Donald Chance was reading a letter from his boss when his mobile phone buzzed. At first he was annoyed; he never got phone calls when there was nothing for him to do. No, they always seemed to have some pressing matter right when he was in the middle of something important.
His agitation flipped over to curiosity when the phone didn’t buzz a second time. It was a text message. He never got text messages ever, not since Alice had decided they were no longer novel and Leonard had given up on keeping a mobile for more than a week before it broke in some spectacularly bizarre fashion. So, Donald thought, who could possibly be texting me now?
Curiosity got the better of him. He folded up the letter, carefully replacing the wax seal, and put it to the side. Picking up the mobile, he saw that the number listed on the text was unknown to him.
It only had four words: ‘I found the lady.’
A spark of hope flared up in Donald. He quickly typed back: ‘Connor?’
Another text came after a pensive wait. It had a picture attached to a message that simply said, ‘Yes.’
Donald’s jaw dropped. A bright red gem sat neatly within the frame of the picture. The phone rang, and he answered it quickly. “Hello?”
“Heya Chauncey! I hope you got my pic.”
“Yes. Yes I did. Though that’s not the girl I asked you to find, Mr. Donnelly.”
“True, but it is what you’re looking for, isn’t it?”
“I am not going to comment on that.”
“Oh, come on, Chauncey! Don’t make me threaten to throw this thing into the trash.”
He really hated this smart-mouthed, little man. He was seriously considering giving him another attitude adjustment the next time they met. On the other hand, if he could get the gem, he could leave this God-forsaken city and never have to deal with the miniscule thief’s acerbic wit again. With a heavy sigh, he finally responded. “Okay, fine. I might be willing to pay you the rest of the million for the gem instead of the girl, but only because I’m feeling generous.”
“Afraid not, Chauncers McGillicuddy. For the gem, my fee has gone up.”
Damn, I hate this man. “How much, Mr. Donnelly?”
Chauncey tried to mask his elation. “Fine. Bring the gem, and we’ll make an exchange.”
“Hey, this ain’t my first rodeo, Tex. We’re not meeting. You’re gonna wire the money to an account I will send you, then I’ll ship the item to you.”
“Why would I pay you before I even have anything in hand?”
“Because, Chauncey, I can’t touch the money until the wire finishes. Even then it will take awhile before I can remove it from that account. You have at least an hour where you can stop the transfer. If I don’t deliver, you cancel the payout. Simple, painless, and guaranteed, and I don’t even have to look you in the eye.”
Donald couldn’t tell if he was lying over the phone, but something about the offer sounded too good to be true. “Why do I get the feeling you’re leading me on?”
“Well, one other thing I should probably mention: you know the gem is cursed, right?”
“I had a suspicion, but honestly had disregarded it until now. I didn’t think there was any way that girl Lana would give the gem to a cretin like you.”
“So you’re okay with the gem being cursed?”
“Of course. I can remove the curse, just send it to me.”
“So we have a deal then?”
Donald sighed. “Fine, yes. Send me the number, and I will make sure you get your money.”
“Pleasure doing business with you as always, Mr. Chaunce.”
Donald hung up the phone and felt relieved. He wanted to laugh at the poor sod, but the man wasn’t there in front of him. He was coming out way ahead in this little acquisition; Connor had only wanted money. When the phone buzzed with the account number, he transferred it quickly and with relish.
He had been in the acquisitions game for a long time now, but this bloody gem had caused him more grief than any other item he had ever been assigned. He was hard pressed to figure out why. Was it that stupid grifter, Donnelly? Was it the Om de Daunatori getting into the mix? No, he decided, it was that blonde Hell Bound, Lana.
He knew he shouldn’t have trusted her from the moment they met, but he didn’t have a lot of contacts in this neck of the States. It had been a gamble, trusting her to get the job done, one that had caused him no end of frustration. It was paying off in spades now, however; the boss would be pleased he had gotten the item for so cheap. He decided that he’d better call so that he might start planning his return trip. With any luck, he’d be home by this time tomorrow.
“Oroboros, Incorporated. This is Sandra speaking.” A bright, chipper voice answered.
“Hi, Sandra. This is Donald.”
“I need to speak to the boss.”
“He’s indisposed at the moment. May I take a message?”
“I’m about to finish my little business here and need to make arrangements for a lift back home.”
“So you’ve got it?”
“Not yet, but within the hour I will.”
“That’s great news! You should have heard the boss at staff meeting this week. He was not happy with you.” Donald hated how cheery Sandra always was. When the boss was dissatisfied, people died. You wouldn’t know that from hearing ‘Mary Sunshine’ go on about it. It sounded no worse than a rather stern upbraiding.
“Yes. I was hoping you might get my travel ready. I’d like to leave out on the red-eye tonight if I could.”
“I’ll see what I can do and I’ll let the boss know you called. Have fun, Donald!”
