Joe lifted the blind on the café door and wiped a hole in the condensation, the rain was just visible in the glow of the street lights. He pulled up his collar and was about to leave, when Sean called to him from the table by the window. “Hey Joe,” he turned as Sean threw him a small bronze dragon.
“What’s this?” He asked, catching the trinket.
“It’s not much, but I think you might need it.”
Joe laughed, “I don’t believe in luck.”
“It’s not luck, just don’t lose it,” Sean’s voice was serious, Joe was tired, it had been a long day. “Okay,” he said as he put the dragon in his pocket and walked into the damp night. He stopped under a streetlight and took the dragon out of his pocket, examining it, he looked back at the café, through the fine hairspray that looked like mist but felt like rain.
Joe began to wonder if he’d done the right thing, buying Sean a meal when he knew nothing about him. When Sean had asked him for money outside Notting Hill underground, Joe had tried to ignore him, he was tired and wanted to get home. As he approached the barriers he paused, Joe felt a voice, silent, like snow falling, urging him to go back. He turned, very slowly and looked at the stranger again, he was still there, unmoving, watching, willing Joe to turn around. “I just want something to eat,” he said, his voice was soft, almost familiar. At that moment Joe knew what he was going to do, he didn’t know why, he just knew he was going to help. He put his fare back in his pocket and walked out of the station. Sean was about six foot two, with short brown hair and a lean, clean shaven face. His eyes were like pools of deep green water, difficult to read. He wore a black leather jacket and black jeans, no protection against the rain. “I won’t give you money for drink,” Joe insisted as he approached the skinny Irishman.
“A little patronising, but you’re trying, I like that. Listen, I just want something to eat,” he said with emphasis. Joe knew nothing about him, and felt uneasy at first, but there was something about this guy. Joe wasn’t the kind that would normally give to people on the street. Headlines about professional beggars had been all over the newspapers. But this felt different…safe. “There’s a late night café about a mile from here, if you don’t mind walking in the rain,” Joe suggested.
“C’mon, let’s go, I don’t mind the rain.”
As they made their way through the dark, wet streets of Notting Hill, Sean asked, “What’s your name?” Joe thought for a moment, was he being friendly or was he after something? Should he give his real name? Joe realised his imagination was running away with him. “Joe, my name’s Joe,” he mumbled, still feeling a little unsure.
“I’m Sean,” his voice was quiet…genuine. Joe liked his Irish accent, it wasn’t the kind he’d heard in Kilburn, it was warmer, more refined. The rain had started to ease by the time they got to the café, it was small and a bit dingy, with a faded sign above the window. Inside were a dozen wooden tables with blue vinyl table cloths. The only other person in the place was a man in a shabby suit and a hat. He was sitting at the other end of the café, he looked liked the villain in a gangster movie. Joe motioned for them to sit at a table near the window.
As the waitress approached them, she attempted to smile but it didn’t work, everything about her said she was tired. Joe ordered steak pie, chips and beans, Sean nodded approval.
“By the way, could I have a hot chocolate?”
“You’re a hard man, drinking hot chocolate,” Joe said. Sean ignored his sarcasm and continued. “But it must be made with milk, not water, can you make sure?”
“Hot chocolate made with milk,” the waitress mouthed the words as she wrote it down.
“It’s the hot milk,” Sean informed Joe, answering his sarcasm. “It’s really good on cold wet nights like this.”
The waitress finished scribbling on her pad and headed for the kitchen. Joe was curious why a man like this would end up begging for money, when Joe looked closer he saw Sean’s leather jacket was nearly new and his hair was neatly cut and combed. He wore a shirt that looked expensive, better than anything Joe could afford. He began to wonder if he was being scammed.
“How come you were on the street? You don’t look like a down and out.”
“Be careful Joe, things are not always what they seem, sometimes you have to trust your instincts,” was his response. The strange thing was that Joe’s instincts told him he could trust this guy, and Joe’s instincts were normally pretty good. After a few minutes the waitress returned with a plate of food and a mug of steaming chocolate. Joe watched him eat, there was a certain style in his manner, like he’d known better times.
“Want some more?” Joe asked as he finished what was on his plate.
“No thanks, that was great.”
Joe sat looking at his hands for a few seconds, not knowing what to say, when Sean broke the silence. “Well I guess you’d better get going, you don’t want to miss the last train, it’s a long walk to Queens Park.”
“You’re right, I’d better go,” Joe said, relieved it was over.
