Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

A Pound of Darkness, a Quarter of Dreams

There was something sinister about the representative’s perfection. The oiled and combed dark hair, the even white teeth, the polished fingernails. His immaculate dark jacket and trousers, the pressed collar and cuffs of his shirt. He looked as if he’d dressed in the shop itself, not ridden up the damp valleys from Manchester on some dirty, smoking steam train, inevitably acquiring the grime and the dust from the tired upholstery of a grubby carriage. No one who had undertaken the walk down the wet high street should have kept their shoes so polished and shiny.

“What happened to Mr. Baines?” I asked.

“Don’t tell me you hadn’t heard, Miss Scales?”

Even his voice was perfect: a rich and melodious baritone. “There’s been a reorganisation at Keswick’s, after the store’s recent acquisition by Emblem Holdings. New lines, new products. New staff. Splendid opportunities await us all.”

And he smiled, showing those perfectly even, perfectly white teeth.

“Indeed. However, Mr. Baines and I enjoyed an excellent professional relationship for several years, Mr. Black.”

“Not so long, surely, Miss Scales? You’re, what? Twenty-five? Twenty-six years old?”

I stared at him. My age was none of his business.

“Times move on, Miss Scales. Times move on. I’m sure that our relationship will be just as suitable as the one you enjoyed with Mr. Baines. And probably of greater benefit to us both. It must be said, Keswick’s business practices had become distinctly old-fashioned. There’s no need to look so uncomfortable.”

But I did feel uncomfortable. Truth to tell, I’d been on edge since the arrival of the advice circular the previous week. The words themselves were comfortingly familiar: Our representative will have the pleasure of waiting upon you Monday next, the 4th of February. Everything else was subtly wrong. Just like the representative, everything had been a little too polished. The green of the card seemed almost alive, the lettering shone like fool’s gold. Instead of propping the card on the mantelpiece, as was my habit, I’d placed it in a drawer, out of sight.

“I feel perfectly composed, Mr. Black.”

He looked at me for just a moment too long before he spoke, as if indicating he knew I was lying.

“Very good. Very good. So, shall we get down to business?”

The relations between travellers and clients were traditionally one of mutual esteem and respect. Not so with Mr. Black, who clearly thought himself my superior. It was obvious in his manner, in his actions. The way he placed his travelling bag on the counter uninvited, and began to unpack the boxes and packages it contained; spreading them across the surface without regard for any customer that might enter. As Mr. Bennett himself once wrote: “It is a universal maxim in shops that even the most distinguished commercial shall not hinder the business of even the least distinguished customer.” Mr. Black clearly felt that customers were less deserving of attention than his own good self.

I was having none of it. I pulled two sheets of paper from a drawer and placed them before him.

“Here is a list of the items I require, Mr. Black.”

Mr. Black took a notebook from his pocket and laid it open on top of my order. He withdrew an ivory-handled stylo from his pocket.

“Surely you wish to examine our new products, Miss Scales?”

“Perhaps. But I will still require tea and soap and candles, et cetera. I know my customers’ needs.”

I looked with pride around my store. The cans stacked neatly on the shelves: enough condensed milk and corned beef, enough pork and beans and peaches, pears and pineapples to feed the growing families of the town. The neat lines of green and brown bottles: everything from vanilla essence to arsenic. The jars of pear drops, liquorice, and black bullets. I only had to look at the bins of flour and sugar, the yellow block of butter, the tub of raisins, and my mind filled with images of floury arms, the smell of baking. Even the little basket of coconuts on the floor brought to mind the childlike delight of breaking open a shell and pouring the sweet milk into a cup.

Mr. Black followed my gaze, smiling a most unpleasant smile. As if he knew the source of my pride and dismissed it.

“Times are changing, Miss Scales. You must read the newspapers.”

I didn’t need to read the newspapers. Everyone in Downchurch had seen the clouds of yellow steam rising over the distant hills. We’d heard the screams in the night, we’d seen the white ash that blew across the moors and stained the heather each morning for a season. We remembered the day we’d woken to a landscape of dark trees on a bone white moor.

A battle had been lost, and the terms of surrender were still being worked through.

“I know about the world,” I said, softly.