Donald hung up. Yeah, fun, that’s what this city was. At least, it was if dirt, grime, and terrible people constituted you idea of fun. He pulled out the items he would need to uncurse the gem, placed them on the desk, then started packing up the files and papers he had accumulated during his time here. He wanted everything to be ready once he got the item. It had been only about fifteen minutes when a knock came at his office door.
“Come in!” He was pleased to see a delivery man in coveralls and a brown ballcap enter with a tiny parcel under his arm.
“Are you Donald Chance?” The high-pitched, whiny voice asked.
“I need you to sign here please.”
Donald signed quickly and eagerly, then held out his hand for the small box.
“Where do you want your copy?”
Donald sighed irritably. “I don’t care. Just put it on the desk.”
The delivery man complied. Donald really wanted the chap to go as quickly as possible. There was something about the almost girlish voice that he found grating. Finally the man put the tiny box in his hand and simply said, “Just a moment.”
Donald didn’t really care what else the delivery man was about. He ripped through the tape on the side and eagerly opened the box. He was brought up short when, inside the box, he found not a gem, but a plain, worn playing card. He hefted the box for a moment. It felt heavier than it should for its contents. Looking inside, he found a weight had been pressed in and taped to the side. He pulled the card out and examined it. It was a Queen of Diamonds.
“Have a nice day, sir.” The high-pitched voice called cheerfully as the door was closed behind him. Donald looked to see that there was another package that had been sent to him. This one was not a tiny parcel, just large enough to hold a gem; it was a rather large, wooden crate. His mobile buzzed.
“Heya, Chauncey. Did you get my package yet?”
“I did, and it was in very poor taste. Please tell me that the gem is in the larger box.”
“I hope you don’t mind the practical joke. It was just a little parting gift from me to you. Y’know, something to remember me by.”
“As long as I have the gem, I shall treasure the card always. Why the Queen of Diamonds, by the way?”
“It’s part of a game called ‘Three Card Monte.’ It seemed a fitting gift.”
Donald took his pocket knife out and had pried open the top to the crate. He looked at the contents in horror. It was filled with little boxes, all the size of the one he had already opened. There had to be at least a hundred inside. He immediately started planning the little worm’s death. “Do you think this is some kind of joke, Mr. Donnelly?”
“Not a joke, Chauncey, it’s a game. A shell game to be precise. I made all of the boxes look exactly the same. Can you pick the shell that the gem is in?”
Donald pulled out one box, noting it did indeed have a similar weight taped to the inside as the first one he had received. He opened it, tearing through the tape with his knife. It had a two of clubs inside. “And what happens if I pick the wrong box?”
“Nothing, but I should warn you that you’re on the clock.”
He had ripped through another, jack of clubs. “What do you mean?”
“Check your receipt on the desk.”
Chauncey picked up a few boxes as he headed over to the desk: Ace of clubs, five of clubs, eight of clubs. On top of the desk, he considered the paper he had signed for the first time. Panic ate at his chest as he read:
I, Donald Chance, do hereby take possession of this item and accept the curse, of which I have been duly informed, contained within.
“You’re a right bastard, do you know that?”
“Tick, tock, Chauncey. You don’t have time to stand around flappin’ your gums..”
Chauncey darted back to the crate, pulling out several more boxes. Cards, they were all full of cards and they all had the same weight. “Connor. You have to tell me which box it is. Heaven only knows how much time I have before that thing shows up.”
“Actually, I know exactly when it’s going to show up, Chauncey. I gave it your address and a time. In fact it should be arriving right about …” There was a knock on the door. “Consequently, I wouldn’t answer that if I was you.”
Donald locked the door. Through the glass he could see the face of a middle aged black man smiling serenely at him. Looking to either side, he saw that the entire hallway had been filled with shambling corpses. There was no way out. He had to find the gem. He had to win this little sneak-thief’s game. He darted back to the crate and tried to think. If he were a no-good low-life, which box would he store the gem in. It hit him like a bolt of lightning. He overturned the crate and started opening the boxes from the very bottom. “I’m going to get out of this, and you’re going to rue this day, Mr. Donnelly.”
“Please, I think you can call me Connor, Chauncey. And I sincerely hope you do figure it out. I ain’t got nothin’ against you, Donald, but the fact is you were perfectly content to sit by while that damned monster chased me hither and yon. Turnabout, as they say, is fair play.”
Donald had opened up six more boxes by this point, all clubs. He was starting to grow desperate. Maybe the little git would have put it on the row just above the last one to throw me off the scent, he thought. But now the remaining boxes were all mixed up on the ground. He could no longer tell which was which and he had at least seventy more to open. Bugs were starting to stream in from under the crack in the door. He took his coat and jammed it in to slow their progress. “Connor. Tell me which box has the gem. You must.”
Bugs were streaming in through the vents now, and there was a creaking sound as bodies pressed in on the door. They started banging at it, and Donald knew that his time was running short. A cockroach flitted over his leg. “It’s perfectly obvious, Chauncey, but I ain’t givin’ you nothin.’”
