Above Hillowen a tiny bell pinged a cracked F, reprising the note a moment later as he gently closed the door behind him. The basement room in which he found himself was divided by a tall counter of blackened wood, behind which were a bead-curtained door and shelves bearing rows of very old ledgers. The single window did not quite reach footpath level, and as a result the light which filtered into the room was tired and grey, the colour of January rain.
Whoever owns this place should apply for a grant to go Dickensian, Hillowen thought. It doesn’t look much like a threshold of earthly bliss, but I suppose it’s best to stay shabby in this part of town if you don’t want to attract too much attention. He tapped on the counter, waited, then tapped more firmly.
The bead curtains chattered and from behind them came a small, elderly, dapper man with brown eyes and a pleasantly ugly face. He advanced with a friendly smile, placed his fingertips on the counter and gave a courteous little bow.
“Good afternoon to you, sir,” he said in a voice which had no discernible accent and yet created the impression that English was not his first language. “May I be of assistance?”
“Mr Zurek?” Hillowen said.
The smile became faintly rueful. “For my sins.”
“Ah, good! Well, my name is Hillowen and I’m a close friend of Mr George Lorrimer.” Hillowen produced an airmail envelope from an inner pocket. “I have a letter of recommendation from him.”
“Lorrimer,” said Zurek, frowning slightly and showing no interest in the letter. “Lorrimer…Lorrimer…”
“You and he did a little business,” Hillowen prompted.
“About six months ago. He’s living abroad now,” he added with a meaningful lowering of the voice.
“Ah, yes!” The brown eyes refocused on Hillowen. “Of course I remember the gentleman! I fixed him up somewhere in the South Seas, didn’t I?”
“That’s right—Tkumirui Island.”
“With a selection of uninhibited maidens and the local copra concession.”
“And permanent balmy weather!”
“That was it,” Zurek said, chuckling. “A little banal, perhaps, but never mind … So long as he’s happy, eh?”
“Oh, he’s happy all right.”
“Good, good!” Zurek’s eyes had suddenly become less ingenuous than his smile. “And I take it, Mr Hillowen, that you are interested in a similar transaction?”
“Well…” Hillowen swallowed, suddenly feeling nervous now that the preliminaries were over. “Yes, that was the general idea.”
“Hmmmm.” Zurek’s smile gradually faded, the brown eyes becoming professionally concerned. “Mr Hillowen, I know this will be a disappointment to you—especially after what you have heard from your friend—but I very much doubt that we can do business with you.”
Hillowen stared at him, frowning. “Are you telling me you’re not interested?”
“That’s about it, I’m afraid.”
“But this is preposterous!” Hillowen looked about him as if appealing to an invisible audience. “I thought you’d be coaxing me, wheedling, making all sorts of extravagant promises.” His sense of grievance mounted rapidly. “After all, it’s not Channel tunnel shares we’re talking about—it’s my immortal soul!”
“I know that, Mr Hillowen, and I’m sorry.”
“But you were keen enough to do business with George only months ago! Surely one soul is just like another.”
Zurek shook his head. “Mr Lorrimer is a young man with many years on earth ahead of him, and he has a regrettable tendency towards goodness. There was a very real possibility that, left to his own devices, he would have eventually acquired enough spiritual credits to cancel out the debits with which we all enter this world.
“The One I serve…” Zurek glanced around uneasily. “My principal felt that it was worthwhile inducing Mr Lorrimer to enter into a binding contract, whereas in your case, Mr Hillowen…Well, not to put too fine a point on it, you are practically in the bag.”
“I’m not sure I like the sound of that,” Hillowen said heatedly. “I haven’t led a bad life. How do you know that I won’t earn enough of these spiritual credits, as you call them, to get me into heaven?”
“That tie you’re wearing—London School of Economics, isn’t it?”
Zurek patted his lips, a gesture which failed to conceal a smirk. “As I said, Mr Hillowen—you are practically in the bag.”
“How can you be so sure I won’t change?” Hillowen demanded. “I admit I’m no longer in the first flush of my youth, but I have quite a few years left in me yet. Time enough to get religion, time enough to…” He broke off as he saw that Zurek had pulled one of the ledgers from the shelves behind him and was opening it.
“Ah, yes,” Zurek said, the index finger of his right hand coming to rest at an entry. “Norman Stanley Hillowen! You are fifty-three years of age and you have severe cardiovascular problems, plus a liver which has absorbed far more than its fair share of punishment…Would you like to know exactly how much time you have left to you?”
“No!” Hillowen cowered back. “No man should ever be burdened with that kind of foreknowledge. Even a disciple of Satan himself would not reveal the exact figure.”
“Four years,” Zurek said unconcernedly. “Four years, all but … let me see…eleven days.”
“This is terrible,” Hillowen quavered. “You’re not the sort of person I thought you were. When I came in here you seemed quite decent and pleasant, but now …”
“What did you expect?” Zurek cut in. “Use your brains, man! What do you think He would do to me if I didn’t go all out to obtain the most advantageous terms for Him in every deal?”
“Deal?” Seizing on the word, Hillowen advanced to the counter on rubbery legs. “Did you say deal? Can I have a deal?”
“Are you sure you still want to do business?” Zurek squinted like a jeweller examining a watch. From behind him, a lean black cat sprang noiselessly on to the counter.
“With only four years left to me! For God’s sake …” Hillowen paused as both Zurek and the cat shrank back from him. “I’m sorry…slip of the tongue…you must understand that all this has put me under a considerable strain.”
“It’s quite all right.” Zurek was abstractedly stroking the cat.