“Then you will allow me to show you our new products.”

It was an instruction, not a request. Before I could object, he selected one item from the many he’d strewn over my counter. A little package the size of a cake of soap, wrapped in green paper stamped in gold. Carefully, he unfolded the paper at one end to reveal . . .

“What is that?” I said. I could see the paper folded back; after that, I saw nothing.

“Darkness,” he said. “Pure darkness.”

Darkness. It seemed to be something beyond that. It was as if a piece of our world had been removed.

“What would I do with that?”

“Use it to lead your stove. Use it to dye your clothes.” He looked me in the eye. “Use it to keep secrets.”

“I have no secrets.”

“Really? Can you say the same about your customers, Miss Scales?”

“My customers’ private lives are their own affair,” I replied, primly.

“For the moment, Miss Scales. For the moment.”

And I realised then that he wasn’t so much smiling at me as showing me his teeth.

He rewrapped the darkness and placed it in front of me.

“It’s yours. A sample.”

“I’m not sure . . .”

He wasn’t listening. He selected a green glass bottle, held it up to the light. Something moved inside it.

“Here,” he said. Somewhat reluctantly, I took the bottle from him. Read the label, gold letters on green.

Dreams,” I read. “What is it? Perfume?”

“No. A drop in your tea at night . . .”

“So what? I dream anyway.”

Awful dreams. A battle lost. The caw of ravens. The ache of despair. Mr. Black shook the bottle. Silver threads of light moved inside.

“Drink this,” he said, “and you can enter someone else’s dreams. Not only enter them, but shape them. Shape their dreams as you will.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

He looked surprised.

“Come, Miss Scales! Even a shopkeeper has an imagination! You could use this to give confidence to your children. To raise the aspirations of your husband . . .”

He paused. Raised a finger, tapped it to his chin.

“But of course, you’re not married are you?” He leaned closer. I smelled cinnamon on his breath. “One drop of this at night may help that special someone to notice you . . .”

His eyes burned. You’d think I’d find him attractive, but he held no power over me. He was too good looking. Too perfect. And now I understood what he held . . .

“It’s a love potion.”

“It could be.”

“I don’t hold with such things.”

“Ah! Perhaps you don’t, Miss Scales. Can you say the same of your other customers?”

“I won’t sell love potions. They’re nothing more than a rape drug.”

I’d seen that in France, after the war. Some of my fellow soldiers had regarded a few drops in a girl’s drink as less evil than pinning her down and cutting her clothes away with a knife. I’d disabused them of that notion.

“A rape drug? I think you exaggerate, Miss Scales. But I ask again, who are you to judge what others may feel?”

“Excuse me?”

“Come, Miss Scales. Look at you. An independent woman with her own business. How can you judge what may be best for others? Put yourself in Miss Beswick’s place.”

I knew what he was saying. I know where you live. I know your friends. He wanted to discompose me. I fought to keep my voice level.

“How do you know Miss Beswick?”

“Confidentiality, Miss Scales. Confidentiality. You wouldn’t want me to breathe your secrets to others.” And he raised an eyebrow, significantly. “But think of Miss Beswick, sitting in her rooms, tending to her sick mother. No social intercourse, save for yourself. Popping in this shop twice a day to buy a quarter of tea or a pat of butter. All for a brief word. A little company. Hoping to catch the eye of Mr. Wales, the tailor, as if he would ever take an interest in a mousy little thing like her. And in your hand, the answer to a maiden’s prayer. Who are you to deny her dreams?”

“I . . .”

I was lost for words. He pushed the bottle across the counter.

“Take it. Think about it.”

“I don’t want it.”

But already his hands were moving, this time opening the top of a medicine tin, revealing a pale blue powder.

“What’s that?” I asked, despite myself.

“News.” He said. “Blow the powder into the air. Allow it to spread across the town.”

I looked at the lid.

“It says rumour.”

He waved a dismissive hand.

“Rumour, news, it’s the same thing!”

“No, it isn’t!”

“So you say. Think of the unfaithful woman. Shouldn’t her husband know of her infidelity? Or the boy stealing from his grandparents? If they were to know, they could put him on the straight and narrow.”

“Put it away.”