“But thanks for the food, you’re a good man, Joe.” Sean said, leaning back in his chair with his arm resting on the back of the chair next to him.
“Yeah, No problem…eh…I’ll see you.” As Joe got up to leave, he turned and said quietly, “Have we met before?”
“I don’t think so, I only arrived in London today.”
“So how come you’re broke? Where did you come from, Ireland?”
“Well first, I’m not broke, I just don’t have any money on me. Second, I left Ireland years ago. Where I come from is very different from Ireland.” That was enough for Joe, he was tired and just wanted to go home. “Okay, listen I have to go, I’m glad I was able to help.”
Joe snapped back to the present, put the dragon back in his pocket and headed for the station, leaving all thoughts of Sean behind in the café. Joe arrived at Queens Park just before 12:30am, cold and damp, but sleep was far from him. He lived in a studio flat on the first floor of a four storey Victorian house. The whole house had been divided into flats, the high ceilings and ornate fittings, reminders of grander days. Lying on the sofa-bed, he took the dragon out of his pocket, it looked insignificant, so ordinary and yet there was something about it. Joe sat fingering the bronze trinket until he fell asleep.
Sunday morning was warm and sunny, Joe woke at about 10:30, peeled the back the quilt and made it to the kitchen without really opening his eyes. He threw some cornflakes into a bowl with some cold milk and returned to the sofa bed to try and eat before facing the other tasks, like showering, dressing and generally getting ready to face the world. The dragon was forgotten, for the moment. Joe’s flat was across the road from Queens Park and overlooked the playground. He needed time to think, what with Tom planning to tell Marcie how he felt about her. The relationship between his two best friends was about to be spoiled forever. He knew Tom was just a friend to Marcie, but everything was about to change, the trio was about to be split, never to be the same again.
It was all too much for a Sunday morning, Joe bent down to look under the sofa for his trainers and found the bronze dragon. The previous night’s adventure came rushing back to him, Sean, the café and the dragon. He picked up the trinket and looked at it, there was nothing special about it that he could see. After putting on his trainers, Joe walked the hundred yards to the park. The air was cool for April, but the sun was warm on his back as he walked along the path which ran around the park. The grass had been mowed the day before and the smell of cut grass was everywhere. He thought about Tom and Marcie and the encroaching mess, but the memory of Sean interrupted his thoughts. He seemed so familiar, yet they had never met as far as Joe could remember. As the path drew close to the playground, he saw someone sitting on the swings and it wasn’t a child.
“Hey Joe,” a voice he recognised, the Irish accent still refined. Joe opened the small gate and walked across the tarmac to where Sean was sitting.
“How did you get here and how did you know where I live?”
“Ah, don’t worry Joe, I’m not going to rob you, have you still got my token?”
“You know, the little dragon I gave you last night?”
“Oh that, yeah, it’s in my pocket.”
“Good, don’t lose it,” Sean said in a quiet voice, Joe was standing to the side of the swings, watching this Irishman gently swinging back and forth wearing the same black leather jacket he wore the night before.
He said it again, “I mean it Joe, don’t you go losing that, you make sure you hang on to it,” Joe took the dragon out of his pocket, it looked like something from a novelty bracelet,
“What’s the big deal, it’s just a metal dragon.”
“Is that what you think? Listen, you have no idea what I’ve given you.”
“Listen, if you want it back?.” .
“Don’t be ridiculous, I gave that to you for a reason and you’re going to need it.”
“Why would I need this? By the way, you still haven’t told me how you knew where I live.”
“You think I’m crazy don’t you?” Sean said with a wry smile, Joe wasn’t sure how to answer. “Look, I came to the park to think, I’ve got a lot on my mind right now.”
Sean got up and stood facing Joe, “Look, you make me breakfast and I’ll tell you why I’m here, how I knew where you live and how I knew I’d see you in the park today.”
Joe was not in the mood to hear any more, he needed time to himself and wanted this Irishman to go home. But he was also curious, about how Sean had found him. Joe had left him in Notting Hill with no personal details. “Okay, but after that, you leave,” he said firmly, Sean put his arm across his waist and bowed. They walked back to the flat not saying much. Sean sat down on the sofa that was a bed a little earlier.
“Cornflakes and toast okay? It’s all I’ve got.”