“Thank you, thank you,” Hillowen said fervently, leaning on the counter for support. “Now, here’s what I propose. In exchange for my immortal soul …”
Zurek silenced him by raising his free hand. “Not so fast, Mr Hillowen! Before you go on, let me say at once that you cannot have material wealth. No currency notes, bankers’ drafts or property deeds. No gold or other precious metals.” As if quoting from a well-memorised legal document, he added, “No valuable stone, mineral or artefact, the last term to include products of genetic engineering and…”
“I don’t care about any of those things,” Hillowen cut in, “but—just as a matter of interest—why can’t I have them?”
“Liquidity problems.” Zurek gave a fatalistic shrug, then his smile began to revive. “However, for our more forward-looking clients, we can occasionally offer some quite interesting long-term securities.”
Hillowen tilted his head pensively. “What kind of securities?”
“Well, if you wanted, I could probably get authorisation to offer you …” He gave a meditative sniff and tapped on the counter as though keying an invisible computer. “Let’s say three thousand one-dollar preference shares in Kwangsi Imperial Railroads.”
“Kwangsi? Where’s that?”
“China!” cried Hillowen, his temples beginning to throb. “I don’t give a toss about anything in China. What I really want is…”
“Another thing you can’t have is extra time,” Zurek said firmly, making it clear that he had no intention of relinquishing his superior bargaining position.
“There’s no point in your asking for immortality, or even to live to be a hundred. Even if I were to make you a younger man again—say, in your forties—you would only go on for your allotted four more years and then something would happen to end your time on earth. Four years is the time remaining to you—and nothing can alter that.”
Hillowen nodded. “I’m not as naive as you seem to think. Four years may be a brief span of time, but if I am allowed to live them as I want to, those four years will contain enough ecstasy to make them equivalent to four centuries. I have had a good life, by the material standards which satisfy most people—an excellent house in Royal Tunbridge, respected position in the community, success in my profession, but the one thing denied to me, the one thing I craved above all others, was…was…”
“Political success is also out of the question,” Zurek said quickly. “When I think of how we were taken in by that woman and what she has done …”
“No, no, no! I don’t care about politics. All I want from what remains of my life is … is to be …”
“Say it, Mr Hillowen.” Zurek picked the black cat up and cradled it against his chest. “Marge and I can be very understanding.”
Hillowen took a deep breath and expelled it in a rush of words. “I want to be irresistible to women.”
“Is that all?” Zurek said, unceremoniously dumping the cat on the floor. “Why didn’t you say so at the start and save us a lot of time?”
“You mean…?” Hillowen had to take a deep breath to ease the pounding in his chest. “You mean you’ll do it?”
“But I mean really irresistible to women. I want them to go weak at the knees at the sight of me. I want them to be unable to keep their hands off me.”
“I understand perfectly,” Zurek said in matter-of-fact tones. “You are now totally irresistible to women—or you will be as soon as you sign the necessary contracts.” He gave a doleful smile. “Nothing but forms these days, isn’t it?”
Hillowen was taken aback and made suspicious—everything was now going almost too smoothly. “I must say you agreed to that very quickly.”
“I’ll let you into a little secret,” Zurek said gently as he produced a sheaf of documents from under the counter. “You’re the third irresistible-to-women I’ve had today.”
Hillowen blushed and tried to look nonchalant. “Is it a perennial favourite?”
“Only among our male clients. Now, if you would like to read through these forms …”
“No, no,” Hillowen said, still embarrassed. “I’m sure everything is fine. Mr Lorrimer tells me he is very happy with his contract. He says you are observing it to the letter.”
“It’s nice to know we’re appreciated. In that case, if I could just have your signature here, please …”
“It doesn’t have to be in blood, does it?” Hillowen peered uneasily at the proffered forms. “I’ve always been a bit squeamish…”
“Ballpoint will be fine,” chuckled Zurek, taking a silver pen from his pocket. “Here, use mine. Now, if you will just sign here…that is … and once again here…and once more on the pink copy…and just once more for the computer centre…Fine!”
Ballpoint and contract vanished together, and Zurek shook Hillowen’s hand with a smile of warmth and great sincerity. The cat leapt up on to the counter beside him and began to purr.
“Mr Hillowen,” Zurek announced genially, “we have a deal!”
“Splendid,” Hillowen said, his heart beginning to pound again. “So that’s it, then, is it? I don’t feel any different. What do I…?”
“All you have to do, Mr Hillowen, is count to three.”
“And as soon as I’ve done that I’ll be …”
“Completely,” said Zurek, maintaining his smile.
“Well,” Hillowen said, deciding not to waste a second more of his four years, “in that case—one…”
“Goodbye, Mr Hillowen.”
“Goodbye,” murmured Hillowen, and suddenly he was seeing everything through a kaleidoscope. Far from causing him alarm, the experience was quite amusing. Zurek’s teeth, for example, had become a hinged circle of white; and the cat’s head was a black billiard ball with sixteen ears.
“Two,” Hillowen said, chuckling.
The kaleidoscope began to spin, and he gave himself up to a mild, delightful dizziness. The universe purred softly all around him. Why is all this necessary? he thought, but for some reason he was becoming very drowsy.
“Three,” he whispered, and immediately was engulfed in a cosy darkness.
He awoke abruptly to sharp, random noises and found he was lying on his back, unable to see anything but meaningless patches of colour. The sounds were annoyingly loud, the colours intensely bright, and he had a vague impression of being in the open air.
Suddenly, from directly overhead, a blurred pink ovoid began to descend. He blinked at it uncertainly as it came into focus—and then, with a twinge of astonishment, he recognised it as a face. The face had melting blue eyes, a powdery nose, and a huge lipsticked mouth which was curving into a tender smile.
“Oooza booful boy, den?” it crooned. “Ooza booful, wooful ickle diddums?”
Wrinkling his tiny features, kicking with his tiny feet in rage and frustration, Hillowen threw his bright green rattle out of the pram. Then he began to howl.