“Really? Don’t you care for this town? Shouldn’t the awful truth be known? What about your duty to help people?”

“They don’t need that sort of help.”

“So you say. Would your customers agree?”

“They’re free to shop elsewhere.”

“But your shop is the only one in this town with an account at Keswick’s.” He lowered his voice. “For the moment, at least.”

I wasn’t having that.

“We have a sole traders contract, Mr. Black.”

“One that is up for renewal in six months’ time.”

And now the charm was gone, the smile was revealed to be nothing more than the challenge it had always been.

“Lost your father and brothers in the war,” he said, softly. “You fought yourself. Signed up as a man and fought like one. Better than a man. You lived, your family died. And then you returned home to take care of your grandfather. They said you couldn’t do it, but you’ve managed. Just. You’re getting by from week to week, turning a little profit. Don’t deny it! I have all the figures! I know what you buy and sell. I know how close to the edge you are. Well, what if you were to lose your contract with Keswick’s?”

“We’d get by.”

“Oh, you’d get by, I’m sure. I know you’ll have seen far worse things fighting in France. But what about your grandfather? How long do you suppose he’d last, once you couldn’t pay the rent on this store? You’d get by in lodgings for a while, I suppose, eking out what little money you have. No hot water and brandy for him at nights, though. No medicine and embrocations. And what then? The road. I’m sure you could handle sleeping in ditches.”

“You bastard!”

“Did you learn that language on the battlefields, Miss Scales?”

That smile. No humour, no warmth. And then his expression softened, just a little.

“But there’s no need to be so harsh. I’m not asking that you take everything I offer. Just one or two little items.”

To begin with. It would be three or four next time. And then five or six. Slowly he’d reel me in.

What could I do but play along? Stall for time whilst I figured out what to do next.

“Put me down for some darkness.”

“Good! That’s a start!”

He made a note on his pad with his ivory-handled stylo.

“I’ll say two dozen packets to begin with? And how about Dream? One dozen bottles? Yes? Good.”

I nodded. After all, I didn’t have to sell the stuff. I could place it in the cellar. It would eat into my profits, but as he said, I could afford it. Just.

He made another mark on his pad.

“You see, Miss Scales? I knew we would get along. Tell you what, I’ll throw in the fliers and the adverts to the local press, let your customers know about the new products. Can’t say fairer than that, can I?”

I gritted my teeth. He thought he’d beaten me. But maybe not. I was persuasive. Perhaps people would listen to me. Caveat Emptor.

“Indeed, Mr. Black. Now, if you don’t mind, Monday is my busiest day. Customers will be arriving soon . . .” Now I mentioned it, it struck me as odd that no one had arrived yet. Still, I pressed on. “You have my order, Mr. Black . . .”

“Have your order, Miss Scales? Oh, I don’t think so. Not yet. We still have the more . . . exciting products to view.”

There was nothing pleasant about his expression now. His eyes were dark, his teeth white and sharp. His breath was rich with burnt cinnamon. This was what he’d been building up to. He pushed forward a little wooden box. A tiny key to unlock it. He opened the lid to reveal six bottles, nestling in green baize.

“Don’t take them out!”

I don’t know why I said that, my voice pitched too high. Some foreshadowing, some sense of what lay within.

“Don’t be silly,” he said, pulling out one dark bottle. The base rounded. Smoky glass. Oil moving within. I knew what it was. I’d seen it in France, seen it in the evenings after battle, the desolate time when the necromancers would wander the fields in their grey robes, stooping at bodies, whispering . . .

“That’s a soul,” I said, hoarsely. “No! I won’t have anything to do with that!”

“Why not?” he crooned. “That’s Dai Williams here. You know Dai. Mrs. Williams’ son. So proud of him, she was. So proud when he marched off to war in his red jacket. And here’s Thomas Milkham. Remember how his father cried, when he got the telegram? He need cry no more! His boy is back! Saved from the battlefields of France!”

“Take it away! I don’t want anything to do with it!”

“Take it away? Really? These boys could be sold off to anyone! The Chinese! The dark aboriginals of Australia! What if the people of the town found out that you’d refused them the chance of saving their loved ones?”

“What? You hypocrite! Why not just let them go?”