The room was almost covered in bugs. Flies had found their way into the Daunatori’s caravanserai of insects. The flies began to bite at his neck as he kept opening boxes. He swatted them away as he flung boxes full of clubs to the other corner of the room. “It’s obvious! So there’s a tell. What is it? Is there a mark on one of the boxes? Tell me what it is!”
“Figure it out for yourself, Chaunce-de-Leon. I had to.”
The door burst open and corpses began shambling in along with a carpet of rats. He could feel some kind of bug burrowing into his skin. “Connor, I’m begging you. Tell me! Tell me, please! I will give you anything. Anything, do you hear me?!”
“I’ll give you the answer, Chauncey. You’ve got the exact same task that you gave me: find the lady.”
The line went dead. Donald punched the button to call back. He was still ripping through boxes, all clubs, as the phone rang.
The bugs had successfully burrowed into his skin, biting him from inside.
Rats were chewing at his fingers.
He tried to run, only to be held fast by the army of walking corpses.
The flies were filling his mouth and biting his eyes. He was vaguely aware that he was screaming out loud now.
We’re sorry. Our customer has no mailbox set up for this account. Please hang up and try again.
The middle aged black man strode past Donald and picked up the first box that had held the Queen of Diamonds. Donald screamed and writhed, he could feel the skin and muscle being eaten away from him. A shadowy form, the Om de Daunatori strode into the room and touched him. He could hear it’s whispers in his mind
His life force was being drained away. He could feel an icy cold creeping up inside him. A fog was settling in over his consciousness, and soon he would be gone. He was still dimly there when the black man ripped open the box with the Queen of Diamonds, revealing a false bottom. The red gem fell into the man’s hand, and he showed it to the Daunatori.
He was just a few inches away from the objects he needed to remove the curse, but his ability to care was quickly diminishing. It was over, Donald knew; it was all over. The corpses fell to the floor, motionless, the black man as well, the bugs fled in a rush. The Om de Daunatori didn’t need those things anymore. It had its item and it had a new corpse to serve it. He had lost, he realized as the last breath left his body, to a two-bit loser from a shitty side of town in a city with no redeeming value. This wasn’t supposed to happen to someone like him, but there it was.
Everything went blank.
As he got into the delivery van, tossing the brown ballcap onto the passenger seat, Connor Donnelly couldn’t help but feel guilty. He wasn’t a killer, so his actions weighed on him. He told himself the man had only got what was coming to him. Chauncey had kicked the shit out of him, left him to die at the hands of the Daunatori, and then refused to give him any help defusing the curse after he survived. It was poetic irony, really, or something like that. But that didn’t help the feeling that sagged on his shoulders like a sack of cement. He probably should have given Chauncey a better out.
Ultimately, he decided he would just have to forget about it. Morality wasn’t really his thing. He had done what he needed to stay alive. A few good people and one terrible Brit had died, but he had made it out. Sometimes surviving meant walking away while others took the fall for you. He dropped the van back off and walked to the bus stop with slumped shoulders.
He tried to focus on the positive. It was all over now. The lying, the cheating, the stealing to survive, they all were fixing to be part of a past life. He had enough money now to get out of the game. Nobody would ever have to take the fall on his account again. It had been quite the piece of work. It was impressive how fast the boys at the shipping place had found weights, attached them to the 104 little packages, and then packed them all into the little shipping crate. Of course, he paid for their expediency, so he deserved to be impressed. They had even provided a number of smaller weights for him to affix to the last box, so that he could be absolutely sure it weighed the same as the rest. It was a classy job. Connor had even tipped them an extra five hundred in appreciation.
After the bus dropped him off at his apartment, he packed up everything he cared about in the world. It barely even filled up one suitcase and consisted of nothing more than some clothes, toiletries, extra IDs, and the deck of cards on his night stand. He pushed the clasps down on the lid, hearing the satisfying click, and then took one last look at his apartment.
It really hadn’t been much, a bed and a few walls, but somehow it made him feel nostalgic for a different time when life had been simpler. There had been a minute there where he’d seen himself with a dame, working a grift, and enjoying the hell out of life. Now all he had was the money, and right at that moment the victory felt hollow. He smirked at himself, thinking, Look at me, getting teary over this shithole.
He walked outside, feeling a chill breeze as he started walking back to the bus stop. He had made it to the edge of the block before he could hear the click of heels walking behind him. He stopped, smiling at the inevitability. It had been coming from the very first moment he had gotten his pocket picked on a busy street two and a half years ago. Maybe he’d even known it was coming at the time, but he hadn’t cared. Now the moment was here, and he could feel the sting of remorse for a path that had been explored from its beginning all the way to its end. There was nothing to do now but take the final bow and watch the curtain drop.
He turned around to see the full, pouting, red lips, and warm blue eyes of a no-good blonde in jeans, a tank top, and boots. He smiled wistfully at her. One last time, he told himself.
“Hello, Leyla …”