Deal In The Dark
FLASH FICTION VERSION:
A man awakens to the sound of footsteps on brick. Sleepy eyes squint into the fog. “May I sit?” the stranger asks. Only a grunt in response. “What would you do to have it all back?” Wife. Health. Money. How’d he know? “What’d you mean?” A deal is struck involving a stack of cash and a promise of a favor. His wife miraculously takes him back the following day and he enthusiastically performs the favor. The man he alerts of infidelity is featured on the news that night. He and his wife are dead. Murder, suicide. Death changed his life. (100 words)
The distant shuffle of soft soles on brick stirred the sleeping man. Through sleepy eyes, he squinted into the fog. He saw no flashlight and heard no clink of a nightstick. His late night visitor was not an officer come to shoo him away.
He pulled his tattered coat tighter around his stiff body, shifting to a more comfortable position on the cold, damp wooden bench. To shield the light of the lone streetlamp from his eyes, he stretched his hood farther across his face almost down to his scraggly beard.
Try as he might, he could not find sleep again. The footsteps continued to approach slowly. So very slowly. A strong breeze, carrying petrichor, whistled through the bare branches around him, their shadows seeming to fight and tear at each other like claws of some wild beasts.
Luckily, he had something in his bag that would solve the problems of cold and inability to sleep. While rummaging through the black plastic that held all of his belongings, a figure stepped into the circle of light cast by the streetlamp. The two men locked eyes – one pair droopy from lacking sleep, the other wide awake and chatoyant but otherwise unreadable. The new arrival wore a long black coat and carried nothing.
“Might I sit with you a moment?” The addressee only responded with a grunt and sat up on his bench. He held his bottle by his side hesitantly – an elixir of liquid warmth and drunken sleep – and regarded the visitor with suspicion.
He means to rob me, a man who has next to nothing. Well, he doesn’t know what fight he has coming.
After the initial tension ceased, the two sat in almost companionable silence. The homeless man, whose bed had been invaded, took a sip from a clear bottle. Not wanting to be rude, he extended the bottle toward his new acquaintance.
“I don’t drink, but thank you.”
“What brings you here at this hour?” the host asks after taking another swig.
“Just out and about.”
“Call me whatever you wish. I go by many names.” The comment made Jonas question having a conversation with this man. Perhaps he was disturbed. If he didn’t leave soon, Jonas would. “What brought you here, Jonas?”
These words were weighted unlike the casual question posed earlier. It was as if this man already knew about the divorce. The gambling. The illness. This was not something he wanted to share with a complete stranger.
The words began to bubble up before he could help himself, “I’m sick. Tumor. Nothing they can do. Gambled away everything I had… including my wife.”
“What would you do to have it all back?” Jonas scoffed at the question.
But he wasn’t joking. At least not as far as Jonas could tell. He didn’t smile. His eyes still had that empty quality. “I mistook you for someone of more ambition and broader mind who simply fell into hard times. I’m sorry. I’ll be going.”
“Wait…” Why had he called out to this absurd man? “I don’t understand.”
“I want to make you a deal. Take a loan from me. Go home to your wife. Swear to never enter another casino. Live out your final days a happy man.” Jonas sat there in shock and confusion before stuttering out a barely-coherent reply.
“I… you just… what’s in it for you?”
“A couple favors – things I cannot do myself. As long as you help me, the money will keep coming, your health with keep improving.”
“My health? What kind of favors?”
“Yes Jonas. The specifics I cannot yet divulge. Do you want this or not?” the stranger asked, pulling out a wad of green paper. His greedy fingers twitched at the thought of separating those bills one by one to count them. Warning bells sound, but only fugaciously and he dismisses them.
“Yes. More than anything.”
“And so you shall have it. I have your word to assist me while you are receiving my money and to break off the deal decently when you choose not to do to my bidding any longer?”
“Yes. You have my word.”
“Nice doing business with you.”
With that, the stranger left much more hastily than he had arrived and Jonas was alone again in the empty park that used to be his home.
* * *
Two weeks later, Jonas and his wife – who miraculously took him back without hesitation – drove to the hospital where Jonas vowed never to return. The memories of the message of his impending death constricted his airways and produced beads of sweat on his neck, but the doctor was astounded at how much the tumor had diminished.
“It’s… it’s amazing really. I don’t want to get your hopes up though. Sometimes these things happen.” But Jonas knew deep down the tumor wasn’t coming back. He had made a deal with a strange man in a long black coat.
The next day, a letter arrived addressed to him with no return address. He knew immediately who the sender was.
Hope all is well. I have a favor to ask of you. I’ve enclosed the contact information you will need. All you must do is alert the man his wife is being unfaithful.
Jonas reread the letter and glanced at the included information. What a bizarre favor. That man was a very bizarre man though so Jonas shrugged it off.
A man certainly deserves to know his wife is cheating on him. He’ll find out sooner or later anyway. Why not let it be sooner?
The hefty check inside the envelope confirmed Jonas’s decision. He’d do it the next day.
* * *
Jonas was out spending his newly-earned money on unnecessary things when the shots were fired. Just two: one between her eyes, exploding her skull, and one through his mouth, burying itself into his brain. The gun was still in the angry husband’s hand when the bodies were found. Neighbors would later tell police about hearing the couple fighting about infidelity.
The letters from the stranger continued to arrive once or twice a month, always without a return address and always with a check enclosed. Jonas followed the instructions without hesitation, excited by the vast sums of compensation he was receiving for such simple tasks: turning in a folder full of financial records to a prominent business downtown, delivering photos of a man he recognized to be involved in local politics associating with streetwalkers, and notifying spouses or parents of their significant other’s or children’s wrong doings.
Jonas never thought about or heard about the repercussions. His marriage was better than ever. There was no trace of the tumor. His life had completely turned around and he had more money than he ever hoped to have.
* * *
The letters continued arriving at their usual pace, but Jonas was less and less enthusiastic about completing the tasks. The pile of unopened letters was four deep when the fifth arrived. This one he opened for some reason. The others he was sure contained a check, but this one felt different somehow.
It wasn’t different in that it still had a task and payment, but the difference was written on the check. Jonas and his wife could retire with this kind of money. He tore through the unopened letters, pocketing the checks and not even reading the tasks.
He and his wife were packed up and ready to leave for the airport within the hour. She didn’t even question where the money had come from. Perhaps she had an ominous feeling about the source and she would’ve been right.
The truck came out of nowhere. The car flipped three times before landing upside down in a ditch. Everything went dark for Jonas until he was stirred awake by a somewhat familiar shuffling sound on the pavement.
“Where are you going, Jonas?” It was him. He looked exactly the same as the first day they met almost a year ago – long black coat, empty eyes.
“Who are you?”
“I told you: I go by many names.”
“Who are you? And what do you want?”
“That doesn’t matter. It only matters that you broke our deal. You stole from me and now you owe me what I’ve given back to you.”
“Please just help me… help her.”
“She’ll be fine. Her and I will probably never meet again. She’ll have a long, happy life and go where you cannot. She belongs to someone else. You on the other hand…”
“I don’t understand.” But he was starting to understand; his woebegone countenance said so. One thing he knew for certain: this was no normal man. Is he man at all?
“It’s time for us to be off, my friend.” The hand that clasped Jonas’s didn’t feel human. It was smooth, almost clammy, but dry… reptile-like. Yes, that’s what it reminded him of: a snake. The car was suddenly too warm. In an instant, Jonas was standing outside the car, but it didn’t get any cooler.
Where he was headed, the heat would be sempiternal.