He raised an eyebrow in amusement.

“Keswick’s is not a charity, Miss Scales! If we were to go around releasing every soul we found, we’d soon go bust!”

I shuddered.

“Who’s in the other bottles? Which other parents are you going to torment?”

“No one you know. The other bottles are anonymous souls. They’re intended for other uses.”

“I will never sell those!”

I didn’t mean to shout. Mr. Black looked at me in astonishment.

“Why ever not, Miss Scales?”

His tone implied I’d said something incredibly childish. I resented that implication.

“Don’t use that tone on me, Mr. Black. If you own someone’s soul, it changes you. You become more bloated with your own sense of importance, you treat people deplorably.”

“And?”

“There is no debate. I won’t have them.”

He stared at me. And now I saw the edge of red flame in the dark of his eyes. The cinnamon of his breath became the sweetness of corruption. I saw him for what he was.

“Miss Scales, I find your attitude distressing. The new world runs on commerce. The railways are linking together towns and countries. New worlds, even. And you remain here in your little shop, buying and selling flour and butter and worthless trinkets in your splendid isolation.”

“I don’t believe in isolation, Mr. Black.”

“Really? Your actions suggest otherwise. What’s worse, though, is that you make this choice for all those who live in this little town. This little backwater, cast aside from the bulk of commerce, from the rest of the world.”

This little backwater? This little town? I looked past Mr. Black, looked out through the door. This little town. The greengrocers, the butchers. The little coffee shop and newspaper office. The mothers out with their children. This little town where everything ran in sweet harmony. Prosperous, but not overly wealthy. There wasn’t the disparity you got in a place like Manchester, the rich living next to the slums.

This was a place where everyone got along, more or less. A place I took pride in supplying with groceries. I provided a healthy range of goods for people to raise their children, to care for their elderly. And Mr. Black had come here with his dreams and darkness and rumour and bottled souls. He didn’t want harmony. He wanted disruption. He wanted what I’d fought against in France. What my father and brothers had fought against and lost. And now that defeat had followed me home.

I’d fought for this place. And now, this was my to be my last stand. The thought terrified me.

Not that I let it show.

“Mr. Black,” I said.

“Yes?”

“Do you really believe in commerce?”

That smile. That challenge.

“Of course I do, Miss Scales.”

“You wish me to buy things from you. You insist on it.”

He said nothing. He sensed my energy, sensed the tension within me as I came to the decision. I would fight with the last weapon remaining to me. I breathed deeply. Forced my voice to remain level.

“Perhaps you would like to buy something from me?”

“What?”

I reached up to the locket at my neck. Opened it. Pulled out the little piece of paper inside.

“What’s that, Miss Scales?”

Slowly I unfolded the piece of paper. Teased his rising excitement.

“A promissory note. Unconditional and readily saleable. A negotiable instrument.”

“A promissory note for what?”

He knew. He could sense it. His eyes widened and I saw it again, the little red spark in his eyes. I was looking for it now.

He reached for the paper. I snatched it away.

“A promissory note for my soul. Are you interested in a wager, Mr. Black?”

He couldn’t conceal the expression of naked greed on his face. I tucked the paper back into its place, closed the locket.

“Clearly you’re not interested,” I teased. “Clearly commerce does not interest you.”

Oh, he was interested. You could see it in the set of his body. In the dimness of the shop interior his quivering lustre betrayed him. Not a man at all.

A demon.

“How did your soul come to be set against that note?” he croaked.

“The answer to that question comes at a price, Mr. Black. Commerce, remember? But I’ll tell you this. You know I fought in the war . . .”

Mr. Black was gazing at my locket like a cat might gaze at an approaching mouse. Trembling. Enraptured.

“And what would be the nature of the wager, Miss Scales?”

His voice was as dry as snakes. My stomach was hollow with fear. I wanted to turn now, turn and run from the shop. Only a fool would make a wager with a demon.

But I was that fool. I swallowed, once.

“My soul against your promise to leave me alone, Mr. Black.”

“You want to be left alone, you say?” He licked his lips again. “What does that mean? Do you no longer wish to deal with Keswick’s? Your store would go out of business in no time! You would be destitute!”

