-come-in-and-laughed-and-if-it-wasn’t-for-the-shooting-quarter-I-bought-and-the-Third-Quarter-in-general-which-ruined-my-life-long-before-I-ruined-anyone-else’s-it-wouldn’t-have-happened-so-i’m-innocent-done. I say the phrase quickly, then I stuff the words in the boot of my mind and lock it shut before they can escape or object. I hear a banging and muffled screaming from the boot, something in there is not happy and wants to discuss more. But the boot is shut now. Case closed. I’m not going to open it again, I’m innocent, that’s that, I’ve resolved it. I’ve painted the word ‘innocent’ on the lid of the boot. No need to look inside ever again.
I pick up Hannah, she seems happy. Her date with Jacob must have gone well. I feel slightly less bad about killing him. She tries to tell me something, but I stop her. I tell her to get in the car and we go. She brings a small rucksack with her, one I haven’t seen before. We drive off into the night, ready to begin our new life.
“Why do you want to be with me?” Hannah asks, a few hours into our journey. I don’t tell her that I have no idea where we’re going. I haven’t even told her about the money yet.
“What? Because I love you.”
“But do you actually love me, or are you just saying that because you’re used to me?”
“I’m with you right now. I’m running away and starting a new life with you.”
“But what if you were with someone else right now and she asked you the same thing. You’d say the same thing to her.”
“No, I wouldn’t, I’d say get out of my car you strange woman, I want Hannah.”
“But what do you actually like about me? About me specifically, that makes me the best choice for you?”
“You know what I love about you. When you sing…and I play…”
“But what else? Is that it? You like it when we make music together? Is there nothing else?”
“Well…I feel like…the past few years…we haven’t had time to do anything else…we haven’t had the money.”
“You’re saying that the past few years I haven’t had any personality?”
“No! I’m saying that…I love everything about you. I love you. End of conversation.”
“Do you love me, or do you love beating Jacob?”
“What’s that supposed to mean? I love you, he’s the one who only wanted – wants – to be with you to beat me. I don’t give a shit about what he thinks, I never have. Where is all this coming from?”
“I’ve got something to tell you, and you’re not going to be happy about it. I’m just trying to understand how you feel about me before I say it.”
“I’ve got something I need to tell you. I won the lottery, Hannah. I won £50 million. It’s ours.”
For a moment she seems strangely underwhelmed, but then she beams. We are driving through an abandoned town, one of many that became deserted following the Third-Quarter recession. I have an idea and park outside a huge, crumbling amphitheatre.
“Let’s check this out.”
“Wait, Dan, I have something to tell you,” she protests as we walk into the theatre. We walk through hundreds of rows of cobwebbed seats, towards a lone piano still standing on the stage.
“Dan, listen to me. You’re not the only one who got money. I…I sold my voice to Jacob. I can’t sing anymore.”
My ears start ringing in my head.
“Why? Why did you do that? I told you I was going to get the money, wh—”
“You broke my window, how was I supposed to pay for that? And you’ve told me that a million times, why was I supposed to believe you today?”
“Because!” I shout and my frantic voice echoes around the lonely theatre. “Let’s just…try anyway. I think it’ll still be in there, we just have to get it out. It can’t be gone.”
“But—” she begins, but I drag her onto the stage.
I sit on the piano stool, brushing off years of dust. I place my hands on the keys and the twinging in my arm stops. My hands don’t want to shoot anymore, they want to play. I begin the tune “Your Song” by Elton John in an effort to put our earlier argument to bed. She begins to sing.
The huge theatre begins to shrink. The chandeliers fall to the ground and shatter into dust and dirt. The chairs fold themselves up and rearrange their twisted metal into a small drying rack. The great curtains shrink and come loose and flutter to land on the rack as damp towels. Her voice cracks again, she misses another note and the ceiling falls in. I wince, but it stops falling a few feet above my head, and I notice a layer of damp mould. We are now in a room far smaller than either of our wretched apartments. But suddenly she stops and smiles.
“Oh my god! Hang on! I forgot about your lottery winnings, I was so focused on telling you my secret! We don’t need both, I can go back and shake hands with Jacob again, and give him his money back! Then I can sing again and we can start again!”
I sit in the tiny amphitheatre, listening to the roof slowly dripping.
Eddie Collins recently graduated from the University of Nottingham with a master’s degree in robotics. Ever since, he has been obsessed with the weird and the wonderful. He lives in London where he runs a film review podcast, and is currently working on a collection of short stories.