“That’ll be great,” Sean agreed as he stretched out his long legs and relaxed. Joe handed him a bowl of cornflakes and a plate of hot buttered toast. Joe sat on a large cushion on the floor opposite Sean, he wanted to see Sean’s face straight on. “Are you ready to hear what I’m about to tell you? ”Sean asked, looking intently at Joe. “I don’t know,” Joe replied, not really sure if he had done the right thing, letting Sean come to his flat. “Well, we’ll soon find out, I guess you’ve heard of leprechauns?” Joe smiled, here we go he thought, this is the part where the men in white coats come rushing in. “Hasn’t everyone?” he said, with an uncomfortable smile.
“Not in the way I’m going to tell you. Now listen Joe, every Leprechaun has a token, like the one I gave you, we don’t give our tokens away easily, but every now and then when a leprechaun finds the right person, he will give him his token. However, he needs to be sure it’s the right person, someone like you Joe.”
“So if you’ve given me you’re token, don’t you need it?”
“We are given a token when we’re young, it helps us develop our power, once we’re adult we don’t really need it, so we give it away. A token is always in an image that’s important to us, for me a dragon is perfect, for you too.”
“Why is a dragon perfect for you?” Joe asked.
“Ah, that’s an question for another day,” Sean said, turning his head slightly and looking at Joe out of the corner of his eye.
Joe was still trying not to laugh, “You can smile if you like Joe, but how did I know where you live? I’ve never met you before, how did I know what kind of token to give you? You’ve never told anyone about fighting dragons have you?” Joe stopped smiling, how could Sean know about that? No-one knew, not Tom, not Marcie, not even his mum.
“How could you know… ?” Joe asked, feeling annoyed that anyone could know his inner thoughts. Joe had a saying he used to tell himself, that he needed to fight a dragon every day, he needed to be challenged, pushed to the limit. He used to dream of fighting dragons when he was a kid, he still felt the need to face his fears, to win against all the odds. In the stories he had read, when a knight defeated a dragon, the world was a bit safer and the villagers could return to their homes. There were no dragons in Joe’s life, only faulty computers, hardly a challenge worthy of a dragon fighter.
“Do you think a leprechaun is a little man with a green hat and jacket, with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? That’s ridiculous, that story was put about by my great grandfather over 500 years ago and people still believe it,” Sean was talking faster and Joe was starting to listen.
“So you’re a leprechaun, a six foot leprechaun?”
“Well there are not many three foot ones around,” Sean joked, half smiling and looking Joe straight in the eyes. “Look, leprechaun’s don’t have a pot of gold and there’s nothing at the end of the rainbow. All leprechauns are descended from the first, his name was Dúbhshláine. He was the first to develop real power, then he taught his children, but he needed a way to teach them while they were young, so he created a token for each of them. Ever since then young Leprechauns are given a token. We don’t let people know who we are unless we have to, most leprechauns look like everyone else, and that’s the way we like it. I have given you an opportunity, that’s what you have in your hand Joe, a chance to change your life, if you are willing to take it, no one’s going to force you.”
Joe was silent, he looked at the dragon, then at Sean. “It’s not a dream Joe, you’re wide awake and that little token you have there is an opportunity that might never come to you again, it’s an open door, but you have to walk through it.” Sean stood up and walked to the window, he pulled the curtain aside enough to look out, “It’s what lies on the other side of that door, the question is, can you face it Joe, because if you can, your life will never be the same again.” Joe just looked at him. “What if I don’t want to? What if I don’t believe any of this?” Sean turned and looked at him, his face was serious.
“If that’s how you feel you might want to give that little dragon back to me, it won’t do you any good.” Joe thought about his life, his job in Oxford Street, the boring tube journey. But he was also a rational being that didn’t believe in Leprechauns, Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. “This is crazy, you’re either scamming me or you’re crazy and I don’t care which, but I don’t have time for this right now, so I think you should leave.”
“Well okay Joe, I’ll let you hold onto my token for a while, if you don’t use it I’ll come and collect it in a few days and you’ll never see me again. Good luck and thanks for breakfast.” He got up, shook Joe by the hand and left.
For Joe this was too ridiculous, he put the dragon on the table next to the sofa and went to the fridge, took out a small pot of chilli and threw it in the microwave. It was nearly 12:30pm and Joe was hungry, and tired of hearing about leprechauns and dragons. He threw himself on the sofa and switched on the TV. Four minutes later the microwave pinged, as he got up the phone rang, this wasn’t the time for more conversation. Hesitantly he picked it up, it was Marcie and she was crying.