“No. We would still deal with Keswick’s. But on my terms. There would be no threats from you, or your replacements. There would be no trading in this town—or any other towns—of products I deem unsuitable.”

He looked bitterly disappointed. I’d asked too much.

“I can’t make that promise for all towns. The price is too high.”

I understood that.

“Very well,” I said. “Local towns. Those in Bridleworth.”

It was almost laughable, the way he tried to look as if he were considering the matter. As if he could possibly refuse. But I couldn’t appreciate the joke. I was terrified at the thought of what I had to lose . . .

“That would be . . . acceptable,” he said, slowly. “I could agree to those terms. Shall we shake on it? You understand this will constitute a valid contract?”

“I have witnessed such deals before.”

“Then let us shake hands on the deal.”

He held out his immaculately manicured hand. My stomach flipped. I reached out my own hand. His smile widened.

“One moment, Mr. Black!”

A flash of angry disappointment, quickly concealed.

“Just a minute, Mr. Black,” I said. “This isn’t a proper wager. All the risk is on my part. What’s your stake?”

“No trade. As discussed.” He looked confused. Disappointed. Angry.

“No trade is what Keswick’s is offering. I’m risking my soul. What do you personally have to lose?”

“I . . .” He understood now. He began to gabble. “I have money. I can offer gold! My watch!”

“No. That’s not enough. You have to risk all, too.”

“Why?”

I leaned closer to him. Tried not to gag at the smell of burnt cinnamon and corruption on his breath.

“Because there is an asymmetry between us,” I said, softly. “Commerce breaks down when one side is significantly more powerful than the other. Commerce works best when both sides gain advantage from the trade.”

“That sounds like communist propaganda to me, Miss Scales.”

“The words spoken by a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

“Everything has a price,” said Mr. Black.

“Whatever. That’s the wager, Mr. Black. My soul against yours.”

“Demons don’t have souls.”

“But a demon can be owned. I would own you.”

“What would you do with me?”

“Lock you in a bottle, just like you’ve done with poor Dai Williams and Thomas Milkham’s souls. I’d keep you here on this shelf, between the tea and the flour.”

We both looked at the space indicated. He looked as if he were in physical pain, such was his temptation. His voice was strained.

“What would be the nature of our wager?”

This was it. I was offering him my soul. I was entering into a wager with a demon. I’d seen it done before, in France. I’d seen soldiers wager their souls on money, women, power. But mostly on the strength to get through the forthcoming battle. Almost invariably they lost. The demons were too cunning. If you were going to wager with a demon, you had to choose a bet that it was possible to win.

But that was easier said than done.

I took a deep breath.

“You’ve spoken of commerce, Mr. Black. You claim that everything has a price.”

“I do.”

“I’ve worked here for four years. I’ve dealt with Keswick’s for as long. I know their catalogue. How well do you know it?”

“Intimately.”

“Then this is bet. We take in turns to choose items from the shop. The challenge is to name the price of each item. Whoever fails to name a price, loses. Do you agree?”

He smiled. Of course he did.

“Agreed.”

He held out a hand. I shook my head.

“We’ll need a bottle to keep the losing soul in,” I said.

He understood immediately.

“You’re a sharp woman, Miss Scales. Thomas or Dai?”

“Both.”

He shook his head. “Don’t push your luck.”

“Then that one,” I said, pointing. I couldn’t remember which was which. I didn’t want to know.

He took the bottle. Opened it up. The soul escaped with a faint sighing. He placed the bottle between us. Held out his hand.

I felt numb as I reached out and shook it.

This was it.

“I’ll go first,” said Mr. Black. I opened my mouth to protest. Closed it. He wasn’t cheating; there had been nothing in the rules to say who went first.

He rummaged in his bag. Brought out a silver bottle.

He saw my expression, grinned at his own cleverness.

“That was in your bag,” I protested. “It’s not a shop item.”

“The bag is in the shop.”

I’d never seen the item before. Of course I hadn’t. Part of the new, darker stock. I felt sick. I’d been beaten before the game had even begun.

“Well, Miss Scales?”

I didn’t know where to begin.

“Shall I give you a clue? It contains lust. Just the thing for a man who’s passed his prime!”

