On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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Sell A Cat To A Mouse
The scenario seemed pretty clear cut, or so Fyfe thought.
The little red car — which was a piece of crap eleven-year-old VW that he himself had managed to sell to a fool just yesterday, for pickup today — was halfway up on the kerb, with the driver slumped behind the wheel. Fyfe could see that the poor bastard had greying hair, and was wearing a red hiking jacket, not unlike his own. There were no other vehicles around right now.
Heart attack, probably, he thought. It could happen easily. He’d wondered if it would be the way he’d finally go, just like his father and his uncle.
He walked towards the car, knowing that he ought to call for an ambulance, and hoping fervently that the driver was indeed the car’s new owner. That would mean that the collection had already happened, and it wasn’t Fyfe’s responsibility to do anything about the car. He reached the vehicle, and the window of the driver’s door was rolled down halfway. Something about it made him uneasy. He often did the same thing himself, and on rare occasions had forgotten to roll it back up again when he moved a car. But he had no memory of doing the handover today; just the usual juggling to get things in position. He’d moved this very car himself a short while ago.
Fyfe reached out to put his hand through the open window and shake the guy to see if he was alive, and it struck him that the man’s jacket was exactly the same shade of red as his own. Probably the same brand, even, not that it was an uncommon one. Everyone wore a hiking type of jacket these days. In Scotland, there was no bad weather; only the wrong clothes for the conditions.
Belatedly, he became aware of a presence nearby, and spun on his heel to face the onlooker. But what he found had no face to look at, at least not exactly.
There was someone or something there, definitely. Vaguely person-shaped, though indistinct despite the ample light. As Fyfe looked, first it seemed to be near him, and then far away, and then in the middle distance, and then near him again, as if his eyes and brain couldn’t quite agree on perspective. The shape seemed almost to be superimposed onto the scene, present but not entirely part of its surroundings.
Fyfe felt an odd sense of quiet within himself, unlike anything he’d experienced before. It was as if so many of the little voices that echoed in a person’s mind had been abruptly shut off. And somehow, he knew exactly why.
He turned away from the shape, focusing his attention on the man slumped in the car, and now that the shield of rationality and denial had fallen away, it was painfully obvious that it was Fyfe himself behind the wheel, wearing the same clothes that he was wearing now as an onlooker. It had indeed been a heart attack; he could see the pallor and the perspiration and, as he moved a little to adjust his angle, the look of terror on his face. He was dead. He had died right here, behind the wheel, while moving the car into position for its new owner to collect.
And yet he was also standing beside the car looking at his own body. Fyfe slowly turned again, and the shape was closer now, and farther away, and in the same place it had been a moment ago. He found that he could hear the suggestions of its thoughts within his mind. It wasn’t sound, exactly, and it wasn’t images, but it had some of the qualities of both. The thing was telling him that it was time to go.
Fyfe licked his lips, a small voice in his mind asking if he really had lips at all anymore. It was a sticky situation. The big question, of course, was where exactly it was time to go to.
The shape moved in some way, definite and purposeful but indecipherable to Fyfe. It told him that he already knew his ultimate destination. Fyfe felt a strange new sort of anxiety, and a moment later he realised that the strangeness was because the emotion wasn’t accompanied by any physical symptoms like an elevated heart rate. Because his heart had stopped permanently, and it was about a metre way, within the chest of his corpse.
“Let’s just talk about this for a minute,” he said, and this at least was reassuring and familiar.
He was a salesman, after all. He led people to the deal that was best for him, by hook or by crook, and he was exceptionally good at it. Salesman of the month, almost every month. He’d taken more money from people than the tax office had. If he wanted to, he could sell a cat to a mouse. So maybe there was still a chance.
The shape seemed unmoved, even in its impermanent, shifting, indefinite way. It was waiting, though, for him to say more. Perhaps there was bargaining to be done after all. Possible approaches flashed through his mind, each of them ridiculous in its own way. He just had to find the right value proposition, but to do that you needed to know the customer and their circumstances.
He’d never really considered the needs of Death itself, and he had the feeling that they extended far beyond the domain of power steering, heated seats, and affordable instalments. He was out of his element.
“What can I offer you?” he asked, but the shape made no response other than to perhaps move farther away. Or was it closer?
Work out what they want, and make them need it, he recited in his mind, just as he had thousands of times before. But what did Death want? Only him. Wasn’t that how it worked?
“Do you take a commission on your work?” Fyfe asked now, surprised the question hadn’t occurred to him earlier, and he could almost swear that the entity was amused. Amused, but unswayed.
Death had infinite patience, and absolute authority. It couldn’t be tricked or flattered. Fyfe had no cards up his sleeve. For this, there was no deal to be struck, no manager to be consulted with, and absolutely no trade-in value whatsoever.
Got to know when you’re beat, he thought. It was the most important rule, of his game or any other. This was literally his final chance to graciously concede. Maybe it would win him some favour. A punter could always come back later, after all, though in this case that seemed very unlikely. Fyfe sighed.
“Lead the way, then,” he said quietly.
The shape, which was only inches away, just as it had always been, reached out and took him.
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