Joe had been waiting for this call since the previous night, when he’d met Tom at the club. Tom was one of Joe’s closest friends, he worked as a printer in Belsize Park; on Saturday nights Tom played bass in a rock band, this was his passion. His world was easy to understand, he worked to pay the rent and played bass to feel alive, the band represented spontaneity and a sort of freedom.
Tom liked his job, loved playing music and didn’t really worry about anything else. His six foot nothing skinny frame went well with his bass playing lifestyle, he looked good holding a Fender. His hair was black and long enough to cover his ears, with a fringe over his forehead. Tom wore tight jeans that exaggerated his skinny legs, this all helped his ‘rock musician’ look. Joe knew Tom would never be rich or famous, but he envied his contentment and liked Tom’s relaxed attitude, it was in stark contrast to his own worried character. Joe worried about his life passing without having done anything important, without having made a single mark on the world.
“I don’t believe it,” Marcie protested, “Tom told me that he loves me, he said it would be hard for him to just be a friend.”
“I know,” Joe confirmed sympathetically, “Tom told me last night at the club, that’s why he wanted you to be there, he was really disappointed when you didn’t come.”
“I’m sorry Joe, I don’t want to draw you into this but I don’t feel the way he does, Tom’s a friend,” she said through her tears.
“Yeah, I thought you might feel that way, Tom asked me last night, if I thought he should tell you, I told him it was better that you knew.” Marcie was quiet, then she almost whispered, “I don’t know how this is going to turn out, I think I really hurt his feelings, but what else could I do? I just don’t feel the way he does.” Joe realised the rest of this conversation wasn’t going to be easy and he didn’t want to have it on the phone. He knew Tom could be insensitive and selfish, but he also knew how Tom felt about Marcie. “Listen, I’ll come round later, we can talk then, do you want me to bring you anything?”
“No, it’s okay, I’ll see you later Joe, thanks for listening.”
She hung up and Joe felt terrible, for both of them, it was a mess. He had known Marcie since school, she was his closest friend, her parents were from Jamaica, but she was born in London. Joe would periodically complain to Marcie about his life and she would tell him what his problem was, give him a list of things he needed to change if his life was ever going to get any better.
He knew everything would be different now, Tom was in love and Marcie wasn’t, Joe felt like it was all getting complicated. Tom’s life was simpler than Joe’s, he lived in Kilburn with his parents, he was always talking about moving out, but never actually got round to it. He’d also known Marcie since school, the three of them had been the Terrible Trio five years ago, at the local comprehensive. Now Tom had thrown a spanner in the works by falling in love with Marcie, Joe just wanted things to stay the same.
As Joe put the phone on the table the light from the window caught the dragon on the table, except it wasn’t bronze anymore, it was solid gold. Joe picked it up, it felt heavier, he scratched the surface with his key, just to make sure, it was definitely gold. Joe just stood there looking at it, a little worried, a little scared, was this some kind of trick? He didn’t believe in Magic or any of that mumbo jumbo, lunch was forgotten for the moment. Sitting on the sofa, not taking his eyes off the trinket, he knew there had to be a rational explanation, but as hard as he tried he couldn’t find one. Joe put the dragon back on the table and took his dinner from the microwave, his hunger had abandoned him but he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
After lunch Joe sat fingering the gold token, trying to decide what to do, it looked like it might be worth something, he could certainly do with the money. His first instinct was to get rid of it, but what if it was cursed or something? His mind was beginning to give way to less rational thoughts. Joe decided to get it valued, at least that would establish if it was real or not and what it was worth. There was a shop round the back of Oxford Street that bought gold, he decided to go and see them the next day, in his lunch hour. Sean’s words came back to him, about not losing it, but Joe told himself it was only a valuation, he wasn’t going to sell it. The afternoon passed slowly and Joe took the train from Queens Park at about seven. As the train made it’s way through north London towards Hampstead, Joe thought about Marcie, how she was so direct, but with such a kind nature that it was impossible to be offended. This was one of her real virtues, her ability to tell you exactly what she thought without causing offence, Marcie always gave Joe her unedited opinion.
Joe arrived at Marcie’s house at seven thirty, she lived with her parents, in a three bedroom house in Hampstead. Joe rang the doorbell and waited, the door was opened by Marcie’s mum. She was about 5ft 6in and a little rounded all over, though not heavily overweight, her hair was in small curls and hung down just below her ears. She had known Joe since school. “She’s in her room Joe, I think you might need this,” she said in her soft Jamaican accent, handing him a box of tissues.