He was taunting me. He’d outwitted me, right at the start. I felt so stupid. I felt the heat rising in my neck. Stupid, stupid! I looked around the shop. Thinking. Lust. What did people use to inflame lust? Oysters? I didn’t sell them. Asparagus? Chocolate? I knew the price of chocolate . . .

My eye on fell on the sheet on the counter. The order list. Mr. Black saw where I was looking and his hand shot out.

Too slow. I snatched the paper from beneath his grasp and stepped back from him, reading the list, scanning down, past sloth and gluttony, a pound of spite . . . There it was. Lust.

“Lust,” I said, triumphantly. “Four shillings and six pence.”

He swore. Certainly not a word I was accustomed to hearing in my shop.

“Don’t be a sore loser,” I said primly. “It’s my turn.”

My heart was pounding. I took hold of my locket. Took a deep breath. This was what I’d bet my soul upon. This was what I guessed a demon could never know.

“Can you put a price on the contents of this?” I said, holding out my locket. “Can you put a price on my soul?”

Mr. Black wasn’t fazed for a moment

“333,104 pounds, 5 shillings and twopence,” he said.

It was as if the floor had opened up beneath me. I felt my legs go weak.

“That’s the price you’d put on my soul?” I said, feebly.

“No,” he grinned. “That’s the price you put on it. That’s what it would cost us if you won the bet. That’s how much Keswick’s will lose if we don’t sell our products in the Bridleworth area.”

“No! That’s just the cost of the goods!” I felt myself rallying. “What price freedom, Mr. Black?”

“I don’t believe that’s for sale in this shop, Miss Scales. Bring me a bottle of it and we’ll argue the price!”

“But . . .!”

“My turn,” said Mr. Black.

“No!”

“My turn,” he repeated. And I was lost for words. That was it. My grand play had come to naught.

Mr. Black was looking around the shop, scanning the shelves. Looking for . . . what? His eyes roved the top shelves, the next set down. Was he floundering? Realising this task wasn’t maybe as easy as he’d first thought? I fanned my failing confidence.

“Come on, Mr. Black. If you can’t think of something, it will be my turn again.”

“Don’t rush me! There was no time limit mentioned.”

“It would do you no good if I died of old age in the meantime.”

That was it. Taunt him. Put him off.

“Here!”

He pointed to the jar of humbugs sitting on the counter.

“Easy,” I said. “A penny a quarter.”

Although that wasn’t strictly true. I’d often give away a humbug for free to a good child, waiting politely for his mother to finish shopping.

“Not the humbugs,” he said. “The jar itself.”

“The jar comes with the humbugs.”

“Not that one,” he said.

I looked closer, and I realised he was right. The jar had stood there for so long I’d almost forgotten its origin. Glass storage jars for the home. We’d bought three, many, many years ago. One had broken. One had sold. The other had just sat there, the glass too thick, the shape rather unattractive in an indefinable way. No one wanted it.

“How much, Miss Scales?”

The jar had been there when my grandfather had run the shop. I’d been a little girl. How much had it cost? I remembered the original display, three jars. I remembered being told to stand back whilst my grandmother swept up the shards of glass when one of them had fallen. How much? I tried not to look at that other dark bottle that sat on the counter, that hungry mouth open, waiting to swallow my soul.

“Five seconds, Miss Scales.”

“Don’t interrupt. Anyway, there’s no time limit.”

“I don’t want you dying of old age,” he taunted.

And then, suddenly, just like that, I had it.

“One shilling and threepence.”

He scowled. I was right.

I was right.

I was trembling all over now. Deep breaths. Calm.

“My turn again.”

I was ready for him. Whilst he’d been looking for an item in the shop, I’d been thinking, too. I pointed to the ham hanging from the ceiling.

“How much for that?”

“Ten shillings,” said Mr. Black.

“That’s for the whole ham. As you can see, I’ve already sliced a good part off.”

“Of course,” said Mr. Black. “Three shillings, four pence halfpenny’s worth. That makes the remainder worth seven shillings seven pence halfpenny.”

How did he know that? My stomach flipped.

It was Mr. Black’s turn again. He had no hesitation this time.

