Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Dark · #2293040
Ignatius makes a deal to become rich. 2nd in Short Shots Official WDC Contest, 03 2023.
“A newspaper, sir?” Jenkins, the club attendant, bowed slightly as he addressed the words to Ignatius Pyre.
Ignatius took a sip of the whisky already delivered by Jenkins as a matter of habit. “Yes, I think so, please Jenkins. The Times, if there’s a copy available.”
Jenkins straightened and glided silently into the dimly-lit recesses of the room, the gaslight lending its familiar warm and discrete glow to the sober surroundings of the Victorian Club. Ignatius relaxed into the comfortable arms of the leather chair and reflected on his good fortune.
It was only ten years since the Dream had set his feet upon the path to riches but already he was the wealthiest man in London. The fame of his well chosen investments was noised abroad and people sought his favour wherever he went. There was something supremely satisfying in being able to dispense or deny his support entirely at his whim. It seemed only his due after the years of penny-pinching and penury that preceded the Dream.
If it was a dream at all. Ignatius had only a faint memory of being approached by a mysterious man of dark visage and strange expression, to be offered a deal that he would have been a fool to turn down. Certainly, the man’s side of the bargain had proved completely reliable and resulted in his present wealth through directed investment in the stock exchange. And now, not for the first time, Ignatius wondered about his own part in the arrangement. There seemed no payment, apart from a temporary and unimportant visual effect visited upon his being, required of him. It was almost, but not quite, something for nothing.
“The Times, sir.” Jenkins was back, bending slightly again as he handed the newspaper to Ignatius. Ignatius took it and shook it out as he turned to the investment pages. Jenkins drifted off into the shadows again.
Ignatius ran an eye down the prices listed and the comparisons with yesterday’s prices. Some of the lists burst into flames as he read but he took no notice, merely making a mental note of which company names had caused the conflagration. By the time he had scanned an entire page, the whole newspaper was in flames, a bright, raging blaze cupped within the expanse of the opened paper. The room filled with its flickering light.
Still Ignatius ignored the flames, and other inhabitants of the club seemed equally unaware of it. No club attendant came hurrying with a bucket of water and no outcry of “Fire! Fire!” rose to shake the rafters. Life continued undisturbed in the Victorian Club.
It was not the fact that this had been occurring every day for years that left the members and staff so unmoved. Ignatius had realised on its first occasion that no one could see the flames mounting ever higher from his newspaper. The effect was purely an illusion brought on for his own benefit, his dreamspun benefactor’s method for indicating the investments he should make. It was a fire that did not consume the paper, nor did it convey any heat or harm to himself. Initially terrifying, it was an effect that now receded into normality, something to be noted but not remarked upon.
He turned the page and the fire blinked out, as the relevant company names disappeared from view. The club’s darkness seemed deeper after the bright light of the flames. There were a few, brief sparks of renewed life from a couple of names on the new page, but nothing of real note. Ignatius turned back to the political pages, vaguely interested in how things were going in South Africa. He had a few investments in concerns out there, of course.
Later that day, Ignatius spent half an hour with his broker, discussing his latest requirements for purchase and sale of stock. And then, as the sun set on a day of normal routine, he walked through the busy streets to his Mayfair apartment. There he took a simple supper prepared by his cook and served by his manservant, Bromwell. Finally, a quiet evening of reading followed and so to bed. Simple pleasures enjoyed by a man who was genuinely only entertained by the acquisition of money, without any need to spend it on the ephemeral and shallow delights usually associated with great wealth.
That night, Ignatius dreamed another Dream. It seemed he was visited again by that same strange man who had once set his direction upon the path to riches. He seemed no older, in spite of the intervening years, if anything, being of even darker visage and air of brooding menace. He began innocently enough with a simple and unremarkable question.
“So, friend Ignatius, how do you feel now about out longstanding arrangement? As I recall it, you were a little hesitant about it at first.”
Ignatius professed himself well satisfied and waited for the real reason for this unexpected visit. It seemed reasonable to expect that there was more to this than met the eye.
“You have wondered long about my reasons for bringing you into such a relationship, advantageous as it is to yourself. No, don’t deny it. I am well aware that whatever benefit I gain from the deal is not immediately obvious. That is how it had to be, if you were to be persuaded of my good faith in the offer. You have had your suspicions, I’m sure, but they have never been enough to make you wish that you had never agreed to our bargain.”
He paused here and watched Ignatius, as though expecting some sort of reaction to his words. When Ignatius remained silent and impassive, he continued.
“It is time, Ignatius. Time, that is, for me to receive my share of the profits from our joint venture.”
“And that would be...?”
The man smiled, a smile so cold and heartless that Ignatius felt the temperature in the room drop. “Oh come now, Ignatius. You know full well what constitutes payment in arrangements with such as myself.”
Ignatius was not yet ready to admit to his fears on that score. “I have my suspicions, it’s true. But, since your name has never been properly announced, these are guesses only. And I certainly do not remember any recompense having been agreed at the time. It seems a little late to insist upon a payment that was never contracted at all.”
The man sighed. “Ah, Ignatius, Ignatius, so much a man of his words and the City. I’m afraid I’m not bound by your notions of honour. It is in my very nature to be duplicitous and conniving. You can hardly deny knowledge of this. And, since you knew full well who you were dealing with, you have known all along what would be demanded of you in the end.”
“So you want my soul.” Ignatius stated the words coldly, not as a sign of defeat, but more in the way of defining the battleground.
“Not at all,” replied the man. “That has been mine ever since we made the deal. This is just a courtesy visit, a notification that payment is now due and will be made on the morrow.”
Ignatius produced his remaining card. “You’re just a dream. Probably a figment of my own guilty conscience. In the morning I shall wake up and you’ll be gone.”
The man laughed. “Hah! I haven’t heard that one in many a long year. Sleep well, Ignatius. You’re going to need it.”
And then he faded from view. Nothing dramatic like a puff of smoke or accompanying thunderclap, just a gradual disappearance into transparency and then nothingness.
Ignatius was left alone, staring into the darkness and trying either to wake up or, if he was awake, to go back to sleep. Neither worked and, two hours later, when the curtains glowed with the light of approaching dawn, Ignatius was forced to conclude that he’d not slept since the man had left the room. He lay there for a while, half expecting to go into some sort of death throes at any moment, and partly convinced that his being awake proved his dream to have been complete nonsense.
In the end, he had to move and he gripped the edge of the mattress to allow himself to turn and lower his legs to the ground.
The tiny sound was as clear as any pin dropping in the silence of that bedroom.
Something had fallen out of the bed as his legs moved sideways. He sat up and turned to look at the floor. There was something small lying just a few inches from the point at which it must have fallen. Ignatius shifted his grip prior to forcing himself out of bed.
A similar sound but this time Ignatius saw what caused it. One of his fingers broke off and fell to the floor to lie near the first object. He could see now that it, too, was a finger.
He released the mattress and held up his hand for inspection. Two fingers were missing. There was no blood and no pain, just two empty spaces where the fingers had been. And those spaces were black and dry as charcoal. He moved his remaining fingers and heard the telltale tinkle and cracking noise of wood that has burnt through and become brittle.
Now he became aware of how stiff and unwieldy his body had become, how like an orchestra of tinkling noises it emitted as he moved. He knew now that all those years of fire that burned so brightly but consumed nothing had worked away silently within him, converting him to dead, dry charcoal to his innermost core, a raging inferno that walked about in its daily routine until nothing was left to burn and he collapsed into ashes.
Word count: 1,638
For Short Shots Official WDC Contest, March 2023
Prompt: As per illustration.