Joe knocked on Marcie’s door, “Hi Joe, come in,” she answered, still sounding upset. Joe sat on a chair in the corner, Marcie was lying on the bed in her jeans and red tee-shirt, she looked like she’d been there all day. Marcie was slim but not skinny, about Joe’s height, with long plaits that just touched her shoulder. Her dad was a GP and her mum a nurse at the Royal Free Hospital. Joe loved Marcie’s mum’s cooking, rice and peas and chicken was his favourite. They talked for a couple of hours and Joe didn’t mention Sean or the dragon. It was unclear what it all meant anyway and Joe didn’t want to tell anyone until he knew what was going on. Marcie talked about Tom and cried some more, Joe gave her a shoulder to cry on and left about nine.
Joe thought about Tom and Marcie as the train made it’s way through the dark, he hadn’t expected to stay so long. He remembered how excited Tom had been, when Joe saw him at the club, the night before. Marcie hadn’t seen his band and this was a first, Tom had even written a couple of songs especially for her. The club belonged to a friend of Tom’s dad, he allowed the band to play on Saturday nights, but paid only half the going rate as they were gaining experience on the club scene. Tom knew this guy was getting a good deal, but he loved playing more than the money. It was Tom’s band and he was constantly arguing with the drummer and the guitarist about the money.
“Where’s Marcie?” Tom had asked when Joe walked into the club alone
“She called to say she wasn’t feeling well, I said I’d go and see her, wanna come?” Tom didn’t answer, Joe could sense his annoyance. “You know Marcie would’ve come if she could” Joe insisted, trying to defend her.
“I know, it’s annoying because she’s so honest, at least if she was pretending I could be angry at her, but now I feel sympathetic and annoyed both at the same time, she’s so infuriating.” Joe laughed.
“Yep, that’s Marcie, you always know where you stand with her.”
“Yeah, well I wish she’d learn to lie a little, then I could at least pretend to be annoyed.”
Marcie was one of those girls that you either liked or didn’t, there were no lukewarm friendships with her. If Joe was being selfish or unreasonable, she would tell him, and he liked that, no bells and whistles, just straight up, what you see is what you get. “I’d better go and set up,” Tom announced as he got up and walked towards the small stage. “See you later.”
“Yeah” Joe mumbled, catching the barman’s attention, “7up with ice please,” he wasn’t planning on staying long, just long enough to hear the new songs.
The band did their usual couple of songs to start the set plus Tom’s new numbers, by the break Joe knew why Tom was so disappointed that Marcie hadn’t come. The new songs were obviously about her. This was the first Joe knew about it, he was still in shock when Tom came and sat next to him, there was a pause. “I never knew, I wouldn’t even have guessed,” Joe admitted.
“You were never meant to,” Tom said quietly, “No-one was, I thought it would just mess things up, with us being friends.”
“So why now?” Joe asked, Tom looked at the floor for a few seconds and then back at Joe.
“I think…” he paused, “I think I just need to know how she feels.”
“But she didn’t hear the songs.” Joe said softly, “What will you do?”
“I don’t know,” Tom mumbled, unsure about the whole thing. “Life never turns out the way you plan it, now I have to tell her in the cold light of day with no band to back me up”. Joe knew how Marcie was going to react to that revelation, but he didn’t want to hurt Tom’s feelings. “I think you should go and see her, what’s the worst thing that could happen?”
“She could say she wants to remain friends,” Tom said, sounding a bit fed up. “We have been such good friends, it might spoil everything.”
“You need to tell her how you feel,” Joe said firmly. “You owe it to her, you know how Marcie is about honesty, if she thought you were hiding something from her she would never forgive you.”
“Maybe you’re right, I could go and see her tomorrow, after all she’s not well, I’m sure she’d like the company, thanks Joe.”
As the train approached Queens Park, his thoughts returned to the present and the ten minute walk that lay ahead of him. As the train came to a stop the doors opened, Joe took a breath as the damp night air hit him. It was past midnight when he left the station and the streets were empty except for a cat guarding the gate of a house in Harvest Road. As he climbed the steps to his font door he realised if he’d left the club a few minutes later, he might not have met Sean and how much grief that would have saved him.
Joe knew the situation with Tom and Marcie was a mess, sometimes he just wished life would stay the same. The friendship the three of them had was solid, it wasn’t complicated or difficult like love. It was simple, straightforward and honest. That was gone now, love was uncertain and painful, the terrible trio were about to be dissolved.