“This,” he said, spreading his arms to encompass the interior.

“You mean the shop itself?”

“No. I mean the fact you can see the shop itself.”

“The cost of the light?”

“Yes. How much does the sun cost, Miss Scales?”

I wasn’t worried. Hadn’t he taught me that game himself?

“The sun is free. I pay between three and four shillings a week for oil for the lamps. You’ll have to do better than that, Mr. Black.”

I should have taken more time in answering. It was my turn again, and now it was my turn to be stuck for an item. My eye roved the store, taking in the tins of biscuits, the medicines, the dark polish, the . . .

“The darkness,” I murmured. “How much do the shadows cost?”

“The cost of something that blocks the sun, Miss Scales.”

“No. That wasn’t my go. I was thinking aloud.”

He knew that wasn’t true. Even so, he humoured me. He was teasing me, I knew. Taunting me.

“You know,” he said, “When I own your soul, I think I will wear it in a bottle around my neck. I will taste it, every now and again. Perhaps I will share it with others. What do you say, Miss Scales?”

He was trying to distract me. Succeeding. I had been too rash. Soon he would own my soul.

My soul.

That was it.

“How much is your soul worth, Mr. Black?”

He pulled a regretful expression. As if he were disappointed in me.

“Demons don’t have souls, Miss Scales. You know that!” He wore thoughtful expression. “You know,” he mused, “I sometimes wonder if such a thing as a soul exists even in humans. Face it, we’ve interacted without me possessing such a thing. You could have had this conversation with any one of my brothers to the same result.”

“Of course you believe souls exist, Mr. Black. You seek to win mine.”

“Ah no, Miss Scales. I seek control of the shop by whatever means. If you acquiesce to my ownership in this manner, believing you have a soul, then so be it.”

“You have souls in those bottles there. You seek to sell them to me.”

“That’s what you call them. To me, they’re just a commodity like any other.”

“Then you’re wrong.”

“Really? Can you tell me how these ‘souls’ differ from the other commodities that you sell? How they differ from butter or soap? Can you tell me what a soul is?”

“Yes. A soul is the thing that makes me me and you you.”

He tilted his head, tasting the idea. Wondering at it.

“No. Every one is the same, no matter what they believe. My brothers and I were all created the same. Stamped out of the same mould.”

And there it was. I had him. My voice cracked as I spoke.

“You and your brothers may have been created the same, Mr. Black, but you are the same no longer. You diverge just a little, by the conversations you’ve had. The places you’ve visited. The things that you know that your brothers do not. You have a soul. The beginnings of one at least. It may be worth no more than a penny, but it’s there.”

He was frowning, tasting the idea. Looking for a way to refute it.

“And so I’ve named a price you didn’t know, Mr. Black. I believe I’ve won our bet. Won it by a penny.”

He yelled at me then. Shouted and screamed and cursed. But I’d heard worse in the past. I let him rave. And then I took his soul.

• • • •

But when it came to it, I couldn’t keep his soul in a jar. Almost worthless though it might be, it was still a soul. This is a good little town. Not perfect, but nothing is. Good enough. People work hard to keep it as it is.

Even Mr. Black. He works for me now. Delivering goods, polishing the bottles, sweeping the floor. He sleeps in the back yard, under a pile of rags. I can’t bear to have him under the same roof as me at night. But maybe that will change one day. It seems to me that I no longer find him as loathsome as I once did. Perhaps I’m getting used to him.

But I think there is more to it than that. He’s growing a little more of himself every day; I sometimes catch him looking at the shop with an expression almost of warmth. As if he is learning to appreciate this place.

I do believe that his penny soul may well be appreciating in value.

Tony Ballantyne

Tony Ballantyne

Tony Ballantyne is the author of the acclaimed Penrose and Recursion series of novels as well as many short stories that have appeared in magazines and anthologies around the world. He has been nominated for the BSFA and Philip K Dick awards.

Dream Paris, a follow up to the critically acclaimed Dream London, was published in September 2015.

He is currently getting back to his SF roots by writing a space opera. Due to popular demand, he has also recently begun working on a series of short stories set in the Recursion universe.

He lives in Oldham, near Manchester. Find out more at tonyballantyne.com.