Joe went to lunch early on Monday, it was a fifteen minute walk to the shop and Joe did it in eight. The sign over the window was painted dark blue with gold lettering, ‘Old Gold Wanted.’ The place was small and a bit pokey, a bit like a pawnbrokers, but without the three balls over the door. Joe walked up to the counter and pressed the small brass bell that was worn by all the hands that had pressed it over the years. A man appeared from the back of the shop wearing a waistcoat and half glasses. His hair was thin and grey and he had a couple of day’s growth of beard. “Can I help you?” He asked in a thin voice, Joe felt like leaving, unsure about the whole venture, but he reached into his pocket and took out the dragon. “How much is this worth?” The man looked at it and laughed, “Where did you get that, some girlfriend’s bracelet? It’s not worth anything.” Joe looked at the dull bronze dragon sitting in the palm of his hand. “I think I’ve made a mistake…,” Joe stuttered as a man in a pin stripe suit came into the shop and shook the owners hand. “Hi Felix, I’ve got something special for you today,” The man in the pin stripe announced. The man behind the counter left Joe and smiled at the man in the suit, they disappeared into a back room leaving Joe alone in the shop. He stood there for a few seconds, looking at the dragon and wondering what it all meant, as he turned to leave, the reality hit him. This was real, it was really happening and he had no explanation, he burst through the shop door in a bit of a panic.
“I told you to hang onto that Joe,” Sean was leaning against the wall outside the shop.
“What’s going on, is this some kind of trick?” Joe was feeling very uneasy by this time.
“It’s no trick Joe, I told you not to lose that, it’s very important to me, and to you. It turned to gold didn’t it?”
“This is crazy, I feel like I’m in a movie or something, things like this just don’t happen in real life.”
“Well maybe you are in a movie, or a story or a fantasy, but here’s the thing Joe, I’m here and so are you, and so is that little dragon, and you saw it turn to gold. How do you explain that with your rational mind? Think on that Joe Martin, and let me know when you have an answer.”
“I wasn’t trying to sell it, I just wanted to see what it was worth.” Suddenly Joe realised Sean had called him by his full name. “How do you know my last name?”
Sean gave him that smile again. “Oh I know lots of things about you Joe, by the way, what would you have done if it had been valuable?”
“I don’t know? I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”
“Sure you had Joe, you would’ve sold it, the token turns to gold and you forget everything I told you.” Joe looked away, Sean was right, he might have sold it, “Okay, I’m sorry” what should I do ?”
“Nothing right now, but look after that token, you’ll know what to do when the time comes, trust me.” Sean started to walk away, “I’ll be seeing you Joe,” he turned the corner and was gone, Joe ran to the corner but there was no sign of him, the street was empty, not a soul in sight.
Joe leaned against the wall for a moment, the reality that Sean was telling the truth was hard for his rational mind to accept. On his way back to work, he passed a corner shop with personal ads in the window, something caught his eye, a card with a picture of a dragon. ‘Adventurers Wanted,’ that’s dumb, he thought, who would place an ad like that. he read the rest; ‘Call Now Before It’s Too Late.’
What a stupid ad, Joe thought, his stomach was doing somersaults, the hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end. This was getting more ridiculous every minute, he took the dragon out of his pocket, it was gold again. There was a telephone number at the bottom of the card, Joe knew this was what Sean was talking about, he keyed the number into his mobile. As he made his way along Oxford Street his phone rang, he recognised the number as the number on the card in the window, he pressed the answer key. “Hi Joe, I’m so glad you read the ad, I was afraid you might not see it.” The voice on the other end sounded rough but friendly, Joe couldn’t believe what was happening. “What’s going on? How did you know I read the ad? How on earth did you get my number?” Joe’s sense of reality was slowly slipping away, he was not comfortable, not comfortable at all.
“Slow down Joe, that’s a lot of questions, you need to relax, nothing bad is gonna happen, this is an opportunity you can’t afford to miss. You’ve always wanted to change the world, well now’s your chance.” Joe knew this was the chance Sean had talked about, was he really going to let this slip away because of his job as a computer technician?
“Okay,” he said firmly, “What do I have to do?”
“Nothing for now, you will be hearing from us.”
Joe was awoken by the bright sunlight bursting through the large window next to his bed, he wasn’t in his flat. He had fallen asleep on the sofa bed in his studio flat, now here he was in a large double bed, the room was pale blue with a dark blue carpet that looked deep enough to get lost in. A short man with grey curly hair entered the room, he had a heavy tan and a voice like a rasp, but it was a friendly voice that had a warmth about it.
“Welcome, I’m Max, you’re here because you’ve been given a gold token. Leprechauns don’t give their tokens away easily, they carry them at all times. Occasionally a Leprechaun will give his token away, but it doesn’t happen very often. You have been chosen as someone with great potential, within yourself and in the world you now inhabit. You just need a little polish, that’s why you’re here. Most tokens are silver, we may occasionally have someone whose token is gold, you are that someone. I’ve only seen three gold tokens in twenty years, and now you have one, that makes four. You may want to shower, there are clean towels on the shelf. I’ll be downstairs if you need anything,” Max said as he handed Joe a key,
“This room is for gold token holders only, I’ll bring you something to eat shortly.” This was all too much for Joe, waking up in a strange room having fallen asleep in his own bed.
“How do I know this isn’t all a scam? I mean, I don’t really know anything about you or even if you’re telling the truth.”
“No, you don’t and I can’t help you with that, but you did accept the token and you did take the call after reading the card, so I’d say you’re pretty interested in what happens next.” Max smiled with an air of confidence that made Joe uncomfortable. “Look, you wanted a more interesting life, you wanted something new to happen, well guess what, it’s happened and here you are.”
“Okay, I admit it, life was getting a bit mundane.” Joe admitted as he turned and looked out of the window. “What time is it?”
“Yeah I can see that, but what time is it?”
“We don’t concern ourselves with hours and minutes, it’s dawn. Now I will go and arrange for some food to be sent up, you must be hungry.”
Max was right, he was starving, Joe lay on the bed and waited for the food to arrive. Max returned with a tray of thick cut bread and a glass of some kind of green juice. The bread was fresh and delicious, the juice tasted a little like mango with a touch of banana, but sweeter. After eating Joe checked his watch, 10pm, he guessed it must be about 6am, adjusted his watch and checked his mobile, no signal. There was a knock on the door and Max walked into the room dressed in Khaki trousers and shirt.
“It’s time to go, c’mon,”
“You’ll find out” He announced as he walked down the stairs, “Hurry up, we’ve got a lot to do today. You’ll find your clothes hanging in the wardrobe.” Joe opened the large wardrobe, there hanging neatly, were the clothes he wore the day before, clean and pressed, his trainers sitting on the bottom of the wardrobe with a pair of clean socks.
Joe dressed quickly and ran down the steep staircase, at the bottom was a door that led out of the building. It was a large white house with two roman pillars on the porch. There was nothing else around but fields of long grass and a dirt road. Max was standing by an open top jeep, in the back was a young man about Joe’s age, he was skinny, like Joe, with short dark brown hair.
“Get in,” Max insisted as he walked around the other side and got into the driver’s seat. Joe sat in front, next to Max, he turned and introduced himself to the other passenger, “Hi, I’m Joe,” He put out his hand, the guy in the back reached out and shook it. “I’m Jason, this is my second mission, what about you ?” Joe was surprised.
“You’ve been here before?”
“No, I don’t know.”
Jason leaned forward “Max, didn’t you tell him?”
“I thought I’d let you do that, it’ll give you something to talk about on the journey.”
“Thanks, remind me to do you a favour someday.” He turned to Joe “Look we’ve been given a token right? Most have silver and very occasionally someone gets gold. Everyone who comes here has a different token, according to their ability. Mine’s a unicorn and because my token is silver I get to complete three missions, if I had a gold token I could do more, much more.” This the first time Joe understood any of this and, he wanted to know more.
“My token is a dragon, so what was your first mission?” He asked.
“It was terrifying, but great, I was on a ship and it was sinking, I had to retrieve a gold locket that was in the captain’s cabin, it wasn’t easy, I knew I didn’t have much time before she went down.”
“So how did you get off ?”
“Oh that’s the easy part, once you’ve accomplished your task, your mission is over and you are brought back to the Maji, you give him the item and you wait for your next mission.”
“But what’s the motivation, why would you do this, risk life and limb, for what?”
“That’s easy.” Jason said with a smile. “When we have accomplished all our missions we get to keep the token, and the power that goes with it.” The Jeep was driving up a mountain road, past deep ravines and rocky hillsides. Joe grimaced as the jeep bounced on the uneven road close to a sheer drop. “Is this safe Max?” Joe asked, trying not to sound frightened. “Don’t worry, I’ve done this loads of times and I’ve never lost a passenger yet.”
Joe turned to Jason “So who is the Maji and what happens if you fail ?”
“You’ll meet the Maji, he’s the one who organises all of this. We never fail, that’s why we have tokens, they give us power. Jason’s face was full of enthusiasm, Joe turned and looked at the road ahead. “What token have you got?” Jason asked, “Gold,” Joe mumbled without turning round, “Wow, that’s amazing.” Joe was annoyed, he turned and faced Jason, “What do you mean, amazing, how many missions do I have to complete? You only have to do three,” he couldn’t believe it, why did he have to get a gold token?
“But that’s the point,” Jason said excitedly, “You have the chance to do it all, you get to do everything and gold tokens have real power.” Joe just looked at him, he couldn’t believe he’d let himself into this nightmare. Jason continued as enthusiastically as before, “Listen, we do it for the experience and to keep the token, I envy you, hardly anyone gets a gold token.” Joe just stared at Jason, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue this journey. “But what happens if I die?”
“Well, that never happens, especially if you have a gold token,” Jason explained. This wasn’t what Joe was expecting, it seemed to him he could go through one mission after another facing death at every turn, just so he could keep a small gold dragon, Joe pressed him. “Look let’s pretend I don’t know anything about any of this. What would happen if I died, despite holding a gold token?” Jason smiled a false smile. “Don’t worry, it can’t happen if you have a gold token.” Joe didn’t know if Jason was being completely honest, he turned around and stared at the road ahead, he wanted to ask Max to take him back to the house, but he felt it was too late for that.
The jeep bounced its way up the mountain road and no one said anything for long time. Suddenly Joe turned to Max, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I thought it would be better if Jason told you.” Joe was mad that this had been kept from him and that he had no way back, he was also angry that Sean hadn’t explained any of this.
The jeep followed the road up to a high ledge where the road started to narrow and eventually disappeared into the side of the mountain. Max stopped the jeep just before they ran out of road and they all got out. They walked towards a cave in the side of the mountain, as they entered, darkness enveloped them. They could still see the light outside the cave, but the cave was as dark as if it was midnight. Max took a burning torch from the wall and walked ahead of them down a passage to the rear, into the belly of the mountain.
It was cool and water dripped from the ceiling, the passage sloped downwards and was wide enough if they walked in single file. After fifteen minutes or so they came to a cavern with three passages leading off in different directions. Max stopped and turned to face them, “Here’s where you go in different directions, Jason, you take the passage to the left, Joe you take the one to the right” Max took two burning torches from the wall and threw one to Jason and the other to Joe, “I’ll see you two later. Joe, be careful.”
This was not reassuring, Joe turned to Max, “Why are we going different ways, aren’t we supposed to see the Maji?”
“I’ve already received my assignment,” Jason interrupted, before Max could reply. “I’ll see you later, Joe.” Then he disappeared down the dark passage.
“Great,” Joe shouted to Jason, his voice full of sarcasm. “Good luck,” Max whispered as he leaned towards Joe, then he turned and walked away, leaving Joe standing in the cavern with only a burning torch. Joe looked around for a few seconds, he couldn’t believe he had agreed to this, he eventually decided there was only one way to go, forwards.
The passage got narrower and lower the further Joe went, his heart was pounding in his ears, he had no idea why he was there or what he was meant to do, but it was too late to turn back. After twenty minutes of walking down an ever narrowing, ever lower passage Joe came to a hole in the ground, just big enough for him to get through. The thought occurred to him; there was no way back if he climbed down, but the passage ahead was now too low and narrow for him to go any further. Joe took the dragon out of his pocket, it was glowing with a soft light, he had no idea what it meant. Joe held the torch to the hole, and looked into the passage below, it looked bigger than the passage he was in. Throwing the torch down the hole, Joe climbed down, being careful not to land on the burning torch. The lower passage only went in one direction, Joe walked a few yards and took the dragon out of his pocket, it was glowing brighter the further he went. Joe walked back to where the hole was and the dragon’s glowed dimmed, now he knew, the token was guiding him. It was then that Joe realised what Jason had meant when he insisted that gold token holders never got killed, the token guides them.
He walked along the passage for what seemed like ages, there was nothing to see, just more passage, the token was getting brighter, so Joe knew he was heading in the right direction. As the passage turned he felt the air getting warmer, a little further and Joe was sweating, it was too warm now, a shuffling noise ahead made him stop. The dragon was glowing brighter, this was it, whatever Joe had to do, lay just ahead. He walked slowly holding the torch at arm’s length trying to see as far ahead as possible.